That Ealing Touch

Alec Guinness in The Lavendar Hill Mob
If you know the name “Ealing Studios,” chances are it makes you think of a string of astonishing comedies the British studio cranked out in the decade or so after World War II, usually starring Alec Guinness, including such essentials as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, seen above and airing this Saturday, September 10), The Ladykillers (1955), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and Whiskey Galore! (1949). If you haven’t seen any of those, put them at the top of your “to watch” list pronto! However, there’s much, much more to the Ealing name than most Americans ever saw, and only in recent years has it been possible to really appreciate the scope of its output. 

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.

Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax
Here she pulls out all the stops as a Victorian femme fatale who uses her manipulative wiles to lure an assistant chemist into providing the poison she wants to use against her abusive pub owner hubby. In addition to featuring plum parts for Howes and Johns, this was the first solo feature for director Robert Hamer, who had earlier excelled with the haunted mirror tale in Dead of Night and would go on to direct Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1947′s It Always Rains on Sunday (another wonderful Ealing thriller with Withers), and a 1960 comedy classic often mistaken for Ealing, School for Scoundrels. Unfortunately finding Pink String and Sealing Wax can be a bit tricky in the United States if you don’t keep a very close eye on TV listings, but if you have a multi-region Blu-ray player, there’s a spectacular restored edition available in the U.K. that’s well worth seeking out.

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Speaking of multi-region players, if you have a DVD player that’s Region 2 compatible, there’s been a major godsend for Ealing fans over the past few years thanks to the label Network. Since 2013 they’ve issued fourteen separate two-disc sets in their Ealing Studios Rarities line, each containing four films never released on home video before (and most unseen on any screens of any kind since their initial releases). It’s an eye-opening experience to say the least as you get to sample everything from car-racing dramas to musicals to melodramas, including a hefty sampler of more obscure titles made in the ’30s during the leadership of Basil Dean. For example there’s an early adaptation of The Water Gipsies (1932) with Ann Todd or the very first sound version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1932), dropping that extra “the” from the original novel’s title, with Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes.

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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.

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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.

Mai Zetterling and David Farrar in Frieda (1947)
In the stylish opening sequence that could have stepped out of a German Expressionist film, the two are married in a bombed-out church and make their way to England where she can now possess a valid passport. However, some of the village townspeople and even David’s family are less than receptive to having a German in their midst near the end of the war. When Frieda’s Nazi-sympathizing brother shows up, she finds herself in an even more difficult position.

Mai Zetterling in Frieda (1947)
If that sounds like a typical wartime drama in narrative terms, Frieda is anything but. The performances are superb across the board, with the deeply sympathetic Zetterling (who would keep acting well into the ’90s with Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches) and the always excellent Farrar (who retired far too young) supported by welcome faces like Glynis Johns and trump card Flora Robson, who gets some fascinating shading as the initially intolerant Aunt Eleanor. However, the real star here is director Basil Dearden, one of the very best Ealing directors who was responsible for the incredible framing story scenes in Dead of Night and also directed The Captive Heart, the atmospheric fantasy anthology The Halfway House (1944), and the riveting cop drama The Blue Lamp (1950), among many others. You don’t hear Dearden’s name thrown around much despite a fine Eclipse boxed set of DVDs from Criterion several years ago, a fine representation of his post-Ealing work including Sapphire (1959), The League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), and All Night Long (1962).

David Farrar in Frieda (1947)

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.

 

10 Responses That Ealing Touch
Posted By Sergio Mims : September 7, 2016 9:44 pm

Another lesser known Ealing film that I can’t recommend enough is the WWII thriller Went the Day Well which deals with how the town people of a small English village fight back when a group of disguised German soldiers take over the town for a planned invasion. (The same basic premise was later “borrowed” for the John Sturges’ WWII film The Eagle Has Landed with Micheal Caine and Robert Duvall) But Well is surprisingly brutal and shockingly violent. One could imagine it could get a R rating today if the violence was just a little more graphic. but its a suspenful and gripping film, It’s been shown on TCM and there is a Region 2 blu-ray of the film avaiaiolable

Posted By Sergio Mims : September 7, 2016 9:45 pm

OOPS that’s supposed the the word “available”

Posted By Flora : September 7, 2016 10:33 pm

I’m not sure if we get The Lavender Hill Mob in Canada or not.

I’ve tried to find it before.

In am familiar with Ealing Studios.

Posted By Doug : September 7, 2016 11:57 pm

Nate, thank you for this-I’ve heard of Ealing but have never seen many of their films, so this post, except for a few names, is all new to me.
Multi region players seem like a great idea, but more of an investment than I’d be comfortable with right now. If I bought the player, then I’d start buying discs; eventually I’d have to watch movies by candlelight, as I’d be broke.
With that said…in a few years such players and discs may become obsolete, as streaming recognizes no regions. In effect, our computers could be considered ‘multi region’ players.
Nate,I know that Ealing has a name for comedies-are you familiar with “Black Books” or “The IT Crowd”? Carrying on (excuse, please) the tradition of Britcoms.

Posted By Gamera2000 : September 8, 2016 1:14 am

I have seen nearly all of the famous Ealing films from the 40′s and 50′s (some of them more than once), so i look forward to getting some of these regions 2 rarities.

I couldn’t help but notice in the Network release of rarely seen Ealing films the SECRET OF THE LOCH. I have actually seen this film made to cash in on the excitement in 1934 about the Loch Ness monster. Probably the first English film with a giant monster, (Lost World, despite it’s ending, is American). The odd thing is despite the famous photograph of the time, when it shows up it turns out to be a giant Iguana.

Posted By robbushblog : September 8, 2016 5:35 am

I’ve seen some of those great Ealing comedies that you mentioned and would like to get to know more of the other non-comedy titles as well. My mother loves current British procedural shows, so I figured she would be interested in seeing some older British films. No dice. I think she’s not interested out of spite since I don’t like current British procedural shows.

Posted By Nathaniel Thompson : September 8, 2016 7:05 am

Thanks for the great comments everyone. Doug, yes, I hope that eventually films like the lesser Ealings will be much easier to see in the U.S. — one upside to more streaming for sure. I love both of those shows; “The IT Crowd” is fantastic (as is “Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace” with some of the same people involved). And yes, Gamera2000, SECRET OF THE LOCH is fascinating — we don’t have enough Nessie movies and having the first one is great, even if it’s only for a few seconds!

Posted By Michael : September 8, 2016 5:07 pm

Great to see someone writing about Ealing one of our great old British studios. The name of Ealing will forever be synonymous with comedies although numerically they were outnumbered by the studio’s war films, the Ealing comedies always seemed to have a warmth about them that is sadly missing in today’s comedies. I grew up in the Borough of Ealing and although this was during the period when films were not being produced the history was a source of great pride to the long term residents, sadly the area has since been gentrified and is now unrecognisable.
Regarding streaming I don’t wish to be a voice of doom but it sadly isn’t a great region free paradise, for example hulu is unavaailable in the UK and studios such as Universal, Paramount, Warners etc have all blocked their vod youtube channels outside of their regional base. We can still hope.

Posted By kingrat : September 8, 2016 5:38 pm

Thanks for pointing the way to some lesser-known titles that sound very intriguing. I’m a fan of Googie Withers and IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY.

Posted By swac44 : September 9, 2016 2:30 pm

Went the Day Well? is a fantastic film, I saw an Anchor Bay DVD of it a whole back, but I believe it’s Sadly out of print.

I was also lucky enough to see it on the big screen with an appreciative crowd, people were definitely into it, even cheering at appropriate moments. I’ve since sought out other Cavalcanti features and have yet to be disappointed by his film artistry.

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