The Good Companions

Visiting London, I took the opportunity to book a research viewing at the British Film Institute, of a film I have wanted to see for years, Victor Savile’s 1933 version of The Good Companions.


It was as good as I’d hoped, and like so many other British movies of the period, left me wondering why nobody has bothered to issue it on DVD. Any American film of this quality, and with such stars, would surely be available.

The film sticks fairly closely to Priestley’s 1929 novel, and projects the same happy myth of a band of misfits coming together to run a Pierrot troupe.  It is a feast for nostalgics, but then the book and film had nostalgia built in from the start. Pierrot shows were disappearing from the beaches in the thirties, and variety itself was wilting against competition from the cinema.  One thing that struck me about the book (still there in the film, but less obviously) is that in creating his myth of England, Priestley had to write the War out of history. In the first chapters of the book, much is made of old Jess Oakroyd’s bravery in travelling South, out of familiar Yorkshire. None of his fellow workers, we are told, had ever gone so far.  Which is nonsense, of course, since even if working in the mill was a reserved occupation, some of the men there would surely have gone to France, or Mesopotamia, or Palestine, or farther afield.  But Priestley (who had had a pretty traumatic war himself) preferred to forget this temporarily, to create the effect of an ever-static Bruddersford society, which Oakroyd could bravely shun.

The only posible War reference I noted was a scrap of dialogue. A more than somewhat shifty character orders tear with rum in it, calling this “Sergeant-Major’s tea”. Brophy and Partridge’s book of soldiers’ slang defines “Sergeant-Major’s tea” as better-than-usual tea, on the grounds that “the S.M. would always get the best of everything”. I suppose rum would definitely make the tea better-than-usual, but it’s a notable difference.

The cast is excellent. Edmund Gwenn, so good in Hitchcock’s version of The Skin Game, plays old Jess Oakroyd, without becoming too annoying. John Gielgud is Inigo Jollifant, the schoolteacher, and is rather good. The great Max Miller has a two-minute cameo as a theatrical agent, and is pure pleasure, his delivery making a mini-masterpiece out of rather dull lines.  The star, though, is Jessie Matthews. Her dancing in this film isn’t quite as spectacular as in Evergreen (recently reissued on DVD), and she doesn’t have any numbers as good as the Rogers and Hart songs in that film – but she gets in a few of those astonishing high kicks. She acts the character rather well, too.

gcjessie giel

John Gielgud and Jessie Matthews.


  1. The Shadow
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    There is an enormous amount of first-rate British film from the 20s/30s and 40s that is simply not available to the average member of the public. THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT(1938)is a magnificent little thriller directed by Arthur B. Woods and starring Emlyn Williams and Ernest Thesiger. The last time it was broadcast in this country was on C4 in the 80s. There are also a tremendous number of enjoyable British B-movies that are gathering dust somewhere. Three cheers for Odeon Entertainment for bringing out a box set of the great Tod Slaughter, but they are only scratching the surface of a great national resource.

  2. Posted June 16, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Shadow –
    I totally agree. I read once that there are some good films that some firms have wanted to publish on DVD – but they’ve given up because nobody knows who owns the rights.

  3. The Shadow
    Posted June 20, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Yes, it must be a nightmare getting the rights straight on some pre-war films. Many of the companies involved probably no longer exist.
    Even something as simple as paying residuals to actors/writers etc can be troublesome. I once met someone who was involved in making certain that people who appeared on TV series released on DVD were paid. Certain supporting actors from only the mid-70s had vanished so thoroughly that it would take a police investigation to find them!

  4. Posted June 26, 2010 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    I’ve now discovered that The Good Companions is available on DVD – from the website ‘Loving the Classics’ at

  5. Roger
    Posted June 26, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Tartarus Press has republished books where no-one knew who held copyright and paid the copyright holders later when they identified themselves. Would this be possible with films or would the much larger number of possible claimants make itimpossible?

    • Posted June 26, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

      I wish I could answer that question. I’ve no idea. Lovingthe seem to be outside the usual commercial run of DVD publishers. Maybe they’re counting on copyright having expired.

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