When I’m shattered after a long essay, or brooding over the state of the world, or merely wanting to enjoy a pleasant few hours, classic comedies are my go-to.
The golden age of film comedy in Britain was the 1950s. In this decade, or just outside it, came all the Ealing Comedies listed in the BFI’s “Top 100 British Films”. Here, however, I want to focus on the era’s lesser-known, non-Ealing productions. Although the lesser-knowns lack the nuanced social analysis and elegance of the Ealings, they are certainly superior as “feel-good” laugh-getters. And most importantly, they remain criminally under-watched.
Most of them had a recurring but interchangeable cast and crew. Each regular had a characteristic persona, which allowed audiences to become familiar with them, as if in a TV show; although most of the films were unconnected. As genre goes, they range from social satire to domestic farce to dark comedy. What they all had in common was the ability to get you into hysterical fits of laughter. The best of them assembled as many of the below actors as possible:
Ian Carmichael remained the staple comic hero. He played the title role in Lucky Jim, which fixed him as the hapless but likeable Fifties man; a relatable sort of idiot up against the worlds of the legal system (Brothers in Law), politics (Left, Right and Centre), trade unionism (I’m All Right Jack), and others.
Terry-Thomas was known as the delectably nasty “cad” or “bounder”. With his gap-toothed smile and high-pitched voice, he exemplified the caricature posh Englishman. He was at his best playing the likes of tax-evader Billy Gordon in Too Many Crooks, or Lord Mayley in The Naked Truth. In some films, though, he abandoned that persona for a kind of comic method acting. He played, for example, a dodgy street-crook in Brothers in Law.
Dennis Price never returned to the Oscar-worthy heights he had reached in 1949 with Kind Hearts and Coronets. But his outings as, for instance, Carmichael’s brilliantly corrupt uncle in Private’s Progress, or the used-car swindler in School for Scoundrels, all show an undimmed air of cool and cunning. There was another thing, too, that Price could always be relied on to do well: fall off boats. Off the top of my head, I can think of scenes in Lady Godiva Rides Again (which is otherwise a dud), The Naked Truth, Double Bunk and several others in which, as if unable to help himself, he just keeps on falling off boats.
Alastair Sim had a slightly more subdued style, and his greatest asset was his delivery. His signature role was that of Amelia Fritton in the St Trinian’s School series (of which the second instalment, where he’s joined by Terry-Thomas, is the best). He is equally excellent as an assassin in The Green Man; and as the law-abiding novelist who, in Laughter in Paradise, fruitlessly tries to become a criminal in order to inherit a fortune.
Then there were a range of character actors who were not leading men but played just-as-good small roles. In Happy is the Bride, Miles Malleson’s turn as a deaf magistrate is largely responsible for the most uproarious courtroom scene since Bardwell v. Pickwick. Cecil Parker, with his blend of pomposity and awkwardness, was failsafe as a butler or a father-in-law. Also noteworthy were Sid James, Eric Barker, Peter Sellers, George Cole and Richard Attenborough.
Even aside from the cast, the “feel-good” charm of these films is down to the wit and energy of the screenplays. Censorship kept the innuendo at a low, meaning the filmmakers had to rely on dialogues, situations, visual gags and facial expressions over “obscenity”. The period charm of the post-war decade – of a Britain experiencing the rapid growth of prosperity and optimism – also imbues the films with a sense of having been made in a golden world apart.
By the 1960s the familiar run was petering out. A few films captured glimmers of the old magic – The Amorous Prawn, for example. By the middle of the decade, however, a new wave of Technicolour Swinging Sixties comedies had put an end to the golden age.
So please don’t be prejudiced! Don’t be put off by the black-and-white. Watch any or all of the above comedies, and you’ll have “never had it so good”.