Friday, 1 January 2016

Laburnum Grove (1936)

Cedric Hardwicke & Ethel Coleridge

Directed by Carol Reed, from a play by J.B. Priestley, Laburnum Grove is an entertaining little film that pokes fun at the respectable types that inhabited the newly-built suburbs of the 1920s and 1930s. The central theme is the façade of respectability that was created by the inhabitants of the tree-lined streets of tidy new semi-detached houses. There were many a Laburnum Grove built in the inter-war years to house the burgeoning middle classes: clean and tidy, often built with garages to accommodate the ever-growing population of motorcars, these streets remain a feature in British towns and cities.

Yet for J.B. Priestley such locations were not quite the smartly respectable zones  that the public might have imagined them to be. His Laburnum Grove is home to a paper merchant Mr Radfern (Edmund Gwenn) ...

... his wife (Katie Johnson) ...
... and their daughter Elsie (Victoria Hopper).

Sharing their home are Elsie's uncle and aunt Mr and Mrs Baxley (Cedric Hardwicke and Ethel Coleridge). He is a businessman whose career in the colonies had failed sending him back to the UK with nothing but his memories to sustain him. They wear the mask of outward respectability and are utterly consumed with keeping up appearances. Yet despite this, they are happy to live off Mr Radfern and intend to get him to invest in their money making schemes. Whilst they are devious, concealing their true intentions beneath a façade of churchgoing and tales of 'the East', Mr Radfern shocks the family by revealing that, despite appearances, he is a career criminal whose paper business is a front for forging banknotes and bonds.

This revelation opens the film to mild farce as hypocrisies are laid bare. The supposedly respectable Mr Baxley skips church to go to the pub and seems rather taken with the cinema newsreel that shows women modelling the latest Parisian underwear collections.

Elsie's boyfriend Harold (Francis James) is another target: he breaks off their relationship when he finds out her father's occupation. Yet he is a second-hand car dealer, a trade hardly noted for being trustworthy. Also, he is dressed is a rather 'flash' manner, with his outfits exaggerated just enough to suggest he might be just a little bit 'wide':


Clothes are also used to suggest that Mr Radfern's friend, Joe Fletten (James Harcourt), is also one of his criminal accomplices. The choice of loudly checked three piece suit marks him as a 'wide boy', with suit suits regularly being used by musical hall performers who wanted their status as being outside respectable society to be easily recognised by audiences:

Mr Radfern's character is used to attack the cosy world of the bourgeoisie inhabiting a "dull respectable suburb." His speeches attack inter-war Britain, in particular the political reaction to the slump of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the upper classes' exploitation of the weak. He points out the boredom of the suburbs, a theme often touched upon in post-war drama, but something that was less prevalent in the 1930s since most people simply enjoyed the cleanliness and sense of hopefulness this new estates helped breed. Priestley's sentiments are a clear reaction to the struggles of the First World War, suggesting a disbelief that society could ever settle down again, as if forgetting the carnage of that conflict.

Out of interest, the outdoor scenes were shot on the route of the Number 26 bus to North Finchley, which might help try to locate the street:

Also appearing:

David Hawthorne

Mike Johnson:

James Harcourt:

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