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.

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Laburnum Grove (1936)

Laburnum Grove was written as a play in 1933, by J.B. Priestley, a prolific writer and dramatist.[1] It was first staged at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End (which is currently, Covid restrictions permitting, home to the Play That Goes Wrong). Laburnum Grove transferred to Broadway in 1935 and was turned into a feature film a year later by Associated Talking Pictures. The film adaptation was directed by Carol Reed, who had only recently graduated from Assistant Director positions. The play was adapted for the screen by Anthony Kimmins, who later on in the 1930s would repeatedly direct George Formby on screen. The result is one of the few interwar British films that is explicitly situated in London’s suburbs.

In Laburnum Grove, we meet the Radfern family; father, mother, and daughter Elsie. They live in the eponymous street in an unidentified suburban development. The Radferns have got their in-laws staying over, Mr and Mrs Baxley. Elsie has a beau whom she is hoping to marry. Mr Radfern has some vaguely identified clerking job in a company; he appears content with his suburban routine of commuting to work and tending to his vegetable patch in the evening.

Both the Baxley’s and Elsie are keen on more wealth and success, and both ask Mr Radfern to lend them money – as he does not appear to be attached to it. Over dinner, Mr Radfern calmly explains that his suburban life is merely a front and that he is in fact the lynchpin in an international criminal network, through which he makes a fortune. The rest of the film plays on this tension between his identities as unremarkable ‘middle England’ character and his criminal career. Radfern’s family struggle to believe his claims, and the Scotland Yard inspector investigating the criminal network finds it hard to pin anything on the seemingly innocuous Radfern.

Laburnum Grove is effective because it plays on what, by 1936, was already being cemented as stereotype in the British popular imagination: what it means to live in the suburbs. The title of the film refers to the street in which the Radferns live: although it appears to be a specific location, in reality it stands in for any suburban street. A quick Google Maps search suggests that there are numerous Laburnum Grove’s still in London today, for instance in Hounslow, Southall and New Malden – all areas that saw extensive suburban development during the interwar period.

London’s physical environment expanded rapidly during the interwar period; first many soldiers returned from the front which spurred on the (partially successful) Homes Fit For Heroes campaign. Throughout the 1920s the British economy grew, and more Londoners were able to save up disposable income to put towards a house. The economic crisis of the 1930s did not impact the spending power of people in the south-east of England as much as it did the North, but it did make building materials cheaper.[2] Additionally, the replacement of horse-drawn vehicles with motorcars negated the need for growing wheat to feed the horses, which is what most of Middlesex had been taken up with.[3] This created ideal circumstances for private investors to buy up newly available plots of land and fill them up with competitively priced semi-detached houses. Many people were now in a position to buy a sanctuary away from the noise and smoke of the inner city.

With this mass flight to the outskirts of the city also came assumptions and stereotypes about the people who lived in suburbs. Most suburban developments looked very similar to one another, as private investors and contractors wanted to maximise the number of houses for the lowest possible cost. Consequently, the stereotypical suburban worker also became interchangeable in the public’s imagination: an anonymous stream of men all walking to the same train station in the morning, and returning home via the same route at night. So quickly was the notion established that suburbanites were bland and middle-brow that even during the interwar period, some developers started to market their own houses as “away from suburbia” or “non-suburbanised.”[4]

The gardening that Mr Redfern occupies himself with in Laburnum Grove is also stereotypical – as most suburban houses included a garden, gardening became the quintessential leisure pursuit for suburban men in the interwar period.[5] In Laburnum Grove, Redfern uses his gardening activity as a way to covertly meet up with his neighbour, who is also a partner in the criminal enterprise. Because gardening was such a common leisure activity for suburban men, and because it appears unthreatening (or even emasculating), it provides a strong cover for nefarious activities.

Laburnum Grove repeatedly and skilfully plays with the preconceptions audiences have about suburbs and the people who live in them. The perfect ordinariness of Redfern’s life serves to hide the most extraordinary reality, even from his own family. There is an additional meta-textual element to this, also; very few fiction films in interwar Britain were set so explicitly in a suburban environment. The vast majority of films set in London set their action in either the East End or West End, both of which of course had their own stereotypes attached to them. It appears that writers and filmmakers shared the assumption that there was little of interest to be found in suburban life; that it was too ordinary to ask audiences to pay attention to this.

In Laburnum Grove, Priestley masterfully uses and subverts these expectations of suburban life both within the world of the story itself, and between the film text and its audience. Laburnum Grove provides a British counterpart to the more familiar, post-War American depictions of suburbia. Viewing the film in the 21st century highlights how little these depictions and expectations have changed; the film still works and (most of) the jokes still ‘land’. Despite all the changes London has gone through, the notion of what it means to live in a suburb still endures.

Laburnum Grove is available on DVD from Network On Air.


[1] Priestley turned Laburnum Grove into a novel as well, co-written by Ruth Holland

[2] Mark Clapson, Suburban century: social change and urban growth in England and the United States (Oxford: Berg, 2003) p. 2; Stephen Halliday, Underground to everywhere: London’s underground railway in the life of the capital, (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), p. 113

[3] Alan A Jackson, Semi-Detached London: Suburban Development, Life and Transport, 1900-1939 (1st ed 1973; 2nd ed 1991), p. 57

[4] Alan A Jackson, Semi-Detached London, p. 162

[5] Mark Clapson, Suburban Century, p. 68

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George Formby

George Formby (1904-1961) was one of the top-grossing and most popular British film stars of the late 1930s, both in Britain and abroad. Like many other British film stars of the period, he started out as a variety stage performer; he also had a prolific music output. Born in Wigan, Formby’s trademark features were his strong Lancashire accent, his ukulele, and a consistent presentation as an honest, simple, hapless man finding his way through a complicated world.

Formby entertaining the troops in France in 1940. By War Office official photographer Puttnam L A (Lt) – Public Domain photograph

Formby started his career on the regional stage in 1921 and made his West End debut at the Alhambra in 1924.[1] As a variety performer, he would sing songs and perform short skits, usually on a bill with other acts. He recorded many of his stage songs as records; he put out a total of 189 songs during his lifetime.[2] Many of his most famous songs contain liberal sexual innuendo; film historian Jeffrey Richards has pointed out that sex was ‘a subject of fundamental importance which was not allowed to surface (…) in popular culture’ during the 1930s.[3]

Richards builds on connections initially drawn by George Orwell, between working class culture, seaside postcards, music hall, and sex. For example, Formby songs like ‘Delivering the Morning Milk’ and ‘In My Little Snapshot Album’ are narrative songs that could be part of a music hall show; the lyrics of both are brimming with sexual innuendo and references to voyeurism. Songs like this were a key part of Formby’s brand, but when he moved into film production, he had to balance them with the conventions and expectations of a wider audience.

Formby and his wife Beryl, who had been a stage performer in her own right prior to their marriage, decided to dip their toes into the world of cinema in 1934. The resulting film, Boots! Boots! and its successor in 1935, Off the Dole, were low-budget productions which proved successful in the north of England.[4] On the back of that success, Basil Dean at Associated Talking Pictures offered Formby a contract for eleven films at his studio in Ealing.[5]

It is at this point that Formby’s explicit northern brand, so heavily dependent on saucy jokes and working-class culture, needed to be made palatable for a wider audience. Like that other Lancashire star whose popularity had preceded Formby’s – Gracie Fields – the film producers at ATP had to find a way to make Formby appealing to those in London and the Home Counties, who represented a large slice of the domestic cinema market, whilst not alienating his original fanbase.

That the innuendo-heavy content of Formby’s songs was not a comfortable fit for the protectors of good taste is evidenced by the fact that John Reith, the original BBC director-general, banned ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ from being broadcast. This song does, however, appear in Keep Your Seats, Please!, the second film Formby made with ATP, in 1936. As Jeffrey Richards has argued, in the films, ‘the songs, however cheeky, were contained in and by stories whose attitudes to life and work were irreproachable, thus limiting the extent of the rebellion the songs embodied.’[6] As the overall narrative of the film was conventional, it could give occasional space to a daring song without this proving too disruptive.

In the films Formby made for ATP during the second half of the 1930s, he inevitably plays a young, ambitious man who endures a series of adventures and mishaps, but who in the end achieves his goal and gets the girl in the process. Except for Formby’s own instantly recognisable and consistent persona, the films’ plots are generic. Each contains some musical numbers which do not necessarily gel with the narrative; both Formby himself and Michael Balcon (who was head of ATP from 1938) in hindsight agreed that the films would have been stronger, narratively, without the songs, but that they needed to be included to attract Formby’s original fanbase.[7]

None of the films Formby made with ATP are set in the north; most of them are set in a generic urban environment that could be deduced to be London (such as Keep Your Seats, Please!, Feather Your Nest and I See Ice!, made in 1936, 1937 and 1938 respectively). The associations with the working classes were also toned down, with Formby increasingly playing characters that had skilled professions.[8]

The Formby films of the 1930s, then, represent an awkward clash of class cultures. He owed his popularity to his clear northern identity, and his ability to build on working-class cultural traditions such as music hall and seaside entertainments. Formby was careful to maintain this persona, which included keeping the same appearance and the same catchphrases throughout his career. On the other hand, once he was contracted by a London-based, national film studio, his appeal had to be widened without alienating his original audience. This tension even played out in Formby’s personal life; he and Beryl moved to London in 1936 but he continued to regularly visit Lancashire on the weekends.[9]

The films promote Formby in a way that would allow southern and middle-class audiences to make sense of him; in most of them he is a plucky and enterprising young man who manages to overcome obstacles. The fragmented nature of the music hall performance is replaced with a cohesive, 90-minute narrative arc. However, as noted above, the musical interludes still disrupt this narrative and provide a window on the decidedly more recalcitrant potential of popular comedy. In this way, Formby’s film output emblematises the social tensions of interwar Britain, where social upheaval changed class dynamics. Formby was able to provide working-class audiences with a hero they could identify with, but only at the cost of significantly toning down the more impertinent aspects of his output.

George Formby’s films are widely available on DVD; seven of his ATP films are available in Optimum Home Entertainment’s ‘George Formby Collection’. Seven of his films made in the 1940s are available in the ‘George Formby Film Collection’ DVD boxset distributed by Sony. His music is even more easily accessible, for example on the 3 CD ‘The Absolutely Essential Collection – George Formby’ produced by Big 3.


[1] John Fisher, George Formby (London: The Woburn Press, 1975), p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 23

[3] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 193

[4] David Bret, George Formby: A Troubled Genius (London: Robson Books, 1999), p. 40

[5] Fisher, George Formby, p. 49

[6] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 196

[7] Alan Rendall and Ray Seaton, George Formby, (London: WH Allen, 1974), pp. 79-80

[8] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 199

[9] Bret, George Formby, p. 56