The third film produced at Ealing Studios after Michael Balcon arrived (following The Gaunt Stranger and The Ware Case, both 1938), it is both tempting and potentially misleading to try and see the future path of Ealing in the tealeaves of Let's Be Famous. Charles Barr describes the film as a tedious experience, enlivened only its depiction of the BBC and commercial radio advertising, and its links to concerns over generational struggle seen in other Ealing films of the period; while, to many British cinema and television fans, the film is perhaps best known as a vehicle for future Coronation Street star Betty Driver.
While 'tedious' feels an unfair judgement, the film is not Ealing's finest hour, although it does bear similarities to other studio films, most obviously the comedies Cheer Boys Cheer (1939) and Sailors Three (1940). It shares the episodic and slapstick elements of those films, but without their narrative momentum or cohesion: the film is reduced to a series of set pieces, comic attractions that feel like separate sketches linked mainly by the appearance of recurring actors. While some of these remain amusing - the final sound effects-inspired sequence is still strong, not least for its combination of sound and visual humour - most feel drawn out and tired (a stage magician hypnotising one of the characters; a tangential parachute jump plot involving fake French accents).
The plot is both tortuous and simple. Irish singer and local legend (a legend largely written by himself) Jimmy Houlihan (Jimmy O'Dea) heads to London as the result of a mix-up: he thinks he's been booked to sing, while the BBC want him as a comic Irishman for a spelling bee. En route, Jimmy meets Polly and Betty Pinbright (Lena Brown and Betty Driver): Polly was once Polly Punch, the queen of burlesque, while Betty is a wannabe singer, lured to London by Golden Glow advertising man Johnny Blake (Patrick Barr). Both Pinbrights are keeping their London journey secret from stuffy patrician father/husband Albert Pinbright (Milton Rosmer). Once in London, complications ensue that draw in rival advertising man Finch (Sonnie Hale), his boss Watson (Basil Radford), the BBC and a series of commercial broadcasts for Radio France. By the end, most of the characters are drunk or enraged in a radio studio-based fight-chase-slapstick-musical number that throws everything on screen in the hopes that something sticks.
O'Dea, Hale and Radford are the glue of the film, even if all give better performances in later Ealing productions: O'Dea and Hale in particular form a double-act that is pushed into more and more absurd narrative situations. At one point, they mime a parachute jump using a hotel table and an umbrella; during the 'actual' parachute jump, the film pauses while they float in the air discussing their families; and, as mentioned, they are the key players in a final scene where, locked in a booth, they act out a radio play performing all the sound effects using the materials in front of them. This moment of comic chaos also feels like an insight into sound effects creation and editing, pulling back the curtain on sound design techniques of the late 1930s in both film and radio. It is also one of the few moments where the radio station setting is put to good use in the film.
As for the female characters (notably Driver), they have little function in the narrative beyond their musical numbers and their ability to attract men. Driver has some good repartee with Barr (whom she calls a half-witted advertising man), using her northern background as a means to mock his smooth metropolitan routine, but she still ends up in a bubble bath for the sexy advertising photograph her contract requires; and, while Polly and Betty get to perform on the broadcast (against Albert's wishes) this is resolved mainly by Albert chasing them round the studio shouting his disproval. While Betty's desire to sing is out in the open (earlier, she snuck out of choir practice and adopted a fake name to enter a crooning competition), it hardly feels like this is a moment of personal revolution.
The film's treatment of advertising and the BBC does remain interesting, particularly in a time period where radio was still a rival medium (and where television was still an experimental and unknown proposition): the BBC is a place that runs spelling bees that pits "the regions" against London, while advertising agencies create programmes for 'Radio France' that are designed to sell products for large companies like Golden Glow and Silverene. The advertising agency men Watson, Finch and Barr are depicted as squabbling children fighting to shape the next potential star. If the BBC is boring, and the commercial world juvenile, does that position the film industry as the more entertaining, adult medium?
Very little stands out in the film from a visual perspective: this feels like low budget filmmaking, all filmed in the studio (apart from some aerial shots during the parachute jump), and reliant on editing montages to create pace. The songs are solid if unremarkable, and suggest that Betty Driver might have been seen as a replacement Gracie Fields, but she often seems leaden when scenes needed more energy and vigour. The final image, of Driver, O'Dea, Hale and Radford, lined up and singing about happy days being back, and sun shining through, might speak to a brighter future for Ealing, but largely by learning the lessons from this film and leaving the musical comedy to George Formby and Tommy Trinder.
[Let's Be Famous is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal UK]
Next time, we're back in the ring for Ealing's first boxing drama, There Ain't No Justice (1939)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston