Raising a glass to the future

A battle between breweries is at the centre of Cheer Boys Cheer, an Ealing comedy in chrysalis that blazed a trail for the studio’s beloved postwar classics.

Dylan Cave

Every now and then a film emerges that seems to preempt a new trend or cycle by years or, sometimes, decades. 1960’s Psycho, for example, is credited as the ‘mother’ of the 1970s/80s slasher film cycle. 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia seems to set the template for the scale and style of what would become the Hollywood blockbuster a decade or so later, and in the UK 1947’s It Always Rains on Sunday, with its tale of frustrated passion set against dreary working-class domesticity, foreshadows the celebrated British ‘new wave’ dramas of the early 1960s.

In its modest way, another Ealing Studios title may be credited with blazing the trail for the studio’s famous postwar comedies. Although produced under the banner of ATP (Associated Talking Pictures), Cheer Boys Cheer is Ealing in all but name, produced at the studios by Michael Balcon only months before he was to adopt the ‘Ealing Studios’ logo.

Many commentators are drawn to the film’s narrative, in which a small traditional company (the 150-year-old Greenleaf brewers) is threatened with takeover by a powerful but impersonal organisation, the colossal Ironside brewery.

The opposition echoes those of later Ealing films: Passport to Pimlico’s plucky Burgundians against the ration-heavy bureaucratic state, Whisky Galore!’s Todday islanders outwitting mainland morality, or The Titfield Thunderbolt’s community-run railway taking on a monopolist bus company. As film historian Charles Barr notes, Cheer Boys Cheer is “a startling fore-runner, a reminder that those later films were not a sudden inspiration but had roots and precedents.”

In the book to accompany our season, Ealing Revisited, Tim O’Sullivan points out some of the connections between Cheer Boys Cheer and the later films. He cites screenwriter Roger MacDougall, who would go onto co-write, with Alexander Mackendrick and John Dighton, The Man in the White Suit (1951) – another tale pitting the small and parochial against industrial giants. Ronald Neame, director of photography on many early Ealing features, and Walter Forde, one of ATP/Ealing’s most prominent comedy directors, are also name-checked.

These contributors and connections are fascinating, but when the film was made in 1939, of course, little of what we think of as ‘classic Ealing’ was on the minds of Cheer Boys Cheer’s filmmakers. Instead, what seems to preoccupy the film is the more prospect of war on the continent.

The film displaces the troubling situation abroad onto a simple confrontation between isolated Greenleaf and the ruthless, mechanised Ironside. The rather crude allegory is stretched to near-breaking point with Ironside employing wrecking crews to sabotage Greenleaf’s vulnerable pubs.

And if that isn’t explicit enough Ironside’s company chief, played by Edmund Gwenn, is shown reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It is through these none-too-sophisticated analogies that we can see how far Balcon’s Ealing had yet to travel.

So we are left with a film still firmly embedded in the style and production values of the 1930s, but they are top-drawer values. Three of the stars appear by arrangement with Gainsborough Pictures, a company actually co-founded by Michael Balcon in 1924.

Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat, famous for their films with Will Hay, appear without him, a sign of the imminent breakup of the comedy trio at the end of the decade. (Hay is reported to have said that he had “no intention of being one of a three-legged act” and was to leave Gainsborough for Ealing in 1941.) 

Here Marriot and Moffat are joined by Jimmy O’Dea, an Irish actor and songwriter who made a number of films in the 1930s. Together this threesome almost steal the film with a hilariously bungled recitation of Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow.

The third performer from Gainsborough is leading actress, Nova Pilbeam – child actor of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and heroine of Young and Innocent (1937) – who lends the film credible star quality. She performed again for Ealing in Thorold Dickinson’s The Next of Kin (1942), a film which marked both Ealing’s maturing style and its new wartime course.

Cheer Boys Cheer, then, can be seen as a kind of unwitting preview of the direction Ealing was to take: strapped into the conventions of its time (the late 1930s) but stumbling upon the narrative trope – community versus corporation, small versus big – that was to prove so popular and effective in later years. As Charles Barr suggest, it’s almost Ealing in miniature.

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