Ealing Comedies Mark a High Point in British Film

Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios produced a series of well-written, carefully crafted social comedies that pitted “the little man” against the social institutions of postwar Great Britain.

Summary of Event

Under Michael Balcon, London’s Ealing Studios was known for promoting a cooperative, family-like atmosphere; on one of the studio’s walls was painted the slogan “the studio with the team spirit.” For this reason, Ealing received remarkable loyalty from its directors and writers, many of whom stayed until the studio disbanded. Although the studio’s principal personnel had various abilities and degrees of talent, it is possible to identify certain features that the studio’s famous comedies share. These films are not lavish spectacles but carefully crafted, wittily written satires on authority. They depict ordinary people attempting to break free from the numerous constraints of postwar British society and its rigid, conventional morality. In the films, the world is turned upside down and the government, industry, or class system challenged—but this is done gently, with a degree of respect for what is being derided. [kw]Ealing Comedies Mark a High Point in British Film (1949-1951)
[kw]Comedies Mark a High Point in British Film, Ealing (1949-1951)
[kw]British Film, Ealing Comedies Mark a High Point in (1949-1951)
[kw]Film, Ealing Comedies Mark a High Point in British (1949-1951)
Ealing Studios
Ealing Studios
[g]Europe;1949-1951: Ealing Comedies Mark a High Point in British Film[02810]
[g]United Kingdom;1949-1951: Ealing Comedies Mark a High Point in British Film[02810]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1949-1951: Ealing Comedies Mark a High Point in British Film[02810]
Balcon, Michael
Crichton, Charles
Cornelius, Henry
Hamer, Robert
Mackendrick, Alexander
Clarke, T. E. B.
Guinness, Alec

The films known as “Ealing comedies” constitute only a small number of the films made at Ealing, just west of London. Films were being produced there from the early years of the twentieth century. In 1930, Basil Dean’s Dean, Basil Associated Talking Pictures Associated Talking Pictures took over the site, and Dean remained at Ealing until Balcon’s arrival in 1938, when the facility became known as Ealing Studios. Balcon remained in charge until the release of the last Ealing film in 1959. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had purchased the studios in 1955, however, and the last seven films to bear the Ealing name were produced elsewhere.

Throughout this period, Ealing turned out films in many genres, although comedies were always prominent. The term “Ealing comedies” commonly refers only to a small group of films made in the last years of the 1940’s and the early 1950’s. It is on these that the enduring fame of the Ealing name rests, and film scholars generally agree that the major films of this group are Passport to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, all released in 1949, and The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, both from 1951.

These films were preceded in 1947 by Hue and Cry. Hue and Cry (Crichton) Directed by one of the Ealing stalwarts, Charles Crichton, from a script by T. E. B. Clarke, the film is the story of a group of children who defeat a gang of villains who are communicating via a comic strip. Hue and Cry lacks the lightness of touch that marks the later films, but its use of the bomb-site locations that scarred postwar London prefigures the world of Miramont Place, the setting of Henry Cornelius’s Passport to Pimlico. Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius)

In Cornelius’s film, children playing near the site of London’s last unexploded bomb accidentally roll a tire onto it. The ensuing explosion uncovers a cave containing both treasure and an old manuscript. The manuscript reveals that the street in Pimlico where it was found is a part of the old French Dukedom of Burgundy and thus is not subject to the laws of Great Britain. The residents of Miramont Place are thus freed from the rationing system—limiting the quantities of food, clothing, and other items that might be purchased—that was in full force in postwar Great Britain. At first, the residents welcome the change and strike out for independence; they band together in a spirit of cooperation, seemingly nostalgic for the wartime experience of unity and purpose. Shortages of water and food and the invasion of the area’s borders by black marketeers, however, eventually lead to a reconciliation with the British authorities.

Alexander Mackendrick’s Whiskey Galore
Whiskey Galore (Mackendrick) again presents a community uniting in the face of unreasonable official regulations. When a ship carrying whiskey runs aground just offshore, the inhabitants of Todday, deprived by the war of their favorite drink, are determined to rescue as much of its cargo as possible. The Scottish islanders are opposed by Captain Waggett, an upper-class English Home Guard commander (played by Basil Radford Radford, Basil , an Ealing regular, who portrayed a similarly stuffy government official in Passport to Pimlico). The island setting of Whiskey Galore gives it at times an almost documentary feel, an impression that is enhanced by the ensemble acting it shares with Passport to Pimlico. The remaining three major films, however, all feature Alec Guinness.

In Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer) Guinness plays all the members of the d’Ascoyne family, who are killed off one by one by a dispossessed poor relation, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), as he successfully murders his way to the family inheritance and its dukedom. This is the wittiest and most acclaimed of all the Ealing films, its black comedy and wry humor pointing up the class divisions and social inequities of British society with cruel wit and dazzling power. Kind Hearts and Coronets thus completed a trio of films that established Ealing’s reputation for comedy. Unlike the other films, though, Kind Hearts and Coronets had no obvious successors and remains, many critics believe, an isolated tour de force.

The Lavender Hill Mob, Lavender Hill Mob, The (Crichton) directed by Charles Crichton from a T. E. B. Clarke script, again stars Guinness, this time as a meek bank employee who robs the gold bullion van that he rides from mint to bank every Friday. In Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit, Man in the White Suit, The (Mackendrick) Guinness is a naïve scientist who believes he has created a fabric that will not get dirty or wear out—and which he turns into the brilliant white suit that he dons for the last third of the movie. His efforts are opposed both by textile mill owners and workers; eventually, after he has encountered his poor landlady, who chastises him for trying to take from her the income she gets from doing others’ washing, the white suit starts to disintegrate of its own accord. Mackendrick’s last work for Ealing, The Ladykillers
Ladykillers, The (Mackendrick) (1955), another movie plotted around the exploits of a criminal gang, is the best of the later comedies.


All the major Ealing comedies except Passport to Pimlico use the voice of a narrator to frame the action of the film, and the use of this device allows the films to present a rather more ambiguous final message than they otherwise might. At the end of The Lavender Hill Mob, viewers discover that Holland, the Alec Guinness character who has been narrating the story of his crime from an elegant nightclub, is actually handcuffed to the man who has been listening to him. The reversals in the other films are more morally ambiguous: In Kind Hearts and Coronets, Louis Mazzini, writing his memoirs from jail, provides the narrative impulse for the film. When he is freed, he forgets the memoirs, which may mean that he will hang after all.

In the Mackendrick films, the narrators are not the central characters. The islanders of Todday are represented by the voice-over of an unseen narrator who, at the end of the film, says that the whiskey soon ran out again and that the islanders, other than those who did not drink, lived unhappily ever after. At the end of The Man in the White Suit, in which the narrator is a textile mill owner and the chief antagonist of the hero, Sidney (Alec Guinness) walks away defeated—but accompanied by the sound of a bubbling that has come during the film to signify his thoughts and that suggests that he may not be finished yet. Thus Ealing’s reputation for quaint, comfortable, respectful, and nostalgic versions of British stereotypes is not warranted by the best of its comedies, even if it is by such later films as The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and Barnacle Bill (1957).

When the BBC took over at Ealing, a plaque went up to commemorate the studio. The words, chosen by Balcon, read: “[h]ere during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character.” Certainly, Ealing succeeded in developing an image for British comedy to the extent that, as Ian Green and others have pointed out, certain films, of which Henry Cornelius’s Genevieve (1953) is the most notable, seem to many to be Ealing comedies, even though they were not made by the studio.

The popular series of Carry On films Carry On (motion picture series) , which began in 1958 with the release of Carry on Sergeant and continued until 1980, seems at first glance to be very different from the Ealing comedies. The Carry On films depict and challenge the repressed sexuality of British society in a coarse, ribald fashion, but they share with the more respecting and respectable Ealing films an antagonism to the institutions and regulations that support privilege and a strict morality.

Like many of the Ealing films, the Carry On series depends on a familiar ensemble of actors, but if the series has a face, it must surely be the creased smile of Sid James, who had appeared opposite Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob. Guinness himself emerged as a star from the great comedies and has remained both popularly and critically acclaimed ever since, appearing in a wide variety of roles both in the cinema and on British television.

It is perhaps appropriate that the home of Ealing’s comedies was taken over by a television company. It has long been accepted that in Great Britain, unlike in the United States, television has been responsible for more interesting work than the cinema, and this is as true in the realm of comedy as elsewhere. Many British situation comedies have been characterized by the gentle satire associated with Ealing. The long-running Dad’s Army, Dad’s Army (television program)[Dads Army] for example, featured a wartime Home Guard unit run by pompous, rule-following Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe), the town’s bank manager, a character who owes much to Basil Radford’s Captain Waggett in Whiskey Galore.

The assault on institutions, regulations, and taboos, but without the comforting nostalgia of such series as Dad’s Army, is also evident in the work of Great Britain’s most famous comedy team, Monty Python Monty Python . In 1988, two major strains of British comedy met when the seventy-eight-year-old Charles Crichton directed two Monty Python members, John Cleese and Michael Palin, in A Fish Called Wanda, Fish Called Wanda, A (Crichton) a film that did indeed offer something between Ealing’s wit and Monty Python’s anarchy.

The history of British cinema has been erratic, and it is not easy to trace influences over long periods. Perhaps the best testimony to the power of the Ealing comedies, however, is that they are still seen as so typically British. Balcon’s policy as studio head was never to attempt to conquer the American market by producing epic films designed to sell elsewhere; such attempts led to the failure of many other British studios. Balcon aimed at creating a distinctly British product, and when the films themselves are able to critique the nature of that Britishness, as do Kind Hearts and Coronets and Whiskey Galore, they remain fresh and exciting. “We always were English, we always will be English and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our rights to be Burgundian” shouts a woman in Passport to Pimlico. It is this spirit of gentle mockery that pervades the Ealing films and determines both their pleasures and their limitations. Ealing Studios

Further Reading

  • Armes, Roy. “Balcon at Ealing.” In A Critical History of the British Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. The best general survey of British cinema history up to the early 1970’s. Chapter on Ealing concentrates on the comedies. Argues that Mackendrick and Hamer are among the best of the Ealing directors and sees Kind Hearts and Coronets as one of British cinema’s few masterpieces.
  • Barr, Charles. Ealing Studios. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Concentrates heavily on the comedies, devoting complete chapters to those Barr believes to be the best: Whiskey Galore, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Man in the White Suit. Intelligent, comprehensive analysis, many stills, filmography, and biographical notes make Barr’s book the best single text on Ealing.
  • Daubney, Kate. “Music as a Satirical Device in the Ealing Comedies.” In European Film Music, edited by Miguel Mera and David Burnand. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006. Reading of the use by the Ealing comedies of music to comment satirically upon their visual tracks. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Green, Ian. “Ealing: In the Comedy Frame.” In British Cinema History, edited by James Curran and Vincent Porter. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983. Discusses how comedy may overcome censorship and how the framing devices that characterize so many of the Ealing films allow a delicate balance between fantasy and realism to be presented.
  • Landy, Marcia. “Film Comedies.” In British Genres: Cinema and Society, 1930-1960. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Sets the Ealing films in the context of comedy as a genre within the British cinema and in the context of postwar British society; includes brief, but perceptive, accounts of the narratives and implications of the major films. A highly readable and thoroughly researched introductory account.
  • Perry, George. Forever Ealing: A Celebration of the Great British Film Studio. London: Pavilion Books, 1981. Entertaining history of the studio from its inception until 1959. Especially useful in providing a comparison between the earlier comedies and the postwar examples by which the studio earned its fame. An excellent supplement to Barr’s more detailed account of the major films. Many stills, comprehensive filmography.
  • Wilson, David, ed. Projecting Britain: Ealing Studios Film Posters. London: British Film Institute, 1982. Full-color collection of the advertising posters for the Ealing films.

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