That Ealing touch

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At Screen St Ives we recently showed the 1942 classic WENT THE DAY WELL?, to a packed and extremely enthusiastic audience. It is a testament to Ealing, the relatively small, independent studio that produced this film, that their output is still delighting audiences some 70 years later.

Perhaps part of what still captivates us in a film like this are the unexpected eccentricities; Peter Bradshaw memorably describes WENT THE DAY WELL? as:-

a wartime conspiracy thriller, a black-comic nightmare and a surrealist masterpiece in which stoutly English-seeming army types reveal themselves to be Nazis, like the reflected figures turning their backs on us in René Magritte’s mirror.

WENT THE DAY WELL certainly doesn’t sit naturally with what I have always thought of as the typical Ealing film. A fascinating series of articles in the latest Sight and Sound (November 2012) – which tie up with a season at the BFI Southbank, ‘Ealing: Light and Dark” – highlight the surprising range of output from the studio. In his article ‘The Dark Side of Ealing’ Mark Duguid writes:-

So complete is Ealing’s association with comedy that you could be forgiven for assuming that the studio produced nothing else. In fact, of Ealing’s 95 feature releases under [Michael] Balcon, only 30 are strictly comedies and less than a third of those make up what is now canonised as ‘Ealing comedy’.

Mind you, many of the familiar Ealing classic comedies have a surprisingly cynical and even subversive tone, such as THE LADYKILLERS (“the twisted last hurrah of Ealing comedy”) and KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (“no other Ealing film – perhaps no British film up to that time – even approaches its elegant amorality…[it is] Ealing’s most cynical film and Hamer’s masterpiece”). However, the articles are a reminder of the full range of films produced by Ealing and just how daring some of them were; films such as IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (“Ealing’s most convincingly downbeat evocation of the immediate post-war era, and at least a match for the Boulting’s near-simultaneous Brighton Rock”) and THE FOREMAN WENT TO FRANCE (“an interrogation of both the dangers and the virtues of ‘muddling through’ and a surprisingly caustic critique of class deference and untrustworthy authority”).

The single sentence in the Sight and Sound articles which really jumped out at me, though, was this:-

Ealing could never be a giant, so its films would make a virtue of their scale; they would be well-made and human-sized and they would seek to please a domestic audience first rather than vainly aim to conquer an American one.

It seems to me that the reason we are still watching, discussing, and being inspired by Ealing films is at least in part due to the fact that the studio tried to remain true to what it believed in, and because it tried to reflect and explore the ‘domestic’. While it may have sought ‘to please a domestic audience’ it could also be daring in its choices and quite happy to take audience in unexpected directions.

A lesson for contemporary cinema?

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