Ealing Studios has been around since 1902 and their Rarities Collection is proving to be a fascinating visit to their vaults. Sitting down to watch these DVDs has the feeling of stepping back in time: buying a cinema ticket for 1/ 6, planning to have an ice cream during the interval, looking for a bit of excitement or entertainment, and perhaps not expecting too much from the feature except to be transported away for a few hours. I’m probably seriously over-romanticising the whole experience, but I do recommend watching these films with the curtains drawn and a Lyons Maid lolly. I’m a big fan of the Strawberry Mivvi myself.
The first film in Volume Seven certainly does transport you. Eureka Stockade (1949) is one of five films that Ealing made on location in Australia, and it makes good use of the setting at times, with sweeping shots across the scenery as it relates the struggle of the Australian Gold Rush miners to abolish the expensive mining licence and secure political representation. The crowd scenes and the battles with the authorities have a real sense of spectacle, but these are interspersed with slow, earnest dialogue between the main character and other miners. Chips Rafferty played the hero (he was a big Australian film star at the time) and he has a monotone voice and a set expression that I found it quite hard to warm to in this film. Apparently the director, Harry Watt, was keen to replace Rafferty with Peter Finch, who is also in the film in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ role. Finch was a wonderfully intense actor, best known now for his performance as Howard Beale in Network (1976) – it’s a shame that Harry Watt didn’t decide to go ahead with the switch.
Next up is Take a Chance (1937) – a comedy about horse racing and adultery that contains some lovely shots of Goodwood, and English countryside. It’s a classic farce, with mistaken identities, ripped trousers, and comedy moustaches, and is very pleasant without ever really grabbing attention. Having said that, there was a great moment in a police station that really made me laugh, and I did root for one or two of the female characters who got to be resourceful and interesting.
A Gaunt Stranger (1938) has a great title sequence – the creepy music crashes in, and you’re thrust into the underbelly of the city, where a no-good big-shot has driven the sister of a famous murderer to suicide. The murderer, known only as ‘The Ringer’ has plans to exact revenge, and a few resourceful police officers and a doctor are out to stop him. Not so much a whodunit as a whose-going-to-do-it, it’s got a few excellent red herrings along the way, and an ending that caught me by surprise. Patricia Roc turns up in an early role, and the story is based on a play by Edgar Wallace, who was a hugely popular writer of the time. He’s best known now as the co-creator of King Kong. It’s one of those films that still looks very much like a theatrical production, and all the acting is very enthusiastic.
The last film in volume seven is a musical comedy starring Stanley Holloway. Play Up The Band! (1935) is the tale of Heckdyke Steam Wagon Works Prize Brass Band and their trip to London to play at the Crystal Palace, which makes it sound like it could be described as the Brassed Off! of its time, although it’s got a lot less soul-searching than that. There are a few subplots about Lady Heckdyke’s stolen pearl necklace and a love affair between Lady Heckdyke’s son and a common girl who runs her own all-female orchestra, so it’s a very lively film, squeezing a lot in at just over an hour. And Stanley Holloway performs some comic songs with the air of reciting Shakespeare. I did laugh out loud a few times, and at one point heard the use of a term so racist that I nearly dropped my Mivvi in my lap. But the thing about revisiting these old films is that the past is indeed a foreign country. Sometimes the stereotypes, the language, the costume and the style of performance are so outlandish that it’s almost like watching a David Lynch film instead, particularly when people burst into song and eyeball the camera.
How wonderful it is that we get the opportunity to look back on these films and see snapshots of the world from a new perspective. And it goes to show that some of these films, like A Gaunt Stranger, still have the power to draw you into the story. These aren’t just historical documents, although they serve that purpose admirably – they are still also, amazingly, a couple of hours of good straightforward entertainment.
The Ealing Studio Rarities Collection Volume Seven released on DVD on 14 October 2013.
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