The BFI Southbank is currently running a major two-part Ealing retrospective, the first half of which is dedicated to showcasing many of the darker dramas the studio made and excelled at but that are less well remembered today than its familiar canon of plucky underdog comedies. This week I took the opportunity to catch this brilliant but sickly Edwardian murder melodrama set along the Brighton seafront, an old haunt of my grandfather when he worked as a musician at the Theatre Royal. The full-length feature debut from Robert Hamer, following on from his ‘Haunted Mirror’ contribution to Dead Of Night (1945), Pink String & Sealing Wax contrasts the home life of humourless chemist Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns) with the rowdy goings on at The Dolphin, a pub owned by abusive drunk Joe Bond (Garry Marsh) and his wayward wife Pearl (Googie Withers).
Sutton is prim, stern and a Good Christian, a self-made bourgeoisie who grew up in want and now rules his own family with dogmatic cruelty, breaking off a love affair involving his eldest son David (Gordon Jackson) and dashing daughter Victoria’s (Jean Ireland) hopes of becoming an opera singer. David strikes out for The Dolphin one night to escape the stifling atmosphere and drown his frustrations in drink, whereupon he encounters Pearl and falls in love. Later attending to a cut on her palm, the result of a fracas with Joe, David warns her of the dangers of tetanus and shows off the array of poisons lining the shelves of his father’s pharmacy. Pearl realises she can use this information to bump off Joe and free herself to pursue a relationship with the man she really loves, Dan Powell (John Carol), a cheap and fickle dandy.
“Is there something in the Brighton air which so stimulates the human frame that it can only find relief in acts of violence?” wondered Evening Standard critic Patrick Kirwan in a contemporary review of the film, no doubt thinking of Graham Greene. Transferring the familiar homicidal lovers plotline from French literature and American pulp to the stout and oysters world of early twentieth century Brighton, Pearl and Dan perhaps most closely resemble the parasitic Kitty March and Johnny Prince from Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, released the same year. However, while that film focused on their sad and downtrodden victim, Pink String & Sealing Wax, based on a play by Roland Pertwee, gives the conspirators a much less sympathetic target and instead involves us in the lives of the Suttons. The always-subversive Hamer clearly enjoyed demonstrating the unhappy consequences of patriarch Edward Sutton’s domineering piousness but these scenes perhaps don’t gel as well as they might with the unseemly goings on at The Dolphin, whose regulars include Catherine Lacey’s memorably giggly gin hound Miss Porter. Hamer would achieve a much sounder balance between the home and the street in his more accomplished It Always Rains On Sunday two years later. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy here, including fine performances from Johns and Withers, Hamer making excellent use of the latter’s expressive face during Joe’s death scene, Pearl passing quickly from glee to repulsion as she watches the strychnine take hold.
The BFI’s ‘Dark Ealing’ season is well worth looking into if you’re in town. Aside from the films themselves, the venue has also mounted an impressive Mezzanine exhibition of studio memorabilia. From original posters for Went The Day Well? (1942) and Barnacle Bill (1957) to concept artwork by the likes of William Kellner and Michael Relph and an original sketch for Valerie Hobson’s costume in Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) by Anthony Mendelson. The highlight for me though was an absolutely insane letter written to Michael Balcon, dated April 15 1957, from the real Bishop of Matebeleland complaining about the comic mention of his office by Alec Guinness and Dennis Price in Kind Hearts, even though the diocese was only created in 1952, three years after the film was made!