Thursday, 26 September 2013

Withering Heights

I recently purchased a box set of six Anna Neagle films, one of which is the 1952 drama ‘Derby Day’.  This is a more than adequate way to spend an hour and a half, but really I think that they got the star names in the wrong order.  Googie Withers is the supporting headline name.  But she is the reason to watch this film, if you needed one.  I like Googie – a lot.  She never seemed to quite reach the top, to achieve that one defining role that put her on the highest shelf.  But she was an extremely fine actress.  I wonder if it was merely a case of the starring roles never being offered because she didn’t quite fit a required mould – or if she deliberately kept stardom at arm’s length.   Either way, I admire her for what she managed to achieve in the face of it.  She also achieved that rarity – a long marriage to a fellow actor.  Her husband, John McCullum, stars alongside her in Derby Day.  They were separated only by his death more than half a century after this film was made.
Googie by @aitchteee
I think that her best role was in ‘Miranda’.  In this very witty comedy film she is mistress of the raised eyebrow.  Her delightfully expressive face is one the unsung highlights of a female-centric film where she faces stiff competition from Margaret Rutherford and Glynis Johns.  But her role in ‘Miranda’ – a well-heeled doctor’s wife – is probably not that far off her real background, as she was empire-reared and privately educated.  Her role in ‘Derby Day’ however was probably much more of an acting challenge for Googie.  She plays a poor housewife, whose husband works at Battersea Power Station and who has to take in lodgers to help make ends meet.  Quite possibly a natural born Londoner might take issue with her accent, but it sounded fine to me.  I thought that she tackled the role well and was wholly believable in the role.

I was also interested to see the post-war working class household as depicted by Googie and her screen husband and lodger.  Some aspects of this have gone forever.  Waiting in for the Tuesday coal delivery, to be tipped into a purpose built outhouse is most definitely a thing of the past.  The Clean Air Act has seen to that.  Changes in society have meant that Googie’s character could have got a decent full time job rather than spend her days drudging away for two men.  I wonder if there has been a rise in the number of lodgers again in recent years, as homes have become so unaffordable in many parts of the country.  If this is the case though, it will not be on the same footing, where they have their meals cooked for them and all household jobs done.  It will be more a case of the spare room being rented out and cooking/cleaning facilities shared.

There was one other small scene which stood out for me.  This was the keeping of savings in the house.  I was brought up – along with most of my generation I presume – to believe that all savings were safest in the bank.  Not only could nobody pinch it, you might get some interest too.  We had a mini Yorkshire Bank branch at school and I had a Post Office savings account from very early on.  This film not only harks back to the days when banks were not for the working class, but also reminds us of what could happen if people do lose faith in them.  Over the past few years, banks have lost much of their respectability, people no longer trust them as they did and to make matters worse, interest rates have plummeted.  I have heard it said many times that “you would be better keeping it under the mattress.”  Just where unsavoury visitors to your home – or intruders – can get to it.  Googie’s lodger goes off with her savings after murdering her husband – let that be a lesson to us all!

The way forward out of this situation is to join your local Credit Union, a community savings bank and lender.  I have carried out work alongside my local one in my professional life and I really believe that everyone should invest in their local union.  But whether you take this advice or not, don’t put it all on a horse in the Derby!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Going To Extremes

‘The Yellow Canary’ (1943) stars Anna Neagle and Richard Greene, with show-stealing support from Margaret Rutherford.  Neagle plays the upper class socialite Sally Maitland, and the action is set in 1940.  At the beginning of the film we see her being shunned, insulted and berated over her pro-Nazi sympathies.  We learn that she has spent time in Berlin with the upper echelons of the Nazi party and that she makes no secret of her admiration for them.

Through this early plot line I was immediately reminded of those controversial 1930s socialites the Mitford sisters.  These women  continue to hold a fascination for us even today and I have to admit that I am among those who devour their diaries, letters and memoirs.  This is not, I hasten to add, out of any sense of admiration.  I think I speak for a lot of Mitford-ites when I say that their appeal is like that of a diamond-encrusted car crash.  To anyone with an interest in inter-war society and politics they are unavoidable.  Diana, Unity and Jessica – the politically active half of the set – represent the extremes of everything about that time. And to add to the spice they were all three of them as mad as a fruitcake inside a box of frogs.

I was first made aware of the Mitfords when I studied 1930s British history.  As part of my coursework I was sent off to examine why British politics did not succumb to extremism, unlike other European countries during those restless years.  From Oswald Moseley and his Fascist Blackshirts it is an easy step to take to Diana (Moseley’s lover, then wife) and Unity Mitford and their pro-Hitler antics.  I concluded that one relevant factor in the British retention of democracy is simply the national personality and our collective sense of humour.  Our determination to prick the bubbles of pomposity is a national sport.  Moseley and his Blackshirts were deliciously sent up by P.G. Wodehouse with his Roderick Spode character.  Even his sister-in-law Nancy Mitford (the marginally sane one) wrote a satirical novel starring Captain Jack and the Union Jackshirts called “Wigs on the Green” (1935).  Nancy was so patently having a pop at Diana’s beloved that it opened up a long standing rift between the sisters.  If this is what was happening in the higher echelons, I find it very easy to imagine that variety theatres in Blackshirt stamping grounds would have had a few turns who poked fun at the local lads who liked to play at dressing up and go mincing about the streets.  There is also a Mass Observation report of a Blackshirt meeting in the East End being broken up by a group of people doing the Lambeth Walk through the middle of it.   Where some countries stood in thrall to enigmatic extremists, we found that whole speeching/marching thing slightly embarrassing and giggled at it.

To return to ‘The Yellow Canary’, the storyline of this film gave me a new dimension to the story of Britain and of the fascist Mitfords.  That Sally Maitland is meant to represent a Mitford is obvious.  But the outcome of her story is vastly different to that of Diana and Unity. Sally turns out to be on our side after all, and has merely cultivated a pro-Nazi cover for her spying activities.  At the end of the film she saves half of Canada from being blown up and is publicly exonerated.  Neither Diana nor Unity ever renounced Fascism or Hitler, the former spending the war in Holloway Prison; the latter attempting suicide on the outbreak of hostilities and never recovering from her gunshot wound.  This demonstrates how war temporarily changed our national personality in a way that we tend to forget, or gloss over.  During the 1930s, people followed the Mitfords’ antics with a raised eyebrow, they took up space in the gossip columns, causing minor sensations.  In wartime, this amusement was replaced by fear.  No matter how we are portrayed as smiling through the worst of it, fear permeated society.  The possibility that people at the top, those with connections and power, were against democracy was too much to countenance.  All we had was hope.  Hope that there was some good in these people somewhere, and that there might be a reasonable explanation behind their behaviour.

Over time we have been fed images of Churchill, of the Battle of Britain and of blitzed cities battling on.  We have been fed a belief that the British bloody-minded attitude, a refusal to give in is what got us through.  Amid all the glorification, which grows with each passing year, we must remember that war means fear, it means subjugation of other facets of our personality.  And the source of that fear could be anywhere amongst us.

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Thursday, 5 September 2013

Never Never Land

‘Turned Out Nice Again’ starring George Formby, seems quite an unusual film.  Firstly, he marries at the beginning of the story, which hardly ever happens to him.  Usually, much of the storyline revolves around him getting his girl against all the odds.  Secondly, although it was made in the darkest days of World War Two (1941) there is no mention of the war.  There doesn’t even seem to be any underlying message along the lines of “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “Dig For Victory”.  It is 75 minutes of pure escapism back to the pre-war world, with not a uniform in sight to jolt viewers back to an unpleasant reality.  This is actually not that out of kilter with the times.  Cinema and theatre receipts from the time do show that people unsurprisingly had a strong preference for escapism.

I was also quite surprised by the rampant capitalism shown in ‘Turned Out Nice Again’.  The storyline involves George working as an overseer at a textile mill in Preston.  He is climbing up the career ladder and a recent promotion has enabled his marriage to take place.  Charged with running a sales exhibition in that London, he finds himself in ruthless company a long way from home and sensible advice.  He is duped into giving away his life savings in return for the rights to a new type of yarn.  He returns back to the mill with it, has a row with the stuffy company director and is sacked.  But of course, this being a morale boosting feelgood film, it all comes good for George.  The yarn becomes highly sought after and he both gets his job back and a share of the profits.

This film seems to be showing us an idealised lifestyle that you would think would be more in keeping with the 1980s.  George is keen to move up in life, he saves well, and then risks those savings in order to increase his income and the output of the mill.  Much is also made of the marital home, which is furnished on “tick”, that is on credit with regular payments.  I didn’t realise that hire purchase was so easily available pre-war, and that the tradition of the older generation berating the young for buying things that they can’t afford was so well established.  But George and his new wife furnish their entire house, probably using an h.p. price plan, from a local furniture store.  They return to take it all back when George appears to be bankrupt and it is as if the removal men were in.  So this shows that even then, families were being encouraged to aspire to a way of life beyond their immediate means.  This is actually quite a modern film for one that is over 70 years old – if you put aside George’s wife’s role as the deferential housewife.

Finally, I must just put a word in for George’s mother, who has a strong role in this film (usually she remains behind the scenes, despite his frequent exhortions to her).  She is played here, quite hilariously, by Elliott Mason.  I think I may adopt her catchphrase to throw at my own children:

“Eeeh to think, I was four and a half hours under chloroform having you!”

Turned Out Nice Again! by @aitchteee

Monday, 2 September 2013

Intermission 2

September 2013 marks the second anniversary of The History Usherette.  To mark the occasion I have put together my top 16 posts in a Kindle book entitled Past Projections – The Best of The History Usherette.  There is also a short introduction and illustrations of your favourite film stars!  The book can be found here:

All of the little essays are still available on this blog, this is a little posterity collection that can be kept on a kindle or tablet device for when you need an old film fix.  I am currently nearing completion of a book of new material to be called Matinee Musings.  This is a series of five extended essays on some of my favourite film themes.  Keep an eye out here, Facebook or on my Amazon Author Page for this one.  I hope to publish before the end of the year.