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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Pool of London (1951)


Director: Basil Dearden
Writers: Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge
Stars: Bonar Colleano, Susan Shaw, Renée Asherson, Earl Cameron and Moira Lister


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Last year, I celebrated the centennial of Willie Best with a review of The Ghost Breakers, in which I looked beyond the general lack of roles of substance for actors of colour in Hollywood to highlight how horrendous the roles given to coloured talents actually were. Best’s first six roles were credited to ‘Sleep ’n’ Eat’, a name to fit the image the studio was crafting for him of someone whose only needs were ‘three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.’ Of course, institutional racism was hardly a problem restricted to the United States. I’m British and it’s not that long ago, historically speaking, that we exercised a habit of waltzing in to countries and taking them over because, well, clearly the savages couldn’t govern themselves. However, there were brighter moments that are worth highlighting and this film, a thriller from Ealing Studios in 1951 is a worthy example, as it features an actor of colour in a major role of substance, as a sailor of well defined character for whom a young white lady falls very hard indeed.

This actor is Earl Cameron and he’s celebrating his one hundredth birthday today. He was born Earlston Cameron in Bermuda and this could almost have been called typecasting for him. He had once been a merchant seaman, just like Johnny Lambert, whom he plays here, and he found himself stranded in London when he got involved with a girl and his ship sailed without him. Within the decade, he would marry a white British lady, Audrey Godowski, whom he met while touring with a play entitled Deep are the Roots; they were married from 1959 until her death in 1994. Theatre found him before film, letting him fill a vacated spot on the chorus line in a revival of Chu Chin Chow and he found that this life was surprisingly easy. ‘In theatre, there was no particular colour bar,’ he told The Guardian, perhaps partly because his graceful Caribbean accent allowed him to play believable Americans. It was here in 1951 that cinema tasked him and Susan Shaw to create the first mixed-race relationship on the UK’s big screen.

‘I never saw myself as a pioneer,’ he told The Guardian. ‘It was only later, looking back, that it occurred to me that I was.’ Watching in celebration of his life and career, the role really doesn’t feel revolutionary, because it doesn’t try to be. This isn’t a movie about race the way that prominent films like In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were. In fact, it’s less about race than To Sir, with Love, the other 1967 picture starring Sidney Poitier, who most of us would think of if asked to name a pioneering actor of colour. Excluding a bit part in Sepia Cinderella, Poitier had just started his career a year earlier in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, in which he played a black doctor tasked with treating two white racists. Racism was certainly a valid subject for films in 1950 but, as great as that film was, this one feels so much more mature because it rarely brings up the subject, treating Johnny Lambert as merely one sailor of many to arrive in London on the Dunbar, which travels back and forth to Rotterdam.

While it does address racism, it’s really one of those genre-bending films that Ealing were so great at, mixing crime, romance and comedy in a slice of life drama which ably highlights its setting, a different part of the British capital to the thematically similar It Only Rains on Sunday, which I reviewed in March for Googie Withers’s centennial. Historically speaking, the Pool of London was the stretch of the river Thames on the south side of the city that extended eastward from London Bridge for a couple of miles and was, according to the Venerable Bede, ‘the Father of English History’, the reason for London to exist. A ‘pool’, in this context, is an area of a river that is deep and still and a good place to moor a boat. The Pool of London unsurprisingly therefore became the point on the Thames where imports were inspected by Customs and that’s precisely what happens as this picture begins. The moment the Dunbar docks, customs officers set off by boat to inspect it and the crew hide everything they can to avoid paying duty.
As the sailors leave the Dunbar for the weekend, we split into a number of subplots, each of which has a different character. Some are minor and there for comedy value, such as Trotter, a gruff Scot from the engine room played by James Robertson Justice, who doesn’t even leave the ship, settling back for a couple of days with three bottles of brandy and The Oxford Book of English Verse. The major ones follow three sailors and their encounters (or not) with three London girls. Dan MacDonald is most prominent amongst the former and he’s played with knowing sass by American actor Bonar Colleano. He’s a player, out for all he can get, whether it’s the ladies or just cash. This time out, before he visits Maisie, his regular squeeze in London, played by the gorgeous South African actress, Moira Lister, he delivers some cigarettes to the Queens Theatre and gets involved with a group of crooks who want to pay him £100 to take a package to Rotterdam for them. It turns out to be £20,000 worth of about to be stolen diamonds.

Johnny Lambert is the second of the three, an easy going soul who becomes unwittingly caught up in danger by agreeing to help MacDonald out. It’s at the Queens that he meets Pat, a ticket girl who lets him spy on the stage while he waits for his friend and is upset when a bouncer throws him out for doing so. Up until now, the colour of Johnny’s skin has been irrelevant; it didn’t matter on board ship and it hadn’t mattered in London. Even here, it’s not mentioned and the bouncer is put out that it might be seen as the reason for his actions. It certainly doesn’t matter to Pat and, after both missing the same bus, he walks her home and the pair hit it off splendidly. The final sailor of note is Harry, played by Leslie Phillips, another British comedy legend playing serious for a change, though he’s probably best known nowadays not for his Doctor movies or his Carry Ons, but for voicing the Sorting Hat in a number of Harry Potter movies. What he gets up to, we’re never quite sure, but it’s rarely going to see his girl, Sally.
Cameron was the new face in this company but he’s refreshingly natural. He’s well spoken but looser and softer than Poitier or any number of more modern comparisons. He does get an assertive scene and he acquits himself well, but his task is to be a grounding for the sailors: he’s composed, reserved and decent, while never pretending to be a saint. He’s the sort of sailor you’d take home to meet your parents, well, unless you think the colour of his skin is important, which is how this film tackles racism so well: Pat says and clearly believes that it doesn’t matter, but he, more aware of how things are, thinks that it will, if only on a wider scale. I enjoyed their time together almost as much as they did and I was sad when it inevitably came to an end. For her part, Susan Shaw handles their relationship just as well, with innocence and charm, not vamping it up as she did in It Always Rains on Sunday. Ironically, she married Cameron’s co-star here, the wise-cracking Colleano, and fell into a bottle when he died in a road accident in 1958.

I’ll quickly mention recognisable names like Alfie Bass, Ian Bannen and George Benson, who get small parts. The latter has a habit of cropping up in this project; I’ve covered The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery and Helter Skelter already this year, so this makes the third and he’s a blast here as one of Dan and Johnny’s fellow sailors who falls prey to the customs officers because he can’t tell a lie to save his life. I’ll also mention Renée Asherson, as the lovesick and overly-tolerant Sally; two years later she would become Mrs. Robert Donat whom she would outlive by 56 years, passing in 2014 at the age of 99. Had I started this project one year earlier, I’d have taken a look at Once a Jolly Swagman for her, a Dirk Bogarde movie which also featured Bonar Colleano and Moira Lister, both memorable here. But I need to move on to Max Adrian, an Irish actor who’s well cast as both the nervous Charlie, aka Vernon the Gentleman Acrobat, and his reluctant brother George, with whom he shares a memorable scene.
As I’ve mentioned, many of the actors in this film were comedians who were playing more serious roles for a change. Adrian, on the other hand, was a classical actor known for his serious work in the theatre. He’d co-founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, but he demonstrated a lighter side as a singer and comedian on the post-war stage. Here he’s an acrobat turned safecracker, who masterminds the job that will land the sailors in so much trouble. Whether it’s just stock footage or new shots by the very talented Ealing cinematographer Gordon Dines, we see a lot of London in this picture: not only Tower Bridge in operation, but the Houses of Parliament, the British Library and Greenwich Observatory, not to mention inside Southwark Cathedral, which serves as MacDonald’s alibi during the jewel heist. Best of all though, even above the chase through the Rotherhithe Tunnel, are the shots of this acrobat climbing up bomb-damaged buildings to leap from roof to roof.

And, for all that this is fundamentally a drama, with comedy and romance underpinning the thrills, it’s an action movie at points. There are a number of chase scenes, shot at speed on quiet London streets, that are highly effective, but the best shots go to Max Adrian. One is the scene in the screenshot below and, even if he’s not doing parkour on the rooves of London, it’s a tense moment indeed! Another comes much later in the film as he attempts to evade capture and that’s just as tense. In between comes the heist itself, which is beautifully shot by Dines and features Vernon the Gentleman Acrobat far more than any other member of the gang. The original screenplay, by Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge, deserves firm praise here too, as they conjure a mystery and its solution out of nothing more than a bottle of milk. They pack a lot of depth into this one, which surely rushes past far quicker than ninety minutes should. These sailors are far more than the ‘pathetic and gullible creatures’ that critic Bosley Crowther suggested.
Jack Whittingham turned out to have another part to play in Earl Cameron’s career, which built well on his debut appearance here and has kept him busy for decades. His performance as a dictator in The Interpreter in 2005, opposite Nicole Kidman, received much praise, even though he was almost ninety at the time. He continues to act, with recent roles in The Queen and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the latter at the age of 93, and, now into his second century, he still claims that ‘I’ve not retired.’ While he became a well known face on British television (I’m not sure if I first saw him on Doctor Who or The Prisoner), his best known role is surely the one he landed in the James Bond movie Thunderball, co-written by Whittingham. He was a strong contender to play Quarrel who helps Bond infiltrate the villain’s lair in Dr. No, but lost out to John Kitzmiller; however, the producers asked him back for Thunderball, as he was perfect to play Pinder, 007’s assistant in the Caribbean.

While he never became a household name, his career is a fascinating one and many of his roles follow this one in not casting him because of race. Certainly that happened, especially on television, in dramas such as The Dark Man, as a West Indian cabbie in the UK who experiences prejudice at his job; A Man from the Sun, as a community leader in another workplace racism story; and A Fear of Strangers, as a small-time crook arrested for murder and racially abused by a chief inspector. On film, 1959’s Sapphire was such a strong exploration of racial tension in London after the murder of a young woman that it won the BAFTA for Best British Film, on top of other awards abroad. I chose Pool of London, though, because it was the beginning, both for Cameron’s career in movies and for a realistic depiction of inter-racial relationships in stories not driven by race. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says Pat. ‘It does, you know,’ replies Johnny. ‘Maybe one day it won’t any more, but it still does.’
I often say that any opportunity to watch an Ealing movie is a good opportunity and this one thoroughly impressed me, as did the debut of Earl Cameron. Happy birthday, sir!

References:
'I've not retired!' Earl Cameron, Britain's first black film star, on Bond, racism – and turning 100 by Xan Brooks

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