Owd Bob Review
The have been a number of adaptations of Alfred Ollivant’s classic children’s story Bob, Son of Battle over the years - a British silent from 1924, a Hollywood version entitled Thunder in the Valley, a more recent production with James Cromwell in the lead role - but this 1938 film from Gainsborough Studios is arguably amongst the best. It’s a brisk affair, telling the familiar tale of sheepdog trials and a killer animal on the loose in less than an hour and twenty minutes, yet despite its seemingly inauspicious nature is packed full with tiny qualities. It was directed by Robert Stevenson long before he entered the books at Disney and maintains the professional sheen offered in his earlier production of King Solomon’s Mines (the Paul Robeson version). The director of photography was Jack Cox, a mainstay of Alfred Hitchcock’s during his early British years shooting the likes of The Ring and Blackmail - in other words a very safe pair of hands - here seamlessly blending the evocative location work with the studio interiors. Adapting the Ollivant novel we have J.B. Williams, later to script The Stars Look Down for Carol Reed as well as a terrific ‘B’ movie take on The Tell-Tale Heart in 1953. Plus there are some fine production designs from the prolific Alex Vetchinsky.
It’s quite the combination, ensuring that Owd Bob, though arguably little known, easily holds it own as piece of solid filmmaking. More importantly, the quality is matched in front of the camera courtesy of a rich ensemble encapsulating various strands of British filmmaking at the time. The best known is of course Margaret Lockwood, making an appearance here just prior to her breakthrough performance in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and her subsequent defining roles in Gainsborough’s romantic melodramas of the forties (The Man in Grey, The Wicked Lady, Love Story). Admittedly Owd Bob requires her to do little more than smile her way through a courtship with John Loder, but it has to be said that it’s a very engaging smile. Loder, meanwhile, demonstrates why he caught the eye of Hollywood soon after his appearance here (which would lead to roles in How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman Jim and Now, Voyager), whilst maintaining the qualities he’d earlier demonstrated for the likes of Hitchcock (in Sabotage) and Alexander Korda (Lilies of the Field, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Wedding Rehearsal).
This element of star quality - handily put to one side so that it may occupy the romantic subplot - is nicely balanced with the range of comedic performances on show. Famed music hall performer, and regular in many a 1930s quota quickie, Will Fyffe steals Owd Bob with a slightly over-egged, though nonetheless terrific, turn as Adam McAdam, the story’s ostensible lead. Backing him up are also an array of familiar British supporting players from Wally Patch to Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott. Of course, the latter two were most prominent as regular foils to Will Hay and they bring to same air to proceedings here: cartoon-ish, slightly bumbling, ultimately good natured. Moreover their presence emphasises the fact that Owd Bob isn’t really all that concerned with the dramas of Ollivant’s original - although that’s not to say that it doesn’t pull off the poignant ending - but rather presents itself as a portrait of a rather eccentric community.
Indeed, for all the pleasures derived from the quality both in front and behind the camera, Owd Bob works best when viewed as a slightly broad British comedy - perhaps even a prototypical Ealing comedy - hidden within a more serious framework. Moffatt’s bell ringing routine, for example, is far more engaging than the sheepdog trials which occupy the film’s central passages, although these also deserve a (slightly grudging) admiration given how Stevenson has decided to shoot them without musical accompaniment and to let them run for quite some time - in other words as proper set pieces. I haven’t seen the most recent Owd Bob (made in 1998), though I would imagine that particular take on the material at least tried to infuse them with a little more drama. Nevertheless, such choices make the 1938 version really rather quaint and, to use a cliché, of the kind that they don’t really make any more. Of course, they also made much better back then, but for its brief 75-minute duration Owd Bob does prove to be perfectly pleasant entertainment.
As is typical with Odeon Entertainment’s ‘Best of British’ range, Owd Bob arrived on disc (it’s first appearance on the format) encoded for Region 0 and with the usual back-up of crossover trailers for other Odeon releases and brief booklet notes (which were not available for review purposes). The presentation is mostly acceptable with the image quality being superior to that of the soundtrack. As should be expected we get the film in its original Academy ratio and taken from a print in reasonable condition. Clarity isn’t exceptional, though nonetheless the disc remains watchable throughout. Contrast levels are fine whilst instances of dirt and damage are minimal. The soundtrack, preserving the original mono format, is at best merely okay. Certain sequences come off worse than others and occasional snatches of dialogue are a little on the inaudible side. With that said it is hard to estimate whether any of these flaws are inherent in the original materials or indeed the best materials available. As is typical for Odeon, there are no subtitles available, for the hard of hearing or otherwise.