Tawny Pipit (1944)

Tawny Pipit

This is meat and drink to me. Fighter pilot Jimmy Bancroft (Bernard Miles) is recuperating from injuries sustained during WW2 in a Cotswolds village. He and his nurse Hazel Broome (Rosamund John) come across two rare birds they find nesting in a wheat field and have to stop two evacuated boys from stealing the eggs. Together with Colonel Barton-Barrington (Bernard Miles) and others in the local community they band together to save the area from roads development that would encroach on the nesting place, stopping army tanks from crossing the field and getting a boost from a visiting Soviet sniper Olga Bokalova (Lucie Mannheim) …  Most people have to start from the bottom and work up. We’ll start from the top and work down! Written and directed by star Miles and Charles Saunders, they created a rare propaganda picture of the bucolic home front during World War Two. Not only that, it dares to paint a portrait of deep eccentricity, silly officialdom and a bizarre scene of a female Russian soldier who inspires a moment of flag-waving solidarity between Britain and the Soviet Union. And in the middle of this romance about birds is an affecting narrative about a pilot getting better from his war wounds by saving those feathered creatures while developing a relationship with his nurse. The link between the thriving pipits and his successful mission is encapsulated in the final images of his aeroplane Anthus campestris swooping over the village’s church tower. Barmy and lovely, with beautiful cinematography by Eric Cross and an uplifting score by Noel Mewton-Wood. These eggs are yours and mine and his and his and his … they belong to England!

The Gentle Sex (1943)

The Gentle Sex

We’ve got a world where people have to die because we don’t know how to live. Seven women from different backgrounds meet at an Auxiliary Territorial Service training camp. “Gentle” British girls, including sensible Scot Maggie Fraser (Rosamund John), Anne (Joyce Howard), who is from a service family and the youngest, Betty (Joan Greenwood), they are joined by Czech refugee Erna Debruski (Lilli Palmer) and are now doing their bit to help out in World War 2 from drilling and driving lorries to manning ack-ack batteries … You’ve a great resemblance of a girl I’ve a mind to marry. Writer and co-director Leslie Howard [with an uncredited Maurice Elvey who worked on it following the death of his colleague’s mistress] voices an ‘ironic’ narration (written by Doris Langley Moore) which may have its own ironically patronising overtones but this portrait of female solidarity, hard work and loss while those brave menfolk are overseas is not just fine propaganda but a bewitching home front experience. Six characters in search of … what? Howard deadpans. With additional dialogue by Aimee Stuart and uncredited rewrites by Roland Pertwee and Elizabeth Baron from an original story and screenplay by Moie Charles, it gifts John with one of her best roles and she excels, especially in the comedic relationship with John Laurie. This is a woman’s war. The structure provides the anticipated social overview but interestingly these are women who do not require men’s approval (unlike the similarly themed Millions Like Us). Good on detail, relationships and loyalty, it’s a fount of social history, utilising a documentary style and emphasis on the collective to achieve the affect of togetherness:  it works. Now we have hatred to fill the empty spaces in our hearts

Fame is the Spur (1947)

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Did God ordain it, this contrast between sweat and ease, between want and luxury, or is it the product of man’s will, of greed of selfishness?  In the late nineteenth century in the English North Country, young Hamer Radshaw (Michael Redgrave) commits to help the poverty stricken workers in his area.  He takes as his Excalibur a sword passed down to him by his grandfather from the Battle of Peterloo, where it had been used against workers. As an idealistic champion of the oppressed, he rises to power as a Labour MP but is seduced by the trappings of power and finds himself the type of politician he originally despised, his liberal leanings compromised as he becomes more and more conservative to his wife Ann’s (Rosamund John) disgust … Nigel Balchin adapted Howard Spring’s 1940 novel and it’s superbly directed by Roy Boulting (and produced by his brother John), a vivid depiction of a politician who rises from poverty through sponsorship to become one of Britain’s leaders up to and after World War One. It’s widely assumed to be a take on Ramsay Macdonald and Redgrave inhabits him wonderfully, but he is matched all the way by Rosamund John, who goes to prison for her suffragist beliefs.  Her hunger strike triggers her early death, leaving her corrupted husband to bemoan his choices and the deviation from his original spur to action. A bristling, busy story that must have had huge resonance for post-WW2 British audiences:  the violence used by the police against protesters still has the power to shock. There are wonderful stylistic flourishes and transitions that make this a lesson in visual storytelling. Quite the surprise package, leaving an indelible impression. Even among a very impressive cast that includes Carla Lehmann (in her final screen performance), Bernard Miles and Hugh Burden, Redgrave is simply rivetting as the principled man who rises from obscure origins to lead his country and loses everything decent and liberal about himself on the way to the top where it is very lonely indeed. Power corrupts…

Street Corner (1953)

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Aka Both Sides of the Law. Coppers in skirts. Pity they haven’t got something better to do.  Two London policewomen based at Sloan Street in Chelsea go about their daily lives involved in cases of child endangerment and larceny.  Sgt Pauline Ramsey (Rosamund John) and WPC Susan (Anne Crawford) deal with a woman Edna Hurran (Eleanor Summerfield) who’s rescued a boy from drowning. The surrounding publicity means she has to return to the Army from which she went AWOL to marry sickly David Evans (Ronald Howard) and must pay the price – until a reward is given to her and the newspaper story triggers the return of her first husband looking for a share:  they never divorced. A toddler wanders out on the ledge of her tenement building several storeys up. There are tense moments as Pauline saves her and then ruminates the possibility of adoption as her own child and husband were killed in a car crash and she thinks motherhood would be a better alternative to work. Then Susan finds the child’s mother, now remarried.  Shoplifter Bridget Foster (Peggy Cummins) faces a £5 fine and abandons her 15-month old son to her mother-in-law, taking up with Ray, a crim (Terence Morgan) who sees her at a nightclub. He’s involved in a heist on jewels  in a van and pawns them at Mr Muller’s (Charles Victor) but doesn’t like the price he gets and pays a return visit.  WPC Lucy (Barbara Murray) goes to get her hair done and spots Bridget which may lead her to the thieves … Jan Read’s story was adapted by Muriel and Sydney Box as a kind of followup to The Blue Lamp which had been a huge hit in England. Ostensibly a docudrama, this production cast well-known names as a kind of insurance policy – John was in several good films since wartime, while Cummins had made her name in America. There are some moments of humour in the police station – when an older woman reports a man following her, the Sergeant (male) remarks, ‘sounds like an acute case of wishful thinking’;  while a man in the raided nightclub says ‘my wife thinks I’m in Birmingham,’ which impresses precisely nobody.  There are interesting strands to the stories – the perceived fairness of the judiciary;  Muller’s experience of the Gestapo in Berlin which he likens to Morgan showing up pretending to be a policeman looking for a bribe; the issue of parenting – the child abuse of the toddler whose mother is now apparently uninterested in her welfare following her remarriage. Muriel Box’s direction is pretty rudimentary but her storytelling skill is evident and the conclusion, when all the stories are threaded together in a chase and courtroom and there is a satisfying drawing together of the various elements. How Morgan is caught is particularly good.  In the final scene sequence Cummins is outfitted in a beret so that she resembles the gangster’s moll she played in the incredible Gun Crazy but that film is in a different league to a more plodding police procedural, albeit its focus is on the female experience: working, single, marital, maternal, streetwise and otherwise.  Shot at Gate Studios, Elstree with some interesting location work on the streets of London which looks rather lacking in business in the era of rationing and is filled with blocks of modernist council flats. There’s an interesting score by Temple Abady and fun to be had spotting actors who would become better known, principally through TV roles:  Michael Medwin, Michael Hordern and Thora Hird.

Green for Danger (1946)

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‘In view of my failure—correction, comparative failure—I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.’  Full stop. During a German bombing raid on rural southeast England during World War II, a hospital undergoes heavy shelling. Postman Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott) dies on the operating table when a bomb explodes in the operating room. But when Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) dies after revealing that this is not the first patient of anaesthetist Barney Barnes (Trevor Howard) to die under suspicious circumstances, Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is brought in to investigate… Knotty, fast-moving, hilarious and satirical, this is one of the very best British films, a murder mystery (a variant on the country house genre) that thrives on dismantling the very conventions of cinema at that time – if you can tell one of the female characters from the other (Sally Gray, Rosamund John, Campbell… ) you’re a better man than I, which is kinda the point of this! From the team of Launder and Gilliat, with Claude Gurney and Gilliat adapting Christianna Brand’s wartime novel this moves like the clappers and you won’t realise whodunnit until it’s too late – just like the droll Cockrill!  It was the first film to be shot at Pinewood in the aftermath of WW2 and the production design and sense of fear and enclosure works perfectly. The plot is ingenious and even while everyone’s being offed in highly unsentimental fashion you’ll struggle to figure it out despite the structure. Sim is wonderful but he’s matched all the way by Leo Genn as the Harley Street surgeon. And all the while the German doodlebugs (V1 bombs) keep everyone in a state of terror.  Brilliant.