Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on September 7, 2016
I could easily turn this into a top 10 or top 20 list of Ealing titles, but instead I’d like to touch on what makes its output so appealing and point out a few titles that fell through the cracks but are well worth seeking out. Ealing Studios is actually the world’s oldest operating film studio, with its current facilities open since 1931 and still in use today. However, when you think of an Ealing film that really refers to its output from 1930 to 1959, spanning many genres and styles. What becomes obvious after you’ve seen even a couple of Ealing films is the large family of familiar names and faces you keep bumping into, with memorable actors shifting back and forth between supporting and leading roles at will. One good way to get your feet wet if you haven’t seen it already is the sole bona fide horror film from Ealing, Dead of Night (1945), which is most famous for starring Michard Redgrave but also offers a showcase for regular players like Mervyn Johns, Sally Ann Howes, Googie Withers, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, and Ralph Michael, who would pop up in other titles like the superb war drama The Captive Heart (1946) and the hilarious Passport to Pimlico (1949). However, one great way to see several Ealing key players at their best is the woefully underrated 1945 thriller, Pink String and Sealing Wax, which offers a rare chance to see Googie Withers as the main star.
It’s a dark, stylish adaptation with some surprisingly ambitious imagery at times; there’s never been a complete, watchable version of this in America in any form, so Holmes buffs should hunt this one down. Actor Ian Hunter (who later went on to appear as King Richard in the classic 1938 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood) makes for a sturdier Watson than usual and actually gets more screen time and dialogue than the main star, which is a nice change of pace among other versions of this oft-adapted novel.
Ealing Studios had become a significant comedic force by 1953 when it unleashed one of its strangest and least-seen later farces, a real oddity called Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953). It’s well known that Hollywood was in a state of complete panic at the time over the encroaching menace of television, but nothing — not even Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) — compares to the hostility to the glass teat you’ll find in this film. Here the boob tube is quite literally an instrument of the devil as a television gifted to one retiree causes headaches, mayhem, and misery among apartment dwellers, all instigated by Old Scratch himself embodied by none other than a pre-My Fair Lady Stanley Holloway, himself an Ealing vet with titles like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) under his belt. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Holloway dressed up in theatrical devil drag laughing about the cathode misfortune he’s heaping on the human race, and on top of that you’ll find a wild roster of character actors including Ernest Thesiger, Kay Kendall, and Peggy Cummins. I’m still not sure I didn’t hallucinate the whole thing.
However, if there’s one Ealing rarity worth seeking out among all these, I’d have to give the prize to an unsung little masterpiece: Frieda (1947), a remarkable study in prejudice and compassion made as Europe was still recovering from the devastation of World War II and former enemies were trying to learn to coexist in peace again. Our title character (played by Mai Zetterling) is a German woman who helps English officer David Farrar (the libido-triggering Mr. Dean from the same year’s Black Narcissus) escape from a prison camp.
Sort of the British answer to Anthony Mann, Basil Dearden never seemed to make a bad film, or even an uninteresting one. You can find his skill with balancing gorgeous visuals and potent storytelling in full force in all of his Ealing work and this film in particular, easily placing him among such other vaunted Ealing directors as Hamer and Charles Crichton.
Hopefully this has been enough to encourage you to keep an eye out for the Ealing name, be it on TCM or browsing around for a video choice for the evening. Even when you dig deeply into the vaults there’s always something else to discover, and the more you watch, the more you’ll want to explore.
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