8. It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)
Directed by Robert Hamer, It Always Rains on Sunday is now considered as a definitive example of British Film Noir and pre-cursor to ‘kitchen sink’ drama.
Set over the course of one day, the narrative (which features some innovative use of flashback) is split into several intertwining strands with the main focus of the story being on housewife Rosie Sandigate (Googie Withers) as she shelters escaped prisoner and former lover Tommy Swan (John McCallum) from the authorities. The story concludes with Swan being pursued by police trough a train yard.
A bleak document of British life in the immediate post-war years, set in a London East End complete with bustling markets, genuine bomb damaged buildings and grimy rain washed streets. The characters too have an equally grey morality – adulterous older men with eyes for impressionable young women, petty criminals, Sandigate herself (complete with slightly dysfunctional step-family) displays divided loyalties in her actions. Withers would later marry her co-star John McCallum.
7. Went the Day Well (1942)
Nazi troops disguised as British soldiers are unwittingly welcomed into the sleepy village of Bramley End in this piece of (unofficial) war time propergander directed by Alberto Cavalacanti. Eventually realising the true identity of the troops, the villagers fight back.
An edgy film back in 1942, it pulls no punches for those expecting cosy viewing today, as the enemy troops kill the local vicar, shoot the local poacher and wound a village youth leaving him to stagger through the mud. The scene where an invader is attacked with an axe also carries a brutality seldom seen elsewhere (if at all) in the studio’s output.
Bookended with some breaking of the fourth wall as villager Charles Sims (Mervyn Johns) recounts the tale to the audience, the film makes innovative use of flashback. Sim’s segments are set in the future (for 1942) after the war has ended and the Nazi threat defeated making the narrative a morale boosting effort from the studio.
Again, the English aristocratic establishment also come under fire as the trusted village squire is eventually revealed as a traitor amid the honest local folk. The message is trust no one and beware carless talk – this village is the England we are protecting. There’s an early cinema role for Dame Thora Hird as a bold land army girl.
6. The Blue Lamp (1950)
Seasoned constable George Dixon (Jack Warner) shows new recruit Andy Mitchell the ropes. When Dixon is shot by violent young criminal Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde), the hunt is on to see justice done.
In contrast to other Ealing films, here crimes aren’t joyful escapist ventures performed by oddball eccentrics, they are crimes. There’s also a tighter structure than in many Ealing offerings – creating a sense of urgency.
A division in tone between the two worlds of Dixon and Riley also provides a genuine sense of threat. Early elements of ‘kitchen sink’ drama creep in with domestic scenes and social issues, notably an eroding respect toward police authority. A brief montage sequence provides some fleeting but detailed shots of crumbling post-war streets.
Occasional narration and ‘procedural moments’ can make all seem like a police public information film at times. However, with Riley’s pulling of the trigger, the initial joviality of the early scenes fade into a sombre darker tone which seems to be acknowledging the passing of an older gentler world – Dixon’s death (doubtless shocking to audiences in 1950) is symbolic of this. Aside from being a prime example of what Ealing could do, The Blue Lamp remains effective as a standalone crime thriller.
George Dixon (still played by Warner) was resurrected for the T.V series Dixon of Dock Green which ran from 1955-1976. Dixon’s ‘resurrection’ was referenced in the final moment of the Ashes to Ashes T.V series in 2010.
5. No Limit (1935)
Technically an Associated Talking Pictures release, before the studio began releasing films under the Ealing name, No Limit perhaps slips between the gaps in many film lists. Produced by Ealing founder Basil Dean and directed by Monty Banks this was music hall star George Formby’s first big budget picture with the studio.
George Shuttleworth (Formby) is a chimneysweep’s help who enters the prestigious Isle of Mann T.T Race riding his homemade motorcycle. Owing to some comedic mechanical malfunctions Shuttleworth inadvertently sets a record time at the trail stage, bringing him into conflict with the star rivals who adopt some underhand tactics to thwart his progress.
Featuring what would become Formby’s staple mix of comedy and musical numbers; the film remains no low key affair with some breath taking stunts and usage of genuine race footage. The popularity of Formby during the 30’s and 40’s provided a solid foundation for Ealing particularly during the war years. With its theme of the underdog taking on the establishment, No Limit can be considered a keystone for many of the studio’s more widely known comedies which followed.
4. Dead of Night (1945)
Dead of Night is a portmanteau piece composed of several separate stories, Ealing regulars Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hammer, Basil Dearden and Charles Crichton each directed a segment.
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) travels to a house in the country in the hope of alleviating himself from a reoccurring dream. Throughout the course of the film, as each guest recounts an eerie tale, Craig is able to predict events relating them back to his dream. The twist ending sees his dream and his predictions turning into a nightmare.
Featuring many familiar Ealing faces including Googie Withers, Basil Radford and Naurton Wayne, it is the segment featuring Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist tormented by his dummy which provides the most horror and remains the most remembered. Although, it was the Christmas Party story (with infanticide at its core) which was cut from the original U.S release.
Dead of Night is influential on a great many films and television series to this day, notably Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky whose Amicus Studio’s produced many similar portmanteau horror films in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Despite its positive reception Ealing did not pursue the genre any further, it remained the studio’s only real venture into horror.
3. The Man in the White Suit (1951)
Alec Guinness stars as Sidney Stratton whose invention of a fabric which does not wear out and repels dirt eventually puts him at odds with both officials and workers in the textile industry. The climax of the film (Directed by Alexander McKendrick) sees Stratton pursued through the streets while wearing his distinctive white suit made from the new fabric. Ultimately the suit’s fabric does breakdown with time and the pursuing mob leave Stratton standing in his underwear.
An iconic picture for Ealing, Man in the White Suit, came at something of a halcyon time for the studio, released in the same year as The Lavender Hill Mob the studio and its cosy comedies could do no wrong. However, that year British Cinema was to relax its censorship laws, meaning the threat of more risqué entertainment was already on the horizon. Rather like the white suit, time would eventually catch up with Ealing.
2. Passport to Pimlico (1949)
Directed by Henry Cornelius from a script by T.E.B Clarke, the film is set in post-war London, in a small area near Westminster called Pimlico.
Local youngsters accidentally set off an unexploded bomb revealing a horde of treasure and a parchment revealing that Pimlico is actually part of Burgundy in France. It quickly dawns on the residents that this means they are free from the restrictive U.K rules on rationing and an initial merry free-for-all occurs. The Government then enforce restrictions isolating the community who eventually have to come to a compromise after their food supplies are spoiled.
The film proved popular with audiences who were still frustrated at ongoing post-war rationing themselves. The residents’ rejection of the rules, most blatantly defiant in the pub scene, is again in tune with many of the Ealing post-war comedies.
However, it has been observed at several points (notably as the camera slowly tracks away from the pub-scene) how careful cinematography allows Ealing to cast a conservative and disapproving eye over such behaviour. The notion of chaos resulting from a ‘secret cultural inheritance’ being revealed via a hole in the earth is something British cinema later explored with a Sci-Fi twist in Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit.
1.The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
Directed by Charles Crichton, with a script by T.E.B Clark, the film opens with Henry Holland (Alec Guinness) a former bank transfer clerk explaining his presence in Rio de Janerio (watch out for an early screen appearance by Audrey Hepburn).
The story unfolds as a flashback, recounting Holland’s meeting and hatching of a plot, with struggling artist Arthur Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), to steal gold bullion and then conceal it by melting it down into small souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower.
They enlist the help of two criminals (played by Sid James and Alfie Bass). All goes to plan until a mistake puts one of the gold towers in the hands of a school girl who then gives it to a policeman. Returning to the present in Rio it is revealed that Holland is handcuffed and will pay for his crime.
Here Ealing again explores and rejoices in its characters’ breaking of the law and attempts at fooling the establishment. These are two ‘honest men’ (as Pendlebury puts it to Holland) who experience a joyful moment of madness. The slightly surreal scene as they race down the spiral steps of the Eiffel Tower laughing manically perhaps best epitomises the temporary escapism the Ealing comedies offered their post-war audiences.
Author Bio: George Cromack is a tutor at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus, with a BA in Scriptwriting he also teaches evening classes in Scriptwriting and Film Studies for the WEA. Whist also working towards his PhD, he is a keen writer of both prose and script, Cold Calling, a film short written by George premiered in October 2013. Follow him on Twitter @MadBasil.