Archive for Gracie Fields

Nothing’s Wasted

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 3, 2020 by dcairns

The good thing about running a blog is that nothing’s wasted. So I’ve inadvertently written over a thousand words for an essay that doesn’t need them, and I can find a home from them here —

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My impression of previous British cinematic treatment of the working class is that it was unconvincing and reeking of music hall exaggeration. There were stars like George Formby (a grotesque northern gump with a savant-like talent for the ukulele) and Gracie Fields (a braying fishwife with a singing voice that could shatter concrete) enjoyed periods of great popularity, especially in the same northern industrial areas which would later birth most of the new realism.

Films such as IN WHICH WE SERVE and THIS HAPPY BREED did make an effort to sympathetically and convincingly portray the 99% of people who did not live in Mayfair and drink cocktails, but there was always a strange distance from reality. Screenwriter Noel Coward and star John Mills had gone to such efforts to eradicate all trace of their modest, regional origins that their resumption of it had a gingerly quality which didn’t suppress all emotion by any means (both films are quite moving) but did keep naturalism at arm’s length. Added to that was the studio-bound nature of most British cinema at the time. Other centres of excellence like the Archers (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) and Ealing mostly kept working class characters as amusing or pathetic supporting characters, again with a somewhat theatrical playing style.

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But there were exceptions. The gifted journeyman Wolf Rilla directed THE END OF THE ROAD (1954), a little-known gem about a factory worker (Finlay Currie) struggling to cope with retirement after a long, productive life in industry. The depiction of his home life, sharing a tiny flat with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, is convincing, compassionate and wholly lacking in condescension (script was by James Forsyth and Geoffrey Orme. It also spiced up its naturalism (lots of location filming by canals) with expressionistic touches such as Dutch tilts to convey its elderly protagonist’s disorientation.

What was lacking in early efforts like this was sex appeal. The arrival of Albert Finney, David Hemmings, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, Sean Connery et al was part of a weakening of old class-based restrictions that had prevented anyone with a regional accent from being seen as glamorous or desirable. (There were sadly fewer female stars, and only the most conventionally well-spoken of them, Julie Christie, has enjoyed a really long stardom. Carol White died tragically young and the iconic Rita Tushingham is unique in every way.)