Love on the Dole Review
Hankey Park, Salford, 1930. It's the Great Depression and despite signs of economic growth, times are hard with many out of work. Sally Hardcastle (Deborah Kerr) and her brother Harry (Geoffrey Hibbert) live with their parents (George Carney and Mary Merrall). Harry has been laid off at the Marlowes factory after seven years as an apprentice. He falls in love with Helen (Joyce Howard) but things come to a head when she falls pregnant. Meanwhile, Sally is seeing union organiser Larry (Clifford Evans) but attracts the attention of the local bookie Sam Grundy (Frank Cellier).
Walter Greenwood's novel Love on the Dole was published in 1933. It was adapted for the stage by Ronald Gow the following year, with Wendy Hiller playing Sally Hardcastle in the premiere production in Manchester. "Written in blood" was one verdict: the contemporary dialect was something not often heard on the stage. The play was a considerable success, touring the country and travelling overseas to New York and Paris. However, what could be shown in the theatre – even at a time when it was subject to the Lord Chamberlain's censorship - could not necessarily be shown on a cinema screen, as the British Board of Film Censors of the 1930s prided itself on not allowing the issues of the day to see the light of a projector lamp. A first attempt at making a film of the story in 1936 was blocked by the BBFC. Greenwood, who had entered the film industry by writing the story for the 1935 George Formby vehicle No Limit, had written a script but the Board objected to "too much of the tragic and sordid side of poverty" as well as language and the scenes of rioting, not to mention plot elements such as pre-marital pregnancy.
However, in 1940, the Board's attitude changed. Britain was now at war, and Love on the Dole was a film that the powers that be wanted made, as a representation of the country that they were trying to preserve. So what was considered dangerous only a few years earlier was now something to promote for the war effort and raise morale. Indeed the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife saw the film in a private viewing a month before release and were reportedly impressed by it. The script credit is complex, indeed circular: screen adaptation by Greenwood "in association with" Barbara K. Emary and Rollo Gamble, based on Gow's play from Greenwood's novel. Given that its authenticity to its time and place were its calling card, it's striking that several of the talents involved were not Lancastrians: director John Baxter was from Kent and Clifford Evans was Welsh, though his character is considered something of an outsider to this community. Deborah Kerr, aged nineteen and cast as Sally over more famous actresses (Jessie Matthews being one) precisely because she wasn't then a star, was a Scot.
John Baxter made his directorial debut at age thirty-seven with the 1933 feature Doss House, the title of which would indicate his interest in social conditions. Over a twenty-three-year career, Love on the Dole remains his best-known film: much of what followed is quite minor, including three Old Mother Riley films. But Love on the Dole certainly still merits attention. Although it is fiction – and studio-bound with some rather obvious model shots and back projection – it does draw on documentary techniques, and uses montages and inserted newspaper headlines to drive the story forward. While by now a period piece, given the lapse of time before the film could be made, Baxter and the screenwriters have a clear affection if not for the story's location, blighted by unemployment and is a place Sally is driven to escape, but for the people in it. One of the features of the play (maybe also the novel, which I haven't read) is retained in the film: a group of older women, who act as a chorus commenting on the events of the film, adding humour to what is at times a grim tale. Given that we live again in a time of austerity, its relevance remains.
The BFI's release of Love on the Dole is dual-format, and the Blu-ray was provided for review.
The film was shot in black and white 35mm and Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and that is the ratio of this Blu-ray transfer, from a 2K remaster from a nitrate duplicating negative. It certainly looks fine: blacks and whites solid, and plenty of shades of grey in between. The contrast, which is vital to black and white, looks spot on. There are some minor scratches and marks still visible but nothing at all distracting.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. It's clear and well-balanced between dialogue, sound effects and Richard Addinsell's score. There are English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, which may be useful for non-native speakers due to the strong Lancashire accents of some of the cast.
The on-disc extras are three short films, all in their way propaganda pieces. Island People (10:20), from 1940, directed by an uncredited Paul Rotha and Philip Leacock. It starts with a full map of the British Isles, before zooming in to an overview of the country's landscape and industry (mostly made up of stock footage) before showing us the lives of a representative few Britons in different professions. Ultimately, the film says, we may be different, but we are united, a relevant message in wartime.
A Call for Arms! (7:46), also made in 1940, is a dramatic short depicting two chorus girls (Jean Gillie and Rene Ray) changing their stage costumes – in a show billed as "Non-Stop Nudes" though of course we'll have none of that on screen – for different uniforms as they go to work in a munitions factory for the war effort. It was made by the Ministry of Information and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, with a future director ("Sgt" Terence Young) co-credited with the story. It's also unusual in having an all-female cast – not just the five credited actresses, but the extras as well.
Our Film (14:00) is another oddity, a collectively-made film from 1942, with all participants giving their services for free, for the war effort. It's credited to "The Workers and Technicians of Denham Film Studios" but no individual names are given: the director was however Harold French. It begins with a Russian peasant family gunned down by a Nazi soldier, and then we cut to England and a factory seeking to improve its output for the sake of the war. Enter a Russian delegate (played by Karel Stepanek, actually Czech) who shows them the way. Given that Russia was Britain's ally at the time this is less surprising than it might have been a decade or so later.
The first two short films are presented from HD masters and Our Film from upscaled SD. All three are transferred in the correct Academy Ratio with LPCM 2.0 mono sound.
The BFI's booklet runs to sixteen pages. It begins with an essay by Chris Hopkins, "'There Are No Stars in This Film. Nothing is Glossed Over': Love on the Dole", which fills in the background of the novel, the play and the film's struggle with the BBFC to be made at all, ending with its critical reception. (It certainly seemed to make an impression on audiences, with several references to it in Mass Observation diaries of the time.) Geoff Brown provides a two-page biography and appreciation of John Baxter. Also in the booklet are credits for the film, notes on and credits for the three short films by Patrick Russell and Jo Botting, transfer notes and stills.