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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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London Comes Up For Air
By C.A. Lejeune
Published: November 19, 1939

Although twenty out of twenty-six British studios have now been taken over or earmarked by the government for storing things and there are few signs yet of any vigorous renascence in the remaining six, the last weeks have shown a certain easing of tone in the film trade here. More and more firms, evacuated in the first days of war, have returned to town. The old faces and the old rumors are back in Wardour Street - three days a week, anyway. The old advertising inserts - the gold and silver ones, that come off on your fingers - are reappearing in the trade papers. Here and there you meet a film man who is actually optimistic about something. Soon, if this upward tendency goes on, we may even meet one who has reason to be.

Except for the absence of neon lighting after dusk, a marked shortage of posters and a final hour clipped from their running time, the 4,000-odd cinemas in the country and Greater London are now open for business as usual. Box-office receipts vary according to pictures shown, as they did in seasons that had no political alibi, but on the whole a 10 per cent drop all round is the worst that can be recorded in takings.

"Beau Geste" and "The Spy in Black" ("U-Boat 29") share the top honors of the Fall releases between them. Most doubtful booking is probably "The Mikado," which did well enough in polite operatic districts but bounced badly in certain others. Our own kitchen observer, a keen film critic, refers to it as "that fool of a Chinese thing," although she gives full marks to the "pretty music." The Jones Family in the same program, she adds, were "all right."

West-end theatres, even with the new "staggered" closing hours, are apt to be wall down on their peacetime takings, but here again a good film here and there has held its own against the blackout. "Only Angels Have Wings," "Nurse Edith Cavell" and "Stanley and Livingstone" are notable holdovers. "French Without Tears" took $10,000 in its first week at the Plaza - almost pre-war boom figures for this theatre. Paramount, who own it, were so moved by the film's reception that they devoted a double spread in a trade paper to the portraits of all the critics who praised it. True, there is no Robert Taylor or Hedy Lamarr among our number, but you'd be surprised at the distinguished and youthful group we make.

It is too early yet to do more than guess at a bright career for Alexander Koala's secret film of the British Air Force, "The Lion Has Wings," which went into the Leicester Square yesterday evening. This picture, made at Denham during the first twelve days of war, has excited more speculation in the press than any British film since Mr. Korda's spectacularly hush-hush "Things to Come." It was placed under the Official Secrets Act during production. No stills were taken and no publicity issued. Journalists were gently edged away from that part of the lot where a wing-tip showed beyond the car park and young men in flying kit were seen to muster. Actors in pilots' uniforms ostentatiously ignored the press. Directors passed by with fingers on their lips. Miss Oberon in nurse's uniform simply wasn't there; they couldn't think what she would be doing in the studio - visiting her husband maybe.

The film, it gradually transpired, was made with the full cooperation of the Air Ministry and with an Air Force Squadron Leader as technical adviser, but with Mr. Korda's own money. Many of the twenty-six actors played their parts while waiting to join their various service units. The normal pay was $25 a day. Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon gave their services, Mr. Richardson coming back to finish the film in forty-eight hours of Navy leave.

"The Lion Has Wings" turns out to be a typical Korda innovation. Not quite documentary, not quite newsreel, not quite adventure tale, it combines all three in an hour of vivid journalistic cinema. There is no fictional story, but studio actors reproduce, somewhat on March of Time lines, the close-ups of the argument. Ralph Richardson, for example, is an Air Force officer, Miss Oberon just A Wife, any one of millions. The opening section brushes in the background of English life before the war, gradually points up, contrast for contrast, the growing shadow of the swastika - Hitler among his people; King George among his people; Austria, Czecho-Slovakia, Memel, Poland - and the war is on us.

We live over again the Sunday morning of Sept. 3, the Prime Minister's broadcast, that first air-raid warning that ended the old order. We see the silver balloon barrage over London. We are shown a hint of the staff-work behind the defense machine. Then comes the high spot of the film - a reconstruction of the Kiel Canal raid, from information supplied by the actual flyers, who are seen taking off and returning to the air field. "A celluloid fairy tale" is how the Nazi radio described this sequence.

The film ends with an account of a possible night bombing raid on Britain, repulsed by R. A. F. fighters and reported step by step to the key-men at secret headquarters. Taking it by and large, we feel that Mr. Korda has got something in "The Lion Has Wings" that this country's propaganda can very well do with. As a nation we find it hard to roar, but this time we have opened our mouths and let out a good one.

The producer in a foreword "expresses his gratitude for the cooperation which he received from the cast, production personnel, newsreel companies, the G. P. O. and other documentary film units."

In the meantime, the Post Office boys have come out with a nice little documentary of their own on the outbreak of war, which they call "The First Days," and which happened in this way:

Over that crucial week-end of Sept. 3 the G. P. O. units were standing by, on a hint, quite informal, from the government that it might be a wise thing to make a film record from the beginning, "should anything happen." On chance, kicking their heels around in Whitehall and Westminster, they shot every likely thing they saw in the streets that Sunday morning. They shot people going into church, motorists packing week-end hampers into rumble seats, girls and boys setting off on cycles for a day's outing, nursemaids pushing babies in the parks. One bright lad even trained his camera on the face of Big Ben as the hands stood at 11:15 A. M.

They were on the spot when the first newspaper bill in Whitehall announced a state of war, when the first air-raid warning sounded and Londoners for the first time trooped down into the official shelters.

It was while they were sorting the shots for what they call "library stuff" a few days later that the heads of the unit realized they had all the bones of a picture ready - a picture that could be done at once, a picture that could give a true impression of London's change from peace to war to neutral countries and the provinces. They jotted down ideas. Gradually the film began to take shape. Cavalcanti, the unit chief, turned all his directors onto the job of collecting material. It was a communal effort. Everybody "mucked in." Everybody shot and everybody cut. The result is "The First Days," not, the unit insists, a propaganda film in any sense, just a faithful and sincere understatement of those first amazing days of war and what London did in them.

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