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Film in 1950s England

8.01.2011

One of the major directors in postwar England was Sir Carol Reed, whose films included The Third Man (1949), a tense tale of espionage set in Vienna after the war. Although Joseph Cotten plays the lead in the film, Orson Welles steals the picture as Harry Lime, an unscrupulous black marketeer who eventually meets his end after a thrilling chase through the sewers of the city at night. Reed also directed a number of other classic films, including the IRA drama Odd Man Out (1947), with a young James Mason; the class-conscious murder mystery The Fallen Idol (1948), with Sir Ralph Richardson; and the Cold War spy satire Our Man in Havana (1959), based on the Graham Greene novel, with Alec Guinness and Noël Coward. Reed’s most famous film is one of his last, Oliver! (1968), based on Lionel Bart’s musical version of the Dickens novel, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture.


Ealing Comedies


In the 1950s in Britain, comedy was one of the key cinematic genres. Ealing Studios excelled in a series of comedies of grace and sophistication that have become almost a genre unto themselves. With Sir Michael Balcon at the helm as producer, Ealing used the considerable talents of such actors as Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Peter Sellers, Dennis Price, and others to create a dazzling array of comic gems. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer, is a cheerful black comedy about serial homicide, as Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), the disgraced heir to a dukedom, methodically murders all the members of his estranged family line, the d’Ascoynes, who lie in his way to the title he “rightfully” deserves—each played, in a tour-deforce performance, by Alec Guinness. In all, Guinness plays no fewer than eight members of the d’Ascoyne family, one of them a woman, Lady Agatha d’Ascoyne. As Louis dispatches one unfortunate victim after another to attain his title, our sympathies remain entirely with him, as the d’Ascoynes are for the most part a thoroughly arrogant lot who deserve their respective fates. Scored with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Kind Hearts and Coronets is an elegant, civilized, and hilariously dark film, and Guinness’s multi-role incarnations are astonishingly varied. Hamer’s direction is equally assured, full of technical tricks and surprises. The remarkable scene in the church during which Louis sizes up his intended victims is one of the most cleverly realized examples of trick photography in the cinema, with six different versions of Alec Guinness on the screen in one shot, which was accomplished by running the same piece of film through the camera a total of seven times, with the aperture carefully masked off to photograph only one section of the frame for each exposure.


Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) features Guinness and Stanley Holloway as two bumbling dwellers of a boardinghouse who successfully steal a fortune in gold bars from the Bank of England; Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951) features Guinness again, this time as a man who invents a fabric that cannot be soiled, thereby putting laundries, dry cleaners, and tailors in jeopardy for their jobs; if the fabric is indestructible, who needs new clothing? Finally, in one of their few color productions, and also the last comedy the studio produced, Ealing introduced a young and rather chubby Peter Sellers to cinemagoers in Mackendrick’s classic black comedy The Ladykillers (1955).


Another successful comedy series in 1950s and 1960s England was the St. Trinian films, based on the wildly popular satirical cartoons by Ronald Searle, which took England by storm in the early 1950s. Frank Launder was the director, starting with the unofficial predecessor The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), and then moving on to The Belles of St. Trinians (1954), Blue Murder at St. Trinians (1957), The Pure Hell of St. Trinians (1960), The Great St. Trinians Train Robbery (1966, co-directed with Sidney Gilliat), and the final film in the series, The Wildcats of St. Trinians (1980). The films gleefully burlesque the tradition of the English girls’ boarding school, depicting both the school itself and the British Ministry of Education as corrupt and incompetent. The adolescent and teenage girls of St. Trinians define poor sportsmanship and are often engaged in illegal activities (such as fixing horse races or making and then bottling bootleg gin).


Even more popular with contemporary audiences, although initially poorly received by the critics, were the Carry On comedies of producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas, specializing in lowbrow humor, sight gags, and slapstick. The first film, Carry on Sergeant (1958), was a modest success in England, but the second, the hospital comedy Carry on Nurse (1959), was an international hit and spawned a series of thirty-nine films, all directed by Gerald Thomas, that would end more than thirty years later with Carry on Columbus (1992). The Carry On films featured wheezy gags, “sin-gle-entendre” jokes, and a rotating cast of regulars, especially the gifted Sidney James and Kenneth Williams, essentially deriving their source material from the British music hall stage.



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