An aging music hall performer returns to London believing he's the star of a new show. When he discovers that he's only slated to be the understudy, his daughter sabotages the revue's star i... Read allAn aging music hall performer returns to London believing he's the star of a new show. When he discovers that he's only slated to be the understudy, his daughter sabotages the revue's star in order to get him back into the spotlight.An aging music hall performer returns to London believing he's the star of a new show. When he discovers that he's only slated to be the understudy, his daughter sabotages the revue's star in order to get him back into the spotlight.
At the theatre the first of the film's plot revelations proves equally effective, and the important sparring relationship is established between the show's lead comedian, hypochondriac Charlie De Haven, and its producer, the elegant Mrs Barry. In fact, as long as the action stays behind the scenes it doesn't go far wrong, though the vagaries of the plot mean that Kay Kendall is rarely seen out of the heavy stage make-up which makes her look older and harder than her nineteen years, and her romantic relationship with Jerry Ruggles, the hero, is a bit arbitrary.
It's unclear why stage star Sonnie Hale was engaged to play the rival comedian, since the plot never actually allows us to see the character's stage performance. However, the part makes good use of his acting talents, especially in scenes with Mrs Barry (a glamorous Greta Gynt) and with Charlie's long-suffering dresser Belgrave (an outstanding turn from Claude Hulbert), and acid put-downs against the unfortunate Jerry are deployed to entertaining effect. Jerry Desmonde (Sid Field's real-life 'straight man') also makes a favourable impression as urbane George, the other half of the act.
And while it's always risky to rely on child actors to play a pivotal part in the plot, Petula Clark is note-perfect here as Jerry's daughter. In the absence of a mother-figure (the former Mrs Ruggles evidently long deceased) the two of them form a convincingly close unit, with the little girl alternately managing her father with a briskly adult air or engaging in mutually childish behaviour. Her trips to the joke-shop are adroitly established before it turns out to be crucial to the outcome of the story, and Petula Clark does a brilliant job of depicting her increasingly uneasy conscience as she realises that her prank on Charlie has had more serious consequences than she had ever intended. (The film rose somewhat in my estimation as a result of this: most comedies of this genre would just sweep the issue under the carpet on the grounds that anyone who is unpleasant to the hero deserves anything he gets...)
Sid Field himself is perfectly adequate as Jerry, although with hindsight I do feel that he and Kay Kendall are rather overshadowed by the strong supporting cast -- but my main complaint against Sid Field would be that, as a comedian, his act simply didn't entertain me at all.
A large chunk of the running-time of "London Town" is taken up with either musical production numbers or comedy sketches, representing the material being performed on stage by the cast. The musical numbers start off reasonably entertaining -- "My Heart Goes Crazy" is a generic springtime number with a nice ironic touch -- but seemed to get more tedious as they went on. Either my patience was decreasing, or the (American) director and song-writers' idea of 'London' got harder and harder to swallow as it got into more and more clichéd and unconvincing territory. Meanwhile, the comedy sketches, which are supposedly an irreplaceable record of Field's stage act, are presented in a straight-through-the-proscenium-arch format and a dead soundtrack that kills whatever amusement value they may have had in the first place.
I have to admit that on the basis of this film I don't 'get' Sid Field as a comedian at all. Fast-talking Max Miller is amusing in the pre-war "Friday the Thirteenth" and "The Good Companions", as is Sonnie Hale himself with partner Jessie Matthews in "First a Girl". Field's own act seems to rely on relentless repetition to ensure that even those 'at the back of the gallery' will eventually follow the joke, coupled with a comedy based around errors, failures and ineptitude, a style that I'm afraid I've always personally disliked. The infamous 'photographer' sketch with its blatantly homosexual overtones is probably the funniest, mainly because the humour is character-based (the client complaining pettishly 'But I've always wanted to see his kitchen!') rather than revolving around slapstick or laboured misinterpretations.
But the film has other issues, among them clumsy sound-track editing and lip-synch, and some very fake outdoors scenery: bizarrely, it also contains some beautiful location work that not only provides an invaluable Technicolor archive record of the River Thames on a sunny summer's day but demonstrates a rather more subtle sense of humour into the bargain. (Keep an eye out for the sly social observations concerning the holiday-makers in the boats...)
The full-length release of "London Town" is currently available for free viewing at the NFT 'Mediatheque', split into a 90-minute and a 35-minute section due to limitations on maximum viewing length: this makes it all the more obvious, alas, that the plot is effectively over after ninety minutes! There is actually a good deal to like in this production: it's just that the most successful parts of the film are not those which were intended to sell it as a grandiose post-war celebration. Keep the existing story, strip out and/or replace almost all the on-stage stuff, and you'd probably get an entertaining and unassuming seventy-minute picture. As a two-hour spectacle it is hopelessly overblown.
- Igenlode Wordsmith
- Feb 21, 2009