Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Three Men in a Boat (both 1933)

The ongoing series of ‘Ealing Rarities’ being reissued by Network DVD aims to showcase the entire output of what was probably the nation’s most beloved film studios. Covering the entire period from when Basil Dean took over in 1929, through the Michael Balcon years (1938 onwards), then into the post-Ealing years when the name remained yet the studio location had changed, the series is a brave effort. As an attempt to show the historic development of the studios and its output, the collection is notable yet, from an entirely artistic point of view, a less charitable assessment has to be made: In short, some of the films are dreadful.

Volume 12 offers a contrast between one film that has little or nothing to recommend it (Three Men in a Boat) …
William Austin

… and one that is a bit of a surprise (Loyalties):

Basil Rathbone
In theory Three Men in a Boat had great potential: based on the wonderful and much loved Jerome K. Jerome novel, I was hopeful that this might be a long-forgotten little gem of British cinema. After all, there have been plenty in the Ealing series. But I was wrong … very, very wrong. It is truly awful.

Where do I begin? Well the cast doesn’t really inspire one, two of the three main characters (William Austin and Edmund Breon) ...

... are far too old for their roles whilst the third (Billy Milton) ...
Billy Milton

Billy Milton
 ... does nothing but smile smugly, wear too much make up and play the ukulele. And even the musical numbers he is given to perform are repetitive.

Is there anything good I can say about it? Yes, it’s short and Billy Milton wears some quite nice outfits. That’s it really!


Here’s who else who appears:

Davy Burnaby:

Iris March:

The film also offers us a sign of how much the times have changed, with Iris March telling Austin and Breon: “You look like a couple of nigger minstrels.”

Casual racism of the 1930s variety gets a much more rewarding treatment in Loyalties. Seeing the names Basil Dean and John Galsworthy together on screen was somewhat off-putting. After all, anyone who has seen the 1930 film Escape will consider those two names a combination that strikes terror into the hearts of any daring enter a cinema (or open a DVD box).

So, it is with enormous and unexpected relief that I can safely report that Loyalties is actually quite enjoyable. It’s the story of Ferdinand de Levis (Basil Rathbone) ...
Basil Rathbone
... a wealthy British Jewish man with an interest in horse racing, who struggles to be accepted by many among the strata of society he mixes with. Yes, they invite him to their house parties and engage in polite conversation, but his religion remains a subject for much underhand comment. He may be honest, but he isn’t ‘one of their own’, instead he’s ‘one of them’.
Made in period of both rising anti-Semitism and open concerns about violence of such emotions, the film is open in its criticism of the way some in modern British society continued to view Jews as outsiders. It’s contemporary setting challenged viewers to look at their own prejudices: this wasn’t just an issue from history, it was a modern problem – one that arose in a world of up-to-date apartments, cocktail parties and smartly tailored suits.

When de Levis is robbed of money whilst staying overnight with so-called ‘friends’, his suspicion immediately falls on Captain Dancy (Miles Mander) ...
Miles Mander
... a down-on-his-luck war hero with whom he is already at odds over a race horse that de Levis had purchased from him. When relationships are tested by the accusation, society closes ranks to protect Dancy, with everyone fearing a scandal more than they fear seeing de Levis being cheated. As he tells them, they are happy to “chase a man like a pack of hounds because he’s not of your breed.”
Fortunately, the film has a sense of balance: it’s not just the upper classes whose prejudices are revealed, as another character admits: “I don’t like Hebrews. They work harder, they’re more sober, they’re honest and they’re everywhere. I’ve got nothing against them, but the point is they get on so.”
Miles Mander & Basil Rathbone

After de Levis refuses to back down and publicly accuses Dancy the matter goes to court with Dancy suing his accuser for slander. In the course of the trial more is revealed about the background to the case and – no surprise – it is resolved to the audience’s satisfaction (unless, of course, the audience consists of rabid anti-Semites!).
Basil Rathbone
Basil Rathbone

It is also worth noting that Basil Rathbone looks fantastic in this film. He is supremely well-dressed, in a most simple style. His suits are well-fitting yet subtle. There is nothing caricatured about his style, with nothing that screams ‘Jewish’ at the audience. With his thick, black wavy hair, pencil moustache and sharp features, Rathbone epitomises the 1930s Hollywood star. It raises the question of whether Rathbone might easily have slipped into the role of leading man rather than forever being seen as Sherlock Holmes or in a villainous role.

Mind you, Miles Mander is also well dressed:

Also appearing are Alan Napier ...

... and Joan Wyndham ...

.... who appears in front of a rather stylish 1930s door handle:


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  2. Alan Napier played the role of General Canynge in not only the film of "Loyalties", but also in a multi-city stage tour with Leon M. Lion in the role played by Basil Rathbone in the movie. He writes about the experience in his recently published autobiography, "Not Just Batman's Butler".

  3. Alan Napier played the role of General Canynge in not only the film of "Loyalties", but also in a multi-city stage tour with Leon M. Lion in the role played by Basil Rathbone in the movie. He writes about the experience in his recently published autobiography, "Not Just Batman's Butler".