“I shot an arrow in the air;
she fell to earth in Berkeley Square.”
When I was young, I was lucky to have fledgling television stations pop up on the UHF dial, one when I was a small child, and another sometime in grammar school. This was a good thing because these stations couldn’t afford the programming available on the established stations, so they showed films—lots of films. And they couldn’t afford expensive films, so they showed what they could pay for, and that included British comedies of the 1950s. These are some of the funniest and cleverest films made, and it is unfortunate that even most film fanatics have missed a majority of them. The ‘50s were not a stellar decade for film, particularly in America, but the British found something that worked, and will never be repeated.
With Film Noir, The Swashbuckler, and Science Fiction, I have been writing about genres. But with Post-War British Comedies, I’m writing about a movement. For a little over a decade, from 1949 to 1963, a group of intertwined filmmakers made movies that were decidedly British in character. Besides being comedies, there was no theme or style or item that defined these films, though there were overlaps of all of these. Rather, it was a set of people and their view at a time in history that marked these movies.
The most visible of these people were the actors Alistair Sim and Alec Guinness. Sim starred or played a supporting role in approximately fourteen of the movement films, including Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951), Innocents in Paris (1952), The Green Man (1956), and School for Scoundrels (1960), as well as three on my list below. Sim is particularly interesting as he had a dour appearance, aiding in making him the perfect Scrooge in 1951’s A Christmas Carol. Strangely, this gave him a comic edge. It made it natural for him to play the mean headmaster, but Sim was equally proficient in drag, as he was in the St. Trinian’s films (where he did play the head of a school, but a middle-aged female one). He had an extraordinarily expressive face, easily making the audience feel his joy, anger, of frustration. While a lesser star in Britain, Sim has never gotten the acclaim he deserved in the U.S. There was no finer or more accomplished comedic actor.
Guinness appeared in thirteen of the movies, almost always as the star, including Last Holiday (1950), The Card (1952), The Captain’s Paradise (1953), All at Sea (1957), The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Our Man in Havana (1959), and the four I have on my list below. He made his greatest fame in David Lean epics (and as the Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars), but his best work, his most interesting, complex, and entertaining portrayals, is in these ‘50s English comedies.
The supporting casts, and sometimes leads, included spindly George Cole, the eternally lost Margaret Rutherford, gawky Joyce Grenfell, confused but loveable Miles Malleson, the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood, and the look-a-likes, Stanley Holloway and Cecil Parker. All of them were excellent comedians.
Less visible but more important was Michael Balcon, head of Ealing Studios. For fans, “Ealing films” has become synonymous with “1950’s British comedies.” It’s not an accurate label, as less than half of Ealing’s films in this period were comedies, and many other studios made films that fit the movement, particularly British Lion Film, but Ealing certainly made its mark. During WWII, Ealing had focused on propaganda films. With the war’s end, Balcon decided to move the company in a new direction. He wanted films that showed the nature of the British people. England had suffered from years of war, and the economic situation of the average citizen hadn’t really improved afterward. So Ealing presented those working-class people, not rich or powerful, but virtuous, and just a little odd. The eccentricities were an important feature. Balcon wanted to show, that unlike the citizens of the Axis countries they had defeated, the British were allowed to be strange and revel in it. Ealing started the movement with 1947’s Hue and Cry, but it was their Kind Hearts and Coronets two years later that made it memorable. After that, other studios joined in. When the movement faded in the late ’50s and early ’60s, “British” comedies took on a more universal feel, that is, they could have been made anywhere, particularly Hollywood.
I find it amusing that for films about average people, a majority of the movies are about crime.
So, if you haven’t seen these films, which ones should you search out? Well, these ten are all important to the development of the movement:
Hue and Cry (1947)
The first film of the movement, and the first Ealing film of its type, Hue and Cry contains many of the elements that would reappear in later films: the British feel, the criminals, the focus on the lower classes, and the less-than-obedient “children.” It also had Alistair Sim. It is different from the films that followed in making those children the stars (unlike St. Trinians where the girls exist to cause reactions in others). The end has a strangely post-apocalyptic feel as street children rise up from the ruins to capture the thieves. The critical and financial success of Hue and Cry persuaded Ealing, and then other studios, that these types of films were viable.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
This darkly funny film has the relative of a duke living as a commoner until he decides that he can be the Duke if he kills off the rest of his family. The calmness and understatement of the dialog works as a perfect counterpoint to the string of murders. Besides being the film that defined the early part of the Post-War British Comedy movement, Kind Hearts and Coronets also brought Alec Guinness to the world’s attention; he plays eight intended victims, male, female, young and old. While many of the film’s accolades are given to Guinness, Dennis Price is equally good as the cold, suave killer.
The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)
The Alistair Sim comedies are more farcical than the Guinness ones and The Happiest Days of Your Life is in full farce mode. This pairing of mainstays Sim and Margaret Rutherford makes for an enjoyably silly satire on English boarding schools (not that anyone was taking them all that seriously). The plot is simple. Due to an error, a boys boarding school and a girls boarding school are combined and Head Master Sim and Head Mistress Rutherford must keep it a secret from parents and from potential employers.
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
The second Guinness film on my list (though the first with him as the star), The Lavender Hill Mob is an excellent example of the “sympathetic thieves” film that pops up often in the movement. Guinness plays anal milquetoast Henry Holland who has been planning a gold robbery for years, and finds it is now or never. All the robbers are pleasant people you’d like to get a pint with. There’s plenty of laughs to go with the smiles. The last third is all chase, which gets a bit old, but as the running time is only 78 minutes, nothing can get all that tiring. It won the BAFTA for Best British Film and the Oscar for best screenplay.
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
The best example of the British social comedy, The Man in the White Suit is as dramatic as it is comedic and drifts into the tragic. Upper and lower classes clash over innocent progress. What makes this more thought provoking than most is that when it’s over, I can’t decide who I should have been rooting for. Guinness’ Sidney Stratton offers a powerful dream, but is it worth it? Stratton never considers the consequences, never concerns himself with how his grail could leave so many others with nothing. Or maybe it wouldn’t. The Man in the White Suit doesn’t give answers to the problems of society, because there are no simple answers.
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
A film on the edge of the movement, it still fits, as few films have ever been so very British. Plus, its cast includes Margaret Rutherford, Miles Malleson, and Joan Greenwood. But it did break from the norm in several important ways: it was shot in vibrant color, and it recounted the foibles of the upper class. Of course the jokes put this movie squarely on the side of the working-class. The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the great English language plays, acting both as a comedy of manners, and as a cynical satire of the times—times which have changed only superficially. I have seen it performed many times on stage and screen, and no version comes close to this one.
The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954)
The funniest film in the movement, The Belles of St. Trinian’s and its sequels are based on a series of Ronald Searle’s cartoons about scary boarding school girls. In a bit of inspired, twisted casting, Alistair Sim plays roguish head mistress Miss Fritton as well as her unscrupulous brother. The plot involves the brother trying to fix a horse race while Miss Fritton and the younger school girls try to stop him, but the plot isn’t important. The fun comes from the girls making gin, setting off explosives, stealing horses, torturing other girls, and being a mix between adorable and fiends from hell, and how everyone responds to them. For 20 years, everyone in England knew about St. Trianian’s girls, but unfortunately, their fame has faded.
The Ladykillers (1955)
Currently, the best known of the Ealing films, Alec Guinness and his gang (including a young Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, eight years before they re-teamed for The Pink Panther) rob an armored car, using a sweet, eccentric “little old lady” as an unwitting partner. As another sign of the incestuous nature of the movement, Guinness modeled the character of his Professor Marcus after a performance by Alistair Sim. The Ladykillers is low on message, high on humor. As one of the few movement films made in color, even that excuse is missing for remaking the film, yet, Tom Hanks took over the Guinness role in a 2004 version.
Carry On Sergeant (1958)
The Carry On films are the third strand of the Post-War British Comedy movement (4th if you separate the more literary films such as The Importance of Being Earnest). To go with the “almost-real” Ealing-style and the British Lion/Launder & Gilliat/Boulting brothers farces and satires, the Carry On series brought plot-low, music hall type antics to late ’50s movies. Carry On Sergeant doesn’t stand out on its own, but it is the beginning, and it finished 30 films and a TV series later. The pictures were not connected by plot or character, but by tone, and by the pool of actors that the films drew upon, in particular Sidney James, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, and Barbara Windsor.
Ladies Who Do (1963)
All movements have to end, and Ladies Who Do is a good place to lay this one to rest. Once again, it is working-class people (char women) in a scheme of questionable legality. Robert Morley leads the ladies in a form of insider trading as they fight a land developer. Certainly not the best of the Post-War British Comedies, but it is light and enjoyable with no real flaws.