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.
John Gielgud and Jessie Matthews.