The Proud Valley (1940)

London’s BFI Southbank is currently staging its now-customary end-of-year blockbuster season. 2016’s retrospective is Black Star, a celebration of the black community’s contribution to American and British cinema over the past century, masterminded by critic Ashley Clark and showcasing the work of such luminaries as Josephine Baker, Pam Grier and Spike Lee. One of the most underappreciated and unjustly forgotten of all black stars is surely Paul Robeson, leading man, folk singer and later left-wing outcast. A major name in the 30s and 40s, Robeson fought tirelessly to overcome vicious stereotyping but has been out of fashion for some decades now, an oversight in dire need of correction and exactly the sort of wrong the ‘Black Star’ programme is seeking to address.

Much of Robeson’s movie career took place in Britain and The Proud Valley is one of only two pictures the great man declared himself happy with (the other being Song Of Freedom, 1936). Directed for Michael Balcon’s Ealing by Pen Tennyson, great grandson of the poet, it’s the story of African-American sailor David Goliath, who sets out from the Cardiff docks to find work inland. Hoboing his way through south Wales, Goliath pitches up in Blaendy in the Rhondda Valley and is taken in by a family of colliers who welcome him as soon as they realise his bass tenor will make their male voice choir a shoo-in to win the annual Eisteddfod competition. David becomes a popular figure in the locality and is shielded from racial prejudice by his choirmaster, who tells one coal-dusted bigot: “Damn and blast it man! Aren’t we all black down that pit?”

Robeson’s naturally warm presence is well served by The Proud Valley, its screenplay written especially for him by Unity Theatre husband-and-wife team Herbert Marshall and Alfredda Brilliant. His hulking physique makes Robeson a plausible coal miner and is put to good use swinging a pick axe, hauling carts, crawling up slag heaps and later shouldering crumbling support beams at the film’s tragic climax. His unmistakable voice is also given its due, with the Samson of Song belting out both ‘Deep River’ and ‘Land Of My Fathers’ for his enraptured workmates.

Robeson long maintained ties with the British mining community and took a keen interest in both its industrial struggles and way of life. The Mining Review newsreel below, 'A Star Drops In, captures him singing 'Joe Hill' for pitmen in Edinburgh in 1949.

The rest of The Proud Valley’s cast, a mix of professionals and Welsh amateurs led by Edward Chapman and Simon Lack, also bring authenticity, with local sweetheart Janet Johnson especially charming. It is odd though that Marshall and Brilliant’s story, otherwise socialist to the core and unshakeable in its faith in organised labour and the working class, should require the rise of fascism and the advent of WWII to revive the men’s fortunes after a year-long pit closure. Production at the mine is only kick-started in order to meet government coal quotas - raised to fuel the war effort – a move that duly returns Blaendy to prosperity, securing its immediate future. Three cheers for Uncle Adolf!

Robeson’s own outspoken political views and in particular his stated admiration for Soviet Russia led to any mention of The Proud Valley or its Leicester Square opening night being expunged from The Daily Express under strict orders from vengeful press baron Lord Beaverbrook. The film was nevertheless a modest success and became the first to be premiered on radio when its soundtrack was broadcast by the BBC Home Service.

Although naturally a museum piece to modern tastes, The Proud Valley deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952) and remains a useful record of British mining in its prime. It should also be commended for its enlightened attitude to race (given its period). You’d have hope that, 76 years on, we might have heeded its simple message of brotherhood.


Scott Of The Antarctic (1948)

Studiocanal is currently in the process of restoring some of the lesser-known titles from Ealing's back catalogue for a debut Blu-ray release. The latest to benefit from a 2K digital spit-shine is Charles Frend's straight up and down biopic of the titular British adventurer, tragically frozen to death with his comrades in 1912 on their return journey from the South Pole, having just been pipped to the post by dastardly Norwegian rivals. Frend's film draws on Scott's recovered diaries, taking us from the explorer's dogged early fundraising efforts in provincial town halls through every step of the group's long march in vain, the icy wastes of the tundra recreated somewhat creakily at the studio's West London sound stages.

John Mills stars as Scott, imbuing the role with the sort of chirpy, can-do pluck we don't much go in for these days. An interesting aspect of the great man's character stressed here is that he made a fatal error in insisting that the Terra Nova expedition take new-fangled mechanical snowmobiles with them in favour of additional huskies, ignoring the advice of his experienced peers in the name of progress. An unfashionable technophobic moral is thus hinted at but not dwelt upon. Scott's team are made up of reliable character players like James Robertson Justice, Kenneth More, Reginald Beckwith and Derek Bond, the latter a rather chinless Nicholas Nickleby a year earlier but here very affecting as Captain Oates, clinging absently to a slim volume of Tennyson in the group's wind-battered tent before uttering his immortal exit line: "I am just going outside and may be some time."

A commendably businesslike if rather fusty tale of human endeavour against the elements in the manner of Touching The Void (2003) and Everest (2015), Scott Of The Antarctic does pack in some winning moments of pathos: an otherwise jolly scene in which the men say goodbye to their wives and sweethearts before setting sail is freighted with sorrow by our foreknowledge of their historical fate; the team later having to execute their ponies to survive, the gunshots ringing out and prompting howls of terror from their anguished sled dogs.

Perhaps the best reasons for those without a prior interest in its subject matter to seek out Frend's film are Ralph Vaughan Williams's grand and ghostly original score and Jack Cardiff's bold blue and blasted white cinematography, the latter finally given its due in the spanking new format.


The Naked Spur (1953)

High in the Colorado Rockies, bounty hunter Howard Kemp (James Stewart) pursues killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), enlisting the help of craggy prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and Roy Anderson* (Ralph Meeker), a cavalryman dishonourably discharged, whom he encounters along the trail. The trio succeed in capturing Ben and his ward Lina (Janet Leigh) and set off home to Abilene, Kansas, intending to collect their reward and see him hanged. Ben, however, delights in sowing the seeds of discontent among his captors, exploiting the tensions within the group to play the men off against one another as they cross perilous Blackfeet Indian country.

Showing at the BFI Southbank as part of the venue's psychological Western season, Ride Lonesome, The Naked Spur was the third of Stewart's Oater collaborations with director Anthony Mann and stands as one of the darkest in its genre. Clearly an ancestor of Scottie Ferguson, Kemp suffers delirious night terrors over the memory of a woman who once betrayed him, selling his land out from under him while he was away at war. Scarred and embittered, Kemp hopes to use the bounty on Ben to buy back what was once his, kicking over the ashes of his path, ideally with Lina as his new ranch wife. A tormented and not especially likeable hero, Kemp proves to be the lesser of two evils when the chatty and jovial Ben finally reveals himself to be every bit the vicious, nihilistic murderer we'd been expecting. Ryan is magnificent as Vandergroat, relishing the mind-games with his would-be jailers - cheering on Anderson's lechery towards Lina and preying on Tate's greed to lure him to his death.

The interplay between the five actors is magnificently handled by Mann, whose deft hand teases out the subtleties in Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom's Oscar-nominated screenplay. Leigh suggested that the naturally conflicting personality types among the cast, stranded in the wilderness together on a tough location shoot, did much to boost the film's intensity. William C. Mellor's bright Technicolor cinematography likewise accentuates the sublime scenery, its majesty in contrast to the hardscrabble lives of Mann's flawed and desperate characters. A riverside shoot-out at the finale makes the most evocative use of violent gushing rapids this side of Deliverance (1972) or The Revenant (2015).

*Not to be confused with the deliciously deadpan Swedish director of A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2015), a delightful if, admittedly, irrelevant coincidence.


Yellow Sky (1948)

William A. Wellman's Yellow Sky is currently showing in London as part of the BFI Southbank's Shakespeare On Film season to mark the quatercentenary of the Bard's death and is well worth seeking out if you're in the vicinity.

Very loosely based on The Tempest (1610), as Fred M. Wilcox's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956) would be eight years later, Wellman's Western is taken from a novel by pulp maestro W.R. Burnett and tells of bank robber James "Stretch" Dawson (Gregory Peck) and his gang, who wind up in the titular ghost town and become embroiled in the affairs of its only residents, an aged prospector (James Barton) and his tough granddaughter, known as "Mike" (Anne Baxter). Given the dilapidated state of Yellow Sky, the men realise the only reason Grandpa and Mike have stuck around is to safeguard the former's secret stockpile of gold. Dawson fancies a share of the spoils but struggles to rein in his ill-disciplined crew, at least one of whom lusts after Mike. Matters come to a head when dandy killer Dude (Richard Widmark) emerges as a serious challenger to Stretch's authority and an army of drunken Apaches appear over the horizon.

Reaction to Yellow Sky was highly positive upon its initial release, with the New York Times's Bosley Crowther noting thematic similarities with the previous year's Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (apparently Darryl F. Zanuck had the same idea and originally envisioned Walter Huston as Grandpa). Variety was also keen, praising the "earthy" script for demonstrating "an understanding of the hungers of men".

Yellow Sky is certainly surprisingly upfront about gang member Lengthy (John Russell) and his intention to rape Mike at the first opportunity, a constant threat hanging over the narrative from the moment he sets eyes on her. We have little doubt that Mike can handle her own and don't have to wait long before she floors Dawson with a jab to the jaw and wrestles him to stand-still in the dirt. She later brawls with Lengthy in a creek as it becomes clear that this "he-girl" in jeans has had to adopt a tomboy act in order to survive the West. Her falling for Dawson, ultimately a rather principled chap, is a matter of easing the repression of her femininity and learning to trust someone other than her elderly guardian in order to realise her true self and blossom. This process is capped, quite literally, at the film's close after the bad guys have been routed and Dawson has gone straight: he presents her with a floral bonnet, a gift she receives with delight. Civilisation has dawned on Yellow Sky and the future looks bright.

Wellman's film is crisply shot by Joe MacDonald - who would also serve on another Western reworking of Shakespeare, Broken Lance (1954) - and contains a number of memorable images: the gang's escape across the salt flats, starved of water; a toppled roulette wheel in the ironically-named Eldorado saloon spinning to a stop as Dude is killed; the pouch at his belt "bleeding" gold dust like the sands of time; Stretch's reverse bank robbery to square his debt to society.

The ever-underrated Baxter is especially lovely here as a gun-totin' Miranda and Peck as staunch and stoic as you'd expect. Widmark, of course, brings effortless menace, as the Punch cartoon above nicely conveys. Was there ever a leaner heavy?


Holiday Inn (1942)

The picture that gave the world Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas', this musical caper starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire is actually a far more erratic and frankly odd affair than you may remember.

Crooner Jim Hardy (Crosby) is heart broken when his fiancée Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) ditches him for their co-star Ted Hanover (Astaire), preferring to carry on with her career rather than retire with Hardy to the isolated Connecticut farm he's just acquired. Hardy himself quickly becomes overwhelmed by the workload at his new ranch and decides to reinvent the venue as a nightclub, open only 15 times a year on public holidays. Meanwhile, Hanover is in turn dumped by Lila and follows Hardy to the Holiday Inn, where he encounters the latter's new protégé Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) and duly falls for her too, much to Jim's horror. The pair bicker over Linda, the competition escalating from Valentine's Day to Easter to Independence Day, before matters come to a head when Hanover finds himself in a position to advance Linda's career in Hollywood.

The Berlin songs are solid - from the aforementioned signature theme to 'You're Easy To Dance With' - the staging is charming and the leads are on fine form. I particularly enjoyed Crosby's bebop patois approach to slang: "Take a slug from the mug", he advises a hungover Astaire, brandishing a coffee pot. Walter Abel also makes an impression as the duo's cheerily manic manager Danny Reed.

However, there's something weird going on with Holiday Inn. Firstly, there's the ill-judged blackface number for Lincoln's Birthday, which is often scrapped from modern television broadcasts of the film despite its necessity to the plot - the greasepaint providing a ruse to disguise Linda and thus keep her out of Ted's clutches. Like any minstrel bit in old musicals, the scene is patronising and irredeemably ugly to modern eyes but would have been recognised as a common vaudeville trope at the time. Equally jarring is the July 4th fireworks party in which Crosby, dressed as Uncle Sam, introduces a montage of stock footage illustrating US military-industrial might. This may have been made in wartime, but the decision to include such brazen patriotic tub-thumping is surely at odds with the otherwise dreamy, escapist tone of the piece.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Mark Sandrich's film though is that it casts Astaire in a rather unflattering, predatory light, his Ted Hanover a disloyal and self-interested wolf who routinely trashes the romantic life of his best friend and business partner without a thought for the latter's welfare. A New Year's Eve duet with Mason in which Astaire dances blind drunk to the delight of his fellow revellers falls flat, unsettling and unfunny because it's depression that's driven him to this boozy stupor. The dynamic Astaire's character establishes in turn forces Crosby to play the melancholy loser, a creative sadly noodling away at his piano while his showbiz pals and rivals make off with the spoils. Not a good look for the less naturally starry of the leads.

For all that, Holiday Inn creates a toasty wintry mood and is an altogether pithier and breezier enterprise than White Christmas (1954), Michael Curtiz's Technicolor remake again starring Crosby, this time joined by Danny Kaye, which is probably the more often revived. That Holiday Inn's most enduring legacy should be giving its name to an international franchise of affordable hotels is an appropriately peculiar coda for this all-year-round Christmas comedy.


Remember The Night (1940)

Before Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray became embroiled in murderous insurance fraud, they were paired together in this pleasing seasonal screwball scripted by Preston Sturges.

Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a shoplifter arrested in the run-up to Christmas for filching a $5,000 bangle. MacMurray is John Sargent, the prosecutor at her trial who realises that juries are prone to be more forgiving than usual around the holidays so connives to get her case postponed until the new year. Feeling guilty about his actions condemning Lee to Christmas in jail, Sargent secures her bail and befriends the girl, learning that she too hails from Indiana and offering to drive her home to restore relations with her estranged mother. When this venture proves a disaster, Sargent invites her to spend the season with his own family where, naturally enough, they fall in love. But what to do about her legal battle?

Sturges' script - his last to be directed by someone else, Mitchell Leisen in this case - follows the screwball comedy playbook to the letter, sending a mismatched pair out on the road as in It Happened One Night (1934) and revolving around a very Capraesque romantic thawing, as Stanwyck's tough gal learns to put aside her well-worn cynicism and believe in the simple homespun decency of her foil. The Indiana Christmas scenes around the Sargent hearth are especially heart-warming, however, and nicely contrasted with the grim Gothic melodrama of Lee's unhappy return to the cruel matriarch she deserted years before. There's also some lovely interplay between Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson as Sargent's gently sparring mother and maiden aunt respectively, the pair bickering over burnt biscuits and quietly conspiring to bring the young lovers together. There's something oddly moving about these women awaiting the return of their adored golden boy, the absence of Sargent's late father never mentioned but still clearly felt around the dinner table.

Other nice character business comes from Willard Robinson as Lee's attorney, a frustrated thespian quite spellbound by his own rhetorical brilliance, and from John Wray as a mean Midwestern dairy farmer who takes exception to the travellers parking in his cow pasture and embarks on a citizen's arrest. Not all country folk are sweet, it seems: some are every bit as venal, resentful and vindictive as New Yorkers, a fine lesson from the inimitable and deeply wise Sturges. His own pithy summary of the film? "Love reformed her and corrupted him."


The Holly & The Ivy (1952)

This unjustly forgotten British Christmas picture from Alexander Korda's London Films proves to be astonishingly fresh 63 years on - thematically speaking, at least - and well worth a revisit.

Directed by George More O'Ferrall from a hit West End play by Wynyard Browne, the film tells of Norfolk parson Martin Gregory (the great Sir Ralph Richardson), whose brood of disgruntled children return home for the festive season. Alcoholic fashion journalist Margaret (Margaret Deighton) and wayward soldier Michael (Denholm Elliott) privately resent their father's neglect in favour of his parishioners and the years they've spent shielding him from the complications of their adult lives. They also blame the widower for failing to look after himself, requiring their self-sacrificing old maid of a sister Jenny (Celia Johnson) to stay on at the vicarage as his unofficial housekeeper at the expense of her own happiness. The siblings, however, underestimate the old man's capacity to understand their respective angsts, the latter proving to be a great deal more worldly than the hapless, irrelevant, bookish caricature they treat him as.

Hardly like to win favour with a generation who insist on Die Hard (1988) as their go-to Christmas classic, The Holly & The Ivy may be genteel and fustily old fashioned but nevertheless has much to say about veiled resentment and its corrosive impact on grown families that should chime with audiences today. Adapted by Russian writer Anatole de Grunewald to bring a Chekovian psychological rigour to Browne's original, there's a proto-Kitchen Sink grit about Margaret's backstory concerning the death of a child born (shockingly for the period) out of wedlock, the reason for her morose drinking bouts. The success of this bold and unflinching scenario is due to the considerable emotional pull of Margaret Deighton's tough performance, down but not out. As with the recently revived Brief Encounter (1945), the fate of Celia Johnson hangs in the balance and again we fall for it thanks to the actress's understated loveliness.

It's Richardson though who really sells the thing, giving a typically affecting performance of enormous charm and subtly. His misunderstood man of god railing against the vulgar commercialisation of Yuletide and expression of profound doubts over whether or not he's valued by his community or has succeeded at all in making a meaningful contribution to their lives ensure that The Holly & The Ivy remains prescient and interesting, even if the world it seeks to depict has largely vanished.

Sure, O'Ferrall's film is a more than a little creaky and stagebound in its execution and the snowy rural England it depicts the preserve of cards and chocolate box lids only, but it's a lovely bit of work all the same. I'd put it right up there with It's A Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947) and Scrooge (1951) among seasonal comforts.