WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Googie Withers…

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…puts her head in the gas oven at the climax of IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY. Not that the act itself is shown – not in 1947 – but we see the well-known dreadful preparations, so that for years I believed I had actually seen Mrs Sandigate kneeling on the kitchen floor and resting her head on a shelf. It was the much-whispered-about preferred method of suicide in my childhood: my grandmother talked about people making their last minutes more comfortable with a velvet cushion on the rack and trying to take the family pet with them – “but the cat jumped out”. There’s just such a cushion in Googie’s kitchen.

Unluckily for her, poor Rose Sandigate is discovered in time: she’s been found out sheltering her convict ex-lover in her husband’s house and now faces two years’ hard labour for aiding and abetting as well as prosecution for the suicide attempt. It’s a bleak ending only partially softened by the sop of having the cuckolded George (Edward Chapman)¤ sitting supportively by her hospital bed (” how are we’re going to get along without you?”) – but the uncompromising closing shot of the Tube station grille superimposed on her face reminds us of Holloway looming. We saw this railing before, at the start of the film: all the hapless denizens of Bethnal Green are caught like rats in the tightest of traps.

Googie is, as usual, superb with her magnificent Marie Antoinette profile, rich roughened contralto and heaving bosom. She was thirty but plays at least ten years older with the aid not of make up but with an air of quiet dark desperation which turns to panic when Tommy Swann¤¤ turns up soaked and starving in the Anderson shelter. Her hoarse laconic grimness (“What’s for breakfast?” “Haddock” ) is contrasted by a short flashback showing her in the old days as the flowery blonde barmaid at “The Two Compasses” who slips on rotter Tommy’s undoubtedly stolen engagement ring. Then he’s nabbed for a smash and grab, flogged to “a lump of raw meat”¤¤¤ and banged up. Rose marries an elderly widower, takes on his two teenage daughters (one nice, one nasty) and has her own son, Alfie, who has to sleep in the parlour. Nowadays I think she’s faute de mieux enjoying the “How To Become a Virgin” syndrome outlined by Quentin Crisp: a Madonna and Child hangs over her marital bed, while through the partition the girls’ walls are pasted with snaps of Larry Olivier, Bing Crosby and the like.

This is the East End at the nadir of post-war austerity; everything’s on the ration and everyone’s on the make. “A dose of salts or a good hiding” is the answer to any domestic difficulty. The house seethes with frustrated female sexuality as Vi (Susan Shaw) comes home “stinking. Fella took me to a road house……didn’t get back till after 3!” She falls into bed in her dance frock, but is later up to paint her toenails in the kitchen. “Tarting yourself up to meet your boyfrends – nice way to spend a Sunday morning” snorts her stepmother. Indeed. And, by a horrid irony, in the very next shot Rose discovers her own lover lurking in the shelter. Whereas George – presumably impotent – sublimates himself in pub culture, food and darts: and, of course, the only time he scores a bullseye Rose is not there to see…

It Always Rains on Sunday

Other innuendoes are not so subtle. There’s a memorable exchange of rudery between Sidney Tafler as the saucy saxophonist – “the man with sax appeal” – and Susan Shaw who’s in want of a record*: “You come round to the shop in the morning and I’ll give you one….”. (The censor asleep again and much sniggering in the one and nines). Hermione Baddeley** indulges in a showy piece of bottom-scratching-acting as Mrs Spry, doss-house madam: worth noting because we see Maureen Delaney use exactly the same shtik in ODD MAN OUT (also 1947). I wonder which lady thought of it first.

The contemporary trailer for IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAYS is lurid in its implications to a degree, and of course once Tommy Swann is smuggled out of the shelter and up to the bedroom it is only a matter of time before Rose has sex with him. This is implied only by a lingering kiss, a fade out and the high-lighting of a sateen eiderdown. But then comes the poignancy of Rose bringing out that old cherished engagement ring and offering it to Tommy to fund his getaway. In a heartbreaking exchange reminiscent of Joan Fontaine’s fantasies in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948) Tommy fails entirely to recognise the ring or its significance:

“Nice stone – oughta fetch quite a bit. Where’d you get it?”

“Had it given”

Director Robert Hamer (an old hand with Googie) and producer Michael Balcon (Daniel Day Lewis’s grandfather) pile on the detail almost too richly in this uniquely British flim noir/cinema realiste, the influence of which, I suppose, finally dwindled down to TV derivatives such as Queenie’s Castle, Dixon + East Enders. But British postwar cinema was able to surpass any of these for cold grimness and the blackest humour. A subplot about stolen roller skates has Tommy Handley beating an avaricious old fence** to death – his false teeth fly shockingly and comically into a puddle with the violence of the blow: the murderer is hauled off to begin the inevitable passage to the gallows. The terrible and wonderfully lit scene# in the shunting yards as Tommy Swann tries to decapitate himself under a rolling truck is strong meat. Two abortive suicide bids, the failures of the failed: neither Tommy not Rose are allowed to escape the law by leaving life as and when they choose. The trap motif, once again: like the hutched rabbit fattening for the pot in the back yard of 26 Coronet Grove.

There’s a vindictive pansy newspaper reporter; and, anticipating Julian and Sandy by 15 years, we hear a bit of Polari from John Slater. Then IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY is also notable for its time in featuring explicitly Jewish characters, humour and and extensive expressive use of Yiddish to heighten the atmosphere. Youth Club organiser Bessie Hyams is the only character in the piece who seems to have any warmth for a Bethnal Green that everyone else is longing to get away from.

“What’s wrong with the East End anyway?”

“It smells”

“Certainly it smells – markets & fish shops & pubs….”

Of honest life and labour she means; and not of cheating, fleecing, dodging and fraud from infancy onwards. Sources of other odours are liberally scattered through the screenplay: the action takes place on March 23rd## so we see masses of daffodils which incidentally contribute to three plot devices. Roast beef (“bit overdone”) and Mrs Watson’s lamb (with mint sauce) are prepared for lunch; in her anguish, Rose leans too heavily on the pastry. Then there’s tea, coffee, bread & marge, cheese, Bessie’s strudel, sausage rolls, ham sandwiches, vegetables and gravy, beer, Guinness, Scotch, “rasher and bubble”: “just some grub, Rosie, that’s all I want”. 1947 audiences had not eaten well for eight years and were ravenous. We have talked already about the haddock. Imagine the redolence of that wafting through a damp bomb-damaged two-up, two-down on a wet Sunday morning.

“Greedy old bag!”

I’ll leave you with some more abiding olfactory images: the hung-over Vi crawling out of bed in that frock she’s danced and then slept in – and draping it on a hanger, ready for next time. (She washes her person and her undies in a bath in the kitchen). And then Sidney Tafler smoking and exhaling a cloud of tobacco preparatory to kissing Vi on the mouth. Finally, one can’t help think of George finding a very funny smell in his bed, what with Tommy having being in it all day after twelve hours on the run from Dartmoor and all that rain, sweat, sex and spilled gravy…

Disconcerting.

GOOGIE WITHERS 1917 – 2011

¤ once beaten up in a theatre dressing room by Olivier for slandering Gielgud.

¤¤ Australian actor John McCallum: Googie’s husband in real life. They were courted during filming, married in 1948 and died within months of one another in 2010 -11. Australia’s Golden Show Biz Couple – McCallum’s memoirs were endearingly entitled Life With Googie.

¤¤¤ it’s a nasty jolt to realise we were still giving prisoners a taste of the cat in 1947. More frivolously, McCallum’s naked torso as he shows off his scars reminds us very forcibly of a time when today’s universal gym phenonemon was entirely unknown.

* and guess what? When the credits roll we see this catchy tune is ‘Theme Without Words’, specially composed by Marlene’s old Berliner pal of the 1920’s, Mischa Spoliansky.

** the noisy maid in MARY POPPINS; the even noisier Ida in BRIGHTON ROCK.

*** the usually motherly Gladys Henson has a couple of lines as the victim’s tarty wife. She comes to the door on a Sunday afternoon in close-fitting satin and bracelets: hung with stolen jewellery.

#and the fabulous music by Georges Auric

# do you think there might be some Easter parable mixed up in this? There are certain clues…

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