The Definitive Ealing Studios Collection: Part 1 Review
I'm quite sure that if you polled the various contributors to this site as to what noted films they've somehow missed in their lives, you might be surprised as to what gets mentioned. Indeed, one shouldn't limit this to DVD Times contributors alone. One suspects that if such a thing as an online show of hands was possible, there might be a surprising number of virtual hands aloft at the mention of Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Rio Bravo. In respect of that question, it was only very recently that although Rio Bravo and Citizen Kane have been constants in my life, as have the likes of Blade Runner, The Deer Hunter and the '33 version of King Kong, it was only recently that I sat down to view Casablanca. Actually, it was only with the release of Warner's stunning two-disc set that I caught up with it, thirty-four years of showings on television somehow passing me by.
It has been that way with the films of Ealing Studios, not, to be honest, due to the difficulty in watching them - BBC2 would seem to have fairly regular Ealing seasons - but for an intimidating wall that has been built up before them, largely internally but which is no less daunting. The reputation around them is so great that the more years that passed, the more difficult it became to break through that wall and just sit down and watch the damn things. Not, you understand, because of some need to buck the trend but more of a fear of being disappointed by these classics of British comedy. Classics that have, over the passage of time and with a reputation that has continued to bloom, become a byword to describe an era of comedy that has long since passed. And so, without regard to the quality of the British comedy - no matter if it be Gregory's Girl, Four Weddings or Bridget Jones - the comparison continues to get made and each piece of latter fare is described as being found wanting. Little wonder that it took the release of this sixteen-disc set from Optimum Releasing to drag this viewer to Ealing, with six films out of the set being supplied for review.
What is surprising, when one looks at the films in this set, is the short period of time in which they were produced. Dead Of Night, the influential horror/comedy that is included here, was released in 1945 but Ealing struck a particularly rich comedic seam in the last year of that decade with the release of Whisky Galore!, Passport To Pimlico and Kind Hearts And Coronets in 1949. Anywhere else, this would almost qualify as a manifesto but with little regard to pacing, Ealing continued with The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man In The White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Indeed, one might describe Ealing as impatient but they appear to revel in the apparent ease with which they went about their business, their rush headlong into this run of comedies doing little to adversely affect their wit and their charm.
Dead Of Night
The complete list of films in this set is as follows...
...but of that, this review will only afford space to six films, which count as the finest produced by Ealing during their short summer of success. In chronological order, these films are Dead Of Night, Passport To Pimlico, Kind Hearts And Coronets, The Man In The White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, almost all of which skillfully veer between satire, social comment and outright comedy. All, that is, except for the oldest film here, the horror compendium Dead Of Night. Opening with the journey of a car towards a country house, architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), Dead Of Night begins simply enough, with each guest at the party deigning to tell a ghost story to the others. Already, though, each one feels touched by the hand of fate as Craig tells them that he knows each one of them, though not how he knows them, and, adding to the air of mystery, he also knows how the evening will end. Around an open fire and with a bottle of wine decanting on the table, each guest tells a story, beginning with the tale of a ghostly undertaker with 'room for one more' in his hearse and carrying on with a ghost story set during a Christmas party and the glimpses of gothic horror seen through a haunted mirror. After a little light relief with the story about two golfers (Naunton Wayne and Basil Redford), one of whom has cheated the other to their death, Dead Of Night gathers itself for the superbly chilling tale of a ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) driven mad by his dummy Hugo, which appears to have come to life, either by supernatural means or simply in the mind of the troubled Frere. When Hugo threatens to leave Frere, the ventriloquist turns to murder, all the while the voice of Hugo haunting him.
A wonderful film, Dead Of Night has not lost any of its charms nor its chills over the years. Skilfully blending comedy and horror, Dead Of Night is rightfully considered one of the key supernatural thrillers and rises above the many portmanteau horrors that followed it. No matter the great (Asylum) or the bad (The Monster Club), Dead Of Night somehow rises above them all, with the tale of the two golfers being beautifully comic and the story of the haunted mirror dripping with gothic menace. However, reaching a peak with its final installment, that of Maxwell Frere being driven to insanity by the ambition of his dummy Hugo. Such a premise would be visited by William Goldman in his Magic, which would star Anthony Hopkins, but it feels remarkably fresh here, with Michael Redgrave drawing out the madness in the disturbing relationship between Maxwell Frere and Hugo with one, though not the one you might expect, being wholly dependent on the other. As good as he has ever been, Michael Redgrave's eyes portray the sense of calm that falls in the moments after sudden violence with, like Psycho long after it, no apparent end to the horror even as the curtain falls.
Passport To Pimlico
However, it is on to more familiar territory with Passport To Pimlico, in which the London borough declares independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, which was then scrimping to make it through the post-war years. On the contrary, Pimlico, thanks to the blowing up of a Second World War bomb, discovers amongst a cellar full of jewellery, gold and artwork that it was once ceded to the last Duke of Burgundy and does, therefore, belong to another country. Waving farewell to the court, crown and land of Britain, Pimlico agrees diplomatic terms with the country of which it was once a part and announces that it is now the independent state of Burgundy. Britain, however, does not take this matter of independence without fighting for its whole and draws a border with Burgundy, some might say persecuting shoppers who venture into London to take advantage of the absence of rationing. Deciding not to turn its cheek to Britain, Burgundy holds up a tube train. As spring turns to summer, Burgundy and Britain remain at loggerheads but as one great nation stares down at a minnow of the international stage, the people of Burgundy hold their own. As one dear old woman says, "We've always been English and we'll always be English and it's precisely because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!"
Without water, electricity nor any supply of food, the little state of Burgundy looks to be in a state of crisis but as food is thrown over the walls and water and even milk is pumped in, Burgundy looks like it might weather the diplomatic storm. But in spite of this glimmer of hope, Ealing's tendency towards misfortune and the inevitability of authority has the fortunes of Burgundy and of Pimlico washed out by a rainstorm. With Passport To Pimlico, this was literally the so, with the independent nation celebrating its reunification with the rest of Britain under the chimes of Big Ben before its balmy summer ends with a clap of thunder and the opening of the heavens. Britain is, after all, a country of summer rain, of scurrying indoors and of dreams of small government dashed by the iron hand of a very big one. However, perhaps the fault with Passport To Pimlico is that in spite of the rich comedy and the absurdness of the situation is how inconsequential it feels. The Ealing-esque The Mouse That Roared would better visit the notion of a very small nation taking on the might of a very big one but both films are infused with a sense of sweetness that Ealing would have done better to avoid, even to have given it a colder heart.
Kind Hearts And Coronets
Despite it being produced in the same year, Kind Hearts And Coronets is a world away from Passport To Pimlico, its taking place in the upper echelons of society being far removed from the string vests and back alleys of Burgundy and its drip feed of deaths being quite unlike the post-war camaraderie of Pimlico. On the contrary, Kind Hearts And Coronets is a black-hearted tale of murder, revenge and of limitless ambition. It opens in jail, more specifically on a walk to the cell in which Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), the Duke of Chalfont, awaits his hanging on the charge of murder. Greeted by the officials in the prison, Mazzini bids them farewell until the morning and returns to his cell to write his memoirs. Putting quill to paper, he begins his story with his being born to an Italian opera singer and a member of the noble d'Ascoyne family. However, his mother, for bringing shame on the family name, is cast out. All her subsequent claims on d'Ascoyne family wealth is refused and in spite of the love and the best efforts of her only child, she dies in poverty. in Mazzini's heart is born a desire for vengeance and in his sights are the eight remaining members of the d'Ascoyne family, Ascoyne d'Ascoyne, Admiral d'Ascoyne, Duke of Chalfont, Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne, Lord d'Ascoyne, Gen. d'Ascoyne, Henry d'Ascoyne and Canon d'Ascoyne (Alec Guinness, times eight).
Kind Hearts And Coronets mourns any good news in the d'Ascoyne and wickedly celebrates the passing of any of its members. A typical moment of black humour comes as Mazzini gazes mournfully upon the d'Ascoyne family tree and passes by a newspaper, saying, "Sometimes the death column brought good news...sometimes the births column brought bad. The advent of twin sons to the Duke was a terrible blow. Fortunately, an epidemic of diphtheria restored the status quo almost immediately and even brought me a bonus in the shape of the Duchess." He gladly crosses off not only the line that would have linked the twins to their father and mother but also places a thick black X over the name of the Duchess. Driving him on in his desire to kill is the climbing of the social ladder in a bid to win the heart of the beautiful but awfully shallow Sibella (Joan Greenwood). Rejecting the advances of the lowly and very poor Mazzini, Sibella marries the upwardly mobile and very wealthy Lionel. But as Mazzini nears his prize, Sibella comes to regret her marriage, even to saying of Lionel that, "He's so dull!" and agreeing with Mazzini's, "I must admit, he exhibits the most extraordinary capacity for middle age that I've ever encountered in a young man of twenty-four."
Rightly famous for Alec Guinness' portrayal of eight members of the d'Ascoyne, Kind Hearts And Coronets is a deliciously black comedy that hangs a tale of murder, deceit and ambition over the enjoyably absurd playing of the entire d'Ascoyne family by one man. There are few moments of optical trickery, bar six members of the d'Ascoyne family appearing together at a family funeral, but instead Kind Hearts And Coronets revels in slapstick, black humour and the teasing out of the characters in the piece, much better realised than in a typical comedy. Principally, what Alec Guinness understands is that the death of Admiral d'Ascoyne saluting as his ship goes down wouldn't be as funny as it is without an understanding of how pompous the d'Ascoyne family is. If there's a note of sadness in the death of Ascoyne d'Ascoyne by a stroke, it is only so on realising that he's actually been rather decent to Louis Mazzini. And in spite of his explosive exiting of the film, Henry d'Ascoyne is rather a decent soul whose sudden disappearance is best explained by a sneaky drink in his garden shed and the inappropriate labelling of dangerous chemicals.
But on this sits a quite brilliant performance by Dennis Price as the droll Louis Mazzini, drawn between his desire for the shallow Sibella and his love of the more delicate Edith d'Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson). Much as the films treads along this line, it's Dennis Price that carries it, his deadpan acting and his quietly humorous voiceover being the making of this wonderful comedy. Each sentence in the writing of the film carries a poison that is barely noticeable in the gentle manner in which it is spoken. Indeed, so it is with the entire film, which is, were one only to offer it a cursory glance, a rather genteel picture but which is also wickedly funny. So funny, in fact, that in returning to the sentiments in the opening of this piece of writing, 'tis a wonder that I waited as long as I did. I can only recommend that if you felt the same, now or sometime soon is a perfect opportunity to catch up with the utter marvel of Kind Hearts And Coronets.
For now, this review takes a break but will return later today for a review of The Man In The White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers.
When reviewing Optimum's two-disc release of Whisky Galore!, I wrote, "[it] is a glorious-looking film on this DVD, with an almost perfect transfer from Optimum. Noise is almost non-existent and the contrast in the picture is simply beautiful, with a very complementary sharpness to the image. It's a DVD like this that make you wonder if the move to colour was an altogether wise idea so well does the story, production and look of the film work in combination with one another." That's not strictly the case with these six discs although the very last statement is confirmed given how the five black-and-white films supplied look a good deal better than the colour The Ladykillers.
However, they don't look at all bad. Kind Hearts And Coronets probably looks the best and, given that I would imagine that Optimum have used the transfer of Whisky Galore from their earlier release, it will look equally good. However, Passport To Pimlico is disappointingly soft, perhaps in an attempt to disguise the condition of the print but which leaves it looking much less impressive than any of the other films in the set. Then again, none of the films have been restored particularly thoroughly with all of them, even Kind Hearts And Coronets, showing some obvious print damage. It's also worth saying, not that I mind though, that there's a fair amount of noise in the prints used, although it does look more as though it was present in the original prints than was generated through the transfer.
None of them have been gifted with the kind of transfer that Warner Brothers, for example, carry out with ease but they could have looked much, much worse. Except, that is, for The Ladykillers, which comes along looking like 'before' presentation in one of Warner's features on the restoration work that they carry out on the movies in their archives. With the colours not quite matching, objects have a soft halo about them and though the colours are perhaps too rich to look anything like real life, they do tend to look quite unbelievable. The effect is akin, though obviously not quite as extreme, to watching a 3D film without the glasses, with it looking much like the old release of The Wizard Of Oz than the restored two- or three-disc version. Though still watchable, it could have been so much better.
Given the age of each film, it won't be a surprise to learn that each film comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio track, all of which aren't bad but do feature the occasional pop, click and bit of hissing. However, as one who doesn't object to the odd fault such as those, I thought them fine. In particular, there's a warmth about them, particularly Dead Of Night and Kind Hearts And Coronets, that's quite pleasing. The major oversight, given that these are Optimum releases, is that they do not come with subtitles.
The six discs that I have for review come with rather a meagre selection of extras. Four of the films come with nothing whilst Kind Hearts And Coronets only offers a Trailer (2m51s). The Ladykillers has, in comparison, a treasure trove of special features in its offering a Photo Gallery and a Trailer (2m30s).