By Paula Hammond. With the re-release of Kind Hearts & Coronets in UK cinemas this week, FilmJuice takes a look at the brilliance of Ealing Studios.
By Paula Hammond
With the re-release of Kind Hearts & Coronets in UK cinemas this week, FilmJuice takes a look at the brilliance of Ealing Studios.
don’t have big budgets or blistering CGI. They weren’t made in 3D, high-def or
with THX stereo. In fact they’ve been on TV more times that you’ve had hot
dinners. Yet, this August, comedy connoisseurs have been flocking to buy
digitally restored prints of Whisky Galore and The Lavender Hill Mob on DVD and
Blu-ray. A remastered Kind Hearts And Coronets returns to our cinemas on 19th
August and on DVD/Blu-ray in September. But just what is it which makes cinema
managers set aside some of their best seats in the Summer Season for a 60 year
old film? Two words: Ealing Comedy.
Ealing is the world’s oldest continuously
working film studio. At one point, it was owned by the BBC, who shot scenes for Dr
Who, Quatermass And The Pit and Colditz on its celebrated sound sets.
However, what many people don’t realise is just how prolific this little
British studio was. Between 1930 and 1960, they produced an average of five
films a year. Despite their lasting association with Ealing, the ‘Comedies’
made up just one tenth of the Studio’s output, over a ten-year period
(1947-1956), but what a glorious decade that was! Passport to Pimlico, Whisky
Galore!, Kind Hearts And Coronets,
The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man In The White Suit, The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Ladykillers. In total, 16 Ealing
Comedies were made and, while some were less successful than others, but they
are all still classics of the genre.
The Ealing Comedy Story arguably began in 1947
with Hue And Cry. Arguably, because
Ealing had churned out comedies for the likes of Will Hay and George Formby
throughout the war years. However, the ‘Ealing Comedies’, with their subtle mix
of social commentary, self-depreciating humour and their celebration of the underdog,
stand apart. So much so that, 60 years on, this series of short films has come
to define what we mean by British humour.
Hue And Cry is very much the baby of the family.
Not as well formed, polished or Ealing-esque, as its siblings, but still charming.
Although Alastair Sim gets top
billing, the real star of the show, from Ealing’s perspective, was writer TEB Clarke. This was only Clarke’s
second script for the Studio but he would go on to create some of their
greatest comedies and very much set the style for the films which followed.
Clarke himself said that Ealing Comedies were fantastical ‘what if’ stories
worked to a logical conclusion. For Passport To Pimlico (1949) he began with
‘what if Charles the Bold had survived the Battle of Nancy and sought asylum in
Pimlico, thereby making the London borough a principality of Burgundy’. For the
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), his what if was ‘what if you wanted to commit the
perfect gold heist?’ To give the story weight and believability Clarke actually
consulted Bank of England executives, who he found surprisingly forthcoming on
the subject! He quizzed British Railway officials for background to The
Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) where the premise was ‘what if you wanted to run
your own railway’. While the registrars at Lloyd’s Shipping gave him the
structure for Barnacle Bill (1957)
in which a sea sick navy captain finally gets his own command in the form of a
to the Core
The world of Ealing Comedies is small, quirky
and quietly subversive. It’s a world in which the little man struggles – and
ultimately triumphs – against big brother bureaucracy. In The Lavender Hill Mob
our hero is a downtrodden bank employee and would-be bank robber – played to
understated perfection by Alec Guinness.
In Whiskey Galore we’re rooting for the honest Scots islanders and their
harmless attempts to hold onto the whiskey they’ve liberated from a shipwreck. In Man In A White Suit, our sympathies
lie with Sidney Stratton, a brilliant research chemist, who invents a
long-lasting fabric only to find himself besieged by trade unions and mill
owners alike. In fact, if any single comment can be said to sum up the spirit of
Ealing Comedy it’s voiced in A Passport To Pimlico when Mrs Pemberton says “we’ve always been English and we’ll always
be English; and it’s precisely because we are English that we’re sticking up
for our right to be Burgundians!”
It’s a sentiment which is quintessentially
British and much of the appeal of Ealing lies in its celebration of the
eccentricities of this strange little island of ours. Ealing’s comedies were
often filmed on location and show us post-war Britain in all its honest, bombed
out beauty. Today, that Britain is long gone, but the ‘mindset’, which Ealing so
neatly captures, lives on, as films like Kinky
Boots, The Full Monty and A Fish Called Wanda prove.
However, Ealing’s lasting appeal is about more
than ‘Britishness’ or nostalgia. They are simply funny films. Ealing don’t do
pies in faces, fart jokes, nudity or crudity. They don’t rely on fast-talking,
wisecracking comedians. They’re not celebrity vehicles. There’s no post-modern
irony or laughing-at. They’re not even edgy. Their secret is tight writing,
clever direction, superb acting and – most importantly – they know how to tell
a joke. It’s an obvious thing to say but we have all seen our share of comedies
which simply aren’t funny. Ealing knew that when it comes to humour less is
more and some of their funniest moments are the quietest. Alec Guinness, who
became one of Ealing’s regulars, was master at this sort of thing and his
performance as the dull-as-dishwater Parson in Kind Hearts And Coronets is
simply sublime. Even James Robertson
Justice, who is most remembered as blustering bully, Lancelot Spratt in the
‘Doctor series, surprises us. His turn as the island doctor, who firmly
believes that some men are “born two drinks below par”, is one of Whisky
Galore’s most delightful and downplayed performances.
When the Coen Brothers remade The Ladykillers
they famously admitted that they had been making Ealing Comedies for most of
their careers. They’re not alone. Many have tried but most have failed, usually
because they miss one essential ingredient. Ealing films can be sly,
subversive, dark and dangerous but they have a moral core. This doesn’t mean
the sort of prissy, message movies which used to fill-up early morning kid’s
TV. Simply that they made films where you cared about the characters. Passport
To Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt are peopled with honest ‘folk’. The
good guys are decent and hard working. Even when the theme is murder, as in The
Ladykillers, the bad guys are cartoon caricatures who get their comeuppance. At
least … usually.
Kind Hearts And Coronets is often cited as the
perfect Ealing Comedy but it’s also the most atypical. Director Robert Hamer, who co-wrote much of the
script, expressed his intention to make a film “not noticeably similar to any
other made in the English language” which “paid no regard to established …
moral convention”. He succeeded in spades. Its ‘hero’, Louis Mazzini, is the
disinherited relation of the noble D’Ascoyne family, whom he sets about
murdering with cool aplomb.
Alec Guinness, again, played all eight abominable
D’Ascoynes with undisguised relish. However, Dennis Price, puts in a much under-appreciated performance as the
louche Mazzini – conjuring up the type of anti-hero which would give
Machiavelli a run for his money. Mazzini is amoral, callous, calculating, but
strangely hard to hate. Partly because his victims are so desperately deserving
of the fate which befalls them, and partly because he has all the best lines!
In Ealing, the villains never get away with it, but Kind Hearts stretches that
convention too. After a last minute reprieve Mazzini is freed, leaving his
memoirs, confessing all, in his jail cell. Like The Italian Job the ending is
deliberately obscure. He might, just might, get away with it. Interestingly the
US were much less happy with this sort of moral ambiguity and an extra scene,
showing the prison warder reading Mazzini’s ‘confession’ was added when it got
its US release. By breaking all of its self-imposed rules, Ealing proved that
they were no one-trick pony. Which must surely be the real secret to their