The Crowded Day / Song of Paris Review
The Crowded Day and Song of Paris represent the third double bill in the BFI’s ongoing series of Adelphi Films releases, the intention being to eventually release their entire output of both features and shorts. Adelphi was a production and distribution company active for almost a decade from the late forties into the late fifties. Their films were primarily comedies and notable for having given a number of key British filmmakers and actors an early break. This has been especially evident from the two previous discs: the first of which was devoted to a pair of rare cinematic outings for the Goons; the second containing two comedies in which Diana Dors played significant roles. This third set once again revolves around a particular talent, although this time it’s a director who gains the attention, not the stars. The filmmaker in question is John Guillermin with both films coming from the earliest stages of his career. Indeed, he was still in his twenties when he helmed Song of Paris in 1952 and The Crowded Day in 1954, and therefore some distance from his better known seventies works such as The Towering Inferno and Death on the Nile.
However, whilst the Goons are widely recognised as a major force in British comedy and Dors is considered one of the key British actors of the fifties, Guillermin’s reputation as director - British or otherwise - isn’t particularly high. In some respects this is entirely fair, especially if we consider such late ventures as Sheena or King Kong Lives. But this also tends to neglect some of his more thoughtful works and, more importantly, his talent for working with actors. Never Let Go from 1960, for example, offers a straight role for Peter Sellers that really does deserve a second look. Similarly Guns of Batasi, made two years later, contains in my opinion Richard Attenborough’s finest performance. Speaking of actors it’s also worth mentioning The Towering Inferno and the ability Guillermin had in commanding so many high profile stars, the end result being one of the more agreeable 1970s disaster flicks. Admittedly, the same couldn’t quite be said of Skyjacked which he’d made a couple of years previous, but then perhaps we should separate the British films from the later big-budget American productions. Alongside Never Let Go and Guns of Batasi we also find the likes of Miss Robin Hood, Town on Trial and I Was Monty’s Double, all of which make for highly enjoyable entertainment and show Guillermin as a proficient director who would go about business with minimal fuss. Even the more overtly generic works - such as his two Tarzan adventures or some of his television commissions - contain this latter quality.
As such the ability to see some of Guillermin’s earliest efforts is a welcome one, all the more so given that Adelphi’s output has remained largely unseen prior to the BFI’s involvement (screenings on Sky Arts as well as these Blu-ray and DVD packages). Before working with the bigger stars, budgets and studios, Guillermin was hired primarily on quota quickies, employed by the likes of Butcher’s and Group 3 as well as Adelphi. This ‘apprenticeship’ involved all sorts of genres, from efficient thrillers (including his critically well-received debut Torment) to all-out comedies, allowing him not only to hone his craft, but also to show the initial signs of his adeptness with actors. Some of this genre mix-up can be seen on this disc’s particular double bill. The Crowded Day blends comic elements and social drama with the tiniest hint of film noir. Song of Paris, meanwhile, could be classed as a comedy-musical thanks to the inclusion of four songs, each performed in their entirety, albeit purely within the confines of the narrative - there’s no breaking out from the realism as it were.
To go into a little further detail, The Crowded Day is essentially an ensemble piece. The setting is a department store in London and we follow its employees over the course of twenty-four hours. This day proves to be an eventful one for the mostly female staff as each comes across their own crisis, some big, some small. The ensemble aspect unavoidably looks forwards to the likes of The Towering Inferno and Death on the Nile, and just as those films serve as a game of ’spot the famous actor’ so too The Crowded Day is packed with familiar faces. The very first we see on-screen is that of Sid James and he’s very quickly followed by John Gregson, Dora Bryan, Thora Hird, Richard Wattis, Rachel Roberts, Prunella Scales, Joan Hickson, Joan Rice, Dandy Nichols and plenty more. Such a huge cast naturally brings with it a host of individual stories for The Crowded Day to take care of, ranging from rivalry over commissions to the more serious subject of pregnancy outside of marriage (and with the father seemingly out of the picture too). Conversely, Song of Paris is incredibly light, as perhaps the musical elements have already suggested. The film flits between London and Paris (although the latter has to make do with painted backdrop representation) as it details the love triangle between a very English Dennis Price, a very French Anne Vernon and a very Russian Mischa Auer. Naturally complications ensue akin to a bedroom farce, whilst saucy humour and romantic tangles amongst the supporting cast beef up the slender plotline.
Despite their immediate differences both The Crowded Day and Song of Paris are incredibly slick and extremely well-paced. Of the two The Crowded Day is the more ‘prestigious’ - the pairing is such that Song of Paris feels like the supporting feature - and intentionally so. This was producer David Dent’s attempt at pushing Adelphi towards the ‘A’-feature market, although (as Vic Pratt makes clear in the booklet) it didn’t quite come to be. Nonetheless, the intent is plain to see, whether it be the presence of someone like John Gregson (so soon after his role in the previous year’s Genevieve that the film can’t resist casting him in a very similar role) or the employment of Gordon Dines as director of photography. Dines is best known for his work at Ealing Studios, from the George Formby vehicles of the 1930s up to the then-recent crime thrillers such as The Blue Lamp and Pool of London. Indeed, it is the latter two that come into play in the case of The Crowded Day, as when the more serious elements allow him to bring an air of film noir to proceedings, most notably when Josephine Griffin’s character is preyed upon by a much older man.
The other key credit behind the camera is the presence of Moie Charles amongst the writers (she gets a co-story credit with John Paddy Carstairs; Talbot Rothwell wrote the screenplay). Just over a decade previous she’d written The Gentle Sex, a World War II drama centring around seven female recruits for military training. The film was significant as it placed the wartime working woman onscreen and, moreover, gave her centre stage. As such it now works as a fascinating document of social history, the semi-documentary fashion in which it was made, complete with genuine military personnel occupying some of the smaller parts, helping in this matter of course. And it isn’t too much of a stretch to view The Crowded Day as a kind of ‘ten years later’ attempt at something similar. Of course, the war had ended by this point, but the role of the female within the workplace was continuing to change and here we capture that shift as it stood in the mid-fifties. There’s little point in mentioning the various facets as Mary Cadogan does just that in her booklet essay, but it really is plain to see throughout the film. The very fact that it can take a whole host of young female characters as its central players and provide each with their own differing plotlines is surely evidence enough. However, it should also not be forgotten that The Crowded Day is as much a comedy as a drama, the presence of Rothwell as the chief writer no doubt being an essential part of this. He would go on to script a number of Carry Ons throughout the sixties and early seventies, not to mention the Up Pompeii television series. Perhaps this also explains the slightly risqué opening in which many of our principle cast members are seen taking baths, wearing revealing nightgowns and generally flashing their legs...
When placed alongside The Crowded Day it becomes fairly apparent that Song of Paris is the slighter of the two, though that’s not to say in any way less enjoyable. In fact, measuring in terms of pure entertainment I’d say that Song of Paris, to my mind, comes out the winner. What it shares with The Crowded Day is Guillermin’s excellent handling of character. Though a lightweight comic romp it really is superbly performed. Dennis Price in the lead role is note perfect, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine anyone doing any better with the part. It also helps that he was, at this point in his career, far closer to Kind Hearts and Coronets than he was the various horror movies he began to make a decade or so later (including a number of starring roles for Jess Franco) and as such still able to deliver a poised comic turn without any hint of self-deprecation or residual embarrassment. The presence of Mischa Auer is also important, and he too was at something of a career midpoint. Song of Paris came just as he was making a switch to more international productions and as such he had, up until this time, worked almost exclusively in Hollywood. Thus the experience of holding his own, for example, in the Deanna Durbin vehicle One Hundred Men and a Girl or amongst the various eccentrics in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You comes in extremely handy. Whilst Song of Paris may be a quota quickie comedy without any pretensions to greatness he still provides a perfectly tuned and wonderfully physical turn that immediately grabs your attention. You could argue that the film doesn’t really deserve a Price or an Auer (or, for that matter, a Hermione Baddeley or Anne Vernon), yet such gifted comic performers easily transcend its humble origins. The only aspect which lets it down to any degree is the slightly over-egged finale which descends into fairly basic knockabout slapstick. Otherwise this is a sharply paced, slick entertainment that goes about its business with minimal fuss. It’s also really rather sweet and full of charm.
Ultimately, what both The Crowded Day and Song of Paris show is that Guillermin was an extremely talented and capable director when unburdened from the immense pressures of huge budgets and working for major studios and producers. You need only look at his ill-fated remake of King Kong from 1976 to see that such qualities tend to get engulfed by these bigger concerns. As a result they also whet the appetite for the release of more of these earlier works. His Group 3 film of 1953, Miss Robin Hood, is available on disc from Slam Dunk Media (and is yet another example of unfussy fifties British comedy, as most of the Group 3 films were) and Renown have just put out Operation Diplomat from the same year, but sadly many of the others are not. However, he did work for Adelphi on other occasions prior to Song of Paris and The Crowded Day so at the very least we have those to look forward. Moreover, as the latter demonstrates that Adelphi were perfectly capable of working outside of the comedy genre and the fact that some of these other Guillermin films were straightforward thrillers, they will also allow the opportunity to see more of their non-comic outings.
The Crowded Day and Song of Paris have been released by the BFI as a Dual Format edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD. Each houses the films on a single dual-layered disc, encoded for all regions, with no additional on-disc extras. The presentations, as we have come to expect from the Adelphi volumes, are terrific, especially on the Blu-ray (presented in 1080p). The Crowded Day was sourced from an original 35mm finegrain whilst Song of Paris was taken from the original 35mm negative (although the audio in this case had to rely on a 35mm print). Instances of damage do remain, more noticeably on Song of Paris, though neither to any ill-effects. Restoration work was also done to both, such as removing dirt and improving stability issues. Importantly, the key qualities are what shine through. The black and white images really do look wonderful (more so for The Crowded Sky given Gordon Dines’ photography), with excellent levels of detail, clarity and contrast, whilst the soundtrack is similarly crisp and presents no problems. I’m sure the BFI don’t require another review on the Digital Fix stating the quality of their Blu-ray presentations of black and white films (which is where, to my mind, the format really comes alive), so needless to stay the standard is as high as ever. As should be expected the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and mono are in place. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also available on both films.
As for extras, here we find a packed 32-page booklet containing a wealth of interesting and varied material. As well as the usual full credits, copious illustrations and notes on the transfers there is also space for Vic Pratt’s two essays on the respective titles, Mary Cadogan’s context-setting ‘The Crowded Day and the 1950s’, recollections from John Guillermin, Vera Day and Prunella Scales (the latter particularly charming even though she barely remembers making the film), a brief bio for the director by Dylan Cave and Kate Lees’ piece on Adelphi which has also featured in the two previous volumes’ booklets.