Film History: Ealing Studios 1939 – 1949

Film History

Ealing Studios 1939 – 1949

I’ve decided to take a slightly different slant on this weekend’s blog on movies. A new category for this has been created under ‘Film History’ and will usually cover a studio, director and film in its content. This weekend I will look at Ealing studios and Michael Balcon 1939 – 1949 and one of one Alberto Cavalcanti’s films Went the Day Well? (1942) Once I have introduced a studio, I will then look at a certain film from that period, in future blogs I will look at more films from that studio but doing it all in one blog might be a bit long!

When Michael Balcon joined Ealing in 1938 (taking over from Basil Dean as head of production) he brought with him his long-standing policy on film making of realism and projection of national identity. This policy had been with Balcon during his years as head of Gaumont British in the thirties. Balcon in 1932 was given more responsibilities as a producer, supervising all production at two studios, Gainsborough and Gaumont (Gaumont being the bigger of the two). Balcon brought his own distinct style to the screen, focusing on social issues, realism and non flamboyant productions. This was in contrast to the styles of producers such as Alexander Korda, head of London Films, who favoured risk taking, fantasy and expressionist cinema. Balcon’s work at Gaumont in the thirties, compared to other producers, was to include a sense of realism, accuracy and moral improvement in his films. Balcon described himself as a ‘gladstonian liberal’, and the qualities that embraced by that description also followed. Qualities which were projected as distinctly British during the Second World War, these criteria were all seen as important for Balcon and would form the base of film production at Ealing throughout the war and the post war years.

Films to come out of Ealing in the 1940’s generally had close references to realism and national identity, this closely related to the policy at Ealing and the ideals of Balcon himself. Went the Day Well? (1942) and Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) are just a few I have watched over and over and I can always spot something new. The team at Ealing, a small creative elite, consisted of only the people Balcon thought was up to the task of putting his vision of Britain on-screen (famous for their round table discussions before each film could begin production) However, the director Alberto Cavalcanti seems to stand out from the rest, for his ability to combine narrative fiction with realism and propaganda, national identity and patriotism were naturally brought to the fore in these films. Cavalcanti at this time was primarily interested in a type of documentary realism which specialised in persuasion and detail.

Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? is the best example of the combination of all these factors, it is a film that provides us with a ‘what if’ scenario with regards to Nazi invasion through the British countryside during the Second World War and is one of the most revealing films to come out of the wartime period. It warns about complacency during wartime, and that the even the most remote, comfortable and traditional English setting had to be on alert at all times, such as that at Bramley End. The people of the nation coming together and committed to the war effort is portrayed best in this Ealing film, the ‘social unit’ of small shops, the post office and church hall all create a typically English feel and the kind of vision Ealing was trying to portray in this period.

The film is about a sleepy village in the English countryside called Bramley End. This peaceful corner of England however is the target of a unit of German paratroopers, sent ahead of the impending invasion and posing as British troops in order to establish a stronghold. However, through a series of clues left by the troops the villagers grow increasingly suspicious of the unit and their plot begins to unravel. Bramley End is presented to us as communal and devout, with its natural leaders coming from the upper, middle class levels of society. Albeit in this case their most natural leader Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks) is in fact a German spy, a common factor in Ealing war films was to include a fifth columnist or Nazi sympathiser. The film is a picture of Englishness, (presented in the scenery and the villagers) who, in their arising crisis become united against the threat and we see some dramatic changes in order to defend themselves and the village. 

The manor house plays a central part in this film, as well as being the last bastion of defence against the German attack, its symbolism is boundless, like Great Britain, it is an island that ‘must be’ defended, and is the central symbol for community in the village. The manor house is defended by the villagers and gender and class are not an issue when fighting a common foe. Another scene to note is the opening and close of the film, it both begins and ends with the graveyard, which we discover at the end is the grave of the Germans killed at Bramley End in the struggle. They have been given a memorial, even though they terrorised and killed innocent villagers and the villagers returned it with vengeance. These scenes to start and end the film show that even though the people of Bramley End have endured pain and suffering at the hands of the Germans they are still willing to forgive and give respect to those lost, even the enemy, this gives the viewer a strong sense of what it is to be British.

The film presents its vision of the national image through its English landscapes and village setting, in contrast to the German invasion of the village which brings home the reality of war to such a peaceful setting. The film was designed to have an impact on the audience, Cavalcanti using the threat of German invasion as realistically as possible in order to alert the audience to the possible dangers of invasion. I would recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in the Second World War, for its time some of the scenes and violence are quite surprising and the change in some of the characters from peaceful villagers to freedom fighters is dramatic and very realistic.


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