Saturday 3 October 2020

On DVD - John Baxter revives memories of 'the first Ealing Comedy' (and the first reference to Trump) - HUE AND CRY (Charles Crichton, UK, 1947)

       Though it’s not long on laughs, Hue and Cry, directed by Charles Crichton in 1947, is, in effect, the first Ealing comedy. T.E.B Clarke would go on to write the funnier Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob, both distinguished by a fresh look at ordinary Londoners, but this is his first rough draft. 

       The characters are mostly street kids living in the bombed out and still unrepaired centre of the London. They hang out in shattered buildings and lounge on piles of rubble, a reality from which they take refuge in a weekly magazine called Trump which chronicles the exploits of super detective Selwyn Pike. One of the smarter boys, Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) discovers that a gang of burglars is using the stories to circulate details of their next heist, and foils them by raising a hue and cry among other readers of the magazine.  

Harry Fowler holding copy of Trump, Hue and Cry

       Boys in most British movies of the time were middle class, and spoke with the affected accents of Bobby Henrey in The Fallen Idol or Jon Whiteley in Moonfleet. Joe Kirby speaks in broad Cockney. A dropout at fifteen, his ambitions begin and end with a job hauling spuds in Covent Garden market. The rest of his gang, credited as The Blood and Thunder Boys, are all working class rowdies – with, however, hearts of gold, demonstrated by an opening scene of one of them surreptitiously reading Trump while harmonizing on Oh For the Wings of a Dove in a church choir.   

       Weeklies like Trump, which is at the heart of the film, didn’t exist outside Britain. Adults in the film call it a “comic” but their content was almost entirely stories - about sports, or life in a boys’ boarding school - happily not reflecting their reality, of bullying, sodomy and the cane - and tales of Sexton Blake, “the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes” and inspiration of the film’s Selwyn Pike. Most were written by eager hacks barely out of short pants themselves – the Sexton Blake Magazine would eventually be edited and mostly written by nineteen-year-old Michael Moorcock  – but Clarke prefers the fussy (not to say a little sissy)  Felix H. Wilkinson (Alastair Sim), who bears some resemblance to Frank Richards, the prolific author who invented the archetypal  British schoolboy Billy Bunter. Wilkinson lurks in one of those Victorian apartment buildings known as Mansions, notable for their interminable stone staircases and tiny attic apartments harbouring a rich crop of eccentrics. As the only big name in the cast, Sim gets top billing for what is, in effect, a cameo. 

The gang in the rubble, Hue and Cry

       The next most familiar face belongs to Jack Warner, before his days as Dixon of Dock Green, archetypal bobby on the beat. Here he’s a suspiciously jovial wholesale fruit and veg dealer named Nightingale, exposed by Joe and the kids as the burglary gang’s improbable mastermind, and as unlikely a crook as Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway in The Lavender Hill Mob. 

       When Joe and his friends raise the alarm among readers ofTrump, regiments of office boys, apprentices, shop assistants, ice cream vendors and telegram deliverers desert their posts to converge on docklands and act out their fantasies as vigilante representatives of Right against Wrong. 

       Hue and Cry, despite its setting, doesn’t look particularly English There’s something of Metropolis in the faceless mass of boys seen from high above as they pour through the ruins - not the only echo of UFA, the Berlin studio that so influenced cinema between the wars. (Clarke wisely kept quiet about the film’s obvious inspiration, that classic of German children’s fiction, Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives.)

       Ruins are ruins the world over and what one is most reminded of today is The Third Man. At one point, the kids even escape through the sewers, leading one to speculate about whether Graham Greene might have been looking over Clarke’s shoulder. He was, after all, a film reviewer in those days, and would have seen Hue and Cry.The boys all wear grey wool suits and jackets, rumpled and baggy, with grubby collars, and neckwear reminiscent of rats’ tails. These place them closer to the thugs and spivs of and the Mabuse films than to the public school students of The Browning Version and Goodbye Mr. Chips.  The sons of those well-groomed lads, products of the cricket pitches and rugger fields of the Home Counties, will grow up to be Dirk Bogarde and Cliff Richard. Those fathered by Bill Kirby and his friends amid the ruins of Whitechapel and Bow will, I fear, be more like Oliver Reed. 

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