Gracie Fields Collection Review
Film stars, as opposed to leading actors, are often thought of distant objects of desire – desire in all senses, to be and to emulate as well as to possess in a romantic/sexual way. Although acting ability may vary, from considerable to barely registering, a star often has a fairly limited persona which, together with undoubted charisma, defines that star in the eyes of the public. And that public prefers variations on that personality theme rather than the diversity of which major actors are capable. Too many stars have tried to depart from the kinds of role that made them famous, only to find that their public is unwilling to follow them there.
Gracie Fields (born Grace Stansfield, 1898-1979) was undoubtedly a star, first in the music hall, then – in her thirties – in the cinema. And it’s true that like other stars – and she was the highest-paid film actor in the world for a time in the 1930s – most of her roles stick to the same basic template. But unattainable she was not – there’s a reason why she was “Our Gracie”. Tall (5’7”) and not conventionally beautiful, her appeal was her down-to-earth working-class Northernness. She became the star she did through sheer force of personality (though her singing abilities certainly helped). Soon, her character was set: usually called Gracie or Sally, she would play the no-nonsense Lancastrian to the hilt, ready with a quip and an affectionate put-down, able to talk the same to a Duchess as to her workmates. It was a formula that certainly worked for most of a decade. Critics could be sniffy (“We have an industrial North that’s bigger than Gracie Fields running round a Blackpool funfair,” said the Observer’s C.A. Lejeune of Sing As We Go) but audiences lapped it up. Public affection was such that in 1939, when she became seriously ill with cervical cancer, she received over a quarter of a million messages of goodwill. She was Our Gracie, One of Us. Women no doubt identified with her, men no doubt saw her as a friend or colleague, if maybe not a girlfriend or wife (and it’s noticeable how few of her films hinge on love stories), someone who would liven up evenings in the pub with jokes and songs.
The storylines of her films rapidly became flimsy and episodic, excuses for songs and slapstick comedy setpieces. It’s fair to say that of the seven included in this DVD box set, none is a great one, and some of them are no more than entertaining fluff. This may be because these were basically vehicles which allowed Gracie to do her stuff, but mostly didn’t stretch her. If The Show Goes On is one of the better films here, it’s because it allows Fields to show more vulnerability than usual. The directors were mostly the journeymen of 30s British cinema: while it’s hard to imagine Fields being very compatible with Hitchcock, say, it would have been fascinating to see what he could have done with her. The most distinguished name behind the camera is that of J.B. Priestley, who wrote Sing As We Go and Look Back and Laugh and who has his name in big letters second only to Gracie’s. But these two films, despite a few Priestley touches, are as episodic as the rest: this is a Priestley seeking simply to entertain for an hour and a quarter, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Vivien Leigh shows up as second lead in Look Up and Laugh but mostly supporting players do just that: support their lead actress without distracting too much from her.
Field’s debut film, Sally in Our Alley does stand out from the rest. If it’s the best film here, it’s also the least typical. There are jokes and songs in it, but it’s neither a comedy nor a musical. It’s also a period piece (set just after the end of the Great War) and a romance. It’s also a little grittier than the rest, giving the set its PG certificate due to its “mild violence”. The Fields persona was not quite in place, with interesting results. This is a film that deserves feminist attention, as it emphasises female solidarity – Sally (Fields) takes into her home Florrie (Florence Desmond), a downtrodden young woman beaten by her husband. There’s a strikingly dark scene where Sally goads Florrie into smashing the crockery in the house. The director was Maurice Elvey, best known nowadays as Britain’s most prolific director and tending to be dismissed as a hack. But he was proud of this film, and rightly so. Technically it’s primitive, from the early-talkie soundtrack to the obvious alley set. But there’s some invention going on here: note how Elvey sets up the story in just two long-held shots (barring a couple of brief inserts). But ultimately this is a romance, a story of lovers parted by the War, and you may well have a lump in your throat during the final scene where Fields sings her famous song “Sally”.
World War II broke out as Fields was recovering from her illness, and she devoted the next few years supporting the war effort. She made a few films in the Forties, but her great period of stardom was over, though she continued to perform in theatres to capacity audiences right up to her death in 1979.
Optimum’s Gracie Fields Collection is a box set comprising three dual-layered discs containing two films each and one single-layered disc with just one. All the DVDs are encoded for Region 2 only. The films are as follows:
Sally in Our Alley (1931) (70:35)
Looking on the Bright Side (1932) (78:10)
Love, Life & Laughter (1933) (81:23)
Sing As We Go (1934) (74:41)
Queen of Hearts (1936) (76:09)
Look Up and Laugh (1935) (74:43)
The Show Goes On (1937) (85:31)
All of the films were made in black and white and are transferred in a ratio of 1.33:1.. Sally in Our Alley, was made before the adoption of Academy Ratio as standard, so should be in the early-talkie ratio of 1.2:1 and is slightly cropped at the top and bottom. Given that these films are all over seventy years old, they are in very good condition. Sally in Our Alley is a little soft, and Love, Life & Laughter in particular is over-contrasty and dupey-looking. Throughout the set there are minor scratches and speckles here and there, but picture quality is quite acceptable. There is one screengrab from each film, in the order above.
If nothing else, this box set demonstrates the advances in film sound technology during the 1930s. The oldest films have typical early-talkie soundtracks, with distinctly limited dynamic range. The top end can sound harsh, which does Fields’s soprano no favours. There’s also very little bottom end. Compare the sound of applause in stage scenes in Looking on the Bright Side to that in similar scenes in The Show Goes On: the former sounds like crackling sticks on a bonfire, while the latter sounds much fuller and more natural. All the soundtracks are in mono, naturally, and some crackle and hiss is inevitable and adds to the period charm.
There are no subtitles on any of the films. This appears to be Optimum’s policy for their English-language DVDs and its to be regretted, particularly so when you consider that a large part of the audience for a box set like this will be quite elderly. Nor are there any extras at all.
Gracie Fields was a major star in a society that is long gone, and it’s easier to send her up than it is to take her seriously. While none of the films in this set are great, some of them do deserve more attention. Existing fans will not need an excuse to buy this, though the lack of subtitles is always a bad move and particularly so here.