When I told someone that I spent this afternoon with my mother watching Hue and Cry, I couldn't understand why they looked so perplexed. Then the penny dropped. No, I explained, not the mid-80s Scottish pop duo. I was talking about the 1947 British film that is generally recognised as the first Ealing comedy:
My mother and I watch a lot of Ealing films together. She loves them because they give her the opportunity to revisit her the world of her youth. I love them because it beats listening to her repertoire of six anecdotes about other people's illnesses, which are repeated on a never-ending loop. Instead, we sit together in a companionable silence.
Hue and Cry may be the first Ealing comedy, but it is also a children's thriller, inspired by the wonderful Emile and the Detectives. The plot is simple enough: a teenage boy discovers that a children's comic called 'The Trump' contains secret messages aimed at London's criminal underground. Ridiculed by the authorities, he decides to tackle the criminals himself, aided by a gang of local children.
The intro sequence is one of the most imaginative I've seen from this period and captures the film's fun, knockabout quality:
(Sadly, since writing this post, the film's current distributors have had the clips removed from YouTube on copyright grounds. It seems a bit of an own goal, as the clips were effectively encouraging people to buy the DVD)
The star of the film is Harry Fowler (centre), who died earlier this year.
I didn't recognise the young Harry Fowler, but this face should be familiar to anyone who watched British television during the 1970s and 80s:
Although the film poster billed Jack Warner, Alistair Sim and Valerie White as the stars of Hue and Cry, Fowler outshone them all. His performance as Joe Kirby fulfilled the promise he showed five years earlier as the cheeky cockney boy, George Truscott, in Went the Day Well?
It's a pity that Harry Fowler ended up playing bit parts in series like Minder and The Bill, as he was a first-rate actor who deserved more starring roles.
The other star of the film is, arguably, London itself. Unlike many films of this era, which portrayed an undamaged, prewar city, Hue and Cry shows a war-scarred London of bombed-out houses and empty streets. It is easy to see how the War bankrupted Britain, leaving it with an economy that would take 40 years to recover.
But it's not all about bomb sites. One of the strengths of Hue and Cry is that it gives a panorama of postwar London, with just as many scenes shot in the West End, Convent Garden and Hampstead. While I was watching the film, I occasionally stole a glance at my mother and saw her delight at seeing her London. It isn't the past that's a foreign country, it's the future.
The girl in this scene was an actress called Joan Dowling, who went on to marry Harry Fowler in 1951. She made a dozen films in six years, but in spite of this success she was, allegedly, bitterly disappointed by her career and in 1953, committed suicide.
As for Alistair Sim, although he gets top billing, he only appears in Hue and Cry for under ten minutes. But what a ten minutes! I was very tempted to create a YouTube clip of Sim's performance, but this would spoil the film for anyone who hasn't seen it.
On the subject of spoilers, I should stop now.
You may be wondering why I'm reviewing such a well-known film, but the truth is that until two weeks ago, I'd never heard of Hue and Cry. Have I been living in a bubble, or is it relatively obscure compared to Ealing comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob?
As far as I'm concerned, Hue and Cry is a masterpiece. Apart from being a fun, life-enhancing comedy (much funnier than The Titfield Thunderbolt), it is also a fascinating social document with some stunning cinematography that is worthy of the best film noir. Discovering it was an unadulterated pleasure.