Anti-authoritarian films from post-war Britain

Ealing Studios is best known for its post-World War II comedies filmed at its facilities in London. It started with period Hue and Cry (1947), which celebrated the street culture of unsupervised children playing in bombed-out buildings, ran for ten years. Many of these films combined a relaxed community spirit with sharp anti-authoritarian satire; they are films about people who trust their neighbors and family, but are ready to rebel against any larger institution that begins to interfere in their lives. In Passport to Pimlico (1949), finds that a London neighborhood is technically an independent enclave and therefore free from nutritional and other constraints. In Plenty of Whiskey! (1949), a Scottish village hides a cargo ship’s worth of whiskey from the Home Guard. In The man in the white suit (1951), corporate and union bureaucrats conspire to suppress a useful invention because it threatens their bottom lines. When you hear the phrase ‘Ealing comedy’, these are the stories the speaker is referring to.

But the spirit behind these motion pictures was not confined to Ealing. Elsewhere in England, other filmmakers were drinking from the same well; their films may not have been as good as the best Ealing efforts, but they were still entertaining and had the same political edge. We present two of them.

First Grow Green Rushes (1951), based on the novel by Howard Clewes, directed by Derek Twist and written by Twist and Clewes. Whom Passport to Pimlico, which shows a semi-independent enclave (“Unfortunately, Fitchwick, these swamp people refuse to recognize any authority—they claim a ridiculous charter from some old king granting them independence”); whom Plenty of Whiskey!, it ends with a village conspiring to hide bootleg liquor from the government. If James C. Scott had written light comedies instead of political treatises, he might have made a film like this. My favorite line comes at the end when an officer yells, “These people don’t do that be worthy of let it be ruled!”

It’s the second half of our double feature Happy Family (1952), based on the play by Michael Clayton Hutton; it was written by Muriel and Sidney Box, with Muriel doubling as director and Sidney as producer. In this case, authorities plan to demolish a family’s home and shop so the government can build an entrance to the upcoming Festival of Britain. The family responds by barricading the property and throwing canned goods at the invaders. (Fans of transpartisan politics will appreciate the anti-statist alliance between an old-fashioned father and his daughter’s resentful radical fiancé.)

It’s not a perfect picture – the abrupt resolution feels a little anticlimactic – but it’s a very good one; I can’t post it in this post, but you can check it out here. If the film has a manifesto moment, it’s the line just before the 46-minute mark, when Stanley Holloway offers a toast to the character to “live quietly and be alone and not be herded like sheep.”

(For past issues of the Friday A/V Club, go here. Illustrated by Mark Doyle Happy Family as a messenger of Muswell Hillbilliesa Kinks concept album about the evils of eminent domain; (Go here to read my ratings for this record.)