Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Magnet (1950): Enjoying the Ealing Apocrypha

This post is part of the Rule, Britannia Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.

The Ealing Apocrypha

The Ealing comedies are among the most celebrated British films, though only a limited number of them have been admitted to the canon.

That canon consists of Hue and Cry, Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore!, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Titfield Thunderbolt and The Ladykillers.

Perhaps that is being kind to Hue and Cry, which is a tremendous film but not as well known as the others. It is certainly kind to The Titfield Thunderbolt, which is well known but shows Ealing straining too hard for the eccentricity that once came naturally to it.

But there is much pleasure to be found in the Ealing Apocrypha – the comedies outside the canon.

The best of these is The Maggie, which feels like a clear-eyed prefiguring of Billy Forsyth’s Local Hero. An American magnate who is moving to the Hebrides entrusts his furniture to a decrepit Clyde ‘puffer’ and just know he is never going to see it again.

I would also put in a word for Barnacle Bill. In attempt at reviving past glories, Alec Guinness play the sea-sickness prone scion of a great naval family who takes charge of a decaying seaside pier and also plays his ancestors.

That is because it shows late Ealing – the film was released in 1957 – on the side of youthful rebellion. The teenagers of the town, led by Jackie Collins, want to use the pier for dances, the councillors disapprove and Guinness takes the teenagers’ side.

And there is Alec Guinness. From his first moment on screen, you entirely believe in him as a naval officer.

How to enjoy The Magnet

The Magnet is hard to love. Charles Barr once accused it of having “an elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary and does not merit a full one”.

While George Perry said “the inclusion of jokes about psychiatry and the Labour government give it a middle-class attitude of the kind with which the British cinema was so frequently associated”.

Its immediate point of interest today is its 11-year-old star William Fox. As James Fox he has enjoyed an extraordinary film career and is still acting today 68 years on.

In The Magnet his cut-glass accent will trouble modern viewers, but they will be amused by the way that he closely resembles an elderly Edward Fox (his older brother) when he pulls a face.

The plot which defeated Charles Barr involves Fox’s guilt and attempt to put things right after he has tricked a younger boy out a powerful magnet he covets - see the clip above - but it is not there that the pleasures of The Magnet is to be found.

There is the running joke that Fox’s father, played by Stephen Murray, who is a psychiatrist or psychologist (the script is unsure), is unable to understand is own son. This despite recruiting the boy’s mother, played by Kay Walsh, to observe his behaviour.

As The Magnet is a British film of its era, there are familiar and welcome faces among the supporting cast. You will find Thora Hird, Joan Hickson and Gladys Henson here, while Meredith Edwards does a lot of the heavy lifting to keep that plot on the road.

Meanwhile, a tramp is played by one Seamus Mor Na Feasag, who looks suspiciously like James Robertson Justice. (Some sources say he had to use another name as he was fighting a seat for Labour in the 1950 general election, but I have not heard of that being required of other actors cum politicians.)

Then there are the settings of the film. The Wirral, where Fox’s family lives, is prosperous and the impressive lido at New Brighton is still open and attracting crowds. Across the Mersey – and we see the ferry – Liverpool is yet to undergo post-war reconstruction and the city’s wonderful overhead railway is still running.

The Magnet as social history

Most of all, though, the Magnet is of interest today as a piece of social history – and not just because, it being 1950, Fox’s first pair of long trousers loom large in the film.

That plot centres on attempts to raise funds for the local hospital. Coming upon Meredith Edwards raising funds to pay for an iron lung, Fox asks: “Can’t you get one free from the National Health?”

The adults chuckle – “He’ll go far, this lad will” – before explaining that their hospital is ‘disclaimed’.

Disclaimed hospitals were hospitals with a charitable or religious foundation that had, at the discretion of the health minister, been exempted from the 1946 National Health Service Act. In The Magnet having such a hospital is presented as a reason for civic pride, which may come as a surprise to generations that have been raised on the idea that the introduction of the NHS was the result of a left-wing landslide in the 1945 general election and universally popular.

Across the Mersey, Fox falls in with a group of urchins, whose accents strike the modern listener as Lancashire rather than Scouse. Is this a function of the casting, or did everyone in the city acquire that accent in the 1960s in the way that everyone in Manchester suddenly sounded ‘Madchester in the 1990s’?

It is also notable that one of the boys in the group is Chinese. The funniest moment of the film comes when a boy has a long conversation in Mandarin with his mother and then tells his friends: “Me Ma says I’ve got to go in for me tea.”

But if you want an example of real social change, Fox’s prep school is in Kirkby.

1 comment:

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you for taking part in the blogathon, Jonathan! I love Ealing's movies, but The Magnet is one I have not seen. It sounds like it would be quite interesting, particularly as a historical document. As an American born well after NHS came into being, I was always under the impression that it was popular upon its creation. It would also be interesting to see a young James Fox. I think the earliest film in which I've seen him is The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.