Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

Long before the seemingly endless horror franchise of the same name, Gainsborough Pictures made Friday the Thirteenth (1933). This comedy/drama directed by Victor Saville centres on the passengers of a London bus on the eponymous unlucky day. Due to a freakish bad weather event, the bus crashes. We find out that two of the passengers are killed in the crash; which ones pass away is not revealed until the end of the film. First, the film goes back in time and shows the activities of each of the passengers in the day leading up to the crash.

Friday the Thirteenth was one of Saville’s many films for Gainsborough, and one of six in which he directed Jessie Matthews. She appears in this film alongside her then-husband Sonnie Hale; the cast also includes Ralph Richardson, Robertson Hare, Emlyn Williams, Edmund Gwenn and Mary Jerrold.

The film is one of several produced in interwar Britain that foregrounds modern culture’s ability to bring people of all walks of life together. Public transport in London, particularly Underground trains and buses, fostered social mixing. Long-distance railway trains at the time operated three different ticket prices, which in turn ensured that people of different social strata sat in separate carriages. Tubes and buses, on the other hand, operated a flat fare and there were no separate seating arrangements.

According to transport historian Christian Wolmar, during the 1930s London’s public transport network “was probably most crucial as a means of transport to the widest range of social classes”.[1] This was the brief period in which the public transport network had expanded to cover the city and its suburbs; and private car ownership was not yet commonplace, particularly not for travel in the city centre.[2] For almost everyone in London, using public transport was one of the easiest, quickest and cheapest ways to get around.

The characters on the bus in Friday the Thirteenth are a careful mix of familiar stereotypes. There is the aspiring showgirl; the put-upon husband; the East-End crook; the well-to-do City trader; the clerk struggling to make ends meet; the devious blackmailer; and of course the street-wise bus driver and conductor. As we are introduced to these characters throughout the film, we see that each one of them has their problems. Despite their differences, they all end up travelling alongside one another, and get caught up in the same accident. No matter how wealthy or poor, or successful or not, these characters are, the film highlights how the city brings them all together.

A similar trope appears in the 1928 film Underground, directed by Anthony Asquith. That film’s opening title states about the London Tube:

The “Underground” of the Great Metropolis of the British
Empire, with its teeming multitudes of ‘all sorts and
conditions of men’, contributes its share of light and shade,
romance and tragedy and all those things that go to make
up what we call ‘life’.

Both films purport to show a ‘slice of life’; normal people going about their business. For most Londoners in the interwar period, using public transport would have been a very common experience. The city’s suburban expansion (in the 1930s in particular) meant that many people lived so far away from the city’s centre that public transport was imperative to get to their place of work as well as to central places of entertainment such as West End theatres and cinemas. Audiences could recognise the characters and situations the films presented.

It was an appealing message that public transport was a great leveller, and that the modern urban experience eroded class differences and strengthened commonality of experience. Cinema itself, alongside other emergent forms of mass-communication, provided a common cultural ‘language’ for all Britons during the interwar period.[3] For the working- and middle-class members of the audience it was no doubt reassuring to be reminded that wealth and success do not make one immune from being potentially caught up in a deadly bus crash.

However, Friday the Thirteenth deviates from its central tenet that all men (and women) are fundamentally equal, in its resolution. At the end of the film it is revealed which two passengers did not survive the crash. One is the struggling clerk, who was just about to go home and surprise his unhappy wife with tickets to a dream holiday. The other is the blackmailer who was carrying a cheque written by his latest victim; his death releases his target from a lifetime of extortion. All the other characters are shown to have learnt their lesson from the crash; they make amends with their partners or revisit the bad decisions they were about to make.

The two victims of the crash clearly represent the two ends of the scale. The death of the blackmailer not only helps his victim, but also society as a whole: a police officer informs the erstwhile victim that the police had been trying to pin down the blackmailer for a while. The message is clearly that many future crimes are now prevented. The death of the clerk, on the other hand, appears designed to elicit nothing but sympathy from the audience. Whereas most of the other characters were making morally questionable choices (selling stolen goods, cheating on their spouses) the clerk is presented as faithful to his wife and hardworking.

It is in this resolution, then, that Friday the Thirteenth moves away from its apparent principle of demonstrating equality between people, and instead reminds the viewer that death and fate are not always ‘fair’. The viewer is asked to reflect on whether the surviving characters deserve to live. It is precisely the assumption that some people are more deserving than others that drives the narrative tension in Friday the Thirteenth; and it is an assumption that the film ultimately encourages rather than dispels.

Friday the Thirteenth is available on the Internet Archive and on DVD via Network On Air (Jessie Matthews Collection Volume 1). Please note the film contains the mention of a racial slur by one of the characters.

[1] Christian Wolmar, The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was built and how it changed the city forever (London: Atlantic, 2005), p. 276

[2] Michael John Law, “‘The car indispensable’: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban London”, in Journal of Historical Geography, 38 (2012), 424-433 (p. 424-425)

[3] D. L. LeMahieu, A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain Between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 59-66