The Ealing Studios put their name to some of the greatest British films ever made, including The Ladykillers, Passport To Pimlico, Went The Day Well?, and Dead Of Night. Looking back at them now, it’s easy to see Ealing films as representations of what we imagine to be Britishness – the sense of humour, the stiff upper lip, and the fighting spirit all permeate the scripts and performances.
The DVD release of some of these less well known Ealing films cement this impression. The four films that make up Volume One of the Rarities Collection stretch from the 1930s to the 1950s, and while they’re not masterpieces, they are great evocations of those times.
Escape! (1930) is the story of Captain Matt Denant, a man who defends a prostitute from arrest and ends up killing the policeman. If this doesn’t sound very sympathetic, you’d be right – you have to think about how much modern sensibilities have changed here, but it also doesn’t help that the well known stage actor Gerald Du Maurier (he was the very first stage Captain Hook) is playing Captain Denant, and he doesn’t tone down his performance for the camera for one moment. This is a huge, mannered, melodramatic piece of acting, and it’s uncomfortable to watch at times.
But once Captain Denant escapes from prison and sets off across Dartmoor, it’s easier to get swept up in the action, and he meets a number of strong characters. The women who help him are particularly interesting, with much being made of their undercurrents of boredom and unhappiness and their own desire to escape. Nigel Bruce turns up very briefly as a policeman, and there’s an unexpected denouement that certainly wouldn’t turn up in the films of today.
West Of Zanzibar (1954) is a very different film – an all-colour experience, filmed on location in Africa, this has a documentary feel about it at times, but there’s also a boys-own adventure story tacked on about one plucky warden’s attempt to stop ivory poaching and arrest a nefarious wealthy Arabian trader. The hero is played by Anthony Steel, who has a great cleft chin and was one of the UK’s highest paid actors in the late 40s and early 50s.
The film does have some grittier moments where it addresses issues of colonialism, and the unnamed African actors are very good, particularly the tribal Chieftain. You can’t help but wince when you watch the footage of elephants being killed and British people treating African people like children, though.
Penny Paradise (1938) was directed by Carol Reed, and there are some really interesting moments. The building of tension in key scenes is very well done indeed, but generally speaking this is a happy-go-lucky tale of a tugboat captain on the Mersey who thinks he’s won the pools. There’s a lot of mugging and malarking about, and a few pleasant musical numbers sung by Betty Driver, who went on to star in Coronation Street for many years.
The main issue with Penny Paradise is that it’s really difficult to understand some of the accents, particularly when the actors let rip. But it at least proves that Father Ted wasn’t the first time somebody saying, “Ah go on” a lot in an Irish accent was deemed to be hilarious. I enjoyed it without ever really engaging with it.
Cheer Up! (1936) is my immediate favourite of the four films. Starring music-hall comedian Stanley Lupino, I was expecting to find it hard work in that way only British music hall comedians can be, but Lupino is charmingly silly throughout, and a gifted physical comedian with a puppyish face. He was the father of actor/director Ida Lupino, and it’s a shame that he isn’t really remembered for his screen roles any more, for this has some excellent musical numbers along with some genuinely funny moments.
If you’re a fan of comedy musicals, then Cheer Up! is definitely recommended. I warn you, though, the song Steak And Kidney Pudding, I Adore You will enter your subconscious and hang around in there for quite some time. I’ve been singing it for days.
So there’s one really fun film on here and three that would pass the time nicely on a long afternoon (Ealing films always seem to suit the afternoons better) if you fancy being transported back to a time where you could save Africa, win the pools, or biff a policeman on the chin because he’s not acting like a gentleman. Great times.
The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection Volume One is available now.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.