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NFT bfi Pilgrims' Progress: Powell and Pressburger Revisited
'Quota Quickies'

Something Always Happens
+ Her Last Affaire
Something Always Happens
Director: Michael Powell
Production Company:
Warner Brothers First National Productions
Executive Producer: Irving Asher
Screenplay/Dialogue: Brock Williams
Director of Photography: Basil Emmott
Editor: Ralph Dawson
Art Director: Peter Proud
Gowns: Louis Brooks
Sound: Leslie Murray, H.C. Pearson

Ian Hunter (Peter Middleton)
Nancy O'Neil (Cynthia Hatch)
Peter Gawthorne (Benjamin Hatch)
Johnny Singer (Billy)
Muriel George (Mrs Badger, the landlady)
Barry Livesey (George Hamlin)
Millicent Wolf (Glenda)*
Louie Emery (Mrs Tremlett)*
Reg Marcus ('Coster')*
George Zucco (proprietor of 'Cafe de Paris')*

United Kingdom 1934
69 mins
Something Always Happens

For all its snappy dialogue, off-hand plotting, and breezy comic 'parallels', Something Always Happens could almost be bracketed as a companion piece with the soberly propagandistic Red Ensign, which Powell made immediately before it. Problems of industrial initiative and enterprise are again to the fore, and if the earlier film could be retitled Strike! (in a no doubt unconscious hommage) in the U.S., then the latter might be subtitled 'How to succeed in business without really trying'. The hero of Something Always Happens finally turns the tables on his competitor (and potential father-in-law) by suppressing the news that a proposed bypass is not to be built for fifteen years - a tactic so close to David Barr's pulling a fast one on the board members of Red Ensign, by keeping quiet about the rejection of the industry quota bill, that it is hard to believe the second ploy was not inspired by the first. In this, as their behaviour elsewhere, the two young Turks are less than gentlemen, although their respective attacks on fuddy-duddy ways really work in two different modes. David Barr is a species of the mad inventor, whose obsession with realising his ideas in a revolutionary fleet of British ships makes him more jingoistic than his conservative opposition. Peter Middleton, in Powell's phrase 'a chap who never paid for anything', is an opportunist and gambler, whose 'vision' amounts to the ad-man's ability to conjure something out of nothing ('It's money I get for selling something I haven't got to someone who doesn't want it', as he describes his way of living). In a sense, then, the British bullishness of the first is shading into the American brashness of the second, much as Powell himself is working between markets, turning out 'quota quickies' for American producers. Something Always Happens marks the end of his association with Jerome Jackson, who was one such entrepreneur, and his first film for Warners-First National (although it does include a chauffeur called Jerome). In the process, Powell - like his heroes - is having to revitalise the threadbare traditions of his chosen profession, and if Red Ensign can be read as a thinly disguised allegory for the plight of British film-making as well as shipbuilding, then Something Always Happens is one cynically temporising solution: adapt a readily convertible American model. Even at this early stage, it is a sign both of Powell's assurance as a film-maker and of his stylistic restlessness that he could so readily pastiche the differing dynamics involved: the Griersonian patterns and Eisensteinian tableaux of Red Ensign; the cross-cutting comedy (Hollywood dialectics) of Something Always Happens. The latter also carries off quite successfully the requisite disguises, deceptions and betrayals, although something not quite right in the timing (the lingering over the defeated George Hamlin, for instance) suggests Powell's interest in tiny spiritual checks and betrayals that can't be accommodated by the speed of these proceedings.

Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1981

Her Last Affaire
Director: Michael Powell
Production Company: New Ideal Productions
Producers: Simon Rowson, Geoffrey Rowson
Assistant Director: Sidney Stone
Screen Adaptation: Ian Dalrymple
Based on the play 'SOS' by: Walter Ellis
Director of Photography: Leslie Rowson
Camera: Harry Gillam
Editor: Ian Dalrymple
Art Director: J. Elder Willis
Recording: George E. Burgess

Hugh Williams (Alan Herlot)
Francis L. Sullivan (Sir Julian Weyre)
Viola Keats (Lady Avril Weyre)
John Laurie (Robb)
Googie Withers (Effie)
Felix Aylmer (Lord Carnforth)
Cecil Parker (Sir Arthur Harding)
Henry Caine (Inspector Marsh)
Eliot Makeham (Dr Rudd)
Shayle Gardner (Boxal)
Gerrard Tyrell(Martin Smith)

United Kingdom 1935
77 mins

Total running time approx. 146 mins

Her Last Affaire

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

The main plot of Her Last Affaire (a character who is accused of having an affair with a much older person and is then implicated in the death of the latter, while being really in love with the son or daughter of the victim) recalls that of The Night of the Party, but was based on the play S.O.S. which had provided an early role for Gracie Fields and which had been first filmed under that title in 1929. In Powell's version, however, the sexes are reversed, with Hugh Williams playing the unjustly accused protagonist.

The screenplay by Ian Dalrymple (who also edited it, assisted by Sidney Stone) manages to disguise the stage origins of the drama until the last quarter of an hour, when the story becomes submerged in talk, and limited to two sets. Although the film is clearly divided into three acts (although the first is much shorter than the last two), the use of location shooting and a large number of sets help to make the film a thoroughly cinematic experience.

Williams plays the secretary to a powerful and influential man whose daughter he plans to marry, against the father's wishes, which is the same predicament of Ian Hunter in The Night of the Party. Williams' character however is more interesting because it is treated a little more ambiguously; for the first twenty minutes or so, we believe he is also going to have an affair with his boss's wife, played by Viola Keats. These scenes are played with surprising directness by Williams and Keats, and it is almost a disappointment when we discover that he actually has an ulterior, and altogether nobler, motive.

When Keats and Williams meet for their assignation in the country, the film is clearly at its best. The inn-keeper is played by John Laurie, while Googie Withers plays the maid, the role earlier played by Gracie Fields. Her role is essentially that of comic relief, as in The Love Test, but the new character is more interesting. She is constantly at odds with the stern and moralising inn-keeper who keeps threatening to dismiss her, but really he is jealous of the popularity she has with the customers. Withers plays an observant maid who likes Williams and so helps him out, and by accident holds the evidence that clears his and his father's names. But when asked why she didn't speak up sooner, she says that nobody asked her. In Raymond Durgnat's words '... the effect is of fine, proud, devastating indifference,' (Film Comment, May/June 1990). She ends up being Williams' main ally, covering up for him when he is recalled to the inn after the death of Lady Avril has been discovered. The scene is at once comical and suspenseful in the best Hitchcock manner, as Williams tries to hide from Laurie, so as not to be implicated. The scene continues for over ten minutes, as Williams tries to cover up his tracks while supposedly helping in the investigation at the same time.

  Many scenes are effectively handled throughout; to establish Lady Avril Weyre as one who pays little attention to propriety or convention, she leaves a speech being given by her husband (played respectively by Viola Keats and Francis L. Sullivan); we see this in a long shot in which she is the only moving figure on the lawn. The film also achieves an interesting rhythm in the scenes in the inn. Keats goes up to their room, while Williams decides to stay downstairs and listen to the radio. He is clearly apprehensive, while she is excited. The film begins to cross-cut from one to the other, beginning with alternate shots of them both taking out a cigarette, tapping it on its case, and then lighting it. This parallelism effectively contrasts the two characters and unites them at the same time. When he eventually goes upstairs, they argue as he explains that he has lured her away simply to get her to confess that his father had been disgraced for something she did. As they get more vociferous this is cross-cut with John Laurie reading from the Bible. Laurie's stern religious fundamentalist in many ways looks forward to the character he later played in The Edge of the World, but it is perhaps even more akin to the role he had played in his previous film, The 39 Steps.

There are also a few elements that are less successful; the Monthly Film Bulletin (October 1935) complained that '... the attempts to reveal the character's thoughts by flashes-back are confusing rather than helpful'. This refers to the scenes when Williams discovers Lady Avril's body, and when he returns from Paris, speculating on his reception. When he finds the body, newspaper headlines are superimposed to show how Williams imagines the scandal will be presented. However we also get a voiceover, to explain Williams' thoughts further, which is a bit overdone and tends to reduce the effect. This is also the case when, as he flies back to Britain, we dissolve to how he believes he will be met by Sir Julius and his daughter. The short scene is repeated four times, each new one being worse for Williams. The fourth repetition, however, eventually makes the scene seem unintentionally comical.

In the main, however, the film is notable for a fair level of suspense and for some very good performances (there is even Cecil Parker in a bit role as Lady Avril's doctor), and for its atmospheric photography and well-detailed sets.

The photography by Leslie Rowson, who also lensed The Fire Raisers and Red Ensign (not Geoffrey Faithful as some sources have maintained), has a number of interesting and effective visual flourishes, such as when Williams is in Paris: the scene simply shows Williams as he awaits the phone call that will call him back home because of Lady Avril's death. The tension is well evoked by the simple use of strong horizontal shadows all over the room, in contrast to the light and airy settings that have come before. Rowson manages to get the most from the low wooden beams and strangely curving staircases of the inn and the bedroom which, all wooden panelling and furniture and dominated by a large four-poster bed, is strikingly similar to the sets and atmosphere of the pub in A Canterbury Tale.

Variety (6 November 1935), for the first time, complimented Powell on the handling of a film, saying that 'The director sets the piece in exactly the right key ... it is atmospheric throughout.' It also commented that 'It will be well liked and much appreciated in the better class of picture house'. This last comment was reflected in a number of other reviews at the time, with Kine Weekly saying that 'technically this picture competes with the best' (24 October 1935) and 'The presentation is along elaborate lines, exterior and interior settings being of great beauty.' (17 October 1935).

This film was long thought lost, and has only been in circulation again since the late 'eighties, affording new audiences to assess what was clearly perceived as the most prestigious film Powell had been involved with up to that time.

Sergio Angelini, National Film & Television Archive