Mid-1947 to mid-1948 is a key moment for women in Ealing films: the consecutive release of The Loves of Joanna Godden (June 1947), Frieda (July 1947), and It Always Rains on Sunday (November 1947), was followed by Simone Signoret in Against the Wind (February 1948) and Joan Greenwood in Saraband for Dead Lovers (September 1948) - there might even be an argument for Moira Lister's strong performance in Another Shore (November 1948) extending that list out a bit further, but even without it, that is an impressive range of films, all featuring central female characters around whom the narrative revolves, and who remain three-dimensional and proactive throughout. In almost all those examples, male characters are secondary, behind two or three central women.
It Always Rains on Sunday, Googie Withers' last film with Ealing, has tended to get the most focus of that list, partly due to Googie's star status, but also because it is a taut and compelling crime thriller that can been linked to late Ealing films (The Blue Lamp (1950) and Pool of London (1951) share crucial DNA with its plot and shooting style). Googie plays Rose Sandigate, a married woman whose life is turned upside down when her old lover (and escaped convict) Tommy Swann (John McCallum) turns up at her home, looking for food and shelter. Yet given the prominence of Googie in discussions of this film, it is actually - as the trailer gleefully exclaims - a 'symphony of London's East End' that exposes 'the secrets of a street you know!' Essentially then, this is a character-driven piece set in and around a small community in Bethnal Green that harks back as much to Saloon Bar (1940) as it pre-empts Passport to Pimlico (1949).
Googie's performance as Rose does hold the bulk of the film together: she once flirted with the bad boys like Tommy but ended up settling down with reliable George Sandigate (Edward Chapman), his daughters Doris (Patricia Plunkett) and Vi (Susan Shaw), and Rose and George's son Alfie (David Lines). It is to the Sandigate house that Tommy arrives, but trouble is already brewing among the Sandigate women: Vi is having an affair with married shop owner and saxophonist Morry Hyams, while Morry's brother Lou (John Slater) is eyeing up Doris for a (possibly disreputable) job in a West End club, much to the disgust of Doris' mechanic boyfriend Ted Edwards (Nigel Stock). Yet the film's symphony and interconnected nature doesn't stop there: Whitey (Jimmy Hanley), Freddie (John Carol) and Dicey Perkins (Alfie Bass) are inept crooks whose last job left them with cases of rollerskates that they are desperate to sell on - but Morry or Lou can't help them, local cops Fothergill (Jack Warner) and Leech (Frederick Piper) are already suspicious.
That description only begins to cover the various narrative crossovers and coincidences that the film weaves through, but it does so with great verve and confidence, never settling too long on one story or character, and always returning to its central drama of Rose and Tommy. The script - by Angus Macphail, Robert Hamer and Henry Cornelius - never flags, and paints compelling portraits of even the smallest characters (Vida Hope only appears in one scene, but her venom towards ex-boyfriend Tommy sheds light on her stall holder character, and on him; equally Edie Martin as a friendly neighbour adds nice tension to Rose's day). The script isn't quite able to resolve all the storylines - partial solutions are given, yet the fate of all the Sandigate women feels in flux at the end - but presents a coherent slice of these different lives.
Given this large cast, the film is still full of nice visual throwaway touches and character moments: Rose freezing when she suspects George is going out to the bomb shelter where Tommy is hiding, only for George to chuck the roll of blackout material in without looking; Doris' skill at the mechanical arm game in the arcade; Tommy hiding behind the kitchen door while Doris searches round the kitchen; the blind trumpeter begging outside the Two Compasses pub recognising Lou; almost all of Warner's scenes chatting to various crooks and criminals; Rose realising Tommy doesn't recognise the ring she gives him to pawn; the infamous dress-ripping scene, where Rose rips Vi's new dress, only for Vi to then tear the rest open. In fact, the relationship between Rose, Vi and Doris is almost as important as that with Tommy: in one sense, as Barr suggests, blonde Vi seems to represent Rose's older, more sexualised and reckless ways (with Tommy, when she was blonde) while brunette Doris is more similar to the older, brunette and reliable Rose who married George.
The film is also strong visually and uses the script's 24-hour structure to provide visual balance: the opening image of the street in the early morning (as Vi arrives home) is matched by a shots 24 hours later, as George arrives back. The film moves from the emptiness of the opening shots, through to a moving camera that tracks above the crowded market scenes, before coming back to deserted night-time streets for the final chase scene; we see political marchers heading out to Hyde Park for the day, and then trudging back later in the afternoon; all these repetitions or mirroring of action gives the often disparate sections of the story added structure. And the final ten minutes of the film, an action-packed chase through the deserted wet streets of Bethnal Green, is visually striking while also crossing over with elements from throughout the narrative: after leaving Rose's, Tommy steals Lou's car, takes Whitey's money, and is pursued throughout by Fothergill and Leech. The chase ends at that most Ealing (and British) of locations: a train yard, late at night, full of shadows and harsh spotlights, cut-up into strong horizontal and diagonal lines by the metallic tracks, all gleaming with recently fallen rain, and filtered through lingering steam and smoke.
While the denouement - George accepts Rose's explanation and condones her past - is a little pat and patriarchal, that (as in The Loves of Joanna Godden) doesn't take away from the strong performance Googie gives throughout, or the varied range of female roles the film creates and develops.
[It Always Rains on Sunday is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, we stick with Ealing's women as Jean Simmons stars in Cage of Gold (1950)...