The Ealing Comedies - Making Light of Crime?

Essay by danspamUniversity, Bachelor'sA-, March 2004

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When the studio was sold in 1955, [Michael] Balcon wrote the inscription for a plaque erected there: 'here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.'

The Ealing comedies have, by critics, been accused of provincial narrow-mindedness, snobbery, sexual repression, verbosity, archness and sentimental nationalism. Sarah Street identifies the key films in the Ealing comedy cycle as Hue and Cry (Charles Crichton, 1947), Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius, 1949), Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951), The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton, 1953) and The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955). It is on these films that this essay will focus, with reference to whether the 'Ealing Britain' is a true reflection of our post-war national identity or an imagined land of whimsical complacency, making too light of serious subjects such as sex and crime, which later British films would address to critical acclaim.

An Ealing comedy is easily characterised. We see working class heroism, revolution against the establishment, the triumph of the old over the new, the provincial over the national, the national over the global. Referring to Cheer Boys Cheer (Walter Forde, 1939), Charles Barr delightfully highlights the archetypal characteristics of the Ealing comedy:

To make a film really Ealing, lay on the contrasts. The brewery names: Ironside against Greenleaf. Grim offices and black limousines against country lanes, ivy covered cottages, horses, bicycles. Autocratic rule against the benevolent paternalism of a grey-haired old man who collects Toby Jugs. The beer itself: quantity against quality, machines against craftsmanship. The people and their manners: very harsh, very gentle. Small is beautiful.

In Cheer Boys Cheer, the family brewing firm Greenleaf becomes a target for...