“ Genre: Comedy / Theatrical Release: 1951 / Universal, suitable for all / Director: Alexander MacKendrick / Actors: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger ... / DVD released 2006-11-13 at Optimum Home Entertainment / Features of the DVD: Black & White, PAL „
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Geeky Sidney Stratton gets a job in the local mill as a cover for what he is really doing - inventing a type of fabric that is everlasting. When he finally succeeds, he thinks he is made, and, with the help of the mill owner's daughter, manages to convince the man at the top that he has hit on something well worth investigating further. But then the unions realise that everlasting fabric would eventually put them out of business and try to stop Stratton's plans. Determined to fight back and see his product on the market, Stratton thinks of ways to carry on regardless. Will he finally be successful? And will he win the heart of the mill owner's daughter?
Released in 1951 out of Ealing studios, this comedy is perhaps one of the least well-known Ealing comedies. Nevertheless, it is a quirky British comedy that has a lot of advantages; not least the inclusion of the wonderful Sir Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton. A common face in Ealing comedies (I like him best of all in The Ladykillers), Guinness plays this role fairly straight, once again proving that he can perform in more or less any situation, even without disguises and other visual aids. Stratton is a likeable geek, positive that his work is for the good of mankind, and it is easy to see why Daphne Birnley, the mill owner's daughter could begin to fall for him. I don't suppose this performance, taken as a one-off, was ever going to make Guinness' name - but in conjunction with all his other performances, it really does show what he can do, even without too much slapstick humour and one-liners.
Daphne Birnley is played by Joan Greenwood in another solid performance. As befits the time, the role of a woman was never going to be the main focus of the film, but she manages to come a close second, and works well with Alec Guinness. She has the most unusual voice - very deep and husky, but well-spoken at the same time - for me, this helps her to stand out from all the other actresses of her time. And her acting is good, if not brilliant, even if she isn't the most likeable of characters - she is a little too confident and feisty for her own good. There's an interesting comparison between Daphne and Bertha, another potential love interest for Stratton, played by Vida Hope - she is a down to earth Yorkshire lass who says what she thinks - and probably would have been a more fitting partner.
This isn't a laugh-out-loud type comedy and there isn't really all that much in the way of humourous lines. The comedy comes about because of the quirkiness of the situation that Stratton finds himself in and the way that he tries to get himself out of it, although there is a fair amount of slapstick in the last part of the film. Best of all, there is absolutely nothing that could be construed as offensive (unless you find union politics offensive), so it is a film that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
It is obviously a satire of the state of British industry - the unions trying to stand in the face of progress so that their workers would continue to have jobs. This is perhaps why the film isn't as well-known as it could be these days - the motive will be lost on a modern audience. It is also portraying a working man fighting against the 'upper class' authorities - something that again seems to be slightly out of date these days.
The film is generally well-made for its time, even though Ealing Studios had strict budgets for their films. It is, of course, in black and white, but I think that is part of its charm - somehow it makes the grim mill town streets look even dirtier and the opulent mill owner's house even richer. There is the odd bit of bad editing - at one point, Sidney is trying to show how his suit (made out of the new fabric) doesn't hold dirt, but it is obviously spliced with a completely different suit. However, it is such a minor thing that it really doesn't make any difference to the overall quality of the film.
There is just one extra with the film - the original trailer. I would have liked something else - there must have been a number of documentaries on Alec Guinness or Ealing Studios over the years - but I suppose I'll have to look elsewhere.
This film didn't immediately leap up and grab my attention - it is much slower and subtler than some of the better known Ealing comedies, such as The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob. However, it is still worth a watch, particularly if you appreciate old British comedy. Best of all, it does grow on you the more you watch it - I found myself noticing things the second and third time around that I hadn't seen before. If you haven't seen it yet, then I definitely recommend that you do.
The DVD is available from play.com for £4.99.
Running time: 85 minutes