This is a chance to enjoy the great classics and comedies but also to discover the little known and unheralded more serious side of Ealing Studios during the 1940s and 50s, with its rich vein of challenging, provocative and sometimes subversive films, often surprisingly radical in their implications.
The project will include a national rerelease of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and a new digital clean-up of the neglected They Came to a City, a major new book of essays Ealing Revisited, and special guests and events including an exhibition of Ealing posters, stills and memorabilia drawn from the BFI National Archive’s rich holdings and a new collection in the BFI Mediatheques. A parallel season celebrating director Alexander Mackendrick will feature all of his Ealing films from October 22 to November 30 at BFI Southbank.
Ealing Studios has a unique place in the history of British cinema and it has become a byword for a certain type of British whimsy and eccentricity. But the studio’s films boasted a surprising variety. Many of the films of Ealing rank among the undisputed classics of the period, among them Dead of Night, The Blue Lamp, The Cruel Sea, The Man in the White Suit and Passport to Pimlico.
The theme of Ealing: Light & Dark is a rich and revealing one. Even the renowned comedies have a dark side within them: Kind Hearts and Coronets is a wittily immoral tale of a serial killer in pursuit of a dukedom; Whisky Galore! has a mischievous approach to law and order as a Scottish island population attempt to beat the Customs men to the free whisky washed ashore from a shipwreck; in The Ladykillers a sweet old lady proves more than a match for a gang of brutal bank robbers.
Part of the enduring appeal of Ealing is its witty challenging of authority in films such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob, which touched a nerve with audiences eager for social and political change faced with the austerity of the immediate post-war era.
Beyond the apparent frothy entertainment, Ealing’s darker side dares to show wartime failures, imagine the threat of invasion or to contemplate the unsavoury after-effects of the war in the subtly supernatural The Ship That Died of Shame or the European noir Cage of Gold, in which Jean Simmons is lured by the charms of an homme fatal. Another pan-European story, Secret People (featuring an early appearance for Audrey Hepburn), contemplates the ethics of assassination, while in Frieda, Mai Zetterling faces anti-German prejudice in a small English town.
There are treats for even the most thoroughgoing Ealing aficionados in our programme of the studio’s barely known wartime propaganda shorts, many of them unseen and inaccessible for decades. BFI curators will tell the untold story of Ealing’s short-lived documentary unit, overseen by the great Alberto Cavalcanti, and its importance to Ealing’s feature films.
Ealing was presided over by Michael Balcon, a towering figure in British cinema who was an early supporter of Alfred Hitchcock. He gathered around him a band of talented collaborators including the very influential Cavalcanti and directors Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden and Alexander Mackendrick. All of these remarkable filmmakers were born within a few years of each other, around 100 years ago.
The posters for Ealing Studios films feature artwork by many of the era’s greatest artists including John Piper, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Edward Ardizzone and Mervyn Peake, while the acting talent is a roll-call of many of Britain’s greatest performers, among them Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Margaret Rutherford, Joan Greenwood, Dennis Price, Jean Simmons, Googie Withers, Michael Redgave, John Mills, Thora Hird, Diana Dors, James Fox, Virginia McKenna (who will introduce a screening of The Cruel Sea), Herbert Lom, Maggie Smith, Jack Warner, Alastair Sim, Will Hay and many more.
We are grateful to STUDIOCANAL for their support and collaboration across the BFI’s Ealing project. The Man in the White Suit and It Always Rains on Sunday are available from STUDIOCANAL on DVD and Blu-ray.