The Great Ealing Film Challenge by Keith M. Johnston


Laughing at Austerity Britain? Ealing Comedy Studies

The year 1949 was a pretty miserable time in Britain. Postwar austerity was at its height. Many city centres were still largely bomb sites. The cold war was getting chillier. The British film industry was in crisis after the Labour government had imposed a punitive tax on American films, which led to Hollywood studios withholding their product. Then suddenly, in the early summer, three pictures opened on consecutive weeks that together defined what we now know as “the Ealing comedy“. The films got darker and Ealing Studios‘ reputation greater as the month wore on. [Philip French, ‘Whisky Galore – Review’, The Observer, July 31, 2011]

[Michael] Powell after A Matter of Life and Death gives us three intriguing variations on the trauma picture, in which, intertwined are the central landmarks of British life after 1945: the end of war, the end of empire and the birth of a new consumer age.
       Before that, however, we should note that Ealing comedy of the period inverts the trauma film completely.
       If Ealing Studios produced the keynote Dead of Night, it also produced a triple antithesis in the post-war years: anti-trauma comedy in the form of [Robert] Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and Alexander Mackendrick’s scintillating double act, Whisky Galore (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955). Indeed, the best of Ealing comedy is premised very precisely on this inversion, where what might well be traumatic turns out to be the exact opposite.
       Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is biting social satire, in which the serial killer, Louis (Dennis Price), as outcast of the family and excluded by the vacuous rich, is more sympathetic than any of his eccentric aristo victims (all played by Alec Guinness). As they fall like ninepins one after the other, we can all have a good laugh and applaud Louis’ elegant cunning. A perfect picture, you could argue, for a new social democracy.
       The wartime Whisky Galore, set on the remote island of Todday (toddy?), also plays on inversion: this time on the fear of occupation – an anti-The Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1942) or Went the Day Well? In Mackendrick’s film, the fear of invasion is now past but the Scottish island is ‘occupied’ by an English Home Army captain, Waggert (Basil Radford), who has marshalled customs officials to try and prevent the looting of a wrecked cargo ship carrying whisky. It is a comic version of Anglo-Scots antagonism, with its famous montage sequence of the looted alcohol being hidden by the islanders in rain-butts, water tanks, hot-water bottles and under a baby’s cot before bemused officials arrive to discover absolutely nothing. The gradual social exclusion of Waggert from the island has an edge and a cruel streak that prevents any lapse into sentimentality.
       Sentimentality is equally absent from The Ladykillers, where Mackendrick completely inverts the trauma-effects of Gothic expressionism. A motley gang of train robbers posing as a musical ensemble takes lodgings near Kings Cross station to prepare the next heist. At the landlady’s door, the figure of Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) casts a dark shadow – shades of the opening to The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) – but thereafter the threat becomes internal as the eccentric old landlady ([Katie Johnson]), in her parody of a haunted house, has the gang tearing their hair out in annoyance and frustration at her blithe eccentricities. In Gothic melodrama, we expect villains to terrify, but here they are traumatised to the extent that, when found out, they are prepared to kill off each other rather than kill the ‘harmless’ old landlady. She who should be terrified is oblivious to the threat; those who should terrify show a collective failure of nerve and eliminate each other instead. Gothic melodrama morphs into dark comedy. And Ealing comedy runs happily on in a parallel world to David Lean and Michael Powell. [John Orr, ‘The Trauma Film and British Romantic Cinema 1940-1960’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 51, 2009 ]

Ealing Studios, the oldest continuously working film studio in the world, is marking its 80th anniversary, according to a couple of enjoyable videos at the Channel 4 and BBC websites. A remarkable achievement, indeed, thinks Film Studies For Free, one of the finest in the history of British cinema.

Founded in economically austere and politically troubled times, the studios escaped relatively unscathed from the recent riots in London (Ealing was a particularly tragically affected area). They seem set to continue to produce their distinctly transnational brand of cinematic goods for the UK film industry well into the future. 

The current anniversary of the establishment of the sound stages at Ealing, and a number of other connected anniversaries coming up (e.g. 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Scottish-American director Alexander Mackendrick’s birth, one of Britain’s greatest, and most undervalued, filmmakers) have felicitously ‘coincided’ with the latest cinematic and DVD release of three of the greatest products of those studios: the Ealing comedies Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951), and Whisky Galore (Mackendrick, 1949).

FSFF loves a mildly subversive chuckle from time to time, and is particularly partial, thus, to a good Ealing comedy. So, in fond celebration of that wonderful cycle of movies, below is its little list of links to online studies of those films, as well as to other items of related, scholarly interest.


>On "England" and "Englishness" in British Cinema and Television


Updated July 27, 2010
Image from Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942)

Film Studies For Free was recently very inspired by Nick James’s wonderful overview of the career of Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti for next month’s Sight and Sound magazine. As a huge fan of Cavalcanti’s work, and in particular of his (and Ealing‘s) Went the Day Well? (indeed, FSFF‘s author lives in a English village uncannily like that portrayed in this film), it immediately set about researching a list of links to online scholarly works on the Brazilian filmmaker, only to discover very few openly accessible ones in English (do check out, though, Kristin Thompson and David Cairn‘s essays on Went the Day Well?, and the latter’s other postings on Cavalcanti here, here, here, here, and here).

FSFF‘s author’s rage at this overall lack of anglophone material (see the photographic evidence above) was eventually sublimated in a different curatorial project, one still connected to themes at the heart of Cavalcanti’s work, and also to some related topics explored in further August 2010 Sight and Sound articles (ones sadly not [yet] online: William Fowler’s ‘Absent authors: Folk in artist film’, and Rob Young’s ‘The pattern under the plough’).

Anyhow, below you will find the fruit of this inspiration and frustration: a list of links to thoughtful and thought-provoking international scholarship on expressions of “England” and (multifarious) “Englishness” in (mostly) British cinema and television.