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1949: That Ealing Feeling

All mentioned films in article
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It's 75 years since Ealing captivated British audiences with three films released within a few weeks of each other that cemented the studio's reputation for comedy. Cinema Paradiso looks back at the spring of 1949.

An American writer once called Ealing, 'A postage stamp of a studio, with a back lot barely large enough to turn a car in.' Critic Kenneth Tynan continued the postal analogy by opining that production chief Michael Balcon's 'favourite productions deal exclusively with men at work, men engrossed in a crisis, men who communicate with their women mostly by postcard'. Future director Bryan Forbes took an equally dim view of the studio's cosy view of British life in mocking, 'Sex was buried with full military honours at Ealing.'

Yet studio historian Charles Barr delighted in the fact that the enduringly popular Ealing comedies celebrated 'the triumph of the innocent, the survival of the unfittest'. Balcon himself took pride in the achievement of a small company that consistently overcame the odds to produce a range of distinctive features in Britain, Africa, and Australia during times of war and austerity. In his view, Ealing would never have produced the classics it did if it had not been, 'The studio with the team spirit.'

The First 50 Years

Pioneering director Will Barker built the first film studios on Ealing Green after acquiring two houses and the adjoining land in 1902. Five years later, the first films were made in what was essentially a large greenhouse to ensure there was plenty of daylight for the cameras. In 1929, the property was acquired by Basil Dean, the renowned theatre producer who decided to reach a wider audience by forming Associated Talking Pictures. Backed by Stephen Courtauld and Reginald Baker, Dean redeveloped the plot and production of talking pictures commenced at Ealing Studios in 1931.

A still from Foreman Went to France / Fiddlers Three (1944)
A still from Foreman Went to France / Fiddlers Three (1944)

Cinema Paradiso regulars might remember from 'Topping the Music Hall Bill' that the likes of Gracie Fields, George Formby, and Will Hay all produced crowd-pleasing comedies for ATP during the 1930s. Check the article for details or tap the names of these revered performers into the Searchline. However, Dean operated on tight budgets and he quit the movie business in 1938 to be replaced as company chief by Michael Balcon.

As we saw in 'Hitchcock's British Films', Balcon had done much to nurture the talent of the young Alfred Hitchcock at Gaumont-British before he had been lured to Borehamwood to run MGM's British base. However, Balcon had not enjoyed kowtowing to Louis B. Mayer and seized the opportunity to become a mogul in his own right (albeit on markedly more modest terms). Retaining the rights to the 60-strong back catalogue, Balcon dropped the ATP brand and started attaching the Ealing Studios logo to his latest releases.

Cinema Paradiso users can access 56 titles from the archives in the 14 volumes of the magnificent Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. Tucked away on Volume 9 is Walter Forde's Cheer Boys Cheer (1939), which set the template for the postwar Ealing comedy canon. It's a classic underdog tale, as the plucky Greenleaf brewery resists the bullying attempts of its progressive Ironside rival to put it out of business and take over its London pubs. In many ways, it's also an allegory of the diplomatic situation vis-à-vis Britain and Germany in the wake of the Munich Agreement. But there's Romeo and Juliet-style romance to sweeten the brew, whose heady pleasures are enhanced by the presence of Will Hay's former sidekicks, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat.

This was Ealing's last release before the invasion of Poland, when the studio shifted on to a war footing. Cinema Paradiso can discover how Balcon marshalled his troops in

'World War II Films: The Home Front and Occupied Europe'. But the output wasn't entirely composed of propaganda and flagwavers, as Walter Forde's Saloon Bar (1940) centres on the efforts of bookie Gordon Harker to prevent a miscarriage of justice involving the barmaid's boyfriend.

Celebrating community spirit, this undervalued comedy thriller can be found on Volume 10. Also worth seeking out are the George Formby and Will Hay films from the war years, as well as the escapist trio of Walter Forde's Sailors Three (1940), Basil Dearden's The Bells Go Down (1943), and Harry Watt's Fiddlers Three (1944), which brought popular Londoner Tommy Trinder to a nationwide audience. But almost two years were to pass before Ealing ventured into comic territory again.

Hue and Cry (1947), which was scripted by one of the key figures in our story. T.E.B. Clarke. Known as 'Tibby', Thomas Ernest Bennett Clarke had been knocking around as a journalist when he was invited to a post-screening drink at The Red Lion by publicist Monja Danischewsky. Hearing about a shortage of screenwriters, Clarke proposed himself and he was soon part of the cottage industry tucked away in a corner of West London.

A still from Attack the Block (2011) With John Boyega
A still from Attack the Block (2011) With John Boyega

In telling the tale of a gang of London boys who confound the crooks using their favourite comic, The Trump, to pass nefarious messages, Clarke worked backwards from associate producer Henry Cornelius's desire to see a final sequence that gave 'the impression that for one glorious hour boys have taken over the city'. In essence, the plot owes debts to Gerhard Lamprecht's Emil and the Detectives (1931), which had been adapted from Erich Kästner's popular children's novel by Billy Wilder and Emeric Pressburger. Whatever happened to them? The same concept also informed Joe Cornish's Attack the Block (2011), which sees kids from a council estate taking on aliens.

Working with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who famously preferred the back of his hand to gauge conditions to a light meter), Crichton caught a capital still scarred by the Blitz, as progress in demolishing damaged buildings and filling in bomb craters around the East End and Docklands had been slow up to this point in 1946. Thus, this forerunner of the favoured 'Us Against Them' Children's Film Foundation formula, stands as a valuable historical document, as do other Ealing pictures of the time that were photographed on location.

Although Alastair Sim took a cameo as the comic-book author and Jack Warner relished playing against type as the villain, the real stars of this Boy's Own adventure were Harry Fowler and his fellow juveniiles. In the interests of inclusivity, it should be noted that Douglas Barr's character was Scottish, while the street kids even found room for a token girl in Joan Dowling. But it was the David vs Goliath nature of Clarke's scenario that led to this being seen as the prototype Ealing comedy and many critics include it in the canon.

Warner would find himself on the other side of the law in Basil Dearden's Clarke-scripted crime classic, The Blue Lamp (1950), with his character of George Dixon miraculously coming back from the dead to front the BBC Saturday evening staple, 'Dixon of Dock Green' (Collection One, Two and Three - 1955-76). But he wouldn't feature in another Ealing comedy. Neither would Sim, as he was so in demand that he could never find time in his schedule. But Clarke and Crichton had found a niche, with the Wallasey-born, Oxford-educated director seeking sanctuary in it again in Another Shore (1948).

Adapted from a novel by Irish judge Kenneth Sheils Reddin, this is announced as a 'comedy' in the opening caption. But the word is changed to 'tragedy' before we are introduced to Dublin customs official Robert Beatty, who daydreams of living on a South Sea island. There's mild amusement to be had in Beatty seeking wealthy old folks in distress in the hope of receiving a reward that might fund his passage. But his romance with Moira Lister never quite sparks and he's upstaged by Stanley Holloway as a Scottish stranger and by Michael Medwin as Beatty's rival.

A still from A Run for Your Money (1949)
A still from A Run for Your Money (1949)

The Celtic fringe also provided the setting for Charles Frend's A Run for Your Money (1949), which was co-scripted by Diana Morgan, who was one of the few female creatives at Ealing. We don't linger long in the village of Hafoduwchbenceubwllymarchogcoch, however, as brothers Donald Houston and Meredith Edwards are off to London to collect a £200 prize and tickets to Twickenham won in a newspaper competition.

Alec Guinness has a supporting role as the Echo's gardening correspondent following the siblings on their misadventures in the Smoke. Lister again provides the love interest, while the always unpredictable Hugh Griffith enjoys himself as a harpist fallen on hard times. The national stereotypes will jar with some, but the jokes about rationing and the division of society into haves and have-nots still ring true. Welsh audiences were unimpressed, but Ealing snagged a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film. By the way, the village name translates as 'Shed Over the Cess-pit of the Red Knight.'

That Was the Year That Was

Over the course of seven weeks in 1949, British cinema was changed forever. It all started on 28 April, with the release of Henry Cornelius's Passport to Pimlico. But, while critics were lauding this satire for bringing a new intelligence to British screen humour, Balcon sent Alexander Mackendrick's Whisky Galore! (13 June) and Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (16 June) into cinemas and suddenly all the talk was of the new style of Ealing comedy.

Tibby Clarke got the idea for Passport to Pimlico when he read a newspaper article about Princess Juliana of the Netherlands asking the Canadian government to make a delivery room in Ottawa Civic Hospital Dutch territory so that she could give birth to the heir to the throne on home soil while she was in exile during the Nazi occupation of her country. He hit upon the notion of a London borough discovering an old treaty following the detonation of a Luftwaffe bomb and declaring itself part of the Kingdom of Burgundy in order to escape the austerity measures that were being imposed upon the rest of Britain. He borrowed the idea of the airlift from the relief of Berlin that also inspired George Seaton's The Big Lift (1950).

Naturally, this new-found independence proves to be too good to be true, as the rigmarole of statehood has to be imposed and Westminster quickly finds a way to be beastly to its new neighbour. Moreover, spivs manage to muscle in and exploit the situation to their own advantage. Yet, despite the inconveniences, shopkeeper Stanley Holloway's wife, Betty Warren, still finds a way to view things from a very Englishly skewed perspective: 'We always were English and we always will be English, and it's just because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundian!'

If this sounds a little on the nose in our post-Brexit era, audiences in 1949 considered the film a hoot, as it cocked a snook at the efforts of the establishment to maintain an air of blitz spirit in order to rebuild a devastated country. Ironically, however, just as the picture was about to be released, the Labour government relaxed certain restrictions and an ironic dedication to ration books was hastily inserted into the opening credits to enable the action to retain its topicality.

Robert Sellers, the author of the excellent tome, The Secret Life of Ealing Studios (2022), rightly avers that the feature 'captures those most quintessential English traits of individualism, tolerance and compromise'. But, like Hue and Cry, it concluded that while doing as one likes is all well and good, it's much better to conform and find strength in tradition and unity. In other words, subversion is fine in its way, but it'll never beat submission to the general will. That said, there are those who consider the tale to have a socialist slant, as it puts the needs of the community before the dictates of the established social order.

The location work actually happened in Lambeth, as lots of bomb damage remained. Familiar faces like Hermione Baddeley, Sidney Tafler, and Raymond Huntley fleshed out a cast that also included Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as Whitehall bods, Straker and Gregg. However, Jack Warner couldn't break a contract to play grocer Arthur Pemberton and Stanley Holloway had to step in. Margaret Rutherford also took over the role of Professor Hatton-Jones from an underwhelmed Alastair Sim and Clarke was amused by the fact that he didn't have to alter a single word of the script in order to change the historian's gender.

A still from Genevieve (1953)
A still from Genevieve (1953)

Rutherford and Cornelius didn't get on particularly well, as the South African had a short fuse and a habit of chewing raw cabbage on set. This was his first directing assignment after having worked as an editor and junior producer and his cause wasn't helped by persistent rain during the shoot. But Balcon found him hard work and Cornelius never directed for the studio again after one too many rows. He set up his own company for The Galloping Major (1951) and, when Balcon claimed there was no room on the schedule for a story about two vintage car enthusiasts racing between London and Brighton, Cornelius took it to Rank, where William Rose scripted the best Ealing comedy that Balcon never made, Genevieve (1953).

Clarke received an Oscar nomination in the Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) category. However, he lost out to Robert Pirosh for his work on William A. Wellman's Battleground (1949), which drew on his personal experiences of the Battle of Bastogne. Despite Clarke's accolade, no one at Paramount appeared to recognise the plot when Mike Myers proposed a reworking for the sequel to Penelope Spheeris's hit comedy, Wayne's World (1992). As the studio didn't own the rights to Clarke's scenario, the idea of Wayne (Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) forming their own country after finding an ancient scroll had to be scrapped and a plotline about Jim Morrison's ghost demanding a rock concert was hurriedly written for Stephen Surjik's Wayne's World 2 (1993), with Myers being under reported pressure from furious executive Sherry Lansing, who threatened to take everything he owned for putting the studio in such an invidious position.

Presumably no such shenanigans were necessary when Gillies MacKinnon made Whisky Galore in 2016. Back in 1949, however, Monja Danischewsky had to use all of his celebrated charm to persuade Balcon to let him leave the Ealing publicity department he had headed for 11 years to turn producer. He had sensed a hit the moment he read Compton Mackenzie's fact-based 1947 novel about the residents of a Hebridean island outwitting customs officers to salvage some of the 50,000 cases of scotch aboard a ship that had run aground in treacherous waters. But Balcon was unconvinced and offered Danischewsky a meagre budget, an inexperienced crew, and a rookie director to complete the project in 10 weeks.

Entrusting the script to old Ealing lag, Angus MacPhail, Danischewsky had hoped that cinematographer Ronald Neame would like to try his hand at directing. But he turned down the opportunity, although he would make a decent fist of another shipwreck saga, The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Instead, Danischewsky plumped for Alexander Mackendrick, the Boston-born, Glasgow-raised storyboard artist who had been plucked from the world of advertising by Basil Dearden and Michael Relph.

Barra in the Outer Hebrides was chosen to stand in for the Isle of Todday. But the weather was so atrocious in the summer of 1948 that Mackendrick quickly fell behind and had to convert the church hall into an ad hoc studio in order to film indoor scenes. He also argued incessantly with MacPhail over the screenplay and got himself into such a state that he called his fiancée from Barra's only phone box to confess to feeling suicidal. Her response was an order for him to snap out of it, because he was only making a silly film.

When his shipbuilder father had died when he was just six years old, Mackendrick had been dispatched to Scotland by his mother, who had wanted to devote her energies to becoming a fashion designer. He never saw her again and was raised as a Presbyterian by his grandfather and this strict upbringing led to Mackendrick siding with Captain Waggett of the Home Guard (Basil Radford) over the rascally islanders led by Joseph Macroon (a role inherited by Wylie Watson after Alastair Sim declined for fear that he would come to be seen as a 'professional Scotsman'). Mackendrick later wrote: 'I began to realise that the most Scottish character in Whisky Galore! is Waggett the Englishman. He is the only Calvinist, puritan figure - and all the other characters aren't Scots at all: they're Irish!' But their understandable thirst at a time of rationing appealed to Danischewsky, who also liked the idea of them getting one over on the authorities. As producer, he got his own way.

After over-running by five weeks and going £20,000 over budget, Mackendrick was packed off to Paris for a break, while Balcon turned the footage over to senior editor Sidney Cole to see if he could make a presentable picture from it. Charles Crichton was roped in to shoot a few linking scenes that he insisted 'put the confidence back in the film'. But Balcon was so underwhelmed that he decided to release Whisky Galore! without fanfare. However, Danischewsky was well liked among the press pack and a hurriedly arranged special screening yielded so many enthusiastic reviews that Ealing had another hit on its hands. It even did well in the United States under the title, Tight Little Island, while the French renamed it Whisky à gogo, a name that would later be applied to chic drinking establishments.

Despite appearing as the captain of the SS Cabinet Minister, Mackenzie was frustrated by the changes made to his text. Mackendrick himself considered it to be a poorly made home movie and he wasn't surprised when the studio failed to offer him another project for several months. Balcon also wanted nothing to do with Mackenzie's sequel, which Danischewsky scripted and Michael Relph directed for Rank under the title, Rockets Galore! (1958).

A still from The Young Offenders (2016)
A still from The Young Offenders (2016)

In later years, Danischewsky jokingly dubbed the film, 'The longest unsponsored advertisement ever to reach cinema screens the world over.' But its influence can still be felt in recent outings like Peter Foott's hilarious comedy, The Young Offenders (2016), in which a couple of Cork scallies cycle to the coast in the hope of finding some of the packages of cocaine that have washed up on the Irish coast following a customs raid.

Forty-nine years ago, EMI announced that a remake of Kind Hearts and Coronets was in the pipeline, with popular TV star Dick Emery being lined up to essay the D'Ascoynes. A quarter of a century later, director Mike Nichols sought to rework the plot by having Will Smith seek revenge on the family that had disowned his mother for marrying a Black man. It was a neat tweak and Robin Williams had been signed up to play the offending octet. But the plan never came together and, given the quality of Joel and Ethan Coen's reworking of another Ealing classic in The Ladykillers (2004), we should perhaps be grateful.

It's also a mercy that the anti-Semitism that runs through Roy Horniman's 1907 source novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, had been expunged in the Ealing writers' room. Michael Pertwee had found the book and convinced Balcon that audiences would relish 'a comedy about eight murders'. However, director Robert Hamer took an immediate dislike to Pertwee, who was replaced by John Dighton, an Ealing occasional who had become the toast of the West End with The Happiest Days of Your Life, which was filmed by Frank Launder in 1950, with Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford as the school heads forced to share a single building.

Hamer had made his name with two of Ealing's most downbeat dramas, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). But he had also brought sombre wit to 'The Haunted Mirror', an episode in the horror portmanteau, Dead of Night (1945), which made him the perfect fit for the wittily warped tale of the Edwardian demise of the D'Ascoyne clan at the hands of vengeful Clapham draper's assistant, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price).

Balcon decided that one actor should play all eight D'Ascoynes: Ethelred, 8th Duke of Chalfont; the Reverend Lord Henry; General Lord Rufus; Admiral Lord Horatio; suffragette Lady Agatha; banker Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne; his son Young Ascoyne; and photographer Young Henry, the 9th Duke. He opted for Alec Guinness, as he felt he had an element of Charlie Chaplin about him. More significantly, his career at Rank had rather stalled after his portrayal of Fagin in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) had been denounced as anti-Semitic in the United States. So, he was available and not overly expensive.

It proved an inspired move, as Guinness would become a key player in the success of the Ealing comedies. Yet, while he enjoyed making the films, he never felt that he was treated with sufficient respect at the studio. While shooting the sequence in which Lord Horatio goes down with his ship, Hamer forgot that Guinness had been wired down to the ship's bridge so that he didn't bob to the surface as his cap floated away. Fortunately, he had learned to hold his breath for four minutes while doing yoga and the crew was able to free him with wire cutters. Guinness also felt that Lady Agatha's hot air balloon flight was unsafe and refused to do enter the basket for the long shots unless Ealing stumped up for a generous insurance policy. Ultimately, Belgium's leading balloonist dragged up for the shot, only for a freak wind to cast him 50 miles down the Thames Estuary.

The scene in which six D'Ascoynes sit in the chapel pew listening to Lord Henry's funeral oration might have been less perilous to shoot, but it still proved demanding. As Douglas Slocombe didn't trust optical printing to bring seven Guinnesses together in a single shot, he decided to mask off the frame so that he could achieve seven exposures in one shot. This meant that the camera had to be precisely placed for each pass of the film strip and Slocombe slept beside the mounted camera each night to ensure it wasn't disturbed, as the process took several days and costume changes to complete.

Such was the focus on Guinness's canny versatility that it is easy to overlook the brilliance of Dennis Price's display of murderous urbanity, as Louis not only bumps off his relations, but also conducts simultaneous affairs with Young Henry's widow, Edith (Valerie Hobson), and married gold-digger, Sibella (Joan Greenwood). He's greeted at the gates of the prison by a young Arthur Lowe, as a reporter from Titbits. But, in the US version (which is six minutes shorter), the memoir that Mazzini has written in his cell is discovered and handed over to the authorities, as the Production Code refused to permit the intimation that he might get away with his crimes.

A still from The Spirit of '45 (2013)
A still from The Spirit of '45 (2013)

Released at a time in which the socialist reforms recalled in Ken Loach's The Spirit of '45 (2013) were creating a new Britain, Kind Hearts was seen by some as a transgressive attack on the old order. But, as Mazzini aspires to the dukedom and its attendant privileges, other critics detected the politics of envy in a sly apologia for the existing establishment. Seventy-five years on, it remains one of the most popular Ealing comedies. But it did little for Hamer's prospects at the studio, as he fell out with Balcon and didn't make another film for three years.

In May 1950, Kind Hearts and Coronets joined Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore!, and A Run For Your Money on the shortlist for the Best British Film category at the 3rd British Academy Film Awards. It was a magnificent achievement for such a small studio. But, like Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room, the Ealing quartet had to bow to Carol Reed's The Third Man, although it lost out for Best Film From Any Source to Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves.

Remember we mentioned possible remakes? There were echoes of the storyline in Emerald Fennell's much-admired Saltburn (2023) and its success has persuaded A24 to sanction Huntington, a variation on the Kind Hearts theme that has been written by John Patton Ford, who is currently directing Glen Powell, Ed Harris, and Margaret Qualley on location in South Africa.

The Best and the Rest

As next year sees the 70th anniversary of the last great Ealing comedy, we shall keep our detailed analysis for a What to Watch Next item. But it would be remiss not to mention the studio's second decade of mirth here, as all 13 of the features made between 1950-57 are available to rent on high-quality disc from Cinema Paradiso.

The first took Charles Frend to Merseyside for The Magnet (1950), which saw Tibby Clarke delve again into the psychology of small boys. In his first starring role, James Fox (billed as William) feels so guilty at swindling a kid on New Brighton beach out of his prized horseshoe magnet that he makes his way to a poor part of Liverpool in an effort to make amends. There are echoes of Hue and Cry in the shots of the Scouse lads traversing the derelict estate, but the class satire is as mild as the humour.

Clarke was working on another dockside saga, Pool of London (1950), when he got the idea for a comedy based on one of its plot strands. In order to see whether it would be possible for an employee to steal gold bullion from a security van and smuggle it out of the country, Clarke consulted various suits at the Bank of England, who proved all too willing to help devise a plan for the perfect robbery. An old holiday gift inspired the scheme to melt the ingots into Eiffel Tower paperweights, but Balcon only greenlit The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) after much arm twisting.

Alec Guinness was cast as meek bank clerk Henry Holland, while Stanley Holloway was signed to play Alfred Pendlebury, the boarding-house neighbour and souvenir manufacturer who becomes his accomplice. With small-timers Sidney James and Alfie Bass making up the foursome, Charles Crichton was able to shoot a slickly plotted caper on the streets of London and Paris. In addition to landing the BAFTA for Best British Film, Clarke also won an Oscar for his screenplay, while Guinness was nominated for Best Actor.

A still from High Noon (1952)
A still from High Noon (1952)

By the time he lost out to Gary Cooper in Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), Guinness had created another memorable Ealing character, Sidney Stratton, in Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit (1951). Complete with the gurgling laboratory noise created by sound editor Mary Habberfield, this satire on the clash between tradition and progress was co-scripted by John Dighton, the director himself, and his playwright cousin, Roger MacDougall. At its heart was a brilliant scientist, whose indestructible thread proves a mixed blessing for a northern mill town. While it recycles ideas from Cheer Boys Cheer, this progressive picture contains the first shoots of kitchen sink realism. Mackendrick, however, saw it as a parable about his own dealings with Balcon and Production Code chief, Joseph I. Breen.

White suits had long been synonymous with high-ranking British colonial officials. But the harsh political realities behind Britain's postwar switch from Empire to Commonwealth were mostly overlooked in His Excellency (1952), which Robert Hamer and W.P. Lipscomb adapted from a stage play by married couple, Dorothy and Campbell Christie. Adopting a bluff Yorkshire mien, Eric Portman stars as George Harrison (no, not him), the trade unionist who is made governor of the Mediterranean island of Artisa. Just about balancing the foreigner stereotypes with British lampoons, this may not have worn well, but its insights into the legacy of attitudes towards post-colonialism are highly instructive.

The project strained relations between Hamer and Balcon to the extent that the director quit the studio after he failed to secure backing to star Vivien Leigh in an adaptation of Richard Mason's Caribbean drama, The Shadow and the Peak. Following a comeback with the John Mills thriller, The Long Memory (1953), Hamer reunited with Guinness on Father Brown (1954), To Paris With Love (1955), and The Scapegoat before succumbing to alcoholism after his final feature, School For Scoundrels (both 1959), with Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas.

In the six decades that separate us from Anthony Pelissier's Meet Mr Lucifer (1953), the entertainment business has changed beyond all recognition. However, television was seen as a real threat to cinema in the early 1950s, especially as plans had been announced for the launching of a commercial channel to break the BBC monopoly. Scripted by Monja Danischewsky and available to rent on Volume 9 of the Ealing Rarities Collection, this reworking of Arnold Ridley's play, Beggar My Neighbour, stars Stanley Holloway as the satanic presence discovering the impact that a discarded television set has on those who take possession of it.

Progress and tradition collided again in Charles Crichton's The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), which many believe earned the Ealing comedies their reputation for quaintness. Tibby Clarke got the idea after visiting the narrow gauge Talyllyn Railway in North Wales, although the story of a branch line being threatened with closure after the opening of a new bus route anticipated the concerns that would bring about the Beeching Report that transformed the recently nationalised rail network. However, none of the principal makers had a real affinity for trains and, thus, they failed to capitalise on the romance of steam. Perhaps more surprisingly, in the wake of Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore!, they also missed the sense of spirit that arises in the embattled community.

Stanley Holloway took a quaffing brief, as a passenger with a fondness for the buffet car, while vicar George Relph and squire John Gregson seek to give scheming bus bosses Jack MacGowran and Ewan Roberts a run for their money. In an amusing twist on the film's themes, the first Ealing comedy filmed in Technicolor made charming use of 'Lion', an 1838 relict of the world's first railway line between Liverpool and Manchester. But, in typical Ealing fashion, they didn't take very good care of it and its metalwork was dented by an accidental shunt.

A still from Local Hero (1983)
A still from Local Hero (1983)

A similar story was told by William Rose in Alexander Mackendrick in The Maggie (1954). Sixtysomething Alex MacKenzie makes an impressive debut as the Clyde skipper who spots a chance to raise the cash to repair his cargo puffer by stealing a march on the competition and transporting the furniture owned by self-made American industrialist, Paul Douglas. Cinematographer Gordon Dines makes evocative use of the Scottish waterways, as this underrated Them vs Us comedy provides a link between Whisky Galore! and Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983).

Also released in 1954, Charles Crichton's The Love Lottery was written by Harry Kurnitz and Monja Danischewsky in a bid to bring some glamour to the androcentric Ealing formula. Diana Morgan told Frank Muir in the BBC's 1970 Saturday Documentary episode on the studio that her male colleagues were a little bit scared of women and tried to keep sex out of their stories as much as possible. Here, however, romance blossoms when film star David Niven becomes smitten with Peggy Cummins after he has been duped by gambling syndicate boss Herbert Lom into offering himself as first prize in a raffle. Shot in Technicolor with scenes around Lake Como, this atypical curio even includes surreal dream sequence and a cameo by none other than Humphrey Bogart!

Equally overlooked is Michael Truman's Touch and Go (1955), which was written by William Rose and his wife, Tania. Fans of Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St Louis (1944) will recognise the core plot point, as Margaret Johnston and June Thorburn resist frustrated furniture designer Jack Hawkins's sudden decision to emigrate to Australia. With growing numbers leaving a Britain struggling to find its feet in a much-changed world to start afresh Down Under, this domestic dramedy would have felt ripped from the headlines to mid-50s audiences. A cat called Heathcliff proves key to proceedings, which will have many squirming at the status of women within their own homes. But, as in Michael Curtiz's sublime period piece, Life With Father (1947), there's a tongue-in-cheekness to the 'father knows best' finale.

When it comes to polls of Great British Films, one Ealing comedy tends to out-rank the others. Kind Hearts and Coronets is always handily placed, but it's usually pipped by Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1955), which started out as a dream that American screenwriter William Rose recalled while discussing ideas for future films. The director wanted Alastair Sim to play criminal mastermind, Professor Marcus. But he was busy elsewhere and Alec Guinness returned to Ealing for the first time in four years to parody Sim's lugubrious charm in leading the crooks who convince dotty landlady Mrs Louisa Wilberforce that they are members of a string quintet rehearsing for a concert rather than planning a blag.

Herbert Lom, Danny Green, Cecil Parker, and Peter Sellers excel as the toothy Guinness's mutinous acolytes. But it was 76 year-old Katie Johnson who upstaged them all in thoroughly deserving her BAFTA for Best Actress. The rickety house adroitly built around the wall separating Frederica Street from the railway line near King's Cross also left an impression, as did Luigi Boccherini's infuriatingly catchy 'Quintet in E Major'. But few at the time realised that the Oscar-nominated Rose had taken a pot shot at Clement Attlee and his cabinet. This subversive masterpiece proved to be the perfect Ealing swan song for Mackendrick, as he returned to the land of his birth to direct Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in the stinging satire on public relations, Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

By the middle of the decade, Ealing was facing stiff comic competition from the likes of Italian Mario Zampi and the dynamic duo of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, as well as from the sibling pairings of John and Roy Boulting, who worked together, and Ralph and Gerald Thomas, who didn't. They took the Ealing essence and updated it for a new era that was looking forward rather than back. Although Norman Wisdom traded on the sad clown persona in underdog romcoms that owed something to Ealing's sense of the slowly shifting social order, the new brooms made films that were brasher and saucier, with the Doctor romps adapted from the books of Richard Gordon opening the door for the Carry Ons, which would carry the baton into the 1970s.

Screen comedy was still not as innovative as radio shows like the acerbic Hancock's Half Hour or the zanily influential The Goon Show. But Ealing sought to showcase emerging talent by hiring TV star Benny Hill for Basil Dearden and Michael Relph's Who Done It? (1956), which was the last comedy made on Ealing Green before the studios were sold to the BBC. Hill plays Hugo Dill, an accident prone ice rink sweeper who becomes a detective after winning a bloodhound in a competition. Abetted by strongwoman Belinda Lee, Hill somehow gets the better of some Soviet spies. But, while it's fun in a scattershot sort of way, this is far from Tibby Clarke's best screenplay.

He was on better form with Charles Frend's Barnacle Bill (aka All At Sea, 1957), which rejigged the Passport to Pimlico plotline by showing how Captain William Horatio Ambrose declares the pier at Sandcastle to be the independent state of Liberama so that he can evade local council red tape and offer static cruises for those who get seasick. The same kind of clash with stuffed civic shirts would inform Jeremy Summers's The Punch and Judy Man (1963), which starred Tony Hancock. But, despite enjoying the bracing breezes of Hunstanton, Alec Guinness couldn't disguise the fact that he was only making the picture as a favour to the director and it regrettably ended his glorious connection with Ealing on a down note.

A still from Gideon's Day (1958)
A still from Gideon's Day (1958)

Clarke would get to write Gideon's Day (1958) for John Ford on his sole working excursion to Britain, while he also adapted D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1960) for Jack Cardiff. But Don Chaffey's The Horse Without a Head (1963), which Clarke wrote for The Magical World of Disney, proved to be his final screen credit and he spent his remaining 26 years penning novels.

Around this period, Balcon acquired Kingsley Amis's landmark bestseller, Lucky Jim. However, he didn't think the story of a lecturer struggling to find his feet in academe was particularly funny and he sold the rights to the Boulting Brothers, whose 1957 adaptation starring Ian Carmichael turned out to be a major critical and commercial success. In a last bid to revive his fortunes, Balcon hired Goon Harry Secombe for Michael Relph's Davy (1957), which can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Volume 4 of the Ealing Rarities Collection. Ironically for the first British film made in Technirama, this was a lament for a declining form of entertainment, as Secombe has to decide whether to remain loyal to the family music-hall act, The Mad Morgans, or go solo and perform at the Royal Opera House.

Once again, Missourian William Rose proved himself a shrewd observer of British foibles. But he would decamp to Hollywood soon afterwards, where he wrote It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) for Stanley Kramer. There was a melancholic irony in the line, 'I think we should all stick together...All families should stick together,' as Ealing was about to fall apart. Studio veteran Harry Watt's thriller, The Siege of Pinchgut (1959), was the last hurrah before the company was swallowed up by the Rank Organisation. But Ealing had made its mark and visitors can still see the plaque that Balcon had mounted on a wall before vacating the premises in 1955: 'Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.'

A still from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
A still from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
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