The Rolling (in the) Isles of England

So many times in past columns, I have invoked the name “Ealing” to the point that I practically have to pay them a royalty fee.  I use the moniker to underline a high water mark in cinema – specifically in the comedy genre.  Usually, this kudo has been doled out to praise such fantastic contemporary Brit laff-fests as Detectorists, or, in a retro American comparison, 1966’s The Russians are Coming.  To better understand what I’m getting at, one need search no further than two wonderful vintage Ealings:  1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and 1953’s THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT, now available in restored Blu-Rays from the smashing folk at Film Movement (working in concert with the endless array of cinema heroes at Studio Canal).

First off, leave us press home the fact that suburban living was never as delightful than in an Ealing environ.  Rural towns, villages and small cities of England were often primary targets for the studio (that nevertheless also worked its magic in other aspects of comedy, for instance, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and other top-tier triumphs).

While Ealing had been in operation since 1902 (converting to sound in 1931), it was the post-war optimism that fueled their wise decision to hone their comedy skills. To this end, they hired directors, writers and casts often as eccentric as the whimsical characters who populated their scenarios.  Indeed, the studio “made” many careers in all those vocations; ditto, cinematography, editing, music and art and set design.

Ealing comedies provided an outlet rarely met in cinema, certainly never rivalled (although many tried).  The pictures were so twee, wry and brilliantly sparkling that they often debuted (in the States) at arthouse theatres.  Usually, a box-office non-starter, the Ealings transcended that tag, and sent receipts through the roof, eventually “opening wide” and proving themselves to (as they say) “have legs” across the country.  It seemed that everyone on planet Earth connected with these exquisite offerings – meticulously and strategically multilevel constructed narratives that were simultaneously snarkily witty and politically/culturally allegorical, all the while being outlandishly friggin’ hilarious.  Below are two magnificent reasons why.

1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a comedy gem about red tape bureaucracy (and it’s gaggle of stiff-upper-lips) vs. the integrity of a defiant group of villagers who are determined to win at a game of geopolitics.

A (then) contemporary pic, taking place in the title town, the very real (and not funny at all) danger of an UXB (unexploded bomb) provides the pin pulled out of an actual AND metaphorical explosive device.  Kids playing in rubble find the little German gift, and quickly alert authorities.  But the UXB isn’t “U” for long, and explodes – revealing a treasure trove of artifacts and documents long buried under the soil.  The local historical committees are notified, and uncover an amazing parchment:  Pimlico is, in essence, an appendage of France’s Burgundy, thus divorced from the British crown.  This sets heads a-spinning, from the pub owners (no more duty on French booze), to the scores of “we don’t have to pay British taxes,” and so on and so on.  It all boils down to the revelation made by a (now) former citizen of the UK, “Blimey, I’m a foreigner.”

Of course, there’s a downside to this freedom as well, especially when the British Government cuts off all services, generally taken for granted by the populace.

The fact that it all makes sense (in a Bizarro World way) and manages to be concurrently hilarious is what made Ealing so great.  Credit the brilliant writer T.E.B. Clarke for the thoroughly original script, Henry Cornelius for the inspired direction (Cornelius directed one of my favorite comedies of all-time, Genevieve – an Ealing “knock-off”), and, the sensational cast, headed by Stanley Holloway, Betty Warren, Margaret Rutherford, John Slater, Jane Hylton, Raymond Huntley, Philip Stanton, Sydney Taffer, Hermione Badderley, Charles Hawtrey, James Hayter, Sam Kydd, Harry Locke, Michael Hordern, and Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford.

Cleverly concealing a very timely message to all those misinformed tribalism blockheads who yearn to secede from their “too much government” rulers, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO, in its sparse 84 minutes, beautifully displays the pros and cons of the animal politic; the movie even finds time for romance when the current titled Duke of Burgundy (Paul Dupuis) relocates to the formerly English vicinity, and collides with the daughter (Barbara Murray) of the pic’s head protagonist.  Of course, there’s much to be said about being anti-establishment if approached sanely (Ealing comedy revivals were particularly popular during the late 1960s-early 1970s), and nothing is more fun than watching the “old Brits” cheer on the “new French Brits” barricaded at the borders by conservative officials and reluctant bobbies.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a marked improvement over all the previous home video incarnations.  Showing off Lionel Banes’ crisp black and white photography via a new 1080p restoration elevates this already terrific jewel to new heights; only some slight side flashing (likely due to nitrate deterioration) mars the otherwise flawless effect.  Georges Auric’s score is appropriately sprightly and adds immensely to the joyous experience of this cinema howl.  A number of fine extras make the purchase even more appealing:  an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, a locations featurette, a restoration comparison, a stills archive and an interview with BFI curator Mark Duguid.

Bureaucratic fools get another kick in the bum, courtesy of the riotous 1953 delight THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT.  The movie warns how apathetic efficiency marketing twits can degrade living, breathing people into mere numbers to be merrily crunched.

Titfield is a picturesque, thriving suburban community with the oldest existing rail branch in service – the Titlfield to Mallingford run, a necessary commute that connects residents to the regular train line major hubs (mostly for work, but also for shopping, visiting and seasonal vacationers).  All this goes out the window when British Rail decides to cancel the transport in the name of modernization and economy.

Of course, this puts the townsfolks in the shit, so to speak, and they have no recourse but to attack.  When formal pleas prove useless, the aggressive Titfieldians decide to create their own railroad and give it to BR up the arse.  This gives the train organization monopoly one massive headache after another, involving unions, usage of a stretch of track needed to bypass the now redundant towns, etc., etc., etc. – and good for them!

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT not only rips thoughtless corporations a new one, but provides a love letter to the Brits’ fascination with trains (embracing vintage locomotives as Genevieve would do the following year with embryonic automobiles).  The script by (again, by T.E.B. Clarke) is laugh-out-loud funny, ditto Charles Crichton’s direction.  As with all Ealing outings, it’s the cast of pixilated lunatics that makes the show, and includes an array of wonderful thesps, comprising John Gregson, Naughton Wayne, Hugh Griffith, Gabrielle Brune, Sid James, Reginald Beckwith, Jack MacGowran, Edie Martin and Sam Kydd.  Of special note is the town’s ancient vicar (George Relph), whose obsession with ancient trains makes him the ideal engineer (ultimately, the populace heists a locomotive from the local museum); also must give a nod to the ambitious company’s benefactor – the town’s richest member, a notorious tipler (top-billed Stanley Holloway), who happily supplies the needed start-up funds, once he’s assured they’ll be a special bar car in his honor.

A jaunty score by Georges Auric appends the hilarity with the pic’s two non-human stars being the titular Titfield title engine (a spectacular 1838 locomotive, dubbed the Lion, formerly of the Liverpool-Manchester line) and the sumptuous photography of Douglas Slocombe – extremely relevant as this was Ealing’s first color movie – and the Technicolor location work (Bath, Cam Brook valley, Freshford and Carlingcott) is outstanding.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT is a honey, and like PASSPORT TO PIMLICO comes with a cache of extras, comprising a “Making of” featurette, an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, and locations mini-doc, an interview with Douglas Slocombe (including Slocombe’s home movies), and a separate tribute to the Lion.

Absolutely a must for comedy collections, these classics are available individually, or as part of a new box set, which additionally includes Whiskey Galore and The Maggie (both to be reviewed soon).

PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Film Movement/Studio Canal. SRP: $29.95@

SPECIAL BOX SET: SRP: $69.95.

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