Alastair Sim

FeaturedAlastair Sim

Alastair Sim was born in 1900 in Edinburgh. After an aborted university education and active duty during the Great War, he trained as an elocution teacher and took up a lectureship in that subject at the University of Edinburgh in 1925. Elocution and drama teaching was his route into an acting career, of which his parents were not supportive. In 1930 Sim moved down to London, where his acting career took off.

After several years of stage roles, Sim made his film debut in 1935, with no fewer than five film credits to his name in that year alone. All were mostly low-budget comedies or crime films, in which Sim played smaller parts. Throughout his career he mostly played supporting roles, with the notable exception of Scrooge (1951) in which he played the titular character. It’s still considered one of the best portrayals of Scrooge on film.

As the 1930s continued, Sim got more substantial film roles in higher-profile films. His lanky frame (he was just over 6 feet tall) and distinctive voice made him instantly recognisable to audiences. In 1936 Sim starred opposite George Formby in the Monty Banks-directed Keep Your Seats, Please!. In the same year he was also directed by Monty Banks in the comedy The Man in the Mirror, although his name was misspelt as Alistair in the film’s credits.

In 1937-38, Sim starred opposite Jessie Matthews three times, in Gangway (1937); Sailing Along (1938) and Climbing High (1938). In Gangway, Matthews plays a journalist who gets caught up in a trans-Atlantic criminal plot. Sim is Detective Taggett, who is attempting to arrest the criminals. In Sailing Along, Matthews plays a precocious young woman and aspiring dancer who is brought up on a tug-boat. Sim here is the supporting character Sylvester, a confused and slightly simple-minded man who helps Matthews in her career aspirations. By the time of Climbing High, Sim was sufficiently famous that his name was included on the film’s poster. He again plays a supporting comedy relief character in this film.

Sim was only seven years older than Matthews, but in none of the three films is there the slightest inkling that he may be a suitable romantic partner for her characters. In fact, throughout the films Sim made in the interwar period, he plays characters who don’t have any romantic entanglements with co-stars. This was no doubt partly to do with his appearance, which did not meet conventional beauty standards of the period. Even in his thirties, he looked older than his years, and appeared somewhat ageless. His persistent casting in comedy roles further diminished his romantic appeal.

It is surprising, then, that in the 1937 crime film The Squeaker, Alistair Sim plays a character who has a settled domestic life, just when you least expect it. In The Squeaker Sim is Joshua Collie, a crime reporter for a popular newspaper. Journalists featured regularly in British interwar films, and were usually portrayed on the move, gathering news on the street; or pushing against deadlines in the newspaper offices.

Collie, on the other hand, is shown inside his comfortable living room, where he smokes a pipe after dinner like a suburban family man. He is not particularly interested in chasing down news, even though his friend, Scotland Yard inspector Barrabal, is feeding him plenty of information about the big criminal case he is working on. Collie reluctantly follows Barrabal’s leads only when his editor threatens to sack him for neglecting his duties. Alastair Sim played against the expected stereotype of the crime reporter, by making Collie a bit lazy and committed to his creature comforts. This enabled him to position himself again as a comedy character, even in a serious crime film which was based on a hard-boiled Edgar Wallace novel.

At the tail end of the interwar period Sim starred opposite Gordon Harker, another prolific interwar actor of comedy roles, in Inspector Hornleigh (1939). Sim played Sergeant Bingham, assistant to Harker in the titular role of Hornleigh. The pair are asked to investigate a murder in this comedy. The film was successful enough to spawn two sequels: Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday (also 1939) and Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941).

Sim’s acting career lasted until his death in 1976. In the 1950s, as well as his interpretation of Scrooge, Sim also starred as the headmistress in the original St Trinian’s films, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954); and Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957). Although his most commercially successful roles date from the second half of his career, he built up his screen persona and fame throughout the interwar period.

Edmund Gwenn

FeaturedEdmund Gwenn

British actor Edmund Gwenn is internationally best-known for his role as Kris Kringle (‘Santa’) in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. This role earned Gwenn his only Oscar win (although he was nominated once more in 1950). Prior to his move to Hollywood at the start of World War II, Gwenn was a prolific stage and screen actor in interwar London. His instantly recognisable demeanour and voice made him a reliable choice for both leading and supporting roles.

Gwenn was born in 1877 and started his acting career on the late-Victorian and Edwardian stage, specialising in supporting roles of plays written by contemporary playwrights such as J.M. Barrie and John Galsworthy. He was a successful stage actor and did not make the transition to film acting until the start of the interwar period, when films were settling into the length and narrative types that we still recognise today.

Gwenn starred in only two feature-length silent films (Unmarried, opposite Gerald du Maurier, in 1920; and The Skin Game in 1921) before giving films a rest again until talkies became the norm in the early 1930s. Gwenn likely recognised that his power as an actor required him to be able to use dialogue as a means of expression. Once sound film work was available, he took to it with a vengeance, making no fewer than 36 films in the 1930s. No mean feat for an actor who was already 53 when the decade started.

In this film work, as in his stage roles, Gwenn continued to be associated with contemporary English writers. His first foray into sound film was a remake of The Skin Game, released ten years after the silent version in 1931. Both films were based on a Galsworthy play; the 1931 version was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.[1] Gwenn stars as Hornblower, a nouveau-riche industrialist who is looking to buy a piece of land from genteel landowner Hillcrist, to build industrial works. The conflict between ‘old England’ which values rural landscape, tranquillity and honour; and the new, industrial outlook which favours trade, progress and money, is at the heart of the film. The emotions between the two men and their families run so high that Hillcrist’s wife decides to reveal a damning secret about Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, as a result of which the young woman commits suicide. Hornblower, crushed with grief, decides to leave the area. Hillcrist’s victory is hollow, however, as he contemplates the moral depths to which his family has stooped to defend their way of life.

Gwenn played a man from a different social background a couple of years later in The Good Companions, a 1933 adaptation of a popular J.B. Priestley novel.[2] This Victor Saville-directed film remains a popular example of a British interwar comedy, and also stars Jessie Matthews and John Gielgud. In The Good Companions, Gwenn plays Jess Oakroyd, a Northern labourer who gets fired for speaking up against a malicious manager. Oakroyd decides to travel ‘south’ in search of work. In the Midlands, he stumbles across a faltering theatre troupe called the Dinky Doos. Simultaneously with Oakroyd’s arrival in the midlands, the film also follows teacher Inigo Jollifant and Miss Elizabeth Trant, who reach the Midlands from the East and West of England respectively. The three travellers join the Dinky Doos and help to make the troupe a success. The Good Companions was well-received by critics, who praised it as a ‘British’ picture at a time when the British film industry had been under considerable domestic pressure to prove it could stand up to the influence of Hollywood.[3]

Gwenn used his non-threatening appearance to great effect in 1936’s Laburnum Grove (directed by Carol Reed), which has been discussed in detail elsewhere in this blog. In this film, Gwenn plays Radfern, a seemingly innocent and typical suburban husband who is secretly involved in an international crime network. The film is, again, based on J.B. Priestley source material. Reed directed Gwenn again in 1938, as the working-class lead of Penny Paradise. This comedy-drama is set in Liverpool, and Gwenn plays Joe Higgins, a tug-boat captain who religiously enters the ‘penny pools’ – a postage betting system in which players try to guess the correct football scores for the entire league. Miraculously, Higgins guesses all the scores correctly, and he believes himself a rich man. However, his friend Pat, who was supposed to have posted in Higgins’ winning score, forgot to post it on time. Higgins gives up his job and throws a large party for the entire community before Pat has the courage to tell him what has happened.

Penny Paradise is a fairly typical 1930s British comedy, with the expected happy ending and moral lessons for the main characters. Gwenn rounded out the decade with a very different part, in what has commonly been called the ‘first Ealing Comedy’. Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Walter Forde, was released in 1939. It follows the plight of a small beer brewery which is up against a big, capitalist brewing corporation. The conviviality of the workers at the small brewery models how Balcon planned to run his new studio. Gwenn plays Edward Ironside, the head of the industrial brewer. The film’s most striking scene (to a modern audience) is a brief shot of Ironside reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this last role of the decade, just before his move across the Atlantic, Gwenn came full circle with his performance as Hornblower in The Skin Game: that of an industrialist intent on undermining traditional British values. The changes which Britain underwent in the 1930s, however, meant that whilst at the beginning of the 1930s it was the life of the landed gentry that was worth protecting, by the end of the decade it was the working-class community spirit that was held up as the British ideal.

Gwenn continued to act almost up to his death at the age of 81, in 1959. His later roles increasingly included incidental parts in TV series. Whilst his later, American career may have brought him international and lasting fame and recognition, his frequent appearances in British films of the 1930s made him a key contributor to the interwar cultural landscape.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: IB Tauris, 2010) p. 316

[2] Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 81

[3] Ibid., p. 123

First a Girl (1935)

FeaturedFirst a Girl (1935)

Musical star Jessie Matthews was at the prime of her career in 1935 when she starred as the lead in First a Girl.[1] This musical comedy directed by Victor Saville is one version of a popular film plot; it is a remake of the German comedy Viktor und Viktoria (1933), which was re-made in West Germany in 1957, and most famously adapted by Hollywood in 1982, as Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews.

The basic plot of all four films, including First a Girl, is similar. An aspiring stage actress (in the British film she’s called Elizabeth, and naturally is played by Matthews) meets Victor, an actor who aspires to Shakespeare but in reality performs as a female impersonator. When a bad cold prevents Victor from performing one evening, he persuades Elizabeth to take his place, by pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman. This is a great success, and ‘Victoria’ quickly becomes an international star, forcing Elizabeth to appear as a man when in public. Things get complicated when Elizabeth falls in love with a (straight) man, who believes her to be a man also.

Whilst both the 1933 original and the 1982 American version are regularly interpreted as queer films, First a Girl underplays the homosexual possibilities of Elizabeth’s flirtation with her male love interest. This is partly due to Matthews’ own appearance. As The New York Times noted upon First a Girl’s US release in 1936:

Normally it is with sorrow and self-hatred that this column hints at the inadequacies of a star, but this time it is a distinct pleasure to call Miss Matthews’s acting performance hopelessly bad. In “First a Girl” she is pretending to be a man and making no headway at all, except with the members of her supporting cast, who swoon with astonishment upon discovering her sex. 

Quite beside Matthew’s obviously feminine appearance, First a Girl underplays any potential sexual tension between Elizabeth and her love interest, Robert, until Robert understands that Elizabeth is a woman. Prior to that point, the film focuses on the comedic potential of Elizbeth’s cross-dressing, rather than any transgressive possibilities in her relationship with Robert.

Jessie Matthews as ‘Victoria’, appearing with Sonnie Hale, in First a Girl

All versions of the film appear to include a similar sequence in which ‘Victoria’ is ‘forced’ to perform activities which are coded as specifically masculine, to comic effect. In First a Girl this sequence is set in a Parisian nightclub, where Victor and Elizabeth find themselves during their European tour. Elizabeth has to wear a tuxedo here, and hangs out at the bar with Robert – a part of the club only available to men. She quickly gets drunk when trying to keep up with Robert’s rate of drinking, and struggles when trying to smoke a cigar. Whilst these scenes give Matthews an opportunity to display her comedic talent, they also undermine her sexual capital whilst she is performing as a man. As soon as Elizabeth’s true gender identity is revealed to Robert, she turns from an unsophisticated youth into a charming young woman.

It is significant that these scenes of gender-bending performance are set in Paris – a location that invited connotations of licentiousness and sexual transgression in the British popular imagination of the 1930s. Interestingly, in the 1933 German film, ‘Victoria’ is in London when forced to undertake activities which may ‘out’ her as a woman. ‘Victoria’ finds herself in an environment that is both literally and figuratively foreign to her.

As Jeffrey Richards points out, male and female impersonation had a long tradition on the British theatrical and music hall stage.[2] The character of Victor, then, works well in this British film. He is portrayed as older than Elizabeth (although actor Sonnie Hale was only five years Matthews’ senior) and can easily be read as a music hall performer in the Victorian tradition. His female impersonation act is purely comic, whilst Elizabeth’s is sophisticated. He links the film’s plot to a specifically British performance tradition, whereas the glossy song-and-dance numbers performed by Elizabeth have more in common with Hollywood productions.[3] The film makes no explicit reference to its German origins.

First a Girl, then, significantly dilutes the queer and transgressive possibilities of the original source material, which allowed the film to flourish in interwar Britain. According to the BFI, it was a great commercial success when it was released (something also suggested by its export to the US the following year). It remains a very watchable and enjoyable film for modern audiences; and a good example of how British interwar filmmakers moderated both European and Hollywood influences to arrive at a British compromise between the two.

First a Girl is available for rental on BFI Player (UK only) and on DVD via Network on Air.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), pp. 217-218

[2] Ibid., p. 218

[3] This is not unusual for Jessie Matthews films. See Sarah Street, ‘Got to Dance my Way to Heaven’: Jessie Matthews, art deco and the British musical of the 1930s, Studies in European Cinema, 2:1, (2005), 19-30

Gracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

FeaturedGracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

Gracie Fields was one of Britain’s biggest stars during the interwar period, and she is certainly one of the stars that is best remembered today. With her signature Lancashire accent; dry, witty comedy; and hearty songs, she came to represent a version of Britishness grounded in no-nonsense hard work and companionship. Whilst the music hall stage was her natural home, in the 1930s Fields expanded her reach through appearing in a string of musical comedy films. In these, she generally played a working-class woman with aspirations to perform as a singer. Her characters, often called Grace/Gracie or Sally, met any obstacles with good cheer and eventually achieved their ambitions.

In 1938, Fields was invited to perform for Queen Mary (the late King’s wife and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II) in the Royal Albert Hall. To mark the occasion, Picture Post featured an extensive spread titled ‘A Day With Gracie’.[1] The text and pictures of this article give an insight in how Fields’ celebrity persona was constructed at this stage of her career, when she had become an established star.

Rochdale News | News Headlines | Appeal for Gracie Fields memories for new  biography - Rochdale Online

The article starts with an imaginative recounting of how a six-year old Gracie used to sing on the streets of Rochdale, whilst dreaming of future riches: ‘She thought of the day when she would be a famous actress, with enough money to buy clothes, mansions, motor-cars, and holidays abroad.’[2] The article positions Fields’ working-class and Northern background as a pivotal part of her development as a singer. However, it also states that a desire for material wealth underpinned her ambition.

The article goes on to describe Fields’ first attempts as a singer: supporting an existing music hall act; singing at local competitions and charity events; joining a troupe of ‘Juveniles’ on tour. Throughout these descriptions, the article constantly refers back to Fields’ father’s scepticism of her ambitions, and the need for Fields to bring income into the family. After the failed Juveniles tour, Fields’ mother ‘got Gracie a job as an errand girl to a confectioner.’[3] The article goes into the formative part of Fields’ career in such detail, because it allows the journalist to present Fields as completely determined in her ambition to succeed. Like Fields’ personas in her various films, she was not deterred by setbacks, but instead kept trying to find a way to realise her ambitions.

Initially, this path to success took the form of incredibly hard work: Fields was working shifts in a local mill, going to school, and also attending dance classes in Manchester several times a week.[4] She studied music hall acts and eventually was given another opportunity to perform at a local music hall. Rather ironically, it was not until Archie Pitt, a performer sixteen years her senior, ‘spotted’ her and decided to build his next show around her, that Fields’ career really took off. She married Pitt in 1923, when she was 25 and he 41; the couple divorced in 1939 and the marriage was already very rocky by the time the Picture Post article was published – Pitt does not appear in any of the images accompanying the piece.

Although the article refers to Fields as ‘probably the highest-paid woman in the world’[5] and the ‘Most-interviewed woman in the world’[6] (both unsubstantiated claims), the article is at great pains to stress that Fields is no diva. She finds buying clothes ‘a bore’, likes walking around in old clothes, and is ‘vague’ – a characteristic apparently demonstrated by her tendency to leave half-written letters lying about the house. Although the article originally set up the premise that the young Gracie dreamt of riches, it then takes pains to underline how little the adult Grace is interested in a wealthy lifestyle.

Even more strikingly, the article refers very minimally to Fields’ actual work, despite her enormous success in that area. Instead it focuses a great deal on her work with children. No fewer than 8 out of the 17 photographs that accompany the piece, feature her nephew Michael, who looks about three years old. The captions state that ‘There are almost always children in the house’[7] and ‘Hundreds of children have spent happy afternoons’[8] in Grace’s garden. She also set up a charitable children’s home near Brighton.

What is glaringly absent through the many references to her apparent fondness of children, is any acknowledgement that Fields herself was childless. At the time the article was written she was 40, which is explicitly referred to in the text; the conclusion is quickly drawn that Fields’ childlessness at that age was not wanted. The reality is that Fields’ battled cervical cancer which greatly diminished her ability to get pregnant. Whilst it is understandable that Fields was not keen that her medical history would be known to the public, one wonders how she felt about being presented as such an explicitly maternal figure in this article.

Overall, the Picture Post article is ambiguous in the way it presents Fields. She is both British through and through and someone with international allure and star power. The article devotes considerable attention to her ‘talent, hard work, and personality’[9] and ability to overcome setbacks. At the same time, it frames Archie Pitt as the catalyst of her success. It presents Fields as a rich woman who loves re-modelling her vast house, but also someone who ‘is not interested in money’.[10] It provides an interesting study of how the interwar press attempted to present a successful female star as she moved into middle age.

See Gracie Fields in action in this clip recorded in 1938

[1] ‘A Day With Gracie’, Picture Post, 29 October 1938, pp. 10-16 and 70

[2] Ibid., p. 12

[3] Ibid., p. 14

[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16

[5] Ibid., p. 12

[6] Ibid., p. 15

[7] Ibid., p. 12

[8] Ibid., p. 14

[9] Ibid., p. 70

[10] Ibid.

Night Alone (1938)

FeaturedNight Alone (1938)

The 69 comedies produced in Britain in 1938 include two George Formby vehicles (I see Ice! and It’s in the Air), Break the News starring Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier, and the marital comedy Night Alone. With a modest run-time of one hour and 16 minutes, the film nevertheless manages to combine a comedy about misunderstandings between husband and wife with a sub-plot involving the international smuggling of fraudulent banknotes.

By the tail end of the 1930s, the British film industry was steadily producing upwards of 150 films a year, and the majority of them were comedies. Comedy is more culturally specific than crime or melodrama, and cheaper to produce. Despite their increased output, British film studios could not usually hope to compete with high-budget Hollywood productions.

Welsh actor Emlyn Williams (who in the same year starred in the hard-boiled They Drive By Night) plays Charles Seaton, a solicitor who for seven years has been happily married to Barbara (Lesley Brook). Whilst on route to visit Barbara’s sister Vi, and see Vi’s daughter in a school play, Charles is unexpectedly detained by urgent business. This means the couple have to spend a night apart for the first time in seven years: Charles in a hotel and Barbara at Vi’s house. Despite Charles’ best intentions to stay in his room for a quiet night in, when he meets his old friend Tommy, he is persuaded to go to a nightclub in Villiers Street. Vi, at the same time, needles Barbara to the point that she starts doubting Charles’ loyalty.

A fair portion of the film is set in the nightclub that Charles, Tommy and two of Tommy’s friends, Gloria and Celia, visit. By 1938, the perceived threat of nightclubs to society had mellowed to the point that the film can joke about the club’s dubious legal status. When Tommy first tries to persuade Charles that he should come out, Charles tries to get out of it by arguing that he is not a member of the nightclub. ‘All you have to do is put a bob in a slot machine and you’re a member for life!’ scoffs Tommy. Towards the end of the film, when Tommy has to give an account of the party’s movements to a police officer, he immediately gives a fake name and address, on the assumption that he is part of a regular nightclub raid and will be let off with a warning.  

Tommy is presented as a bit dim-witted, but ultimately harmless and fun; he certainly knows how to behave in the nightclub. Charles inability to do the same, and his awkwardness in the pub, is played up for its comedic value. After his initial refusal to dance, he sits at the table with Celia, who appears to be in league with the nightclub staff. She first gestures over the cigarette seller. Charles agrees to buy a cigar, but baulks when he’s told it will cost 10 shillings. He then feels obliged to buy a packet of cigarettes instead, even though that is still overpriced at 4 shillings. Celia then waves the girl who sells chocolates, over. Charles again feels that decency compels him to buy some chocolates for Celia, even though they cost 25s and the girl does not give him any change.

Later in the evening, Charles shares a few dances with Gloria, with whom he gets on much better than with Celia. In his nervousness, Charles keeps drinking until he passes out. The other three manage to get him out of the club and into Gloria’s apartment, which is nearby. Celia and Tommy head out again, and Gloria is about to settle in on the couch when her American boyfriend unexpectedly shows up. He has just arrived by plane from Paris with a suitcase of forged banknotes, and the police are hot on his heels. Gloria and he escape the flat, leaving the drunk Charles snoring on the bed. When the police raid the flat shortly afterwards, they arrest Charles as an accomplice to the smuggling and put him in a cell for the rest of the night. The next morning, Charles has to try his hardest to get back to the hotel before Barbara and Vi come back. He manages to do so with seconds to spare and Barbara believes him when he says he’s not left the hotel all night: marital bliss is restored.

Charles has several dances with Gloria and the pair share light-hearted jokes (sample: Charles: ‘I’m not as young as I look’; Gloria: ‘You don’t look young at all’). It is not until Charles thinks he’s about to be arrested for forgery that he is concerned about Barbara finding out what has happened during the night. Night Alone presents Charles initial devotion to his wife and his quiet life as unnatural and comic. In line with other popular comedies of the time, such as the Aldwych farce A Cuckoo in the Nest, the narrative suggests that there is nothing wrong with spending a night in another woman’s flat, as long as your wife doesn’t find out about it.

Barbara, for her part, is admired by one of the other parents at the school play. Vi encourages her to enjoy a little flirtation on the grounds that Charles is bound to be doing the same. The ‘flirtation’ goes no further than an awkward, stilted conversation between Barbara and the man. Her refusal to engage with the man is part of her virtue as a wife, as is her blind belief that Charles would never do anything untoward. Barbara is constantly compared to Vi, whose cynicism and jokes about sex mark her out as coarse, in the same way Tommy is shown to be unreliable compared to Charles. Vi and Tommy are a lot of fun to watch but Night Alone makes it clear that the reward of a stable marriage with trust and companionship is worth more than short-term fun and entertainment.

Jack Hulbert

FeaturedJack Hulbert

A wildly popular musical comedy star of stage and screen in the 1930s, Jack Hulbert has since been dismissed by some critics as a ‘light entertainer’[1] who ‘can seem tirelessly jaunty company.’[2] During the peak of his film career, Hulbert ranked high in popularity charts. In 1933 he was voted the top British male star in audience questionnaires and 1936 he was the third most popular British star based on domestic box office returns.[3] He starred in fourteen films across the decade.

Jack Hulbert was born in Cambridgeshire in 1892 to a doctor. He studied at Cambridge where he joined the Cambridge Footlights. His brother Claude Hulbert, who was eight years his junior, followed the same trajectory. Both brothers became two of the first Footlights alumni to reach acting success and fame. After Cambridge, Jack Hulbert got a role in a theatre production, playing opposite Cicely Courtneidge. The couple married in 1916 and stayed together for the rest of their lives, often working together on stage and screen.

After completing his war service, Hulbert returned to his career in variety theatre and produced and acted in numerous stage productions across the West End. During the 1920s, British films were still silent and therefore did not provide a suitable medium for comedy stage stars like Hulbert and Courtneidge, who depended on witty dialogue and song-and-dance numbers to win over their audiences. Further, until the adoption of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, very limited numbers of British films were being produced at all.

By the start of the 1930s the couple found themselves in debt due to financial mismanagement. As the British film industry was at the same time transitioning to sound, the time had come for Hulbert and Courtneidge to make the leap to the silver screen. Their first appearance was as themselves in Elstree Calling! (1930). As implied by the title, this film was a series of separate sketches performed by popular entertainers supposedly broadcasting from Elstree studios north of London.

After Elstree Calling! Hulbert moved into narrative fiction films, and increasingly worked separately from Courtneidge. In common with other popular comedy stars of the period, such as George Formby and Gracie Fields, Hulbert usually played characters called Jack. The titles of some of his films, such as Jack’s the Boy (1932), Jack Ahoy (1934), Bulldog Jack (1935) and Jack of All Trades (1936) worked to eliminate the difference between the actor and his characters even further.

Hulbert’s persona was a confident and likeable middle-class charmer who was able to be both comic and romantic.[4] . His films ‘appear to exist primarily for the display of [his] talents as singer, dancer and comedian.’[5] In Jack of All Trades, he plays a likeable chancer who is looking for a job. After striking up an acquaintance with Lionel, a bank clerk (played by Robertson Hare) Jack starts showing up at Lionel’s office and pretend that he works there. His pretence is so successful that he ends up convincing the bank bosses to build an entire new shoe factory. The scenes where Jack and Lionel present their proposal to the Board, all of whom approve the plans because they are too embarrassed to admit that they have no idea what they are being shown, still have the power to resonate with modern audiences. The final third of Jack of All Trades, however, descends into fast-paced slapstick action typical of Hulbert films with a lot of physical comedy.

Hulbert singing ‘Where There’s You, There’s Me’ in Jack of All Trades

A similar tension between narrative and apparently stand-alone action can be found in Bulldog Jack, a film satirising the extremely popular Bulldog Drummond book and film series. Bulldog Drummond was a fictional, highly successful police inspector. At the start of Bulldog Jack, Jack Hulbert’s character accidentally crashes his car into Bulldog Drummond’s, injuring the latter and making him bed-bound. When the young daughter of a jeweller asks for help because her father has fallen victim to a gang of thieves and blackmailers, Drummond asks Jack to pretend to be the famous ‘Bulldog’ and take on the case.

Again, the first section of the film gives plenty of space for comedy and romance, before the action-packed climax set in the London Underground. The criminal gang have set up their headquarters in a disused Underground station, and the gang leader hijacks an Underground train in an attempt to get away. Jack ends up crawling over the top of the train carriages, like a true action hero, to stop the train. Prior to this final chase, Bulldog Jack uses sped-up shots of Jack and his friends chasing the criminals up and down the spiral staircases of the Underground station.

By the mid-1930s the use of sped-up film was quite unusual; it was a device much more often used in the ‘cinema of attractions’ that pre-dated World War One. Jack Hulbert’s films did not fully conform to the conventions of narrative filmmaking. Instead, they applied techniques from earlier film genres and from the variety stage onto the long-form fiction film medium. Although this allowed Hulbert to perform in a similar mode across his stage and film productions, as a result his 1930s film work can jar to modern audiences and make it more challenging to understand Hulbert’s enormous popularity at the time.

Elstree Calling! can be viewed on YouTube.


[1] James Chapman, ‘Celluloid Shockers’, in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 1998), p. 91

[2] Brian McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades: Robert Stevenson’, in The Unknown 1930s, p. 164

[3] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010) pp. 160-161

[4] McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades’, p. 163

[5] Ibid.

Featured

They Drive By Night (1938)

Towards the end of the interwar period, Warner Brothers’ British arm produced the thriller They Drive by Night, directed by Arthur Woods. This should not be confused with the 1940 American film of the same title, starring George Raft and Ida Lupino; although both films make reference to the long-distance lorry driving community, which is what their titles also refer to. Woods was still only in his early thirties when he directed They Drive By Night, but he’d already had a long career in the industry as a director (Radio Parade of 1935; Music Hath Charms) and screenwriter (Red Wagon; I Spy). They Drive By Night is a thriller, different from the majority of Woods’ work which was in musical comedy. Woods died in 1944 in active combat after joining the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The hero of They Drive By Night is ‘Shorty’ Matthews, played by Emlyn Williams. A the start of the film Shorty has just been released from prison, and he goes to look up Alice, an old flame who works as a dance hostess. When he arrives at her lodgings, Alice is dead in her room. Shorty panics and goes on the run, by posing as a long-distance lorry driver. With the help of Molly, one of Alice’s friends and colleagues, he keeps out of the hands of the police and is eventually able to track down Alice’s real killer. The killer is an older man with an obsession for the ‘criminal mind’, who used to often dance with Alice at the dance hall.

Although They Drive By Night is based on a British novel and set in England, the influence of the American producers on the film is marked. It is a prime example of the kind of film that met the criteria of a ‘British’ film under the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, without actually conveying the British cultural values the Act also aimed to promote. For example, the characters use Americanisms and slang throughout the film. When Shorty first gets out of prison, he meets a woman in a bar: she is ostentatiously chewing gum, and her hair is dyed platinum blonde. This was hardly the type of womanhood thought to reflect British values, but Shorty and the barman look after the woman appreciatively.

They Drive By Night’s overall narrative also espoused values that are not typical of British films of the period. The main characters are a convicted criminal and a dance hostess turned lorry girl. As Julia Laite has explored, the lorry driving community caused concern in 1930s Britain as some young women hitched rides from drivers. It was suggested that this type of hitchhiking sometimes involved an exchange of sexual favours, which in turn led to the spread of venereal diseases amongst the lorry driving community.[1] This in turn could lead, it was feared, to unsafe road situations when lorry drivers were ill, thus neatly linking the whole matter to ongoing road safety debates.

In They Drive By Night, however, there is no suggestion that Molly sleeps with the lorry drivers that help her, and the general practice of girls hitching rides is not condemned. When one of them tries to take advantage of her, she fights him off. This driver is presented as a ‘bad sort’ and not representative of the whole lorry driving community – a second driver whom Shorty spends some time with is shown to be faithful to his wife at home. Overall, the lorry driver scene is presented as a more positive male environment than Shorty’s criminal network back in London; but ultimately the film presents a heterosexual coupling as the only truly appropriate outcome for Shorty.

The police play only a minor part in They Drive By Night, and they are not instrumental to the capture of Alice’s killer. Unlike other thrillers of the late 1930s such as The Squeaker or The Dark Eyes of London, the police inspector in They Drive By Night is not one of the protagonists who leads on the resolution of the case. Indeed, they do not feature in the film’s climax, in which Shorty and Molly are at home with the killer and he nearly succeeds in murdering Molly, at all. They Drive By Night skips over the killer’s arrest and trial – the parts of the process in which the police would be involved – straight to the day of his execution.

The police primarily feature as a plot device that gives urgency to Shorty’s actions as the police chase him. Shorty’s criminal record is no impediment to his status as the film’s hero, but throughout the film characters encourage him to ‘go straight’. First the owner of his regular bar tells Shorty not to go back to his old criminal habits. Then Molly’s steadfast support of Shorty whilst he is on the run for the police persuades him to say goodbye to his criminal life for good and turn himself in voluntarily. Only then is he able to outwit the killer and save Molly’s life as a traditional hero would. The eighteen months Shorty has done in prison for his earlier crimes are sufficient to wipe these off his slate and allow him a fresh start; arguably a philosophy more reflective of American culture than British values. Molly, too, is presented as a suitable romantic partner despite her past as a lorry girl and her work as a dance hostess; two roles which were regularly connected with loose morals.

They Drive By Night seems to represent a transitional point in British interwar cinema, where American values had influenced British culture so much that they started to permeate British films. Despite the best efforts of the legislators, they were not able to stem the tide of American cultural influence on the domestic film industry. This influence went beyond hairstyles and mannerisms to a fundamental re-appraisal of morality and social values.

They Drive By Night is available to view on Youtube.


[1] Julia Laite, ‘Immoral Traffic: Mobility, Health, Labor, and the “Lorry Girl” in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies (2013) 52:3, pp. 693-721 (693-4)

Benita Hume

FeaturedBenita Hume

Benita Hume was born Benita Humm in London in 1906. Although she’s largely forgotten today, and there is little information available about her online, she was an incredibly prolific actress in interwar British films. Like some of the other actors discussed on this blog, she made the move to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. At the eve of World War Two Hume married British-actor-in-America Ronald Colman and she largely retired from acting, meaning that she spent the bulk of her acting career in the British film industry.

Hume started out on the stage but very quickly moved into film, landing her first, small, part in the 1925 Jack Buchanan vehicle The Happy Ending. There followed a tiny uncredited part in Hitchcock’s Easy Virtue. In 1928 Hume starred in The Constant Nymph, an adaptation of an immensely popular interwar novel. This Adrian Brunel-directed drama, with Ivor Novello as the romantic lead, was a box-office success.

Although Hume does not play one of the leading roles, the film definitely raised her credentials. After The Constant Nymph, Hume was never out of work again and usually made around four films a year. Her dark colouring and aristocratic features led her to be cast as the wealthy socialite as much as the love interest; her characters were usually thoroughly modern women. In 1929, she starred opposite Jameson Thomasin the sci-fi film High Treason. Although Hume’s character Evelyn Seymour is romantically involved with Thomas’ character Michael Dean, she still leads a revolution of women against him when she realises his actions may unleash a world war. Evelyn Seymour is not the kind of love interest who defers her judgement to a man.

Later in the same year, Hume played an extremely capable secretary in Géza von Bolváry’s The Wrecker. In this film, the heir to a train company, ‘Lucky’ Doyle, is trying to figure out who is after a series of deadly train crashes. Hume is the company secretary, Mary, who is (of course) also Doyle’s love interest. The film’s climax sees Mary travelling solo on a train that is due to be ‘wrecked’. Doyle manages to prevent the disaster from occurring, after which he and Mary team up to unmask the Wrecker for once and for all.

Hume made the transition sound film apparently without issue. She used her stage career to good advantage: in 1930 she appeared in the original Broadway cast of Symphony in Two Flats, written by and starring Ivor Novello. Novello and Hume also took on the leading roles in the British film adaptation of the same play, which was released in the same year (a separate ‘American’ version of the film was made in which Hume’s role was fulfilled by American actress Jacqueline Logan).

A couple of years later, Hume appeared opposite Leslie Howard in Service for Ladies. Howard at this point had already transitioned his career to Hollywood and was allegedly in Britain for a brief holiday when Alexander Korda persuaded him to spend a few days filming this light-hearted comedy. Here, Hume is not the love interest but rather the wealthy foreign socialite Countess Ricardi, who does her best to seduce Howard’s Max Tracey and distract him from the real object of his affection.

In 1934, Hume played a lead part in the British production Jew Süss, which, unlike the notorious 1940 Nazi-sanctioned film of the same name, was made with a view to be a sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish people. In the same year, she starred opposite Douglas Fairbanks in another Alexander Korda film, The Private Life of Don Juan. It was to be Fairbank’s last film. Korda intended Don Juan to have the same success as his Private Life of Henry VIII which he’d made the year before, but unfortunately Don Juan flopped badly at the box office.

As the 1930s continued, Hume’s portfolio increasingly included American as well as British film productions. In Britain, although she was continually cast as either the female lead or the second most substantial female part, she never really had a career-defining role, nor was she ever nominated for any major prizes. Some of the films she appeared in were cheap productions that are no longer available for viewing, which is no doubt partially why Hume’s name is largely forgotten today. She was, however, a household name in the interwar period, and her considerable acting talent is on display in the range of films in which she took leading parts.

The British 1934 film Jew Süss can be viewed on YouTube.

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The Lodger (1927 and 1932)

This post is the second of a two-part mini series about Marie Belloc Lowndes’ story The Lodger. The first post considers the short story and novel Lowndes wrote. This post discusses two film adaptations of the book made in interwar Britain.

Marie Belloc Lowndes novel The Lodger, which appeared in 1913, was twice adapted for the screen during the British interwar period. The first, silent, adaptation was directed by Hitchcock in 1927; a sound remake directed by Maurice Elvey appeared five years later. Building on last week’s post which considered the differences between the short story version of The Lodger and the novelisation, this post unpicks the differences between the novel and the films.

The main difference between the novel and the screen adaptations is the identity of the Lodger. In the novel, there is no doubt that the lodger, Mr Sleuth, is responsible for a series of murders of women across London. The book’s tension is generated by the concern of Mr Sleuth’s landlady, Mrs Bunting, that the police are going to find out her lodger is a murderer, and how that will impact her own position. In both film versions of the story, the lodger is ultimately revealed to be a ‘good’ character, who is trailing the murderer in an attempt to stop him. Whilst Mrs Bunting in both films is equally as suspicious of her lodger, because he keeps leaving the house on nights that murders are committed, he is ultimately revealed to have honourable reasons for this.

Hitchcock has publicly claimed that this softer ending was foisted on him, and that he preferred the book’s ending. One presumes that the sound remake followed the same template for the sake of appeasing audiences familiar with the first film. Whilst the change makes the story feel a lot less sinister, it also aligns it more with expected film plots in which the main male character is revealed as a hero and suitable love interest for the female character.

This female character, Daisy (Mr Bunting’s daughter), is much more fleshed out in both films than she is in the book. The role is played by June Tripp in the first film, and by Elizabeth Allan in the second film. In the novel, Daisy is only present in the house every now and then, and she only meets Mr Sleuth face to face right at the book’s end. Generally, Daisy comes across as a bit dim and easily led. In a reflection of women’s increased participation in the workforce during the interwar years, Daisy has a job in both films. In the 1927 version, she is a mannequin for clothes – it is a job, but still one in which she is expected to be passive and decorative. In the 1932 film her job has changed to that of a telephone operator; in that capacity she overhears one of the murders as the victim desperately tries to ring for help.

In the films, Daisy plays a much more material part in the story, and her relationship with the Lodger is more substantial. In both films, she meets him at several points throughout the story and is on friendly terms with him. The fact that the lodger is played by film star and heartthrob Ivor Novello in both productions helps to present him as a viable love interest for Daisy. In the 1932 film, Daisy goes so far as to reject her original boyfriend in favour of the lodger. Again, these changes, which introduce a conventional young romance into the story, make the source material conform more closely to cinematic genre conventions.

Daisy’s original boyfriend, Joe Chandler in the book, also transforms between films. In the Hitchcock version, Joe is a police officer tasked with hunting down the murder, as he is in the novel. Like in the novel, Joe is oblivious to the possibility that the lodger is the murderer he is after – although of course unlike in the book, in the film the lodger is revealed to be innocent. Hitchcock also used the motif of the police officer who is blind to the guilt of those closest to him in his 1929 film Blackmail, so he perhaps appreciated the irony Lowndes built into the novel.

For the later film, Joe Chandler became John Martin, who is not a police officer but rather a tabloid reporter. By 1932 tabloid journalists had become much more socially visible as circulation figures of newspapers rapidly increased. In films, journalists were often presented as pseudo-detectives, collaborating with the police to investigate crimes. Perhaps it was felt that to change the Joe/John character from a police officer to a journalist was not too much of a change. John Martin is a ruthless reporter; at the start of the film, when Daisy witnesses a murder across the telephone line, he passes a picture of her on to his news desk without her consent. To her horror, Daisy finds the portrait printed on the paper’s front page the next day. John excuses this behaviour as he considers it his duty to present his bosses with all the scoops he gets. John’s inconsiderate behaviour paves the way for Daisy to ditch him for the lodger at the end of the film.

A final significant change between the novel and the 1932 film, specifically, is the identity of the lodger. In the book, Mr Sleuth is presented as a British gentleman, albeit one with possibly some foreign blood in him. In the Elvey film, the character is called Angeloff, and Novello plays him with a thick Ruritanian accent. The film’s resolution reveals that Angeloff has been on the trail of the murderer for many years, and that they have both travelled from a foreign country to Britain. Whereas the novel codes the criminal as domestic, the film explicitly presents him as a foreigner, who has wreaked havoc in Britain. The audience can rest assured that such horrific crimes would not be committed by a fellow citizen.

The Lodger enjoyed considerable popularity for decades after its release. However, throughout those years the story, which was originally closely modelled on the Jack the Ripper murders, developed to increasingly deviate from the original to reflect the changing times. The main element of the story, however – a man roaming around the streets at night killing young women – sadly remains relatable to audiences even to this day.