They Were Sisters / Don't Ever Leave Me Review
In recent weeks Odeon’s ‘Best of British’ range - a monthly source of mostly forgotten gems - has, perhaps inadvertently, allowed a tiny spotlight onto an unsung director. The man in question is Arthur Crabtree, an intriguing figure and a somewhat elusive one. Here is a filmmaker who has worked with many British comedy greats, was a contributor to the distinctive look of Gainsborough’s period melodramas and subsequent director of some their most fondly remembered efforts. He also worked on two genuine cult classics, one of which earned him a place amongst the hallowed ranks of those filmmakers allowed entry into the Criterion Collection. Yet whilst we remember a number of titles on which his name appears - Will Hay’s Good Morning Boys and Oh, Mr. Porter!, Gainsborough’s The Man in Grey, Fanny by Gaslight and Madonna of the Seven Moons, his later horror films Fiend Without a Face and The Horrors of the Black Museum - Crabtree himself remains somewhat unknown.
This lack of recognition is likely to be the result of the trajectory of Crabtree’s career, one which - in a nutshell - is something of a rise and fall. He began as a director of photography, initially at British International Pictures before moving onto Gainsborough in the mid-thirties. Whilst he would work on the occasional dramatic title - such as Carol Reed’s Bank Holiday and flag-waver For Freedom - he was mostly assigned to comedies and as such shot many a film for the likes of Will Hay, the Crazy Gang, George Formby, Arthur Askey and Tom Walls, in the process gaining a reputation for his efficiency. During the war years Crabtree produced two of his finest works as cinematographer: Waterloo Road for Sidney Gilliat and The Man in Grey, the first of the Gainsborough melodramas and the one that laid down the foundations for those which were to come. Indeed, Crabtree’s services were maintained for Fanny by Gaslight, whilst he earned himself the step up to director for Madonna of the Seven Moons (his debut) and Caravan. During this period he was also directing other Gainsborough pictures, including They Were Sisters and a segment for W. Somerset Maugham anthology Quartet, until the late forties. Unfortunately it is here where the fall begins. From Don’t Ever Leave Me onwards Crabtree found himself in the world of the independent production and, more often than not, the quota quickie. There was Fiend Without a Face and The Horrors of the Black Museum to come, but this wasn’t quite the one-two punch you might expect; amongst them was plenty of middling work in programmers and episodic television. Some, admittedly, are quite interesting, such as his Stryker of the Yard featurettes (a series shared with a young up-and-coming John Krish); most, however, are deservedly forgotten, mere jobs to bulk out the filmography.
The two films Odeon have recently released onto disc capture, respectively, Crabtree at the start of his directorial career and as he begins to move into independent productions. They Were Sisters, from 1945, was his second feature at the helm, whilst 1949’s Don’t Ever Leave Me was his first post-Gainsborough work. They Were Sisters is essentially a Gainsborough period melodrama in modern dress. The film opens in 1919 and proceeds to spend much of its duration in the mid- to late-thirties. Don’t Ever Leave Me, on the other hand, sees Crabtree returning to the comic origins of much of his early career. This is a simple enough yarn, but packed with incident and a host of familiar faces. Interest is further prompted by early appearances by Petula Clark and Anthony Newley, both of whom arguably steal the show from their more seasoned co-stars. Of the two I would argue that Don’t Ever Leave Me is the superior effort and certainly the more entertaining. Yet both are interesting films containing their own obvious highpoints as well as flaws.
They Were Sisters works primarily thanks to James Mason. Our initial meeting with his character reveals something of a rogue: cocksure, arrogant, as likely to charm a lady as he is to repel her. Indeed, it is exactly this which sets up the plot. Three sisters - played by Phyllis Calvert, Anne Crawford and Dulcie Gray - react to Mason in different ways and at opposite ends of this spectrum. Gray marries him only to discover, once we have fast-forwarded almost twenty years, that he’s a complete and utter bastard. He subjects her and the children to constant disdain and threats of violence and ultimately leads her to alcoholism. There’s an interesting parallel with Mason’s part in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life just over a decade later, except here his cruelties are not the result of an experimental drug. Mason is the villain of the piece, They Were Sisters is pure melodrama and that’s that. Anyone expecting any kind of nuance or subtlety will go away sorely disappointed. Rather we are expected to indulge fully in the soap operatics and the delicious manner in which Mason delivers lines such as “Cruel? Me?”
All of which works perfectly well whenever Mason is onscreen. It’s when he isn’t around that They Were Sisters has a tendency to drag. Arguably this is a film which is either too long or too short. It could be happily trimmed down to its melodramatic essentials and still work just as well, indeed better, or alternately extended to miniseries length in order to fully do justice to the multitude of characters - sisters, husbands, sons, daughters, prospective lovers - and all of the complicated relationships that happen between them. The lack of nuance doesn’t really cause any issues when it comes to Mason and his scenery chewing; after all his early career was based upon such roles - see also The Man in Grey, Fanny by Gaslight, The Seventh Veil, et al. But it most certainly does when those characters around him are expected to occupy centre stage. The high standard production values expected from Gainsborough remain - Calvert’s outfit in the courtroom finale is particularly eye catching - as do the fine performances from almost all involved. (I’ll exclude Ann Stephens as she gives one of the most annoying child performances in a British film until Lesley Dudley decided to upstage her in John and Julie ten years later.) Yet whilst this gloss is firmly place it sadly does little for enlivening the drama.
The temptation is to lay at least some of the blame on Crabtree and his relative inexperience as a director. The ability to hold a picture together isn’t quite there yet and neither does he have the exoticism of his debut - or his next assignment, 1947’s Caravan - with which to paper over the cracks. (Not that audiences of the time seemed to notice too much with They Were Sisters, much like Madonna of the Seven Moons before it, proving to be quite the hit.) Yet those years at Gainsborough do appear to have made their mark as Crabtree has a much clearer handle on things by the time of Don’t Ever Leave Me and its potentially messy blend of ingredients. Here we find what is primarily a comedy, but also one that finds the time to indulge in a bit of crime drama, a bit of romance and the tiniest hint of the musical. On top of this we also get a whole host of vaguely familiar comic faces - all of which may seem a bit too much for what is, essentially, an 80-minute B picture. But it’s also a mixture that goes back to Crabtree’s early credits, to those films with the Crazy Gang, Askey and the rest, and their inherent silliness. Interestingly, Don’t Ever Leave Me would be its director’s only comedy, yet those titles from the thirties seem to have taught him more than how to light a scene efficiently. Indeed, he has a definite grasp for the material, to an extent where you wonder why he wasn’t employed within the genre even once more.
Essentially Don’t Ever Leave Me is about the kidnapping of young Petula Clark. Her kidnapper is elderly Edward Rigby, a petty criminal recently released from Wandsworth after a two-week stint for ‘street betting’. His motivation is money and a plan to retire on the ransom funds, Clark’s father being Hugh Sinclair’s actor, currently onstage in a performance of Othello. Complications ensue - as they must - courtesy of Clark actually wanting to be kidnapped so that her father will begin to notice her and Rigby’s son, played by Jimmy Hanley, becoming an unwitting assailant. Further complications ensue - as they also must - courtesy of Hanley’s girlfriend suspecting Clark of being another woman (despite being only sixteen) and Anthony Newley popping up (and seemingly working from his own script) to muddy the waters with fantastical tales to the police and a journalist. Whilst all of this is going on Clark also gets the chance to perform a musical number or two.
Upon its release To-Day’s Cinema declared Don’t Ever Leave Me as being suitable only for “less sophisticated audiences”. It’s an unfair appraisal especially given the something-for-everyone approach. On the one hand we have the likes of Maurice Denham putting in a cameo appearance and knowing exactly what to do in order to make an impression during his allotted time. On the other we have Newley seemingly forcing the film away from 1949 and into the future with his own particular brand of humour that serves as a dry run for The Strange World of Gurney Slade and Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?. (The former is getting a much anticipated DVD release in just over a week’s time and those eagerly awaiting that particular disc would do well to give Don’t Ever Leave Me a go too - as noted earlier in this review Newley really does steal the show.) Furthermore the sheer amount of business - a gag here, a song there, yet another crazy plot development - means that interest never flags. Certainly, this is a much tighter production than They Were Sisters and, whilst James Mason relishing his villainy may be a tough act to follow, the more consistently entertaining.
This comparative quality between the two films is matched by the discs themselves and their presentation quality. Both are treated to the standard Odeon ‘Best of British’ treatment - dual layered disc, region free, original aspect ratio and soundtrack format, four-page booklet - yet Don’t Ever Leave Me is clearly in the much better condition. There are moderate signs of damage, but for the most part the print used is really quite impressive. Contrast levels are fine as is the amount of detail and this crispness and clarity is able matched by the mono soundtrack. They Were Sisters, on the other hand, is softer, grubbier and suffers from a far greater degree of wear and tear. It’s by no means a complete failure - the clarity is such that any onscreen writing in the form of letters and the like remains both perfectly discernible legible - and the film is ultimately quite watchable, albeit once a certain amount of disappointment has abated. The soundtrack suffers from similar issues - signs of damage, an acceptable but far from ideal clarity - though, again, by no means enough to ruin the experience of watching the film. The booklet notes for each title amount to potted bios for some of the main performers.
They Were Sisters and Don’t Ever Leave Me are available individually from Odeon despite having been reviewed as a pair. The ratings on the left hand side represent an average between the two discs and should be adjusted downwards slightly for They Were Sisters and upwards slightly for Don’t Ever Leave Me.