Indeed, Dance Hall epitomises a series of films which reflect the choices women faced during a period of post-war reconstruction, after the restrictive and traditional roles within the family and at work had been partially relaxed and reinterpreted by wartime tribulations. Dance Hall focuses on women facing these challenges within a climate of change in post-war Britain, retaining their femininity, balancing their working lives with the boom in leisure while the option of "marriage as a career seemed under threat as evidenced by a dramatic rise in the divorce rate". (1)
These concerns were somewhat ill at ease with the general approach of Michael Balcon's studio, with Ealing described as something of a middle class, young gentleman's club and where Diana Morgan, the only female writer on staff and Dance Hall's co-writer incidentally, was referred to as "the Welsh bitch". (2) Morgan had had a successful writing partnership with husband Robert MacDermott, creating a string of witty and satirical revues, stage shows and plays during the 1930s before the call came from Ealing in the 1940s. As a freelance writer she was asked to add some interest to Ships with Wings (1941) but was put in her place by co-writer Patrick Kirwan, claiming the love scenes for himself while demanding she work on the sea battles. (3)
... the dance hall provides a gilded sheen to frustrated desires
Dance Hall was the last film she worked on at Ealing and the screenplay is credited to her, Alexander Mackendrick, who directed the second unit, and E.V. H Emmett, whose dulcet tones were more recognisable to audiences of Gaumont British Newsreels of the 1930s and 1940s and who would add his narration to Ealing's wildlife films with Armand and Michaela Denis.
Despite director Charles Crichton's apparent reluctance to direct Dance Hall, after ushering in the boom of Ealing comedy with Hue and Cry in 1947, he accepted the job presumably after some pressure and certain promises exerted by Balcon. Diana Morgan recalled that he was "bliss, lovely to work with - a lovely, funny man and very understanding" and while he may have regarded his efforts as workmanlike on the film, he does articulate the themes of the film effectively in visual terms.
He was assisted in this by Alexander Mackendrick, fresh from the success of Whisky Galore! (1949) and drafted in to handle the second unit filming, a function he similarly carried out on Basil Dearden's The Blue Lamp in the same year. Between them, and utilising Seth Holt's reknowned editing talent, the dichotomy between the post-war privations of day-to-day working and domestic lives and the glamour and aspirations of the dance hall is keenly described in the film.
The travails of the four female characters - Eve (newcomer Natasha Parry in a fresh and enjoyable performance); Mary (Jane Hylton); Carole (Diana Dors on the verge of breaking into the mainstream) and Georgie (Petula Clark making the transition from child to adult roles) - are defined by a mise-en-scène that captures the post-war popularity of mass entertainment (sport, cinema, holiday camps and dance halls) and a consumer boom where "the palais de danse was further evidence for this kind of consumer revival. It was the natural forum for boys to meet girls in a relatively classless setting of transatlantic relaxation." (4)
The exoticism of the dance hall in the film provides a gilded sheen to the frustrated desires and marital tensions that the characters exhibit. It is a place of contradictions, where relationships are formed and also dissolve and break, where pleasure is sought to escape the drudgery of factory work in a palace constructed for profit. Escape is temporary and the brightly lit dance floor, band stand and bars give way to dark railway tracks, car parks, tenements and factories.
Indeed the opening titles of the film indicate how precarious the membrane is between these two worlds. The Chiswick Palais is in darkness, a cleaner sweeps between stacked up chairs, the band is tuning up but, as the credits for Geraldo and his Orchestra and Ted Heath and his Music appear on screen, the soundtrack swells with a romantic sweeping theme, full of promises. This is abruptly curtailed by a close up of a factory lathe and its deafening racket. Crichton tilts his camera up and pans across the four women desperately trying to sing above the din of the factory floor, straining to gain some pleasure as they work. Factory and domestic life punctuates the film, a 'crossing of the rubicon' between realism and palais de danse fantasy, and is a state to which all the protagonists must eventually return.
"At work they are subservient to their machines... overalls emphasis their working class status" (5) and Crichton then places these women within the crowded family tenement environment as each prepares for the dance hall. After they gather in the shadow of the Victorian building, transformed by their evening wear, the image dissolves to a tuxedo wearing drummer and, with a drum roll and a trumpet call, the camera glides towards the dance floor, above the heads of the dancers and comes to rest in a two shot of Eve and Mary. The film immediately establishes the female point of view and "the audience is positioned with them - we know why they do what they do". (6) Interestingly the two shot becomes a three shot at this point as Phil (Donald Houston in a confident and effective performance) joins them and embraces both women, foreshadowing one of the dilemmas of the story - Phil and Eve's stormy relationship and marriage - and Mary's centrality to its resolution.
Other opening scenes tell us about Georgie's relationship to her dancing partner Peter (Douglas Barr), at first simply a platonic one between competition dancers but then, through the course of the film and the stages of the dance competition, it grows into a fully fledged romance and engagement; and Mary's lack of success with men where she dances with a GI but parts with him at the end of the number unlike the others who retain their partnerships. Although we know little about Phil at this stage, when the bandleader announces an 'excuse me' this is the cue for another male character to enter the dance hall, the lothario Alec (Bonar Colleano) who literally does 'excuse' himself between Phil and Eve throughout the rest of the film.
Alec is representative of the "demonic, affluent Yank corrupting British society with natty suits, Benny Goodman records, and abrasive sexuality". (7) He is a reminder of the thriving black market during the privations of post-war rationing and his skills securing rationed goods reflect his attitudes towards women. Where Alec is an emblem of instant gratification and the devil of excess consumption, Phil represents the male struggle for modernity, a skilled aviation worker who looks to the future but is often absent and inept at dealing with jealousy and responding to Eve's desires.
These themes are emphasised by the sequence where he takes Mary on a motorbike ride into the countryside to watch the latest gliders and where Mary is further codified as the slightly older woman to whom Phil can confess his feelings of jealousy. Mary loves Phil but eventually sees him get married to Eve and, later in the film, this confessional is reversed when she uses her love for Phil to berate him for his stupidity and weakness in his treatment of Eve. It's also an opportunity for Jane Hylton to shine in the role, a symbol of unrequited love and loneliness in contrast to the other women who, by the end of the film have reconciled their relationships and through engagement to their partners.
Carole offers a comedic counterpoint to the other relationships and Dors is vivid in this briefest of appearances. In her search for a man, she dismisses several admirers (one of whom declares he's a married man) and stumbles across the silent and imposing figure of Mike. Mike does not say a word throughout the entire film and is perhaps symbolic of Carole's continual declaration "I'm finished with men." What she means is she's finished with men who can answer back, feeding her the usual dominant patriarchal attitudes and stubborness. As she later declares, "Mike's not a man, he's a mountain" and he mutely moves through the film as a force of nature determined to woo Carole and succeeds through entirely the materialistic draw of a diamond ring.
"you're only dreaming, what a fool you are"
Later, as a pair of professional dancers perform the Tango, that old idiom 'it takes two to tango' is expressed in Crichton's evocative handling of Eve and Alec's one night stand. The tango dancers are framed in the middle of a reverse two shot of the couple as Alec caresses the back of Eve's head, almost emulating the passionate moves of the tango. This cuts to a shot of Eve's face that then pulls back into a two shot with Alec. He then signals her to look out of a window, their eye contact suggesting they leave the Palais for the silhouetted skyline beyond the filmy drapes. Once out of shot, Crichton tracks towards the window as the drapes flutter in the breeze.
The fantasy of the Palais has dissolved into the realisation of Eve's sexual desire back at Alec's apartment, the sometimes in tandem, sometimes in opposition interpretation of the tango captured in Eve's claim of "we're crazy. I must get back" as she changes her mind mid-embrace, makes for the door, halts and then, as Crichton holds on a shot of Eve's face, presumably chooses to return to Alec's bed. Eve makes a mistake because Alec is simply interested in sex and not long term commitment while at the same time Phil, the man who loves her, is driven into a jealous rage in a pub by the dance band music, a tune heard right at the start of the film in the Palais, playing on the juke box. Again, dance and music delineate the often ambiguous and corrupted nature of desire in the film.
As Christine Geraghty notes, the film underlines that Eve makes the wrong choice by sleeping with Alec and must make amends by marrying Phil because in this and similar films it is "impossible for the women to follow these individual desires for sexuality and glamour without colluding with the dubious morals of the men who represent such positions". (8) Otherwise these women would become pariahs in their own community. An early casualty of this choice is her ceasing participation in the dance championships.
Eve's marriage to Phil is something of a disaster because on the one hand she still years for the fantasy world of the Palais and its glamorous freedom and on the other she refuses to conform to Phil's demands on her to cease working at the factory and undergo her transformation into a married woman. Equally, Phil conducts his marriage at long distance, his work taking him away from home, and his jealousy is easily manipulated by Alec who continually reminds him of Eve's transgression.
When Eve does return to the Palais, a solo singer informs her "you're only dreaming, what a fool you are" as she makes her way through the crowds and the mise-en-scène is rendered in very high contrast lighting, full of shadow. At the same time, Alec wanders into this dimly lit fantasy, a noir figure redolent of the song's "an old refrain" lyric as he spots Eve contemplating the singer and the song, now clearly a warning not to indulge in her fantasies. Sadly, on her return home she finds an angry Phil, dismissive of her return to the Palais and again jealous of Alec.
Simultaneously, post-war rationing also becomes quite symbolic: Alec devours enough food for twelve people in a fit a pique over Eve's abandonment of her wifely duties and this anger is stoked when, later, he discovers Eve has bought and served up Alec's black market kippers. There is a notion here about control and autonomy within the domestic sphere, where transgressive consumption has emotional and economic consequences. When Eve picks the kippers up from Alec's apartment, the song she heard at the palais is playing on the record player and she again contemplates the choices she's made and the things she can't have. However, at this point she realises that she feels nothing for Alec and is perfectly happy to tell him. His angry reaction, unseen by her, is to hit the record player and cease the syrupy and sentimental song.
At the same time, Alec attempts to convince Eve of his own jealousy. Crichton intercuts big close ups of frenetic brass players, a singer informing the audience about the alleged realities of marriage with the lyric "when you walk down that aisle, you better find yourself a sickly smile" and a party crowd in the throes of bacchanalia. In contrast, Eve is shown wandering empty, shadowy corridors, a visual equivalent of her hysteria and emotional overload.
Symbolically, she attempts to find a way out of the maze of these darkening New Year fantasies and perhaps accept the conforming social structures of marriage and community. As 'Knees Up Mother Brown' blasts on the soundtrack and a band member turns to the camera wearing a Frankenstein mask, a surreal expression of this Palais nightmare, she bursts through an exit door and finds herself leaning over a railing, looking down from the rooftop as below her a train speeds by. Crichton slowly zooms on her sweat and tear covered face, the train's whistle dominating the soundtrack, and intercuts a close up of a trumpet player as the nightmare of the New Year revelry merges with this urban soundtrack and the contemplation of her alternate choice: suicide.
Simultaneously, Phil and Alec meet in the car park and, despite Phil's attempts to rationalise the situation, they fight. It's again lit in the style of film noir, full of heavy shadows and high contrast, with a gritty edge used in direct juxtaposition to the dream world of the Palais. The neon sign of the palais is in the background as they tussle amid the deserted cars. It is disconcerting that Phil manages his weakness and stubborness through violence and attempts to wring a confession about the one night stand from Alec. He demands to retain his fixed male position. Crichton matches shots of the sweat beading on Phil's brow with that on Eve's as she turns away from the rooftop.
Amusingly, the averted tragic ending is punctured by physical comedy as she finds herself locked out, attempts to get back into the building through a side window, loses a shoe standing on a broken box and ends up with a soaking after pulling a drain pipe off the roof. As midnight arrives, she's dirty, wet, cold and alone as Crichton intercuts quick shots of the other happy couples - Carole and Mike, Georgie and Peter - and then takes great delight in showing Eve venting her utter frustration and about to hurl the broken box at the door. Phil bursts through the exit to embrace her as she yells, "Oh, I hate you, I hate you!" and the drain continues to gush water in the background. Some have commented on this melodramatic reconciliation as rather overtly Freudian in tone, suggesting that the water is a symbol of constrained fertility finally released.
Dance Hall ends with all the women, except Mary, finding a possible escape in the traditional conformity of engagement and marriage but the film offers a fillip to the experience, showing some relationships being reworked "through the experience of rationing and harsh economic restraint into an acknowledgment of what the hard work of domestic life and the lack of warmth in marriage felt like." (9) It's not an earth shattering conclusion to make but at least the film attempts to show that the perceived escape routes and assumed roles for women in the post-war world could be questioned and analysed through such melodramatic entertainments.
(1) Christine Geraghty, Post-war choices and Feminine Possibilities in Heroines without Heroes:
Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema, 1945-1951
(2) Melanie Williams, The Feminine Touch? in Ealing Revisited
(3) Jo Botting, Diana Morgan - BFI Screenonline
(4) Kenneth Morgan, Britain Since 1945: The People's Peace
(5) Philip Gillett, The British Working Class in Post-War Film
(6) Christine Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the 'New Look'
(7) Tony Williams, Structures of Desire: British Cinema, 1939-1955
(8) Christine Geraghty, Post-war choices and Feminine Possibilities in Heroines without Heroes:
Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema, 1945-1951
(9) Christine Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the 'New Look'
About the transfer
A fairly clean looking transfer to disc with good contrast and detail and only the occasional white speck popping up on the image. A very enjoyable presentation. The only thing that mars this is the quite hissy and crackly quality of the mono soundtrack which is a bit of a concern at the beginning of the film but seems to settle down later. It seems to handle the reproduction of the music dominating the film reasonable well though.
Remembering Dance Hall (11:06)
Charles Barr reflects back on his own estimation of Dance Hall and considers how the film has grown in stature with social historians and film scholars as more complex and important than he previously realised. He looks at how writer Diana Morgan attempted to redress the balance of the male-dominated stories in Ealing's output, at Charles Crichton's own reluctance to direct and its reflection of post-war female social mores and their connection to community and articulation of desire.
Behind the Scenes Stills Gallery
A selection of posters, portraits and production stills from the film.
General Film Distributors present an Ealing Studios Production 1950
Cert: PG / Released 21 January 2013
Studio Canal DVD / Region 2 / Total Running Time: approx. 78 min / Black & White PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / English Language with HOH Subtitles / Catalogue No: OPTD2398