The 1950s is usually regarded as a time when British cinema devolved into a catalogue of films that either wallowed in a rose-tinted post-war nostalgia or took rather arch and regionalist comic pot-shots at insular local communities. A string of what appeared to be formulaic A and B pictures followed after a very rich period of British film experimentation - the Ealing films, Powell & Pressburger's vivid fantasies, David Lean's early literary adaptations amongst them - and during a period where most British actors skedaddled to Hollywood in pursuit of more lucrative work and fame. This view of the 1950s doesn't entirely ring true. Many of the formulaic A and B films of the period often hide their true colours and intentions beneath their apparently hackneyed exterior and many post-war B movies have as much to say about the aftermath of war and the changes in British society as their more legitmate cousins from the bigger studios.
The double bill opens with Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary? In this frothy bedroom farce scripted by Talbot Rothwell, who went on to write nineteen Carry On films, Dors plays Candy Markham, allegedly the ex-wife of American air-man Laurie Vining (Bonar Colleano - you'll probably recognise him from the Archer's A Matter Of Life And Death as he made a speciality of playing American servicemen in British pictures) who has arrived back in England with his new wife, Gillian. As they settle down to the first night of their honeymoon in a London hotel, Candy sets out to remind Laurie that technically she's still married to him and he's committing bigamy. Laurie turns to his batman Hank Hanlon (the redoubtable Sid James who is here already perfecting that iconic peal of laughter he's recognised for) and a seriously insecure lawyer Frank Betterton (a sweet performance from David Tomlinson who would later make a virtue out of his Britishness in Disney's Mary Poppins, The Love Bug and Bedknobs And Broomsticks) for help.
What ensues is a series of farce elements as Laurie tries to hide fashion model Candy away in the spare room of the hotel suite to prevent his other wife finding out that she's, in effect, still wife number one; Candy mischievously refusing to accept a divorce and demanding that Laurie give her $5000 for her trouble; Candy pretending to be Laurie's wife (and Laurie claiming Gillian is his mother!) when he's forced into a briefing with Admiral Fields. The film really hits it stride when both Dors and Tomlinson enter the fray; she as a sexually confident woman of the world and he a timid, insecure rather tight arsed British civil servant; and their comedic timing is rather effortless, confirming Dors' instinctive abilities in light comedies and Tomlinson's beautifully timed physical comedy as he bumbles and stumbles through the story. Gillian's ignorance of all the shenanigans going on does stretch the credibility of the various situations being played out in the various bedrooms of the suite but even she in the end rises to the occasion and cannily admits that she knows precisely what's going on. The laughs may be gentle but it's a delight to watch Dors and Tomlinson at work.
Beneath all the slapstick and gentle innuendo is the film's use of the three way relationship between Laurie, Gillian and Candy as an attempt to understand the special relationship between the US and Britain in the early 1950s. There is also an interesting contrast here between what eventually becomes a story about two couples - one American and one British - as Laurie's lawyer Frank, having to persuade Candy to go through with a divorce that will be recognised by the British legal system rather than the divorce he already has that's only valid in the US, then falls in love with her. At this point in time, the US was rolling out the Marshall Plan to aid the economic recovery of Europe from the devastation of the Second World War.
In effect, the film offers the idealised American couple of Laurie and Gillian to both the audience and to the singletons Frank and Candy as a vision of post-war 'you can be like us' Marshall Plan propaganda of how to culturally, economically and emotionally deal with the effects of war on both on the homefront and internationally. The focus on what could be seen as rather brash American characters with Laurie, Gillian, Hank and a transatlantic sounding Candy perhaps also echoes the kind of comedy that was already being popularised in The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy at the beginning of the 1950s. It's entirely possible that writer Rothwell could have seen some of these shows. The film ends by suggesting that Laurie is a serial womaniser, perhaps as a result of long periods spent in various countries during the war, and that Gillian is merely the latest in a line of brides whilst Candy and Frank's relationship suggests a transatlantic union actually based on monogamy.
The second film on the double bill, My Wife's Lodger could at first be seen as a rather pale imitation of Hobson's Choice and certainly lacks any of the subtlety of David Lean's celebrated film. It is set in Lancashire and tells the tale of private Willie Higginbottom (music hall star Dominic Roche who also wrote the original play that film is based upon) returning to his humble home, hoping to be welcomed as hero of the war, only to find his wife Maggie (Olive Sloane) has taken in a lodger who has usurped his place in her heart. Roger, the lodger (wonderfully played by Leslie Dwyer), is in fact a rather underhand, coniving spiv and is planning to steal a lorry full of cigarettes. Diana Dors plays Willie's daughter Eunice and her concerns are with snagging an American soldier, wearing the latest fashion and going out dancing. She is in effect one of those 'teenagers' that 1950s culture was so obsessed about.
What on the surface seems to be a comedy of manners about the hapless Willie wishing for a hero's welcome and finding none available in home and hearth is actually a rather dark tale about what happened on the home front whilst the men were away fighting and what they would find on their return. The desire to come home and expect to continue where they left off was uppermost in the thoughts of most husbands but to return to find not only a young son and daughter fully grown and taking up adult pursuits of drinking, smoking and courting but also a wife who has taken in another man and with whom he must fight for her affections must have been pretty shocking. Whilst you can laugh at the music hall, often rather pantomime like, physical comedy here and heavy Northern accents that sound like someone running their nails down a blackboard, the situation reflects the vast changes that the war wrought upon traditional British domestic behaviour and social mores.
The film surprisingly, and with some sensitivity, looks at the expectation that women, who had more or less run their families and gone out to work for the war effort, would return to domestic servitude once their husbands were back home. It's an interesting view of what working class families must have been faced with - a husband and former head of the household actually with no power over his wife and children and a wife whose attitudes have changed towards him - and including views on crime, law and order and the presence of American GIs on British soil. One of the key scenes is right at the beginning of the film where Willie and a small boy create complete havoc in a train carriage and one of the passengers yells at him, 'Haven't you grown up yet!'. It's part of a subtext in the film about children maturing into adults - namely Willie's son and daughter embracing their new found freedoms - and adults reduced to the state of children - Willie playing with toys he brought back for his kids and later his drunken wrecking of the home and Maggie's undisguised threat to run off with Roger and her demands to be upwardly mobile signifying their attempts to cope with the chaotic disruption of the war on adult married relationships.
Dors is excellent as Eunice, providing a very naturalistic performance amongst a raft of slightly shrill and theatrical performances from Roche and Sloane where they clearly haven't altogether mastered the differences in acting on film and acting for the stage. They do come across as Northern caricatures rater than full bloodied characters. As for Dors, there just isn't enough of her in the film but she does at least show that she can sing and she's charming and glamorous throughout. One of the loveliest things is the triumvirate of the three leading female roles representing three generations of women affected by the war; Maggie as played by Sloane, Dors as Eunice and the wonderful Vi Kaley as the deaf mother-in-law sporting an ear trumpet and grumbling to great comic effect throughout the proceedings.
Leslie Dwyer is certainly the best of the male leads here and despite getting his comeuppance at the end of the film, his ducking and diving as the spiv is very entertaining. Alan Sedgwick plays the American GI hunk Tex who rather symbolises the dominance of American culture (also rather hilariously lampooned in the cinema programme that Roger and Maggie watch) and its freedoms in the post-war years and changes the lives of the Higginbottoms as the bearer of a legacy from the States that sees the entire family transformed into a Lancashire version of The Beverly Hillbillies.
There are some genuinely laugh out loud moments here and the humour derived from the antics of such a dysfunctional family reflect many of the tropes that would find their way into British sit-coms of the late 1960s and 1970s where other ideological wars would be fought - based on gender, class, race and religion.
Both films look immaculate and the restoration in hi-def is superb in these 1.33:1 transfers. There are occasional little scratches here and there but the picture is pretty much rock steady, full of real depth and contrast, with good detail, the requisite film grain and consistent blacks. Very impressive indeed and so lovely to see these rarely seen films looking so good and now available. The PCM mono audio is perfectly serviceable apart from some heavy distortion when Dors gets to sing to Tex in My Wife's Lodger. The package comes with a superb illustrated booklet featuring original promotional materials and specially commissioned essays, including Diana Dors, My Mother by Diana’s son Jason Lake, David Tomlinson and I by David Tomlinson’s widow Audrey and That Diana Dors Moment by Damon Wise, author of Come By Sunday: The Fabulous, Ruined Life of Diana Dors.
Diana Dors Double Bill - The Adelphi Collection: Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary & My Wife’s Lodger (BFI Dual Format Edition on DVD & Blu-ray - Region B - Cert PG - BFIB1075 - Released 21st June 2010)