Sunday, 21 January 2018

A feast of vintage British films: King Solomon's Mines, Tawny Pipit, The Rocking Horse Winner and Mine Own Executioner

I recorded King Solomon's Mines recently when I realised it was the 1937 version, rather than the 1950 adaptation starring Stewart Grainger (of whom, I've always found, a little goes a long way). This old black and white classic is ridiculously enjoyable - classic Hollywood hokum. At least, that's what I'd assumed until that splendid English actor Roland Young, when he and his companions are faced with an angry African tribe, uttered the immortal line,"Would it do any good if I whipped my trousers off, d'you think?" hard on the heels of "So unlike the home life of our dear queen", “Seem to be a lot of people about, for an uninhabited country”, “No reason for being insanitary, even in Africa”,  “I suppose we’re going to have melons today. Don’t the birds in this country ever lay eggs?”, and, in reference to a repulsive 100-year old witch doctor,  “Reminds me of my poor old Aunt Hannah… she came to no good.” Despite the lavishness of the production, and Paul Robeson blasting out a series of utterly inappropriate songs, it just didn't feel American...

...None of the actors (apart from Robeson)  spoke with a trace of an American accent: in fact, the pretty blonde heroine was alternating between Stage Oirish and Mayfair Cockney without setting foot anywhere in the vicinity of Los Angeles.
So I paused the film, consulted Halliwell, and realised I should have paid attention to the opening credits - a Gaumont British production. The studio scenes were all done in Shepherd's Bush (!), but the location stuff (of which there's a lot) were shot in Africa - which is no doubt why it looks so startlingly fresh and convincing. On top of all that, there was something about the attitude to the spear-wielding natives that was different from anything Hollywood would have produced. The savagery is more convincing, and there's distinctly less eye-rolling - presumably, in Hollywood films of the period, depictions of African warriors were influenced by prevailing American prejudices, rather than the colonial prejudices of the British (and the Brits would have been more aware of how tribal chiefs and kings acted).
'Is this chap bothering you, miss?"
So, it's a distinctly British film, which just happens to star an American singer (Robeson was lured across by the promise of top billing, which he received in the opening credits, but not on the posters) and the presence of two of Hollywood's most prominent British actors - that master of comic underplaying, Roland Young, and the equally splendid Cedric Hardwicke, who always reminds me of what Dorian Gray's portrait would have looked like when its subject was turning 50, and about whom there was always something wonderfully sinister. King Solomon's Mines provides 80 minutes of sheer, unadulterated, joyous entertainment, thanks to some excellent performances and a very deft script.

'Arf of us got to be BAME, producer says!
Tawny Pipit (1944) is a genuine oddity. Co-produced, co-written and co-directed by Bernard Miles, it tells the story of a fighter pilot and keen amateur ornithologist, just released from hospital, and enjoying some R&R with his nurse/girlfriend in the country (in reality, Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds), when he spots a tawny pipit nesting in a field. This is a big deal, because tawny pipits haven't nested in England since I don't know when. Locals form a committee and organise a rota to guard the visitors and make sure no harm comes to them from the Army, farmers, or thieves. The basic message seems to be that the English love their country, their nature and their wildlife, and that, despite class divisions, when the chips are down and everyone mucks in to achieve a common goal, Brits can jolly well achieve anything. Bit socialist, but understandable in the circumstances - as is the solidarity expressed when a female Russian soldier visits the area.
It's not a great film, but it is charming - and it's hard to imagine any other country producing anything like it after several years spent fighting the might of the German and Japanese military. The oddest thing about it, however, is Bernard Miles's decision to play a retired colonel/lord of the manor - given the number of tailor-made yokel parts on offer, and the fact that he can't do posh for toffee, and that he was far too young, I can't imagine what possessed him.
I've no idea why I hadn't seen the 1949 screen version of the D.H. Lawrence short story, The Rocking Horse Winner. It's brilliant. Directed by Anthony Pelissier and produced by John Mills, it stars Valerie Hobson as a feckless, spendthrift upper-middle class woman whose extravagance - on top of her useless husband being a rotten gambler - drives her family to the brink of penury. Their son, played by Oliver Twist and Tom Brown's Schooldays star, John Howard Davies (later a top TV comedy producer), finds that, when he "rides" the rocking horse he receives for Christmas hard enough, he can predict the winners of some races. He persuades the family's live-in handyman, John Mills, who likes a flutter, to place bets for both of them. Valerie Hobson's brother (played by the great character actor, Ronald Squire) - who's getting tired of bailing out his sister and brother-in-law - gets wind of the scheme, and becomes the third partner... If this sounds like the plot of a classic Ealing Comedy, the film's tone is tragic and the atmosphere is both febrile and creepy. There isn't a bad performance in it - and I found it mesmerising. A genuine classic.
Mine Own Executioner (1947) was based on the novel of that name by Nigel Balchin, an interesting  British writer whose main characters tend to be complex and psychologically damaged, and who is over-ripe for rediscovery (I haven't read Executioner, but I've long admired The Small Back Room and A Sort of Traitors). The film stars the American actor Burgess Meredith (The Penguin in the '60s TV series, Batman, and, later, Rocky Balboa's grizzled trainer) as an idealistic psychiatrist married to a jolly nice, supportive English wife - played by Dulcie Gray - whom he snaps at and cheats on (as selfless idealists seem wont to do). The young wife of a former prisoner in a Japanese POW camp asks Meredith to treat her husband, who is becoming schizophrenic - and potentially homicidal. It's all a bit overwrought and Freudian, but solidly made and adult, with enough thriller-style excitement to kickstart the story whenever it threatens to become too wordy and worthy.

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