Anti-authoritarian films of post-war Britain

Ealing Studios is best known for the comedies manufactured at its London facilities in the aftermath of World War II. The cycle started with Clamor (1947), which celebrates the street culture of children playing unsupervised in bombed out buildings, and it went on for a decade. Many of these films combined a warm community spirit with biting anti-authoritarian satire; they are films about people who trust their neighbors and family but are willing to revolt against any larger institution that begins to encroach on their lives. In Passport to Pimlico (1949), a borough of London discovers that it is technically an independent enclave and therefore free from rationing and other restrictions. In Whiskey galore! (1949), a Scottish village hides the equivalent of a Home Guard whiskey freighter. In The man in the white suit (1951), corporate and union bureaucrats unite to suppress a useful invention because it threatens their bottom line. When you hear the phrase “Ealing comedy”, these are the kinds of stories the speaker means.

But the spirit behind these films was not limited to Ealing. Elsewhere in England, other filmmakers drank from the same well; their films may not have been as good as Ealing’s best efforts, but they were still entertaining and had the same political edge. Here are two.

The first is Green Grow rushes (1951), based on a novel by Howard Clewes, directed by Derek Twist and written by Twist and Clewes. As Passport to Pimlico, this features a semi-independent enclave (“Unfortunately, Fitchwick, these swamp people refuse to recognize any authority – they claim to have a ridiculous charter from an old king granting them independence”); As Whiskey galore!, it culminates with a village conspiring to conceal bootleg liquor from the government. If James C. Scott had written light comedies instead of political treatises, he might have made a movie like this. My favorite line comes at the end, when an official exclaims: “These people deserve to be governed!”

The second half of our double feature is The happy family (1952), based on a play by Michael Clayton Hutton; it was scripted by Muriel and Sydney Box, with Muriel as director and Sydney as producer. In it, authorities plan to demolish one family’s home and store so the government can build an entrance to the next Brittany Day. The family responds by barricading the property and throwing canned goods at the invaders. (Aficionados of cross-partisan politics will appreciate the anti-statist alliance between the old-fashioned father and his daughter’s radical fiancé.)

It’s not a perfect image – the sudden resolution seems a bit underwhelming – but it’s solidly good; I can’t fit it into this post, but you can watch it here. If the film has one overt moment, it’s the line just before 46 minutes, when Stanley Holloway’s character toasts “to live quietly, and be left alone, and not be herded like sheep.”

(For previous editions of the Friday A/V Club, go to here. Mark Doyle has describe The happy family as a precursor to Muswell HillbilliesThe Kinks’ concept album on Evils of Eminent Domain; to read my appreciation of this disc, go here.)

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