Thursday, 24 April 2014

Dance Hall (1950)

Charles Crichton’s often-overlooked tale of the importance of dancing in working class London is a film that deserves more recognition than it has ever received. Released in 1950, Dance Hall was never going to get wide recognition since it came out of Ealing Studios in the period that the Sir Michael Balcon and his team were turning out a list of genuine classics. With the subsequent public perception of Ealing as being the home of dark or twee comedies, dramas such as Dance Hall didn’t seem to fit into the story of the studio’s successes. With the BFI’s 2012 Ealing Light and Dark series (and its accompanying book), re-releases by Studio Canal and Network DVD’s  wonderful Ealing Rarities series,  it is now possible to re-appraise films such as Dance Hall and many other films that might otherwise be forgotten.

The film is ostensibly the fun story of four factory workers, Eve (Natasha Parry) ...
Natasha Parry
Mary (Jane Hylton) ...
Jane Hylton
Carole (Diana Dors) and Georgie (Petula Clarke)...
Diana Dors (left) and Petula Clarke
... and their nights out at the local Palais de Danse. The frivolous image is cemented by the film’s marketing materials which focused on the four glamorous girls and included Diana Dors flashing her stocking tops (an image that didn't actually appear in the film).
However, against a backdrop of a dance competition, the story actually focuses on the relationship between Eve and her boyfriend Phil (Donald Houston).
Donald Houston
With Phil more interested in aviation engineering than dancing, Eve is thrown into the path of Alec (Bonar Colleano), a rather shady American – the type that manages to acquire boxes of kippers, in the midst of rationing, and disposes of them with the same casual air that he displays when discarding girlfriends – who one imagines to be one of those American servicemen who arrived in wartime London only to find they were more interested in enjoying the high-life rather than fighting a war.
Natasha Parry & Bonar Colleano

The story of the love triangle between Eve, Phil and Alec ...
Bonar Colleano, Natasha Parry & Donald Houston
... could be read in a number of ways:

The arrival of Alec, and his courting of Eve, is an allegory for how America challenged, then usurped, the UK in world affairs.

Or as a reflection of the way that US servicemen had won the hearts of British women during the war years.

However, whilst it might be easy (lazy, even) to look at this story of female factory workers from a feminist perspective, one might rather concentrate on Phil, taking him as the central character rather than any of the women. Donald Houston plays a man struggling to deal with a changing world. At times he plays it dark and brooding, more James Dean than the upper class - often comic - characters he tended to play later in his career.
Donald Houston
Phil’s a man living in a society that offers increasing opportunities in education and prospects for the young working class man. He’s an aviation engineer, a young man working in a growing industry who can see a way out of the dark old Victorian tenement flats of central London. In a scene where he travels into the countryside to watch gliders flying above the open countryside, we are shown a man who wants to move beyond the accepted confines of society. He’s a working man of the post-war, forward looking, Attlee years. He doesn’t feel constrained by the old class boundaries, instead he’s of the generation that fought for freedom of others with the expectation that it would bring equality for his own class. Indeed, the working class boy progressing through life was an apt role for Houston: a native of Tonypandy in south Wales, he had briefly worked as a coal miner and had served as a rear gunner in the RAF before becoming an actor.
Interestingly, Houston wears an RAF issue Irvin flight jacket in Dance Hall, raising the question of whether it was actually the jacket he had worn during his wartime service:
Donald Houston
And yet Phil is also of the generation who are forced to accept rapid change: he struggles to deal with independence of spirit shown by Eve after years of working in a factory. Whilst she feels bored and constrained by life as a housewife after the freedom of the factory years. Phil grudgingly accepts Eve’s earlier relationship with Alec: the intimation is that she slept with Alec, but Phil chooses to forget this in order to move forward with his life. In this, the war has – either directly or indirectly - given Phil the opportunity to move forward in is life and given Eve the freedom to do a job that might otherwise by done by a man. The clash between these two parallel strands of society – both moving forward on the same trajectory, along the same path – is at the heart of the film. And Bonar Colleano’s character, Alec, is there to provide a springboard for the conflict.
Natasha Parry

If one was to suggest the filmmakers had a political message to tell the audience, it might be said that Phil (the working class engineer, hoping to better himself) represents post-war, forward thinking, democratic socialism. His work ethic offers stability for the future. Whilst the opportunistic Alec (making money, here and there, dealing in black market kippers etc) represents the chaos of capitalism …

… or maybe the filmmakers just wanted us to see young Londoners out-on-the-town, enjoying themselves?

The film’s social issues can also be viewed in parallel with those examined in Ealing’s Cage of Gold, also released in 1950. In that film James Donald plays a doctor torn between joining the newly established National Health Service or going into private practice to make his fortune. The doctor is, like Houston’s character, part of the post-war breed who are building a new society. And both men have the relationship with their girlfriend (Jean Simmonds in Cage of Gold and Natasha Parry in Dance Hall) threatened by a smooth talking, unscrupulous man (David Farrar in Cage of Gold and Bonar Colleano in Dance Hall).
Whilst Cage of Gold is better known and more respected, Dance Hall remains an important part of Ealing’s socially conscious period, during which the studios helped reflect how much Britain was changing and lent its support for the new society that was being built.

Also appearing:
Bonar Colleano with Kay Kendall

Bonar Colleano with Eunice Gayson

Diana Dors with three of her suitors: James Carney, Harold Goodwin and Thomas Heathcote

Diana Dors with another admirer, Harry Fowler

Gladys Henson & Fred Johnson as Georgie's parents

Michael Trubshawe

Sydney Tafler as the dance hall manager. Behind him are Ted Heath and his orchestra

Geraldo (Gerald Bright) as himself

Hy Hazell as herself
Finally, here's Mike (James Carney), Carole's boy silent boyfriend. Take a look at his tie ...
James Carney
... it's the same tie worn by Earl Cameron in Pool of London, another Ealing film released in 1950:

Susan Shaw & Earl Cameron in Pool of London
Whilst this tie worn by Bonar Colleano ...
... was  worn by Dirk Bogarde in The Blue Lamp.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Song You Gave Me (1933)
Bebe Daniels
This is a rather curious little British musical: It's set in Austria, rather than England and it features an international cast (rather than the usual British stars of stage and music hall). Unfortunately, it shares certain other points with many British musicals of the period: the story is rather predictable and the songs aren't exactly memorable.
It tells the story of Mitzi (Bebe Daniels) ...
Bebe Daniels
... a popular singing star who is pursued by a trio of caricature potential suitors who are referred to as her 'Three Musketeers':
There's the Baron (Frederick Lloyd) ...
Frederick Lloyd
... an aristocrat working in a government ministry who seems to have his nose stuck perpetually inside a champagne glass, or as we see here, the world's largest brandy glass:
Frederick Lloyd & Lester Matthews
Then there's Tony (Claude Hulbert), who is a comically effete idiot and is the fool of the bunch:
Claude Hulbert
And finally there's Max (Lester Matthews) who gives business advice to Mitzi. To be honest, with his pencil moustache, he just doesn't look trustworthy:
Lester Matthews
 After a struggling composer Karl (Victor Varconi) ...
Victor Varconi
... insults Mitzi by walking out in the middle of her performance in a nighclub, you just know that they are eventually going to fall in love.
Bebe Daniels & Victor Varconi
It's fair enough that they should get together, after all they were both - unlike the rest of the cast - Hollywood stars. Daniels had appeared in countless films as a teenager, had a strong career through the 1920s, starred opposite Harold Lloyd in a number of short films (Lloyd was reputedly in love with her) and was the female lead in 42nd Street. Having made more than 200 films, she settled in London and eventually worked as an interior designer.
Varconi was a Hungarian who moved to Hollywood in the 1920s. His career path as a handsome leading man took a turn, like so many others, with the coming of sound. His heavy accent saw him moving to playing villains, eventually playing Rudolf Hess in a 1944 film. Listening to his accent, it's like Bela Lugosi but with more acting  talent.
Apart from unmemorable songs, the film has the usual 1930s British cinematic injection of glamour. Rather than seeing Daniels in her underwear, we see her in her home gymnasium showing herself off in a way that wasn't really necessary but no doubt was intended to put 'bums on seats':
Bebe Daniels

Bebe Daniels
We also get the obligatory 'let's all laugh at the fairy' scene, when a group of men arrive to be interviewed for the job of Mitzi's secretary:

There's also some saucy innuendo, courtesy of Mitzi's friend Emmy (Iris Ashley):
Iris Ashley
Iris Ashley & Bebe Daniels
 Wondering where Karl goes in the evening, Mitzi asks:
"What can a man possibly do between 9 and 11?"
To which Emmy replies:
"I know a man who can do a lot in 15 minutes."
Prompting the response:
"Is that how you got that necklace?" 
It's not really a film for everyone, but it's light hearted and lasts just over an hour, so it's certainly worth watching. And for those who are interested, it marked the first on screen appearance of Stewart Granger in an uncredited role as a waiter at a golf club:
Stewart Granger
And since it's on a DVD with four films for just a tenner, it's worth buying. The set includes Over She Goes which is genuinely worth watching and contains a number of strong songs. So buy it for that and get The Song You Gave Me, Music Hath Charms and Harmony Heaven as a bonus!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bank Holiday (1938)

 When we think of the traditional British Bank Holiday what comes to mind?

The rush to escape from work ... 
... the crowds at the railway stations ...
... the even bigger crowds at the seaside ...
... the drunks spilling out of pubs ...
... the inevitable fights ... 
... and, of course, the rain!

That's right: All the ingredients are here in this odd little film about an unmarried couple planning what used to be known as a 'dirty weekend' at the seaside.

The couple in question are a nurse, Catherine Lawrence (Margaret Lockwood) ...
Margaret Lockwood
... and her boyfriend Geoff (Hugh Williams):
Hugh Williams
Hugh Williams and Margaret Lockwood

The morals of their planned weekend away together (signing into the hotel as Mr and Mrs Smith) are a sign of the times. As Cathy tells a surgeon at the hospital:

"You never know what might happen in the world nowadays. You've got to try and be happy while you can."

Her words reflect a world that was just one year away from war.

However, her world is turned upside down before she leaves for the weekend when a woman dies in childbirth, leaving a grieving husband (John Lodge) to cope all alone over the holiday.

Margaret Lockwood

John Lodge

The film also offers us an opportunity to see Margaret Lockwood in a bathing suit ...
Margaret Lockwood
... and Hugh Williams displaying what appears to be a tattoo on his forearm:
Hugh Williams and Margaret Lockwood
Most of the story revolves around whether Cathy will remain with Geoff at the seaside, and surrender her respectability (or should I say 'virginity', since it's not 1938 anymore?) to Geoff, or will she return to London to be with a man she hardly knows?

Whilst Cathy and Geoff play out this serious story line, the film offers the light relief of Doreen (Rene Ray) and Milly (Merle Tottenham) who have travelled to the seaside where Doreen is set to compete as 'Miss Fulham' in a beauty contest.

Rene Ray and Merle Tottenham
The irony is that 'Miss Fulham' is a working class girl with little experience of the high-life. She orders Benedictine liquor in a hotel bar, expecting a cocktail. After trying a small glass she orders a tumbler full. Anyone whose ever tasted Benedictine knows that the small glass would have been sufficient. Her character shows how much the world has changed: back in 1938 Fulham was a very different area to now. Nowadays, if we think of 'Fulham' we'd expect someone out of 'Made in Chelsea' or a girl suited to be on Hugh Grant's arm, not a sharp-voiced shop girl.

By contrast, Dorothy's rival is 'Miss Mayfair':
Jeanne Stewart
Whilst appearing as the epitome of thirties glamour, audiences familiar with the pages of the News of the World would have immediately understood that Mayfair was an area famed for its prostitution.

If that isn't enough to convince the audience of her nature, we her with a succession of men, each older - and more prosperous - than the last. When she walks over a grating on the pier, Dorothy and Milly look up and are shocked by what they see:

Rene Ray and Merle Tottenham

"She ought to be ashamed of herself!"

The inference is clear, Miss Mayfair isn't wearing any underwear!

During the contest 'Miss Mayfair' steals the limelight from her more low key competitors:

Jeanne Stewart
The judge is certainly impressed ...

... so impressed that he takes her home with him!

This film is one of the curious little gems of British cinema: largely forgotten but fun in the comic sequences and Carol Reed directs the scenes featuring the bereaved husband with a genuine flair in what was his sixth of more than thirty films. The problem lies with the balance between the comic sequences and the more serious scenes. Furthermore, despite the familiarity of the Bank Holiday scenes, the treatment of the bereaved father seems rather dated: his child has survived the death of the mother. Yet, when he announces that he will never see the child, no one bats an eyelid. They simply carry on as if such lack of emotion for a child is normal. And maybe audiences failed to feel sympathy for Cathy in her treatment of Geoff. She leaves her fiancée (a man who is clearly passionate) for a man she hardly knows. Indeed, he seems a rather cold fellow who is grieving for a wife he never even shared a bed with:

As a counter argument, you could say that Cathy is right to leave Geoff to be with a respectable man who, unlike Geoff, doesn't seem to think the world revolves around getting Cathy into bed.

Hugh Williams
The casting of Hugh Williams as Geoff, a man intent on bedding his fiancée, is an inspired one and a role to which he was obviously well suited. It appears he had rather a reputation as a ladies man, with a number of marriages and a long string of lovers, including the legendary actress Tallulah Bankhead. For more on his love life it's worth reading Matthew Sweet's wonderful history of British cinema, Shepperton Babylon.

So who else do we see in Bank Holiday?
Ernest Sefton

Kathleen Harrison

Linden Travers

Michael Rennie (left) in an early uncredited role

Wally Patch

Wilfred Lawson & Garry Marsh

It's currently available on DVD as part of a box set, also featuring: The Wicked Lady, The Lady Vanishes and Love Story. Not bad value for £13!