The actors and actresses at Ealing Studios may not have threatened MGM and Paramount in the glamour-and-gloss stakes, but their unforgettable portrayals of English toffs, cockneys, floozies, flirts, silly old men and little oild ladies still won a special place in movie stardom.
Fittingly, in view of the Ealing ethos of team spirit. the players most associated with the studio’s heyday of the late Forties and early Fifties tend to be character performers rather than glamour-personalities: it could hardly be said, after all, that Ealing went in for star vehicles.
Guinness is good
Among actors who were kept busy at Ealing, pride of place must surely go to Alec Guinness whose extraordinary chameleon- like quality was definitively showcased in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), his first Ealing comedy and only his fourth film.
The refinement of style that Guinness brought to impersonating no fewer than eight members of the ill-fated d’Ascoyne family (including the suffragette Lady Agatha, whose penchant for ballooning proves her undoing) cemented his reputation.
His roles in later Ealing comedies inevitably pale in comparison with this tour-de-force, but if Kind Hearts and Coronets displayed Guinness as a master of disguise, his casting as the timid clerk-turned bullion-robber in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) cleverly exploited a complementary capacity for ‘invisible’ ordinariness. So too to some extent did his appearance as the hapless inventor in The Man in the White Suit (1951). His last Ealing comedy Barnacle Bill (1957), in which he played a land-lubber sea captain, was feeble, though slightly earlier he had given a glorious performance as the gargoylish ‘Professor’ – actually a bank robber masquerading as leader of a string quartet – in the studio’s The Ladykillers (1955).
Alec Guinness doing his best Alastair Sim impression in The Ladykillers.
Though Kind Hearts and Coronets is usually remembered as Guinness’ movie, it nonetheless depends crucially upon the charm and ironic poise with which Dennis Price (1915-73) plays the murderous schemer at its centre: ‘My Matabele is a trifle rusty’, he airily explains when. posing as the Bishop of Matabeleland, he is asked to demonstrate his knowledge of the local lingo.
Though this is Price’s only Ealing film, his is one of the great Ealing performances. It is sad that early in his career Price was mainly restricted to routine or nonsensical projects – The Bad Lord Byron (1949)for example. Later, personal problems caused his career to dwindle away to some degree, but among frequently unworthy carneo roles can happily be counted the small gem of his outrageously suave, dishonest car-salesman in School for Scoundrels (1960), the director Robert Hamer’s last film.
Under the Greenwood spell
Husky-voiced Joan Greenwood, the ambiguous Sibella of Kind Hearts and Coronets, certainly belongs in the front rank of Ealing leading ladies. She brought a provocative hint of the minx to the Hebridean heroine of Whisky Galore! (1949). Refused to sink under the weight of the costume drama Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), and subsequently figured as a more conventional helpmate in The Man in the White Suit.
Later on, after her Ealing days, she became stereotyped in sexpot roles, playing the voracious Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones (1963), for instance; but in Hollywood she was at least enabled to rise to the occasion as the double- crossing femme fatale of Fritz Lang’s costume picture Moonfleet (1955).
Googie Withers and Gordon Jackson in Pink String and Sealing Wax.
An interesting contrast to Joan Greenwood is afforded by Googie Withers. The almost frigid quality of the woman she played in the ‘mirror’ episode of Dead of Night (1945 ) spectacularly dissolves into the dark lustre of the machinating barmaid in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945). While the vulnerability hinted at in the latter role was developed in tandem with a convincingly tough exterior in her best part, that of a trapped East End wife in It Always Rains On Sunday (1947). Her career goes back to the late Thirties: she was one of the showgirls in The Lady Vanishes (1938) and partnered George Formby in Trouble Brewing (1939). She left Britain for Australia in the Fifties but returned to star as the prison governor of television’s Within These Walls drama series in the early 1970s.
When it comes to television, however the undisputed champ must be Jack Warner, who for over twenty years starred in the Dixon of Dock Green series spun off from the homely copper he played in The Blue Lamp (1950). Warner, who had a background in music hall and radio (where, presciently perhaps, his catchphrase was ‘Mind my bike!’), made his film debut as a cockney POW in Ealing’s The Captive Heart (1946). He was a laconic CID man in It Always Rains On Sunday, and, strange as it may seen now, a moustachioed spiv in Hue and Cry (1947) and a wartime traitor in Against the Wind (1948).
In his later career the police image stuck, though he got plain clothes and higher rank than Dixon ever did in such films as The Quatermass Experiment (1955) and Jigsaw (1962).
Another equally ebullient entertainer, and one who figured more centrally in Ealing’s output, was Stanley Holloway. Interestingly, Holloway’s Ealing persona does not particularly coincide with the bombast associated with his earlier fame as a North Country monologuist and with his subsequent role as Doolittle in the stage and screen versions of My Fair Lady (filmed in 1964). Rather he is the small-scale entrepreneur. the civic-minded ‘little man’ who rises to the occasion in Passport to Pimlico (1949), and the most unflamboyant of crooks in The Lavender Hill Mob. Somewhat unexpectedly, he was placed in a different social context in his third major Ealing role, the genial alcoholic squire of The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), one of a number of villagers who tries to keep a country branch-line open.
Two who got away
Two players who somehow demand to be thought of both in the same light and as very ‘Ealing’ characters are Alastair Sim (1900-76) and Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) – although, in fact, they only made one film together (not for Ealing) and only notched up one Ealing appearance apiece. But these two roles seem uncommonly consonant with the popular image of Ealing comedy and thus, inevitably if inaccurately of Ealing as a whole.
Sim’s appearance was in the comparatively small part of the author of boys’ adventure stories in Hue and Cry. But with his pedantic vocal delivery and slightly popping eyes. Sim made of this figure – vague, dishevelled, living amid a profusion of stuffed animals – a quintessential embodiment of ‘harmless eccentricity’. Margaret Rutherford’s role in Passport To Pimlico as Professor Hatton-Jones turns upon a not dissimilar kind of ebullient oddness, offering the epitome of the flustered but unflappable, absent-minded academic.
Putting their heads together
Both Sim and Rutherford covered a wider spectrum of roles than is perhaps readily remembered: one of Rutherford’s best opportunities, for example, came at the end of her career when she played Mistress Quickly in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966). But they are most associated with their appearances as the embattled heads of schools obliged to share the premises in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950).
And speaking of gentility, if a single performer had to be chosen to typify Ealing it should perhaps be Katie Johnson (1878-1957), the archetypal tremulous little oíd lady of films like I Believe in You who insouciantly moved to the centre of attention as Mrs Wilberforce in The Ladykillers, one of the last – and arguably the best – of all Ealing films.