Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

FeaturedLooking on the Bright Side (1932)

By 1932, Gracie Fields was already a huge star. Although she’d only appeared in one film, 1931’s Sally in Our Alley, she had been a major stage star and popular singer since the mid-1920s. After the big success of her first film, it was quickly followed up with a second one which showcases both Field’s singing talent and her comic wit.

In Looking on the Bright Side Fields plays Gracie, first in a series of film roles in which her character have her name, to provide the illusion that she is essentially playing herself. Gracie is a manicurist who lives in a flat in a modern housing estate in London. Her boyfriend, Laurie, is a hairdresser in the same beauty parlour, and lives in a flat opposite Gracie. He is also a budding songwriter who is looking for his big break.

Directors Basil Dean and Graham Cutts make the most of the stage set with its symmetrical staircases running up the front of the building. During the film’s opening, all inhabitants of the estate sing along to Laurie’s newest song in a scene reminiscent of stage musicals. Laurie’s song is the titular ‘Looking on the Bright Side’ which reflects the particular brand of working-class optimism on which much of Fields’ stage persona traded.

Gracie and Laurie in their adjacent flats in Looking on the Bright Side

In the beauty parlour, where Laurie and Gracie work as a team on actress Josie Joy. When the couple tell Josie about Laurie’s new song, she offers to introduce them to her manager, Oscar Schultz. Gracie is sceptical but Laurie enthusiastically jumps at the chance to further his career. When Laurie’s song is a success with Schultz, Laurie gives up his hairdressing job and is swept off his feet by the attentions of Josie Joy.

Laurie doing Miss Josie Joy’s hair in Looking on the Bright Side

Gracie is left behind on the estate. She loses her job when the arrogant Josie Joy comes in for a manicure and Gracie is unable to treat her civilly. After briefly taking a job as a female police officer – a section of the film mostly used to showcase Fields’ comic talent – Laurie sees the error of his ways and he and Gracie reunite for a big singalong at the estate.

Fields’ celebrity persona was inextricably linked with her own, working-class Lancashire roots. She retained her strong northern accent throughout her career, and her films celebrate working-class community over individual fame and riches. The class conflict in Looking on the Bright Side is introduced when Laurie is first invited to play his songs for Oscar Schultz. When Laurie and Gracie arrive at Schultz’ suite at the Dorchester Hotel, a busy cocktail party is in full swing. The women present call each other ‘darling’ and use expressions like ‘it’s a scream!’ – expressions which the down-to-earth Gracie would never use.

After Laurie and Gracie perform their song, Schultz singles out Gracie and tries to persuade her to agree to a role in his next musical production. Although Schultz’ intentions appear to be honourable, his way of cornering Gracie and persuading her to drink another cocktail put her off, and she declines his offer. Laurie, in the meantime, is sitting at the piano surrounded by women and does not want to leave the party with Gracie. Instead he stays out till 3.30am, much to Gracie’s dismay.

Laurie’s dreams to make it big in showbusiness are portrayed as naïve and, to a certain extent, wrong. This is partly because his talent as a songwriter is limited; without Gracie, he struggles to write good songs and eventually Schultz sacks him. Gracie, on the other hand, is genuinely talented but is not interested in pursuing fame. Instead, she prioritises the community of the estate over individual ambition.

The sense of community is not only shown in the estate-wide singalongs that bookend the film, but also in Gracie’s relationship with her neighbour Hetty and Hetty’s young daughter Bettina. No explanation is given for Bettina’s absent father. Hetty works as a police officer and Gracie frequently looks after Bettina when Hetty is on duty. The very warm and natural relationship between Fields and the child actor provides a strong counterpoint to the vacuous lovemaking between Laurie and Miss Joy.

Fields acting with Bettina Montahners in Looking on the Bright Side

The section in which Gracie signs up with the Metropolitan Police has little relevance to the plot. Female police officers were still relatively rare in 1932, and they were certainly not regularly portrayed on screen. Predicably, the rigid enforcement of rules within the corps is used to set up some physical slapstick comedy situations for Fields. Although Fields quickly decides to leave the Police force, it is not the notion of female police officers which is rejected, but rather the idea that Fields herself would be suitable in such a controlled environment.

Looking on the Bright Side takes a reasonably meta approach to the business of song writing and song-selling, as the film itself was clearly a vehicle for selling records and sheet music of the songs it includes. At the same time, it obfuscates its own part in commercial song writing by presenting other careers and industries as more valuable and viable.

Listen to Gracie Fields sing ‘Looking on the Bright Side’

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.

Jack Hulbert

Jack 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.

Jessie Matthews

Jessie Matthews

Jessie Matthews was one of the biggest British screen stars of the 1930s. She achieved success not only in Britain, but also in the US, even though she never made a Hollywood film.[1] Matthews starred in a whopping fourteen films between 1931 and 1938; yet most contemporary articles foreground her private life over her film career. The BFI article linked to above references her ‘generally loveless marriages’; many sources refer to the details surrounding her second marriage to co-star and director Sonnie Hale.

Such interest in Matthew’s romantic life, with its undertones of tragedy and disapproval, undermine her considerable professional success. Matthews was not only an actress, but also a singer and dancer; her films showcase her considerable talent and the hard work she put in to master her craft.

Matthews was a commercial success almost from the start of her film career, but her establishment as a real star originated from the beginning of her collaboration with director Victor Saville. Saville and Matthews first worked together on The Good Companions; followed by Friday the Thirteenth (both 1933); Evergreen (1934); First a Girl (1935); and It’s Love Again (1936).

The Good Companions was based on a J. B. Priestley novel[2]; the text, as Lawrence Napper has argued, seeks to “express ‘modernity’ (…) without a retreat either away from the popular audience or into cultural pessimism.”[3] In other words, it seeks to create a balance between literary intellectualism and popular entertainment. By casting Matthews in a prominent role in the film, Saville picked an actor who herself embodied this duality. Matthews was born in a large, working-class family in Soho but much-commented-on elocution lessons allowed her to shape an upper-middle-class star persona.[4]

After The Good Companions, in which Matthews plays an ambitious actress from a humble background, Saville continued to cast Matthews in similar roles. The seemingly upper-class actress repeatedly played aspiring stage stars from common backgrounds:

  • In Friday the Thirteenth, as related in the post about that film, she’s an aspiring stage star caught in a bus crash.
  • In Evergreen Matthews is the daughter of a famous turn-of-the-century music hall star, who decides to impersonate her mother to achieve fame and success.
  • In First a Girl – an adaptation of the German film Viktor und Viktoria (1933) – she is an aspiring stage star who pretends to be a female impersonator to achieve fame and success.
  • In It’s Love Again she’s an aspiring stage star who pretends to be a socialite to achieve fame and success.

It was not unusual for 1930s actors on either side of the Atlantic to have such a defined star persona and to appear in a number of films along the same formula. In fact, in this respect Matthews had much in common with the other big British female star of the time, Gracie Fields. Although one of Fields’ key characteristics was her strong Northern accent, which was diametrically opposed to Matthew’s ‘plummy’ pronunciation, Fields also starred in a number of films in which she is a performer from a humble background who ends up achieving great success. As a female film viewer the message you received remained the same, regardless of whether you identified more with Matthews or Fields: being a stage performer was a desirable and exciting career through which you could find romantic love.

However, whereas Fields’ films were grounded in a very British, very working-class environment, with a strong emphasis on community, collaboration and staying positive in the face of adversity; Matthews’ films on the other hand presented the viewer with a glamourous and consumerist fantasy.[5] The sets are bright and light, with smooth floors that are perfect for impromptu dance performances. In Evergreen, Matthews’ character and her would-be love interest stay in a modern mansion in which she can showcase the latest luxury homeware whilst waltzing across the rooms.

To the modern viewer, the Matthews/Saville musicals feel akin to Hollywood films of the same period. Although the films are (mostly) set in Britain, they express a cosmopolitan outlook. They contain handsome, worldly men; art deco architecture; cocktails; and trips to the French Riviera. Contemporary audiences were already familiar with this fantasy world through the American films also available at the British box office. Matthews’ films brought that glamour to a British setting, suggesting that the same level of sophistication and modernity was also within reach on this side of the Atlantic. Although intellectual circles in interwar Britain retained a stubborn anti-Americanism, the popular success of Matthews as a film star indicates that the mass audience had no such qualms.

Today, however, Gracie Fields has remained relatively prominent in the public imagination, whereas Matthews is largely forgotten. Fields body of work evokes supposedly fundamental British qualities which appear to reflect the ‘good old days’ of community, common sense and national pride. Matthew’s oeuvre, on the other hand, shows only how much 1930s British culture was also about international cultural exchange and a dissolution of national identity. In the current times, which seem to be a near-constant quest of what it means to be ‘British’, it is Field who provides the more appealing answer to most; but the films of Jessie Matthews show that even a hundred years ago, being British was as much about having an international outlook as it was about celebrating local culture.

Jessie Matthew’s films are available on DVD from Network On Air.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 207

[2] For more on J.B. Priestley see the post on Laburnum Grove (1933)

[3] Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 83

[4] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, pp. 208-209

[5] Sarah Street, ‘‘Got to Dance my Way to Heaven’: Jessie Matthews, art deco and the British musical of the 1930s’, in Studies in European Cinema vol 2. no. 1 (2005), 19-30