The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), now the Co-operative Group, has had a presence in Britain since 1863. From its foundation, it set itself apart from other grocers with the notion of ‘dividend’: members who purchased goods from the business would also get a share of the profits – the more goods purchased, the bigger the dividend returned. In the interwar period, the CWS was a wholesaler supplying goods to a range of local co-operative grocers, particularly in the north of England.
In 1938, CWS produced Co-operette, a substantial advertising film for the company’s products. A version of the film is available to watch for free on the BFI player, (for those based in the UK). The BFI copy of the film lasts around 15 minutes, and appears to be incomplete. Nevertheless, the available footage gives a great insight into British advertising films of the late 1930s. A film like this would be shown as part of a cinema screening, which at the time usually comprised of a combination of feature films, educational films, cartoons, trailers, and advertisements.
Like a shampoo commercial produced two years’ previously, Co-operette is framed around the deceit of being ‘on set’ whilst the advert is being filmed. The first shot after the opening credits is of a shooting script, which describes the opening credits we have just seen, and the announcer we are about to see – although the shot ‘close up of shooting script’ does not appear.
The announcer tells the audience who will be featured in the film: comedian Stanley Holloway, band leader Debroy Somers and his band, comedian Harold Walters, and the ‘Six Co-operettes’: a dancing troupe of young women in skimpy outfits. (The fact that the famous and popular Stanley Holloway barely features is an indication that this may not be the full film). The next sequence moves us on to a film set, where Debroy Somers and his band are set up on a sound stage, ready to be recorded. In the set’s lobby, a Co-operette walks past whilst chatting to a man dressed in native American costume, to heighten the effect that this is an active film set on which multiple productions are being shot. Harold Walters plays Sam Small, a character in fact developed by Stanley Holloway who by 1938 would have been very familiar to audiences. Throughout the fifteen minutes, Sam Small serves as the comic relief character who creates confusion on the set.
When filming of Debroy Somers and his band is about to get started, Co-operette serves up a series of close-ups of crew members on the set shouting for ‘QUIET!’
This over-emphasis on the need for absolute silence on the set make the inevitable disruptions of the hapless Sam Small onto the set’s operations even more impactful. The close-up shots are sharply angled, lending an unexpectedly expressionist air to proceedings which is not repeated at any other point in the film.
As Debroy Somers and his band get going for their first song – on a beach set with some women in swimwear decorously arranged in the foreground – the band’s trio of singers start a Co-op-themed song to the tune of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’:
There is a Co-op in the town
And there, my true love sits her down
And well she knows each penny she could spend
Will go towards her dividend
At this point the scene changes to a shot of a young, fashionably dressed housewife, who is pointedly unpacking her CWS-bought groceries, taking care to position the labels carefully towards the camera.
This song seamlessly blends into the next one, in which the singers describe the various customer types of the Co-op in catchy rhymes accompanied by visual representations of these customers: a retired couple (“Charles and Jane live all alone/in a four-room flat they call their home”); a young man buying his wedding suit (“Lovely fit/I must admit”); a young woman who cleverly saves money on day-to-day purchases so she can still dress fashionably (“She knows the way to shop/where value is the top”); a young married couple of whom the husband always tries to eat everything in the larder immediately after the wife has done her Saturday shop at the Co-op.
Despite the inclusion of the young groom, women are firmly established as the Co-ops main customer base. They are pithily categorised and visualised as ‘maid’, ‘widow’, ‘flaunty extravagant queen’ and ‘housewife that’s thrifty’. These four women are then shown to harmoniously share a pitcher of lemonade, drinking ‘to the health of CWS.’
This section takes up about half of the fifteen-minute video. It is followed by a dance sequence of the six ‘Co-operettes’, after which the most surreal part of the film is launched: the ‘Carrot and Onion dance’. Against a set of three larger-than-life tins (Vegetable Soup, Butter Beans, and Carrots) two female dancers emerge. One is dressed in an orange suit that covers her entire body with a green head-dress; the other in a green, short-skirted dress.
As Carrot and Onion they dance a graceful pas-de-deux in which they overcome the difficulty of Onion’s smelly leaves. Their performance is followed by more work by the Co-operettes, this time tap-dancing. The final minutes of the film include more comic relief by Harold Walters, and a final song by the Debroy Somers band:
In every town there is a store
You pay much less, you get much more
For CWS has goods galore
For you, fair maid
From January to December
There are always goods in store
For you, fair maid
The film ends with a title card reading that ‘All the goods featured in this film are CWS products’ – but hardly any goods are featured with any prominence. The first housewife featured is shown unpacking products, and there are some shots of a full larder, but in either case it is not possible for the audience to easily identify what the products are. The only packages that are really clear are the three enlarged cans used as the set for the ‘Carrot and Onion’ dance. No foodstuffs are mentioned by name in any of the songs.
Instead, the focus of the whole film is about the customers who shop at Co-op, and how the organisation caters to what the film presents as the full range of different women. In what is an early example of customer segmentation, women are primarily distinguished by their marital status (unmarried, married, widowed). However, whilst the film may be presumed to target women as the primary shoppers, the repeated display of the ‘Co-operette’ dancing troupe instead suggests a male target audience. During these dance sequences, the deceit and comedy of the sound stage set is dropped in favour of a more straightforward attempt at Hollywood glamour.
Co-operette shows how a British firm used cinematic conventions to create an advertising film that was much more about selling a concept than about selling specific items. The overall effectiveness of the film is, perhaps, somewhat reduced by its attempt to provide comedy, catchy songs, stage performance, and the Carrot and Onion dance which appears to be in a genre all of its own. Despite the overt messaging in the film implying that only women are the CWS’ customers, the film’s varied format indicates that it tries to appeal to all audience groups in the cinema, including men and children.
Co-operette can be viewed for free on BFI Player, for readers based in the UK.