Murder in Soho (1939)

FeaturedMurder in Soho (1939)

On the eve of the Second World War, Associated British Picture Corporation produced Murder in Soho, a gangster flick starring American actor Jack La Rue (not his real name, obviously). The presence of Italian-American La Rue, with his cleft chin and strong jawline, brings Hollywood glamour to what is otherwise a crime film with an extremely thin plot. Murder in Soho appears to be a solitary British outing for the actor, although he did take the opportunity to get married whilst visiting London for the film’s shooting.

Like the almost contemporaneous They Drive By Night, Murder in Soho works hard to incorporate American slang into its dialogue, presumably to appeal to younger audiences. They Drive By Night, however, was produced by the British arm of American studio Warner Brothers. Murder in Soho comes from a British production company that was Hitchcock’s home for many of his silent films including Blackmail (1929); Murder! (1930)and The Skin Game (1931). Alongside these British thriller/crime films, ABPC (which previously operated as British International Pictures) also produced musical films such as Harmony Heaven (1930) and Over She Goes (1937). They did not have a strong background in producing American-style crime films – and it shows.

The plot of Murder in Soho is extremely thin. La Rue plays nightclub owner Steve Marco, who runs the ‘Cotton Club’ in Soho. He has just hired a new singer for the club, Ruby Lane. Steve is interested in Ruby as he thinks she has ‘class’. He doesn’t know, however, that Ruby is married (but separated from) Steve’s British associate Joe Lane. When Joe betrays Steve and steals £2000 off him, Steve kills Joe. Soon police inspector Hammond comes asking questions. He recruits Ruby to work with him and reveal Steve’s criminal activities. Also in the mix, although largely superfluous to the plot, are a journalist called Roy Barnes who frequently visits the club and falls in love with Ruby; Steve’s ex Myrtle who he has dumped in favour of Ruby; and performing duo ‘Green and Matthews’ who also work at the club.

The ‘Cotton Club’ in Murder in Soho

Murder in Soho contains all the popular elements of a 1930s crime film: a nightclub; an international criminal gang; a singer; a police inspector; a journalist. Yet these elements are not fused together with a compelling plot or livened up by any original ingredient. Indeed, the film’s insistence to try and introduce Americanisms into the narrative detracts even more from the action. Steve and his henchmen speak in thick Italian-American accents. The character ‘Lefty’ in particular, who is the young comedy sidekick, litters his dialogue with references to ‘dames’ and ‘cops’. The name of the club obviously refers to the famous Harlem nightclub – but there were no British Cotton Clubs and the name does not have the resonance in Britain as it would do in the United States. Steve employs Black bartenders in his club – again a practice which was much more common in the States than it was in Britain. Compared to depictions of nightclubs in other British films of the 1930s, the Cotton Club in Murder in Soho feels more like a replica of a Hollywood set than of anything resembling British nightlife.

Gun-toting American gangsters in Murder in Soho

The very opening of Murder in Soho also presents a version of Soho that was much more deliberately criminal and seedy than what is usually presented in British films. Familiar shots of the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus are interspersed with a close-up shot of a roulette table; a shot of an underground dive bar; and a shot of two prostitutes propositioning a man in an alleyway. Unlike the majority of British films of the period, which worked to preserve an image of London and Londoners as ultimately adhering to the law and to a high moral code, Murder in Soho explicitly positions Soho as a criminal space. Granted, the main criminal element in the film is foreign, but Joe Lane is British, as is Myrtle, Steve’s scorned ex who ends up killing him. Soho here is a lot seedier than the Soho portrayed in, for example, Piccadilly (1929).

Rather surprisingly, then, Murder in Soho also contains plenty of comic notes, and a few secondary characters who are only included to provide comedy relief. Most notably, the performing duo Green and Matthews, which weave throughout the narrative. Lola Matthews is portrayed by Googie Withers, who this early on in her career already had made a name for herself as an excellent comic actress. As Lola she patters on non-stop, innocently flirting with every man and completely oblivious that her dance partner Nick Green is besotted with her. A frequent club visitor whose role is simply credited as ‘Drunk’ provides diversion in scenes when he tries to eat with chop sticks or enters the dancefloor for a solo performance. These interludes do undercut the drama and suspense that the film attempts to create at other points.

Murder in Soho is a late-interwar curiosity – a film that tries to appeal to British audiences by inserting American glamour; a film that tries to be both serious and funny at the same time; and that ends up feeling like a painting-by-numbers effort that adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Murder in Soho is available on DVD from Network on Air

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

FeaturedThe Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Just as the end of the 1920s saw the introduction of sound film in British cinema, by the time the 1930s drew to a close, a new innovation was introduced: Technicolor – or more correctly, three-strip Technicolor. Earlier versions of ‘two-colour Technicolor’ had been used in Hollywood since the First World War, for example for segments of Carl Laemmle’s 1925 The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. Three-strip Technicolor gave more realistic colour images, and is the process which is famously used in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Technicolor required financial investment, so it took some years to bring it to Britain. The first British Technicolor film was Wings of the Morning, made in 1937. It was followed hot on its heels by a film of Britain’s most lavish film producer, Alexander Korda. A Hungarian by birth, Korda moved in Britain in the early 1930s, when he’d already worked in Hollywood and various European film industries. In 1933, he had a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic with The Private Life of Henry VIII, a lavish period piece that depicted Henry Tudor belching and stuffing his face with food at regular intervals. The role of Anne Boleyn is played by Merle Oberon, in one of her first substantial screen roles.

Korda cast her again as the female lead in The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1934, and also in The Private Life of Don Juan in the same year. By 1939, the pair were married, although the marriage only lasted to the end of the Second World War. During their courtship, they made The Divorce of Lady X (1938), in which Oberon stars opposite Laurence Olivier. This comedy, with its frank discussion of divorce and extramarital relations, shows how ‘propriety’ became less important in Britain towards the end of the interwar period.

The Divorce of Lady X is a re-make of a 1933 film, Counsel’s Opinion, which Korda also produced. Both films are based on a play by Gilbert Wakefield. The 1933 film, whilst favourably received upon its release, is no longer extant. The Divorce of Lady X, by contrast, was syndicated for TV release in the US in the 1940s, and is widely available on DVD and online.

The story of The Divorce of Lady X centres on that favourite trope of British interwar cinema: a man and a woman, who are not married, are forced to spend a night together in a (hotel) room. Nothing untoward happens, but everyone assumes the couple must be having an affair. A similar trope is used in Night Alone, as well as numerous Aldwych farces, such as A Cuckoo in the Nest, Rookery Nook, and Lady in Danger. In The Divorce of Lady X, Leslie Steele, a young socialite, and Everard Logan, a divorce lawyer, are thrown together due to an impenetrable fog, which leaves them both stuck in the same central-London hotel. Leslie talks Logan into sharing his suite with her – her sleeping in bed, him on a mattress in the adjacent sitting room.

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, getting ready for an
uncomfortable night on the floor in The Divorce of Lady X

During the course of the evening Logan incorrectly assumes Leslie is married. The next day, a member of his club, Lord Meere, comes to Logan’s office and asks him to arrange for a divorce from Lady Meere, as the latter spent the previous night in the same central-London hotel, with a man in her room. Logan assumes that Leslie, who has not given him her last name, is Lady Meere, and that he unwittingly has become both the barrister and the co-respondent in Lord Meere’s divorce suit.[1]

Logan continues to court Leslie, telling her he does not care that his career will be ruined, as long as she will marry him after she’s obtained her divorce from Lord Meere. Leslie continues to play along, although she herself has also fallen in love with Logan. Eventually, Leslie meets the real Lady Meere, and the two women concoct a plan to reveal the truth to Logan. Logan is initially embarrassed by being taken for a ride and he storms off to France, but Leslie follows him onto the boat and manages to change his mind.

Leslie (Merle Oberon) nursing a sick Logan (Laurence Olivier) on the boat to France

Right from the outset of the film, it is made clear that Logan has had multiple affairs – when Leslie comments that his pyjamas are hideous and he should dump the woman who buys them for him, he shoots back ‘we parted six months ago!’. At the same time, he rings up another woman to apologise for not being able to see her that evening, due to the fog. Although Leslie is not explicitly shown to have any lovers of her own, she is very confident and flirts with Logan in a way that makes it unlikely that he is her first love interest. The real Lady Meere, moreover, is repeatedly quoted as having had four husbands and several ‘episodes’ with other men, and at the end of the film it is made clear that she is cheating on Lord Meere. Crucially, none of this is depicted as wrong or objectionable; although all characters admit that four divorces is perhaps a bit much, Lady Meere is also shown to be a sympathetic and attractive woman. When Logan admits to his assistant that he (as he thinks) has fallen in love with a married woman, it is a matter of amusement rather than embarrassment, and divorce is depicted as largely normalised.

Lady Meere (Binnie Barnes) and Leslie (Merle Oberon)
plotting on how to break the truth to Logan (Laurence Olivier)

This representation of marriages as likely not lasting nor monogamous clearly presents a challenge when the central relationship of the film must also fulfil narrative convention. For the audience to be invested in the relationship between Leslie and Logan they must believe that it will end in a happily ever after, not a marriage that will quickly dissolve because one or both parties are conducting affairs.

To resolve this, The Divorce of Lady X uses the trope of the woman-as-saviour: Leslie, for all her modern manners, is essentially a respectable girl. When she first meets Logan, he is extremely cynical about women, due to his experience in the divorce court. This cynicism reaches a high point during a withering closing-arguments monologue in one of his divorce cases, which Leslie witnesses from the public gallery. ‘Modern woman has disowned womanhood, and refuses man’s obligation!’ he thunders. ‘She demands freedom, but won’t accept responsibility! She insists upon time to “develop her personality”, and she spends it in cogitating on which part of her body to paint next.’

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, spouting against Modern Woman in court

Little wonder that Leslie is not impressed after hearing that speech! But no fear – her steadfast conviction that she is the one to save and reform Logan is rewarded in the end. When she follows him onto the boat to France at the film’s close, the choppy waters give her a chance to mother and nurture Logan. Her triumph is crowned by a final scene in the divorce court, in which Logan’s speech is the opposite of his earlier outburst. Appearing now as the defence of the woman accused of divorce, rather than as counsel for the husband, Logan gushes that his client is ‘a woman – that unique and perfect achievement of the human species (…) especially evolved for the comfort and solace of man.’ The message is clear: Leslie has managed to persuade Logan that married life is, after all, best. The open discussion of, and jokes about, divorce that form the backbone of The Divorce of Lady X point towards the ‘permissive society’ of post-War Britain; but its resolution of the protagonists’ story in a traditional marriage shows that in the 1930s the stability of conservative traditions still held sway.

The Divorce of Lady X can be viewed on the PBS website.


[1] In British divorce law, a co-respondent is a person cited in a divorce case as having committed adultery with the respondent ie. the half of the couple not initiating the divorce.

Kate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

FeaturedKate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

Kate Meyrick was known as the ‘Nightclub Queen’ in interwar London. She ran a string of nightclubs, of which the ‘43’ in Gerrard Street was the best-known. Nightclubs operated on the edge of the law – a club in itself was not an illegal space, but if alcohol was sold outside of hours permitted by the club’s license, the club owner could face hefty fines or even prison time. Additionally, clubs were supposed to only be open to members, who paid yearly subscriptions and were known to be of good character. In practice, Meyrick and other club owners generally allowed guests to become ‘members’ upon arrival.

Kate Meyrick made substantial money from her nightclub ventures, although they also cost her a lot to maintain. Her career effectively ended when it was revealed in 1929 that she had been bribing Police Sergeant George Goddard.[1] Goddard would tip Meyrick off if any of her clubs were likely to get raided, so that she could make sure no illegal activity was taking place in them.[2] Both Goddard and Meyrick were convicted – the latter to fifteen months’ hard labour which negatively impacted her health.

Throughout Meyrick’s career as a nightclub owner, she had become a well-known public figure, recognizable from press reports to those who would never get close to setting a foot in her clubs. After her death in 1933, publisher John Long published her memoirs, The Secrets of the 43.[3] Extracts from her ‘private diaries’ were subsequently serialised in the Sunday Express. These posthumous publications show how Meyrick’s family worked to shape her public image from convicted criminal to caring mother.

Meyrick had eight children, and professed that her main goal in entering the nightclub business was to give her family financial support. Many of her children entered her business as managers and staff in her ever-expanding network of clubs. Although Meyrick did not leave her children much capital when she passed, she had been able to secure advantageous marriages for most of them. Mary, one of Meyrick’s eldest daughters, married the Earl of Kinnoull. It was with his introduction that Meyrick’s diaries were published in the Sunday Express, giving them an aura of respectability.

In his introduction, the Earl calls his mother-in-law a ‘remarkable’ and ‘dynamic’ woman who hoped to give her children ‘brilliant chances she had been so determined they should enjoy.’[4] Her decision to start selling alcohol illegally is framed as the only option she had to make money for her children, as well as a result of her ‘impulsive nature’. The subsequent move through periods of financial success followed by raids, fines and prison sentences is related as ‘the slow slipping of the power of wealth from her fingers, her powerlessness to help her children as she longed to do.’

Advert in the Daily Express of 4 March 1933

The diary serialisation was advertised by the Sunday Express with reference to the notorious criminals Meyrick had hosted in her clubs, consciously tightening the public’s association between nightclubs and serious crime. If we accept the printed diaries as accurate copies of what Meyrick recorded, she herself was also eager to align herself and her clubs with notorious criminal cases. She describes that Ronald True, who was convicted of the murder of Gertrude Young, was in the ‘43’ the night before his arrest:

Have just seen the account of the arrest of Ronald True for the murder of Gertrude Young. He was in the 43 last night. Wonder if I am psychic? I went downstairs at 4 a.m. to stop the band, and ask them to come up to the first floor. When I went upstairs I felt I must turn round. When I did turn I found Ronald True gazing at me with murder in his eyes. (…) I suppose I ought to have warned somebody. But who?[5]

True was arrested on 9 March 1922 and was therefore in the club on 8 March – Gertrude Young had been murdered on 6 March, so any warning Meyrick could have given would not have saved her life. The ‘murder’ in True’s eyes was presumably imagined by Meyrick after she heard of his arrest.

This didn’t dissuade Meyrick from believing in her psychic abilities. She raises the topic again when she describes allegedly greeting Patrick Mahon in one of her clubs, shortly before he is arrested for the ‘Crumbles murder’; one of the more graphic murders to take place in England in the 1920s.

He [Mahon] was only in last week. How dreadful to think I shook hands with a murderer. (…) I am sure I am psychic. Just as in the case of Ronald True, Mahon’s eyes impressed me. They were not like the eyes of ordinary people: there was something behind them.[6]

Through the publication of Meyrick’s autobiography and diaries, her family were able to exercise control over her public image, which in turn affected their own reputations. By downplaying the illegal activities in which Meyrick had participated and foregrounding her commitment to her children, the Earl of Kinnoull was presenting his mother-in-law as a courageous and hardworking woman. He also profited from her by selling her diary to a newspaper. The Sunday Express, in the meantime, milked Meyrick’s proximity to notoriety to boost its own circulation. After her death, Meyrick’s own words became a tool for others to use.


[1] Heather Shore, ‘Constable dances with instructress’: the police and the Queen of Nightclubs in inter-war London’, Social History, (2013) Vol. 38, No. 2, 183–202, p. 199

[2] Clive Emsley, ‘Sergeant Goddard: the story of a rotten apple or a diseased orchard?’ In: Srebnik, Amy Gilman and Levy, Rene eds. Crime and culture: an historical perspective. Advances in Criminology (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 85–104

[3] Kate Meyrick, The Secrets of the 43 (London: John Long, 1933)

[4] Earl of Kinnoull, ‘The Things She Could Never Tell’, Sunday Express, 25 February 1933, p. 9

[5] ‘Sergeant Goddard’s First Raid’, Sunday Express, 5 March 1933, p. 13

[6] ‘Valentino – Mahon – Kreuger – and Jimmy White’, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13

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

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.

“The most suppressed novel ever published in England”

When we think of banned books in interwar Britain, it’s likely that two examples spring to mind: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Radclyffe Halls’ The Well of Loneliness (1928). Lawrence’s book, however, was not actually banned in Britain at the time of its publication. Rather, the book’s frank treatment of extramarital sex meant that Lawrence was not able to find a commercial publisher for it. Instead the book was printed in limited runs for private subscribers; and later, a censored, abridged version of the novel was circulated more widely. Chatterley’s reputation as ‘banned’ actually stems from the 1960 obscenity trial that was started when Penguin decided to print the full, unabridged version of the novel for the mass market.[1] Penguin won the landmark case from the government and the book has been available in its full form ever since.

The Well of Loneliness did get banned, but not until after it was released on the market. The book was published in July 1928; an obscenity trial was convened in November of the same year. The book’s description of lesbian (sexual) relationships was judged obscene and likely to corrupt readers’ minds; it was subsequently withdrawn from the British market but remained available through copies printed in Paris. The novel was re-printed in 1949 without incurring a further trial and it has been in print ever since.

There was, however, a third book at the end of the 1920s which fell victim to an obscenity trial. Unlike the two more famous examples cited above, Norah C James’s novel Sleeveless Errand was suppressed before it was even properly published. The book was printed and distributed to reviewers and bookshops in February 1929. The reviewer of the Morning Post was so alarmed by the novel’s contents, that he alerted the Home Office, who promptly moved to confiscate all distributed copies. The police went as far as visiting reviewers who had received a copy of the book, at home, and demand they hand their copies over.[2] This decisive action meant that not a single copy of the book remained in circulation in Britain when a magistrate officially confirmed its status as ‘obscene’ in March 1929.[3]

Like The Well of Loneliness, Sleeveless Errand was subsequently published in English through a French publishing house; but it has never been re-published by an British press. The copy in the British Library is one of the ‘French’ copies, the preface of which draws parallels with Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, which had been published in 1926 and was not considered obscene despite dealing with similar themes as Sleeveless Errand.

For all the noise around the novel’s supposed obscenity, what exactly is it about its contents that was considered so objectionable? Sleeveless Errand follows Paula and Bill, two young Londoners, over the period of around 36 hours. At the start of the novel, Paula is dumped by her lover Philip. They are not married, but have clearly had regular sex, which the novel does not condemn. After the break-up, Paula goes to a Lyons Corner House where she contemplates suicide. Bill happens to be put on the same table as her; he’s just walked in to his wife and his best friend in bed together, so he is also feeling very depressed.

The pair meet each other in their mutual low moods and Paula takes Bill to some of her regular night haunts, where they meet a group of Paula’s friends who drink and swear liberally. Eventually, Bill stays the night in Paula’s flat and they tell each other about their childhoods. The next morning Paula settles a will and the couple hire a car, with the plan to drive off a cliff near Brighton. On the way south they run into various other delays, which lead them to postpone the suicide until the next morning.

At night in their hotel, Paula gives Bill a firm talking-to and tells him he should go back to his wife and make amends; in Paula’s view, Bill’s wife’s infidelity is not an insurmountable hurdle as he still loves her. Bill agrees to go back and patch up his marriage. The novel ends with Paula driving up to the intended cliff-top and very calmly and deliberately driving the car off the cliff at sunrise.

Newspaper articles reporting on the magistrate court hearing that banned Sleeveless Errand drew attention to the novel’s language: ‘Specifically, the prosecution protested that the book took the name of God or Christ in vain over 60 times, as in the line, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”’[4] Ostensibly then, it is the novel’s language that led to its suppression. One may also consider the liberal discussions about sex, including Paula’s explicit affair at the novel’s opening and her views on monogamy: “It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world because a woman has intercourse with a man who’s not her husband.”[5]

Additionally, descriptions of the activities Paula and her friends get up to in nightclubs are decidedly seedy: “By now, nearly all the couples were sitting about the room embracing. Rathbone was what Hudson called “dry cleaning” a large good-looking girl whose name was Letty. She was the Haunt whore.”[6] According to Christine Grandy, heroes in interwar fiction “were distinguished by their fulfilment of the independent male breadwinner role, while the deviancy of the villain’s character lay in his inability or unwillingness to work for his wealth.”[7] None of the characters in Sleeveless Errand come anywhere near this hero template; Paula and her friends all appear to be independently wealthy and happy to drink their days away, and Bill has decided to abandon his breadwinner duties.

But Sleeveless Errand goes one step further. Not only do none of the characters conform to the pervasive discourse present in interwar fiction that presented contributing members of society as ‘good’; it argues that the post-War generation is fundamentally unable to contribute to society and that suicide is the moral choice. Throughout the novel, Paula repeatedly refers to the condition of her generation, those who came of age immediately after the end of the First World War.

[M]y generation of women is rotten to the core. Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless.[8]

This is the horror at the core of Sleeveless Errand. Rather than celebrating the end of the war and the upward mobility allowed by modernity, white-collar jobs, suburbs and automobiles, instead it maintains that the war has ruined the mental health of the young women. Those women, who are pivotal to the continuation of British culture by settling into their roles as wives and mothers, are ‘rotten’ and unable to fulfil their duties to society. Instead, Paula uses that symbol of modernity and progress, the automobile, to engage in the most subversive act of all. It is the rational, considered approach to suicide, which Paula commits to calmly and unwaveringly, that emblematizes the book’s dangerous potential. At a time when suicide was usually recorded as occurring ‘while of unsound mind’, Sleeveless Errand dares to raise the possibility that the act can be a well-thought out, even responsible, choice. Allowing women to entertain that possibility could have affected the foundations of interwar British society beyond repair. Seen in that light, the Home Office’s swift and decisive oppression of the work becomes understandable.


[1] Christopher Hilliard, ‘“Is It a Book That You Would Even Wish Your Wife or Your Servants to Read?” Obscenity Law and the Politics of Reading in Modern England’, American Historical Review 118:3 (2013), 653-678, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/118.3.653

[2] Bill Harrison, ‘Censors, critics, and the suppression of Norah James’s Sleeveless Errand.’ Atenea, 3:1-2 (2013) 23-41 (25)

[3] Ibid., 26

[4] Ibid.

[5] Norah C James, Sleeveless Errand (Paris: Henry Babon & Jack Kahane, 1929), p. 54

[6] Ibid., p. 66

[7] Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: class, gender, and nation in popular film and fiction in interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 3

[8] James, Sleeveless Errand, pp. 204-5

Glamour Girls

We’re going to have a closer look today at two articles that appeared in early issues of Picture Post. Picture Post was a weekly photojournalism magazine that was launched in Britain in 1938. Its pages contained a huge breath of articles and reportage, which covered topics from word politics to science and nature to fashion and entertainment. Due to the timing of its launch, and the fact that its founder and editor was the Jewish journalist Stefan Lorant, the first issues contain frequent criticism and condemnation of Nazi Germany. This political content was balanced with pieces on ‘lighter’ topics.

In November 1938 and May 1939, Picture Post ran two pieces on ‘Glamour Girls’. Together, these pieces give an insight into the position of young female stage performers in London at the end of the interwar period. By the end of the 1930s, ‘glamour girl’ was the name for the young women who danced on the stage as part of troupes – they were more commonly referred to as ‘chorus girls’ in the earlier part of the interwar period. The adoption of the term ‘glamour girl’ is symptomatic of the continued Americanization of British popular culture throughout the 1920s and 1930s – indeed, one of the Picture Post articles follows an American dance troupe in London.

The row of young, thin, white chorus girls who are all dressed alike and dance in perfect unison was a very recognizable feature of modern urban entertainment during the interwar period. The phenomenon has most famously been critiqued by Siegfried Kracauer in his essay ‘The Mass Ornament’ which originally appeared as a series of articles in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1927. Kracauer, too, centres his analysis around an American troupe, the Tiller Girls – but British chorus girl troupes quickly sprang up to emulate the American original. Chorus girls appear in myriad British films of this period, from Friday the Thirteenth (1933) to The Show Goes On (1937).

But what of the glamour girl in news reportage? The first Picture Post article under consideration was published in the issue of 22 October 1938 and is entitled ‘A Glamour Girl’s Day’. This piece purports to give insight into the day-to-day life of a group of American dancers who were performing at the Dorchester hotel at that time. Why the show’s impresario, Mr Chester Hale, did not recruit British girls when he had to put on ‘the snappiest cabaret show’ possible, is not made clear. Chester Hale himself appears to have been an American; and it’s implied that American girls are better qualified for ‘snappy’ shows.

The piece both observes the dancers as a foreign species and reassures the readers that they are completely harmless; and it also does not neglect to draw attention to the girls’ physical features. The captions to some of the photos give a good indication of the article’s overall tone:

Hard-working, ambitious, well-educated, carefully chaperoned is the first-class glamour girl of to-day. Wanda Cochran has studied philosophy and public-speaking. Is studying now at the R.A.D.A. (…) Doris Call, a blue-eyed blonde from Virginia, is also studying at the R.A.D.A. She has six sisters, two brothers.

The piece makes much of the fact that the girls are very young – some of them are reported to be only 16. A few have brought their mothers and siblings with them for company; according to one of the mothers, she thinks dancing in a cabaret is much safer for a girl than going to high school (in America). The article runs the reader through a typical day for the troupe during their run at the Dorchester, and repeatedly stresses that the girls engage in wholesome activities such as learning about London and British history; educating their siblings; and improving their dancing and singing skills. It is also emphasised that they usually go home after they finish their shows at 1am – they very much do not go to nightclubs with young men.

Slipped in between the descriptions of the girls’ physiques (average weight 8 st 8 lbs; average height 5 ft 6 in) is the following:

Mr Hale gets a lump sum per week from the Dorchester. Out of that he pays the girls and their fares, and provides the dresses (…) the dresses have run him into a good many hundred pounds. The girls pay their own living expenses. Most of them stay in flats with various accompanying members of their family.

As the dancers have to pay for their own accommodation in central London, as well as their food and regular clothes and expenses, one suspects that they did not actually have any money left over to save. It is also not specified whether the fares for the ‘various accompanying members of their family’ were covered by the Dorchester. What the young women get out of the experience is the ‘glamour’ of their costumes, and the opportunity to learn more about British history and British culture; which covers up a precarious employment position that required them to temporarily relocate; work late hours; and forego traditional schooling.

The conditions of employment also receive attention in the second Picture Post article, printed on 6 May 1939 under the title ‘The Making of a Glamour Girl.’ Although this piece appeared only 6 months after the previous article, the tone differs markedly. The status of the glamour girl appears to have rapidly deteriorated; no longer does the article attempt to stress the career aspirations of glamour girls. Instead, the piece confidently states that ‘Few of them [glamour girls] have any stage ambitions, the majority realise their limitations and are content to be just glamorous.’

Indeed, the low requirements for the role are presented as a selling point:

To be a good Glamour Girl, a girl must possess four qualities. She must have good looks and a figure to match, she must be able to walk gracefully in time to music, she must know how to wear clothes, and she must be tall. No girl who has these attributes need starve or spend her days tapping on a typewriter, stage managers will only be too eager for her services.

The role of the glamour girl (now capitalized) is no longer presented as one that requires hard physical work or any skill, but instead is reduced purely to physical requirements. It is presented as an ideal job for a ‘fun’ girl who wants to make easy money; the jobs are alleged to pay at least £5 a week. The implication that this is a good wage is belied by the statement also included in the article, that many glamour girls work as fashion models and mannequins during the day. The apparent need to work two jobs, alongside the short ‘shelf life’ of the glamour girl (the article estimates the average girl’s stage career to last 3 or 4 years) do not signal this as a financially sound or stable career path. Through these articles, girls and young women were not encouraged to consider long-term benefits of education or jobs that could be done at any age, but instead were directed to consider a job in which one had to work relatively few hours and wear nice clothes, as desirable.

Of course, it would be amiss to imply that these articles were primarily aimed at aspiring glamour girls; both articles were clearly (also) an excuse to print photographs of slender young women in revealing outfits. The 1939 article is accompanied by a dozen photographs, nine of which show the performers in bathing suits or other similarly revealing performance outfits. The 1938 article mostly shows the girls dressed in everyday clothes, but allows the reader a glimpse ‘backstage’ with photos of the girls putting on make-up and putting on their shoes. Both articles present the reader with a fantasy of young, happy, untroubled dancers and only hint at the financial precarity these roles perpetuated.

Ivor Novello

Ivor Novello

Polymath Ivor Novello, born David Ivor Davies in Wales in 1893, was one of interwar London’s prolific entertainers. Novello was his mother’s maiden name; choosing this as his professional title undoubtedly gave him greater name recognition than his paternal family name. Novello’s first success came as a songwriter during the Great War, with the popular tune ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.

During the interwar period, Novello was active as a composer, actor, playwright and screenwriter, occasional film producer, and all-round society figure. In 1926 he ran a nightclub together with actor Constance Collier, with whom he also regularly collaborated on creative projects. The club, the 50/50, was temporarily struck off the register of licensed premises after alcohol had allegedly been served after licensed hours.

Besides his collaborations with Constance Collier, Novello’s interwar projects read like a who’s who of creative Britain. He wrote songs for a play penned by P.G. Wodehouse, wrote songs for Jack Buchanan and had an affair with Siegfried Sassoon. His British film debut came in 1923 as the lead in Adrian Brunel’s The Man Without Desire; Novello also co-produced the film with Miles Mander. The Man Without Desire is a romantic historical melodrama set in Italy; it was the first in a series of roles in which Novello played foreigners, often of high birth. His dark features made him equally convincing as British, Mediterranean, or Eastern European.

After The Man Without Desire came The Rat, which proved so popular that it spawned two sequels. This film was based on a play which Novello had co-written with Collier. In The Rat Novello starred as Pierre Boucheron, a dashing figure in the Parisian underworld. His long-time friend Odile is clearly quietly devoted to him, but the Rat is seduced by the wealthy Zelie de Chaumet, before inevitably realising it is Odile who can provide him with true love. Zelie first sees the Rat in an underground dive bar, where he performs a passionate parody of the Apache Dance with a young woman.

The Apache Dance in The Rat exemplifies Novello’s sexual ambiguity on screen. In real life he lived quite openly as a gay man with his lifelong partner Bobbie Andrews. This was possible in the artistic circles in which Novello and Andrews moved, but clearly it was not possible to explicitly depict homosexuality on screen or stage. Instead, Novello is positioned as a romantic hero; sensual rather than virile, and sometimes surprisingly a-sexual.

Ivor Novello portrait

In Hitchcock’s Downhill, for example, Novello’s character Roddy is not seduced by Mabel, despite her best efforts. Whilst Roddy’s friend Tim is wooing Mabel in the back room of the shop in which she works, Roddy is chatting to some small children who have come to buy sweets. When Roddy later in the film marries the actress Julia Fotheringale, the film never shows any physical intimacy between the couple. Unlike many films of the period, Downhill does not end with the establishment of a heterosexual couple, but rather with Roddy’s restoration as the male heir to his family.

Novello collaborated with Hitchcock for a second film in 1927, The Lodger. This film, based on a popular novel by the same name, was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders. Novello reprised his role as ‘the Lodger’ in a 1932 sound film remake, directed by Maurice Elvey. In both versions, Novello’s character courts Daisy, the daughter of his landlord. Daisy already has a suitor, a police officer in the 1927 film and a journalist in the 1932 version. Daisy’s original suitors are men of action, who expect that Daisy will marry them based on their previous courtship. Novello’s character, however, manages to win Daisy over through conversation and emotional sensitivity rather than by displaying any of the more traditionally ‘masculine’ traits.

A year after the first version of The Lodger, Novello starred as Lewis Dodds in one of the multiple adaptations of the bestselling novel The Constant Nymph.1 Here Novello was again directed by his friend Adrian Brunel to play the composer who marries one woman but finds that his wife’s young cousin, whom he has known since she was a child, is more devoted in her affections. Again, Novello’s character is linked in a coupling which cannot fulfil the expected template.

After film transitioned from silent to sound, Novello returned largely to the West End stage as a writer and actor of musical comedies. This may in part have been due to the limitations of his specifically recognisable voice and accent, which made him less convincing in the foreign character roles in which he was regularly cast. Novello’s contribution to the musical genre continues to be remembered in the song writing and composing awards named after him, which were established a few years after his death.

The theatre in the building where Novello kept a flat for most of his adult life was also named after him in 2005. It is situated across the road from the Aldwych Theatre, where Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn first became famous; another one of the countless connections that put Novello at the heart of London’s interwar entertainment industry.

[1] Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar years, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), pp. 35-79

Downhill (1927)

Downhill (1927)

Before he became (one of) the greatest directors of the 20th century, Alfred Hitchcock started out his film directing career in London in the 1920s. After a few jobs as assistant director, he landed his first gig as principal director on 1923’s The Pleasure Garden. Four years later he made Downhill, a melodrama which has been described as only of interest to Hitchcock ‘completists’. In addition to providing an insight into the development of Hitchcock’s craft, this film also reveals cultural assumptions underpinning interwar London society.

Downhill stars the popular actor and entertainer Ivor Novello (who co-wrote the play on which the film is based) as Roddy Berwick, the son of a wealthy family who excels at his public school and has a glittering future ahead of him. Roddy’s best friend, Tim, comes from a less affluent background. Tim has a liaison with Mabel, who works at the local sweetshop; this affair results in Mabel falling pregnant. Mabel tells the schoolmaster that it’s Roddy, not Tim, who is the father; Roddy promptly gets expelled from school and disowned by his father.

Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Downhill (1927) — Talk Film Society
Mabel accuses Roddy

This starts Roddy’s downward trajectory in life. He first works as an actor and marries a glamorous actress who fleeces him for all his money before throwing him over. Roddy moves Paris, where he works as a gigolo. Eventually he ends up very ill in Marseille, where a few sailors manage to take him back to London. At the end of the film Roddy straggles back into his father’s house, to find that his father has found out that it was Tim who made Mabel pregnant, and has been desperate for Roddy to forgive him for his rash decisions. After his travails in the darker side of life, Roddy is restored in his rightful position.

One of the main themes of Downhill, as is clear from the plot description, is intergenerational conflict. When Roddy comes home from school a week early, his father immediately believes that the school must have been right in expelling him, and he does not even wait to hear Roddy’s explanations. The father’s rejection is so definitive that Roddy immediately leaves home and is unable to come back until he is almost at death’s door. Prior to this, the school and headmaster, who took their places as surrogate home environment and father figure, have also rejected Roddy.

The established institutions of society, school and the patriarchal father figure, turn their backs on Roddy. The older male generation here can be interpreted as a proxy for the generation of older politicians who sent off thousands of young British men to the trenches in France and Belgium in 1914. The War is not explicitly mentioned in Downhill, but its themes echo the sentiment that the older generation abandoned and unfairly sacrificed the younger one. When, at the end of the film, Roddy’s father asks Roddy for his forgiveness, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine him as a stand-in for the political establishment, asking the younger generation to forgive them for the War – a request that must, of course, remain limited to the realms of fiction.

The second theme running through Downhill, and this is perhaps one where Hitchcock’s hand is more readily recognised, is that apart from Roddy’s mother, all the women in the film prey on him and exploit him. Roddy’s mother, incidentally, only appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film and is completely irrelevant to the plot – it is only his father’s approval that matters to Roddy. Each stage of Roddy’s downfall is marked by a different woman. First there is Mabel, played by Annette Benson; she is depicted as a pretty one-dimensional ‘loose woman’ with make-up, a short skirt, and an apparently insatiable desire to flirt. She pro-actively asks Tim to come and see her in her shop on Wednesday afternoon. When he brings Roddy along, Mabel appears to consider this an opportunity rather than a barrier.

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Mabel flirts with Roddy

As soon as she has figured out that Roddy has more money than Tim, and is unlikely to allow himself to be seduced by her, she apparently hatches her plan. The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Mabel is actually pregnant or not (although not sufficient time appears to have passed for her to be sure of it); it is pretty clear she accuses Roddy because she knows she can get more money out of him than out of Tim. Roddy does not dispute the claim out of a sense of honour and loyalty – he knows Tim’s future will be ruined if the truth comes out.

The second woman Roddy meets, and one he falls completely in love with, is the actress Julia Fotheringale. She is already in a relationship with Archie, but her expensive tastes is clothes and luxury goods are starting to become a problem. When Roddy unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money, Julie agrees to marry him. Once she’s spent his fortune, she abandons him again. Both Mabel and Julia are only interested in the money that Roddy can provide them with; they are both shown to be calculating and cold. Once Roddy’s money has completely run out he starts to work as a dancer-for-hire in Paris. His body is now the property, and it is control of the madams who run the nightclub.

1000 Frames of Downhill (1927) - frame 731 - The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki
Roddy as a gigolo in a Parisian nightclub

Downhill’s resolution provides an indication of what the audiences were encouraged to think really mattered: yes, Roddy’s father acknowledges he was wrong, but ultimately Roddy seeks his approval and wants to restore his place in the family unit. Roddy’s sense of honour, which leads him to keep Tim’s secret, is one of the central guiding principles for his behaviour. When he is nearly dying in Marseille, the knowledge that he has kept Tim’s secret for him is a comfort to Roddy. Paris, as usual, is shown to be a den of immorality. Ultimately, values traditionally associated with British upper class men are presented as desirable and admirable.

Downhill is available to view on Youtube.