Ealing comedy

The first great movement of British film

The once very famous Ealing comedy, and especially this program of
representative works made between 1947 and 1955, even today does not lose any of
its qualities and freshness.

“Somehow everything on my bus line towards the city disturbed me: the
houses looked so small and the roads in front of them – surrounded by flowers,
on which people in three part suits rushed to work – looked so bright and
artificial. Windows above the bay, wide clean meadows, narrow paths, honking
buses, everything was just like in Ealing comedies: dear, integral and
completely harmless…”
(Martin Green, American critic, after his return to
the US from England in 1961)

In the forest of individualism and liberalism, Ealing comedies, made between
1947 and 1956, are a sweet and compact combination of the petty bourgeois and
the collective in post-war Great Britain. It is unusual that this, at first
sight marginal genre, is in fact the first great movement of British film, which
will in a few years, become famous by its laureates of new British realism and
social drama in the end of 50’s and beginning of 60’s.

It all started in Ealing studio with the comedy Hue and Cry in 1947, and
the most famous representatives of this genre are: Passport to Pimlico,
Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets (all from 1949),
Lavender Hill Mob
and The Man in a White Suit (1951), with a
spectacular finish in The Ladykillers in 1955, probably the most popular
film by Ealing studio and with the complete original crew: Michael Balcon as
producer, director Alexander MacKendrick and the cast crew from dreams: Alec
Guinness, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom and Danny Green – hilarious
squad of killers who cannot even cope with one old English lady!

Still, the whole story started much earlier: Ealing film studio, by which the
comedies got their name, was constructed by Basil Dean, English film director,
from 1929 to 1931, naming it Associated Talking Pictures (ATP), which was almost
instantly forgotten as everybody started calling its films by the name of the
production house: Ealing.

Dean opened the studio, and gathered many British film talents (among others
Hitchcock), but it really bloomed under the great British producer Michael
Balcon, who from 1938, anticipating the big war, started to produce comedies and
later war films for the agitated nation. A great influence on the studio’s
poetics had the great Alberto Cavalcanti (in company from 1942), who, being the
leading British director of documentaries, had an impact on the unique form of
Ealing comedies.

“ These are comedies about ordinary people, with a hint of eccentric, films
about dreamers and mild anarchists, little people who would be happy to punch
their boss in the face”, later said Michael Balcon, in the spirit of Ealing

The series of comedies, as mentioned above, began with the comedy Hue and Cry
by Charles Crichton (one of the studio’s champions, who after many years of
retirement, and long after extinguishment of the genre, in 1998 made the famous
Fish Called Wanda!), a charming story about guys who destroy a group of
thieves who send coded messages in the local newspapers! Already in Hue and
there are visible characteristics of the genre: humorous scripts, use of
finest British actors (such as Alastair Sim and Jack Warner), and all domestic
Ealing themes and motives: the world of the higher working and lower middle
class, celebrating of values of small communities (which are threatened by
institutions and bureaucrats), tendency to eccentric elements and black humor,
social documentation, and at last but no less important reaching out for the
“commercial” and a little bit provocative themes (criminal, frauds and group

All of this is even more visible in Passport to Pimlico, directed by
Henry Cornelius, the first real hit for Ealing studio in 1949, which, in spite
of the roles by studio’s laureates Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford, is
a good example of collective comedy. The story is charmingly British: members of
one London neighborhood – after they find a document that says they live in a
forgotten part of Burgundy –go completely crazy and proclaim an independent
state in the middle of London.

That same year, Kind Hearts and Coronets overshadowed all of that. It is
a crazy and entertaining comedy by Robert Hamer about a wounded member of
aristocracy who one by one, gets rid of all other heirs. The funniest fact is
that the great Alec Guiness, playing eight different roles, constantly kills
himself! Obviously Ealing started making real hits in spite of huge pressure by
other bigger studios (such as the big company Rank), and remained synonymous for
independence in the British film industry:

“We were people from the middle class, conventionally educated. Even though we
were radical in some film ideas, we didn’t set out to destroy institutions: all
that was much before Maoism, Levi-Strauss and Marcuse. We were people of the
immediate post-war generation and for the first time voted for laborists: that
was our mild revolution. We actually loved great British institutions and our
comedies were made with lots of emotions: we simply wanted to improve
institutions in regard to national pride…” Michael Balcon himself tried to
define the author background of Ealing comedy. That was the sense in which the
company functioned: they listened to everyone’s opinion, even to the tea cook’s,
and the flow of creative people was enormous.

Lavender Hill Mob, by Crichton in 1951 was also popular. Alec Guiness is
a small bank clerk who has a great plan to steal gold plates. However the peak
of this genre is the black comedy The Ladykillers from 1955, a true
acting jam-session, which has all Ealing themes and motives. Unfortunately it
was also the end: nothing else spectacular ever happened, and probably under the
influence of television, in the middle of fifties the genre started to fade
away; Ealing closes in 1959, and it is interesting that BBC buys it that same
year, and in the next decades continues to insist upon at least a part of
studio’s traditions: humor, quality, documentation in second line, outstanding
direction…. Even today Ealing comedy does not lose any of its quality and
freshness. And this program of representative works made between 1947 and 1955,
we are certain, can only prove that. (Vladimir Tomic)