September 24, 2014 - 12:04pm
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the legendary Ealing Studios and the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, was written by UW Cinematheque's Project Assistant and UW Madison PhD candidate Amanda McQueen. The Ladykillers will screen in 4070 Vilas Hall on Saturday, September 27 at 7 p.m. The screening concludes our series "Alec Guinness: Centennial for a Comic Genius".

The Ladykillers: The Twisted Last Hurrah of Ealing Comedy

By Amanda McQueen

The Ladykillers is the last of a group of nine films commonly referred to as the Ealing comedies. Along with Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Whisky Galore! (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952) and The Maggie (1954), The Ladykillers has become an exemplar of Ealing Studios' output and part of the canon of classic British cinema.

Michael Balcon, who became head of production at Ealing Studios in 1938, was a strong advocate for the development of a thriving British film industry. He was divisively outspoken about legislative and financial actions that could curtail Hollywood's box office dominance, and he frequently attacked British filmmakers, like Alfred Hitchcock, who left for America, and British studios, like the vertically integrated Rank Organization, that used big-budget films with international stars to try and break into foreign markets. Balcon's criticisms are complicated somewhat by the fact that Ealing films - particularly the comedies - were quite successful internationally, and by the fact that, from 1944 to 1955, Rank actually financed and distributed Ealing productions. Nevertheless, Balcon wanted Ealing to be "The Studio for Good British Films," and this was reflected in the company's work methods and overall philosophy.

Filmmaking facilities were first built in the London borough of Ealing in 1902, but it wasn't until Balcon took over, following stints as head of production at Gainsborough, Gaumont British, and MGM-British, that Ealing Studios became a production company in its own right. In reaction to his unpleasant experience at MGM, Balcon organized Ealing as an intimate, familial company, adopting the motto "The Studio with the Team Spirit." By 1942, he had assembled a stable group of writers, producers, and directors who collaborated at round table discussions (or over a pint in the pub across the road) but who were also encouraged to run with their individual ideas. Ealing released only four to seven films a year, and they were modestly budgeted so that they could recoup their costs solely from the domestic market.

Ealing's approach to filmmaking was strongly influenced by the documentaries of John Grierson's GPO Film Unit, which focused on British institutions. In fact, in 1940, after an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of the GPO Film Unit from the Ministry of Information, Balcon hired away two of its filmmakers, Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti. Watt became one of Ealing's core directors, and Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) is a brilliant, wryly subversive example of the studio's interest in "projecting Britain and the British character." Moreover, Ealing films tended to be more diverse than those of other companies; while films from other studios featured predominantly middle-class characters from London's West End, Ealing's often displayed a wider range of socio-economic classes and regional accents, emphasizing the importance of a strong British community.
By the early-1950s, the studio's greatest successes were comedies - particularly the nine films that have come to be known as the "Ealing comedies." These were the films that spurred imitators at other studios, helped bring Alec Guinness to fame, and left an indelible mark on British popular culture. Though a diverse set of films, the Ealing comedies are united by an interest in the loveably eccentric, the dreams of "little men," and a tension between modestly progressive values and the power of tradition. While some display Ealing's penchant for warm-hearted whimsy, others are more cynical and morally ambivalent. Indeed, it was comedy's ability to "do things that are too dangerous, or that a certain audience can't accept" that attracted director Alexander Mackendrick to projects like The Ladykillers.

The plot for The Ladykillers reportedly came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream, and is dark comedy at its best. A gang of criminals, headed by "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness), rent a room from the widowed, slightly dotty, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson, in a BAFTA-winning performance). Posing as musicians, Marcus and his four companions (Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers - who also supplies the voice of Mrs. Wilberforce's parrot) plan to use the old woman as a cover for a robbery, but when she discovers what they are up to, they decide to kill her. Mrs. Wilberforce proves difficult to dispatch, however, and in their attempts to do her in, the criminals eliminate themselves one by one, leaving the little old lady - a staple figure of Ealing films - with all the loot.

The Ladykillers was received domestically and abroad as a distinctly British picture, and many have interpreted it as an allegory of the conflict between progressive forces (the criminals, the Labour party) and obstinate resistance to change (Mrs. Wilberforce, the Conservative party) that the country experienced both politically and socially after World War II. Moreover, some have seen it - and many other Ealing films - as being reflexively about the studio itself.

By the mid-1950s, Ealing was struggling and its films seemed more reactionary and stale than they had in earlier years, particularly alongside the rise of Hammer horror films and the angry young men of kitchen sink realism. In 1955, the studio facilities were sold to the BBC - fitting, perhaps, given that much of the audience for Ealing films had been lost to television. Balcon returned to MGM, and made films under the Ealing name at the facilities at Elstree until 1957. The Ladykillers is thus often seen as Ealing comedy's "twisted last hurrah"; it was the last comedy Balcon made at Ealing Studios (excepting a Benny Hill film, a comedy of a different type), and some claim it is a farewell, both mocking and affectionate, not only to the quaint little Britain the company had frequently depicted, but also to the type of filmmaking in which the studio had specialized.

Ealing Studios is still active, and iconic British productions continue to be shot there - Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the "downstairs" scenes in Downton Abbey (2010 - present), for example. And so, perhaps in some small way, the Ealing tradition, like Mrs. Wilberforce, carries resolutely on.