Built in London in 1931 Ealing studios are perhaps most immediately associated with producing a string of cosy black and white comedies in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Many of the following films epitomise the comedic cheer the studio still remains best known for. However, Ealing films also harbour a darker more rebellious streak, echoing themes and socio-economic complexities of their time (some of which still resonate today).
Listed are those which best introduce a newcomer to the world of Ealing, while allowing those already acquainted to appreciate the studio’s work with added insight. Here are 15 of the best from Ealing:
15. Meet Mr Lucifer (1953)
Directed by Anthony Pelissier, based on the play ‘Beggar My Neighbour’ by Arnold Ridley, the film sees stage actor Sam Hollinsworth (Stanley Holloway) knocked unconscious only to encounter Lucifer himself (also played by Holloway).
Lucifer enlists Hollinsworth’s help in observing how television can be used to make peoples’ lives miserable starting with Mr Pedelty when he receives a television as a retirement gift. Initially the new set provides joy and popularity until the novelty wears off and he is compelled to move it on to his neighbours who in turn fall foul of the favour it brings and pass it on again. Eventually the lives of a whole social circle are blighted by the device.
Here Ealing provides a comedic but cynical eye regarding the effect of television on the masses. With cinemas already experiencing declining audience numbers (Ealing Studios would be sold to BBC TV two years later), the narrative provides food for thought on the social and even psychological effect of mass media in the home.
For modern audiences it also provides an idea of what life was like for those first homes in a street to have a television. There’s also an early film appearance from Carry On regular Joan Simms.
14. St Trinian’s (2007)
The only 21st Century film in this list, yet not the only offering from Ealing in the new millennium since the name was resurrected in 2002. The Importance of Being Earnest five years earlier was a credible effort but lacked in the spirit of past ventures.
It should be noted that the original St Trinian’s films of the 50’s and 60’s were produced by British Lion (a seldom screened fifth film in 1980 was produced at Bray Studios). Despite mixed reviews upon its release this reboot of the franchise centring on the disreputable and unruly girls’ school carries all the escapist madness and rebellious eccentricity founded in the Ealing favourites of old.
The plot sees the girls take on the Eton establishment in a TV Quiz show and become involved in an art robbery to raise enough money to protect their school from closure. A sequel was released in 2009 and a third film in this rebooted series has been announced.
13. The Lady Killers (1955)
William Rose (who went on to write ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’) won a BAFTA for this script about a gang of oddball criminals who use a room in a house belonging to eccentric old widow Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) as a base to plan a robbery. When Mrs Wilberforce discovers their loot they eventually plot to kill her.
Arguably the widest known of the Ealing comedies and boasting an impressive cast including: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom (popular Brit comedy actors Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Connor also appear in a farce sequence). Here Ealing puts the audience in on the inside of a crime ‘with no real victim’ – as the criminals put it – pointing out all the money stolen from the security van will be insured, justifying a notion of rebellion against the system.
Ultimately, it is the police as complacent authority figures whose refusal to believe Mrs Wilberforce leads to the crime going unsolved and the underdog triumphing as Mrs W walks away with the money. Remade in 2004 with Tom Hanks, Guinness’s portrayal of Professor Marcus was based on actor Alastair Sim.
12. The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)
Ealing’s first colour picture, directed by Charles Crichton, sees locals rally together to save a stretch of railway vital to them from Government closure. Granted a trial period to prove the line’s viability but with the original steam train put out of action, the antique Thunderbolt train is brought into use and the line is saved.
A piece of timely foreshadowing from the studio, the film was released a decade before the notorious report by Dr Beeching led to the closure of many small branch lines in the U.K. In this instance the underdogs did not triumph. In a stranger twist, Beeching (who at the time worked for chemical company I.C.I) was a neighbour of T.E.B Clarke who penned the film’s script; Beeching also contributed some ‘technical’ dialogue to The Man in the White Suit.
11. Whiskey Galore! (1949)
Another well known Ealing classic, directed by Alexander MacKendrick with a script by Compton Mackenzie (adapted from his novel), laws on references to alcohol meant it was released as Tight Little Island in the U.S.
The remote Scottish Island of Todday has been little affected by wartime rationing, until the supply of whiskey runs out. When a freighter containing 50,000 cases of whiskey runs aground Captain Waggard (Basil Radford) of the Home Guard tries to take control and protect the lost cargo but the islanders seize a great many cases. A game of wits ensues but the islanders are triumphant in hiding the whiskey and fooling both Waggard and the ministry.
The narrative sees the ‘little men’ (the islanders) taking on authority figures, the whiskey drinking montage is screen gold and evidences the joyous and rebellious escapism Ealing offered (and still offers) its audiences. Rockets Galore! A 1957 sequel set on the same island and produced by Rank is less well known.
10. The Maggie (1954) (U.S title: High & Dry)
A lesser known Ealing comedy featuring beautiful location shots of the Scottish countryside complete with small fishing ports then untouched by mass tourism.
It’s a familiar Ealing formula of the simple man bending the rules and taking on authority to make a crust. By chance and miscommunication, MacTaggart (Alexander MacKenzie) the wily old skipper of battered steam puffer the Maggie, along with his crew, accepts a sizable fee to transport a precious cargo belonging to a wealthy American Calvin B. Marshall (Paul Douglas).
The crew want only to make enough money to keep the Maggie afloat. When Marshall realises he’s been made to look a fool he does everything he can to stop MacTaggart.
Here Ealing mocks an increasingly materialistic and bureaucratic world; the locals may scoff at MacTaggart but take added delight in seeing the wealthy American (who owns four baths) and the shipping company fooled by him. Cabin boy Dougie (played by Tommy Kearins in his only film role) helps keep the heart of this humanistic story pumping. Though uncredited, the film is based on Neil Munro’s tales of the Vital Spark skipper Para Handy, of which there have been several TV adaptations.
9. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Robert Hamer directs this Ealing favourite set in Edwardian England.
Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) sets about reclaiming his inheritance from the D’Ascoyne family following the death of his mother, disowned by the family years earlier for marrying an Italian Opera singer. The main bulk of the story is told in flashback as Mazzini composes his memoirs from death row, charting his exploits as he kills off the eight remaining members of the D’Ascoyne family (each played by Alec Guinness) one by one. A final twist sees him walk free or so he thinks.
A comedy praised for Alec Guinness’s multiple roles (initially he was only supposed to play four). The film’s portrayal of the aristocracy is noteworthy, by all looking similar perhaps Ealing were playing up to gags about inbreeding.
There are also some interesting views with regard to hunting at one instance. In tune with other Ealing comedies the plot features an underdog (although, in this case, not an entirely sympathetic one) character taking on the establishment and flouting authority, although ultimately he is to pay for his crimes.