comedies often show common-sense winning through
against the evils of red-tape, bureaucracy, and
political extremism. They harked back to the
middle-class Little Englander values of the pre-World
War Two period. In contrast, the Carry On
series of comedy films over-turned all these cultured
values and brashly dealt with working-class characters
in contemporary urban situations.
Here, we will look at two Ealing comedies in detail; Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Their critical reception will be compared with that given to the Carry On series of films.
In Passport to Pimlico there is a utopian desire to escape the post-war gloom and despondency. The very opening shots trick us into believing that the sun-bathing girl is in some tropical location until it is revealed that she is really on the roof of an ordinary hardware store in the middle of London. The irony is that a legacy from the war - a German bomb - reveals treasure that enables the inhabitants of the Borough to escape from rationing, regulations and restrictions. Not only is this in the form of material wealth, it also reveals that they all have aristocratic origins. The plans for the future that had been turned down by the Council because they did not face economic facts can now be put into action. It is significant that the plans are for a lido, whereas the Council wanted the space for office buildings; surprisingly neither of them mention the need for new housing. Although the people of Pimlico live in poor conditions they are all part of a close-knit community that needs a place for relaxation and leisure not a place for outside commercial interests or new habitations.
Outside forces like the Council; the bureaucrats in Whitehall who do not know how to deal with the State of Burgundy; the influx of spivs; and the heads of the police force and the bank are shown to be incompetent, out-of-touch or just plain leeches. It is the community itself that knows what is best for itself. When they are cut-off from the rest of England they return to the old war-time spirit of sharing. Their mission to reconnect the water supply can be seen as a commando raid behind enemy lines. The siege itself can be compared to the isolated position Britain found itself in during the war. In the light of this the supplies of food thrown into Burgundy can be compared to the help offered to Britain by the U.S.A.
After exploring the fantasy of escaping from the rationing and bleakness of the period and its associated hardships and problems, an amicable deal is struck with Whitehall. The Burgundians are never really hostile towards England, instead it is a sense of pride which provokes them to react to unfair circumstances. All they want is for the authorities to see their side of the argument and to have some self-control over their own destinies. Nobody has any grand delusion of becoming the King or Queen of Burgundy and/or claiming the treasure for themselves. At the height of the fantasy the treasure and aristocratic heritage is a shared property. When the treaty with England is signed it is with a sense of relief and pleasure; to such an extent we, along with the characters, welcome the lowering of temperature and the return of rain. The madness of such a fantasy is ultimately confirmed and the acceptance of what we have is shown to be more preferable and safe.
Henry Raynor condemned Passport to Pimlico because 'it sacrificed a comic enquiry into motives and personality to a farcical romp; the richness of the comedy of character implicit in the subject remained undeveloped; a satiric point of view emerged momentarily and disappeared again.' (1) His main contention was that British films had lost their essential 'truthfulness' because the focus was on stereotyped characters rather than on unique and different personalities. He went on to state that the viewer has to be in a position of superiority in order to study and laugh-at fellow human beings. However, at heart human folly should be considered to be curable. Raynor had these fixed ideas about comedy which he believed films should adhere to. Furthermore, he believed that due to 'social ills' these standards were slipping rapidly. In contrast, John Ellis shows that the Ealing filmmakers were from 'comfortable middle-class backgrounds' who made every effort to show 'the people' realistically. (2) Their concept of the people was not as an inconsequential mass, but as shopkeepers, clerks, councillors and other members of the petty bourgeoisie. Indeed, today the depiction of the characters in Passport to Pimlico can be regarded as very condescending. All the people want is plenty of food, less restrictive pub opening hours, a swimming pool, and a fair hearing. In Raynor's terms Passport to Pimlico is essentially optimistic, and we are invited to a superior viewpoint on these simple-minded but well-meaning folk. Raynor's only legitimate excuse for bemoaning the film is that it uses stereotyped characters. In defence of the film we should consider that it attempts to show a community dealing with a crisis (just as many communities dealt with the crisis of the war). A focus on particular characters in detail would detract from the film's intention of depicting a 'typical' and general response to an abnormal set of circumstances. Raynor, prefers to ignore groups or classes of people and considers truthfulness to be invested in autonomous human beings who have a will of their own.
Kind Hearts and Coronets shows that we are victims of our social and economic position. Instead of an whole community discovering that it is of noble origins that brings with it wealth and self-regulation, an individual in this case decides to murder his way to the top of his aristocratic family. The actions of Louis Mazzini are brought about by motives of revenge. His mother was disinherited because she was guided by her heart rather than by the requirements and conventions of the family (this could be compared to the choice made by King George VIII who abdicated from the throne for similar reasons). This combined with Louis' love for Sibella who favours the more successful Lionel Holland makes him want to obtain a high social position at any price. Here again the powers-that-be are regarded as hypocritical, inflexible and out-of-touch with reality.
For a film that was made so soon after the war it was brave (or foolish) to make a comedy about murder. Perhaps it shows how strongly the director felt about the unfair class system and reflects a similar underlying hatred of it that also brought about the later British socialist realist films. For example, in Look Back In Anger (1959) and Room At The Top (1958) young men cynically seek a greater social position. They are similar in that they all criticise the system but are perfectly happy to seek a high position so that they can maintain an unfair advantage over others. Certainly when Louis begins to rise in social position he becomes as snobbish, or even more snobbish, than the members of his aristocratic family. Looking at a photograph of Sibella he reflects that she "was pretty enough in her suburban way...But her face would have looked rather out of place under a coronet."
What prevents Kind Hearts and Coronets from being so shocking is that we are shown Louis in prison at the beginning of the film so we know that he is being punished (even though it is indirectly) for the crimes we are shown in flashback. Also, the film is set in 1902, which means that we are distanced from present-day social realities, and as a side-effect we might congratulate ourselves on the fact that things are not so bad now.
Most accounts of Ealing comedies emphasise their eccentric characters, and cosy insularity. Kind Hearts and Coronets has a more vicious streak but in the end 'natural' justice (presumably) prevails and the Chalfonts get the last laugh. Ian Green highlights the fact that Ealing comedies tend to invest their humour within an 'impossible’ situation so that the 'comic fantasy' depends 'on the logic that is then permitted to develop within it.' (3) It is a fantasy game that has no real social or political bite to it; indeed Ealing's executive producer, Michael Balcon, intended 'The comedies (to be)...a mild protest...' not incitements or charters for revolutionary changes in society. (4)
One complaint about the film was that it lacked 'a visual style equal to its script.' (5) The same criticism was made by Raynor, who claimed that the visual wit 'cried out for style and ingenuity.' (6) By 1964 the film had become one of the 'Great Films of the Century' in Films and Filming; and Alan Stanbrook pointed out that considerable visual invention had been used by director, Robert Hamer, to underline the wit of the narration and dialogue. (7) For example, Stanbrook noted that a shot of empty chairs around the dining table in Chalfont Castle showed the murderous progress Louis was making. Often small pointers like the 'Warning' sign on the weir where Ascoyne D'Ascoyne drowns, and the fluttering of the Ensign as it sinks with Horatio D'Ascoyne's ship leave our imaginations to fill-in the more gory details of these crimes. Elaborate editing, camera movement, lighting, etc., is not required because it can detract the viewer from seeing what is meant to be funny. The Carry On series had no time for subtleties. During the making of these films if;
‘Any cameraman...(who wanted)...to spend time experimenting with different lenses was told very quickly: "The lens and the camera aren't funny. The thing that matters is what's going on in front of the camera. So the lens you've got is just fine.’(8)Woody Allen has admitted that the direction of comedy films tends to be less subtle and sophisticated because they are meant to focus on the actions and lines of the performers, not on the art of the director. (9) Certainly many of the early reviews of Kind Hearts and Coronets heaped generous praise on Alec Guiness, though Stanbrook calls his performance a series of 'caricatures rather than fully rounded characterisations.' (10) However, he does praise Joan Greenwood and Dennis Price who were regarded as nothing better than pedestrian in a contemporary review. (11)
The complications that emerge because of the boy from Clapham's need for revenge and social position tend to indicate that people are better off accepting what they have got rather than aspire to things beyond their station. Even Louis' choice of wife is governed by his lust for social advancement rather than by love (the opposite to his mother's motives for marrying). This struggle for heart and mind is reflected in his following words; "For while I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith." Due to his deep feeling for revenge he is constantly trying to cope with his external actions and behaviour and his contradictory inner feelings. The film's constant juxtaposition of Louis' external friendliness with his murder victims and his internal thoughts about how to eliminate them provides much of the humour of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Indeed, his victims also display hypocritical character traits. Henry pretends to be against alcohol but keeps supplies in his darkroom/hut; this disjunction between words and actions is enhanced by Louis' knowing comment to his grieving wife that; "I am sure that Henry would never have professed one thing, and practised another."
Although Kind Hearts and Coronets does not use a real, contemporary, social situation it does reveal that there is a wide divide between instinct and intellect. Social form makes people repress their inner feelings -this is borne out by the hangman in the opening scene. He is worried about how he should address the Duke, and is pleased that Louis is calm since; "A difficult client can make things most distressing. Some of them tend to be very hysterical. So inconsiderate." In this society good form is better than showing feelings, even when you only have a few hours to express them left. In addition, any elevation in the eyes of society spoils a person for 'ordinary' existence. The hangman confirms this view by saying that “I intend to retire. After using the silken rope (I will) never again be content with hemp." This could also be regarded as a sly reference to the French Revolution and its orgy of aristocratic executions.
This discontent with the repressing effects of society is one of the reasons why Charles Barr regards the film as full of '...the teeming energy of a subjective vision (set) against a stuffy official surface. The whole film...(has)...its distinctive style, energy and humour.' (12)
Both Ealing comedies joke with, and at, the pretensions of Louis and a community of Londoners who want to have their former aristocratic privileges and position re-instated. On a wider scale we might even speculate that these films are unconsciously articulating, and trying to come to terms with, the fact that the British Empire was declining rapidly. Their message was that it was no longer any good looking at the greatness of the past, but that we should be happy with what we have got now.
In psychological terms the Ealing comedies deal with discontents and anxieties which can be regarded as socially unhealthy and maladaptive. By expressing these fears in settings and situations that are obviously ludicrous or abnormal, in a humorous manner, the audience is provided with a safety valve. At the same time the playing-out of fantasy situations in a humorous manner shows how silly and far-removed from reality such aspirations are which encourages the audience to accept 'reality'.
The Carry On series of films which began in 1958 with Carry On Sergeant has had a far less favourable reception from critics and reviewers than the Ealing comedies. A characteristic view of these films is provided by lain Chambers:
The films were naughty postcards translated into filmic narrative and a stream of sexually motivated puns. The busty blonde, the leering wide-boy, the frustrated matron, the hen- pecked husband, the camp homosexual, were a set of (frequently offensive) pub humour stereotypes in a context that was ultimately concerned not with promiscuity or licentious behaviour, but with marriage and moral stability. The humour arose from acknowledging and joking with the repressed. (13)Unlike the Ealing comedies the Carry On series never pandered to good taste and as in Chambers' quote above the vulgarity of the humour was regarded as offensive by many (if not most) reviewers. There are several reasons for this. One major factor for this is that the British film industry prefers to regard itself as superior to the Hollywood production system. This has meant that British films have been associated with 'realistic' settings and situations, performed in a verbal, controlled manner, by theatrically trained actors. Many of the 'best' films are based on respected and well-known literary texts (e.g. Great Expectations to Room With A View). Also, the use of carefully ordered and controlled camera movement, lighting and music is employed to give a sophisticated but not transparently obvious gloss to these film productions.
With these 'artistic' aspirations of the British cinema in mind (and their acceptance by critics and reviewers) it is not surprising that:
In the film industry the Carry On series is a voluble, comic drunk who has blundered into a hushed lounge bar full of people trying to look worldly, important and wise. (14)It is worth examining the unfavourable critical reception of the Carry On series in terms of four factors: 1) Who are the initiators of the humour?; 2) The audience; 3) The subject matter of the humour; 4) Judgement of the humour.
Peter Rogers was the producer of all the Carry On films and Gerald Thomas directed them all. Although they might have been regarded as blundering vulgar 'drunks' they had respectable middle-class backgrounds. Talbot Rothwell who wrote most of the scripts came from a stockbroking family not from the cobbled streets of some heathen Northern town! Indeed, the main people involved in creating the Carry On films are not that different in class, education and general social upbringing from Michael Balcon and the other creators of the Ealing comedies. In the following description of Peter Rogers' motivation for making the films we can see that they are not much different from the motives of Ealing producers, writers, and directors:
...the Carry On films might be seen as a shy man's defiant, rebellious thumb-to-the-nose at the hypocrisies and pomposities of daily life. Two fingers at all that he hates and fears. (15)The Second World War had nearly as much influence on the start of the Carry On series as it did on the Ealing comedies. People from different classes had been forced to work together for a common cause and this exposure taught them many new and strange things about other people's lives, actions, and motivations (this is highlighted in the 1943 film Millions Like Us). This shared experience which continued in such institutions as National Service, and the newly formed National health service, became the sites for the first Carry On films. The humour is directed at all classes and types of people with equal malice and irreverence. All the main characters are shown to be equally 'crazy' and maladjusted to the demands of society. Scriptwriter, Norman Hudis, drew upon his own experience of National Service life for Carry On Sergeant (1958), and Carry On Nurse (1958) was also based on personal experience and incidents. Carry On Cruising (1962- set onboard a luxury cruiser) was less successful allegedly because it did not deal with a very familiar subject for the mass audience at that time. The initiators of the Carry Ons flaunted the British film industries' sense of good taste by employing broad music- hall humour that wallowed and romped with puns, innuendoes, and jokes about sex. However, in Eastaugh's The Carry-On Book there is a constant reference to the fact that these films were made quickly, efficiently, cheaply, and very professionally. There is an underlying feeling that they were embarrassed by their enterprise and were defensive about it even though they produced a highly successful and entertaining product.
The audience that might be expected to enjoy Carry Ons might be derided as being unsophisticated, common, dirty- minded, young and working-class. In a review of Carry On Regardless (1960) it was noted that the series can 'probably coast along on that momentum (of popular appeal - N.W.) very nicely for some time, before the public finally calls its bluff.' (16) Here we can see that the reviewer thinks, or hopes, the audience will wise-up. This reflects something of the attitude of post-war film critics who believed that audiences should be educated to enjoy hard-to-understand and culturally elite forms of film. Penelope Houston in The Contemporary Cinema: 1945-1967 (Penguin, 1963, p. 119) calls the Carry On series cynical 'hard to fool' and is 'the Coronation Street public: its heroine is Ena SharpIes.' She believes the theatre is the most progressive force in the 1960s. The audience has changed in her view from those who enjoyed 'the grace and humour' of the Ealing comedies. Such elitism is sent-up in Carry On Teacher (1959) where the school play of Romeo and Juliet is reduced to a slapstick farce. The arid intellectualism of Alistair Grigg, the child psychiatrist, is condemned as 'treacherous tripe' and history is represented by the dubiously titled book Bangs That Made History.
Puns, innuendoes and jokes about the body tend to be associated with the young, the unsophisticated and the working classes. This type of humour is indulged in by other classes but they prefer not to advertise this fact by translating it into popular entertainment forms. If the humour was so strongly working class we might wonder how scriptwriters with strictly middle class backgrounds and outlook were able to produce the Carry On scripts. Marion Jordan points out that critics have been 'patronising or dismissive' about these films but even she can be seen to be equally dismissive when she calls this 'a lower-class, masculine' type of humour that portrays women as 'goalers, sexual objects, or unnatural predator.' (17) Such an attitude towards women has been conditioned as much by middle class institutions and legislation. The roles imposed on the working class for the sake of middle class profit is an historical factor in such a set of attitudes rather than a 'natural' working class frame-of-mind. Indeed, the very producers of these lower class/working class film comedies are the middle classes. So it is their perception of what working class humour is about rather than a genuine product of the classes' sense of humour. Woody Allen is equally obsessed by sex as the Carry On films but because he frames and articulates this subject matter in a more intellectual manner (e.g. his films contain overt and covert references to novelists, philosophers and psychoanalysts) he is feted by the critics.
Carry On Regardless (1960) was described as being 'shapeless, aimless and fearless (which) defies criticism.’ (18) Such a description could be given to many of Woody Allen's comedy films but they are in a form and language the critic can deal with. This seems to be one reason why Carry Ons are ignored or derided by the critics. If they do find some of the films funny it comes as a 'strangulated cry' which is 'often given out by critics laughing against all the laws of sanity, reason and judgement, (and) is brought on by the gall of the puns, the flagrant cheek of the double entendres and the bludgeoning, persistent, endless audacity of the slapstick.' (19)
Another reason why critics ignore Carry Ons might be that they do not want to acknowledge that they are able to read and enjoy the (usually) blatant sexual aspects of these films. as Freud has noted jokes play with elements that transcend the normal 'adult' limits of reason and logic. Carry On films are aware of this factor; for example in Carry On Teacher the child psychiatrist says that "practical jokes are the most valuable pointers to the inner conflict of childhood" and he expresses the idea that children should fling off their clothes in order to obtain "a passport to happiness". It is therefore not surprising that he should fall in love with Miss Allcock (Carry Ons and Freud are both obsessed by the phallus, particularly Carry On Dick (1974) In the end the psychiatrist has to admit that his ideas about free expression should only be applied to other children and not to his future offspring (this seems to reveal that the producers of Carry Ons do not wish to encourage any interpretation of any deep meanings into their jokes or stories even though they can supply fertile sources for such readings). The film constantly questions the advantages of using the cane but it never quite resolves this issue (like the end of Kind Hearts and Coronets we are left to decide this for ourselves). What it does do is use a simple idea to string-out a battle between the 'innocence' of infancy and childhood when sex is regarded without guilt (the children have pornographic pictures that even shock the caretaker) and the repressions of adulthood (these are portrayed by Mr Adams whose inhibitions cause him to become a clumsy fool and ends up falling through a chair seat rather than in love, until he can summon-up the courage to fight his repressions). The complexity of the verbal and visual wit used in Carry Ons - like Mr Adams' fall through the chair -is easily ignored because we can easily 'spot the joke'. at this superficial level we still have to bring into action quite an array of information from beyond the text and a knowledge of 'common' jokes and humour. For example, Miss Allcock’s declaration that someone has "Taken the pea' when she tries to blow her whistle is only funny when we are aware of the expression "taking the piss". Even this joke is more complex when we consider the whistle as a phallic object being handled by Miss Allcock. The joke becomes more disgusting when we consider the oral function of the whistle and the possible sexual connotations of the joke which were fully explored by Linda Lovelace a decade later.
The critics repress the implications of such humour on the grounds of good taste (pardon the pun) in terms of cinematic style and subject matter but as already shown Kind Hearts and Coronets was also said to lack visual style (as do many comedies) and its subject matter (the murder of the 'father') is far more dangerous than a flash of Barbara Windsor's breasts.
Sometimes the critics employ the same type of double meanings as Carry Ons to show their dislike for them. A review of Carry On Spying said '...this spoof on James Bondery looses a few random and very limp satirical shafts, but is for the most part content to stick to routine...' (20) This kind of judgement 'proves' the superior intellect and reasoning power of the reviewer. He or she has been conditioned to understand that the uneducated are the sort of people who should enjoy this type of humour. Previously it was mentioned that Norman Hudis disliked Carry On Cruising because it did not deal with a familiar situation. As the Carry On series continued and drifted away from realistic and contemporary settings and situations, we come to recognise the characters as the familiar elements that frame everything else and who turn 'reality' upside-down. Freud observed that the pleasure of jokes is that they rely on this type of 'recognition of the familiar'. (21). In their judgements of Carry Ons the critics do not want to acknowledge their own familiarity with the unconscious power of the humour, the frantic cartoon-like energy of the characters or any other aspect of them. The films are meant for the masses and are not worth studying seems to be their argument even though the very coat of film production means that all feature films have to appeal to some form of mass audience, or a minority audience that can always be relied on to turn out.
The Ealing comedies tend to confirm the virtues of the balanced middle ground between the working and upper classes, whereas the Carry Ons tend to make every class of person a target for its humour. As we have seen the Ealing comedies do ridicule and extract humour from people who try to go beyond their 'true' social position. They can temporarily enjoy a fantasy about a higher social stature but in the end they are brought back to earth. In the same way Carry Ons play with ideas of breaking social conventions and codes of behaviour but in the end roaming playboys get married, or the unfaithful husband returns to his wife, or a diverse set of individuals (mainly through luck) become a socially useful team (e.g. Carry On Sergeant, Carry On Constable and Carry On Cruising). At heart both types of comedies are concerned with the problem of how different people with varying individual desires cope with restrictive social institutions, conventions and morals. To conclude, there is not a vast divide between the two types of comedies in terms of their initiators and their underlying articulation of 'escapist fantasy'. However, the overt subject matter of the humour and its blunt presentation in Carry Ons, along with assumptions about the type of audience this is aimed at, has alienated reviewers and critics from considering them in anything more than a superficial manner.
1. Raynor, Henry, 'Nothing To Laugh At' in Sight and Sound, Vol. 19 No. 2, April 1950, pp. 68-73. Return.
2. Ellis, John, 'Made In Ealing' in Screen, Vol. 16 No. 1, Spring 1975. Return.
3. Green, Ian, 'Ealing: In the Comedy Frame', in British Cinema History, James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds.), Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1983, p. 293. Return.
4. Balcon quoted by Green, Ian, op. cit., p. 295. Return.
5. Anderson, Lindsay, quoted in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' in Films and Filming, Vol. 10 No. 7, April 1964. Return.
6. Raynor, Henry, op. cit., pp. 68-69. Return.
7. Stanbrook, Alan, 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' in Films and Filming, Vol. 10 No. 7, April 1964. Return.
8. Eastaugh, Kenneth, The Carry-On Book, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1978, p. 16. Return.
9. Love, Death, Sex and Matters Arising... broadcast on BBC2, 9.50pm, Friday 13 November 1987. Return.
10. Stanbrook, op. cit., p. 21. Return.
11. Lejueune, C.A., The Observer 26 June 1949 quoted in Stanbrook op. cit., p. 19. Return.
12. Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1977. Return.
13. Chambers, lain, Popular Culture, Metheun, London & New York, 1986, p. 110. Return.
14. Estaugh, op. cit., pp. 41-42. Return.
15. Estaugh, op. cit., pp. 24-25. Return.
16. Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 28 No. 328, May 1961, pp. 63-64. Return.
17. Jordan, Marion, 'Carry On...Follow That Stereotype' in British Cinema History, op. cit. Return.
18. Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 28 No. 328, May 1961, pp. 63-64. Return.
19. Eastaugh, op. cit., p. 41. Return.
20. Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 31 No. 367, August 1964, p.134. Return.
21. Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Penguin, London, 1976, p. 170. Return.
Goldstein, J. H., & McGhee, Paul E. (eds.), The Psychology of Humor, Academic Press, New York & London, 1972.
Hamer, Robert, & Dighton, John, Kind Hearts and Coronets: Classic Film Scripts; Lorrimer Publishing, London, 1984.
Walker, John, The
Once and Future Film, Methuen, London,
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