This month the BFI releases another double bill from the roster of British films produced and made by Adelphi in the early 1950s. This time we have a pair of films from director John Guillermin. He's probably best known for I Was Monty's Double (1958) and The Blue Max (1966) and later for his Irwin Allen blockbuster The Towering Inferno (1974) the remake of King Kong (1976) and the Agatha Christie thriller Death on the Nile (1978).

Adelphi Films was founded by Arthur Dent and he managed the company with his two sons, Stanley and David. Through the 1940s and 1950s it produced and distributed feature films, 37 of which now form a collection that is held and preserved by the BFI.

The Crowded Day (1954) is a wonderful ensemble piece, focusing on the women and men who work in a big department store, with elements of kitchen sink drama and romantic comedy combined together and deftly handled by a young Guillermin. This was Adelphi exec Arthur Dent's attempt to position Adelphi as a maker of A pictures (many of the company's films were made as B pictures to share the bill with another A picture) and to show that they could compete with the bigger British studios. He certainly gathered together an amazing cast, many of whom were expensively hired from Rank, and David Dent also secured a day's filming at Bourne and Hollingworth department store in London. The footage included in the film certainly gives the drama verisimilitude and a sense of scale.

Guillermin is able to effortlessly glide between shop-floor shenanigans and the much darker melodrama at the heart of the story. The film is structured as a 'day in the life' and opens with Joe, the nightwatchman (Sid James) ending his shift as the girls arrive from the staff hostel to open the store. He briefly gossips with one of the cleaners (Dandy Nichols) and we don't see him again until the film comes neatly full circle with the closure of the store and Joe returning to duty just before the closing titles. As well as these brief cameos from James and Nichols you'll also see Rachel Roberts, as the bubbly Welsh firebrand Maggie, Joan Hickson, Oscar Quitak, Thora Hird, Dora Bryan and Prunella Scales fulfilling the same guest star function.
part gentle farce... part social commentary 
In between these bookend sequences with Sid James is a narrative driven by a clutch of female characters with each one of them shedding light on some aspect of their daily working life in the department store as well as their various, and for good or ill, romantic liaisons. Central to the narrative are Suzy, the blonde with the heart of gold (played with great vivacity by Vera Day) who believes the only way to escape from her drudgery at the store is to get into the film business, Peggy (Joan Rice) who just can't seem to get her boyfriend Leslie to show her much attention and tear himself away from his prize vintage car (in a cheeky bit of typecasting Leslie's played by John Gregson, fresh from the success of 1953's Genevieve) and finally there is Yvonne Pascoe, a young woman who finds herself pregnant and desperate to reunite with the baby's father, Michael.

As these three plots play out we see Peggy flirt with one of the store managers in order to get Leslie jealous, forcing him to sell his rather delapidated car and win back her affections, Suzy manipulated by the rather cadish Alex Fraser (Sydney Tafler) who has misled her into believing he's a film studio executive who can get her a screen test when he's actually only the company chauffeur and, most traumatic of all, we see the disconsolate Yvonne, convinced by her boyfriend Michael's hideous mother that he's abandoned her for good and viciously attacked for being "a slut", now willing to end her misery by overdosing on strychnine pills stolen from a customer.
... a fascinating time capsule 
The film glides along between these stories, part gentle farce with Peggy, Leslie and her faux flirtations with one of the store managers, Mr. Preedy, and part social commentary with Suzy's experience turning into a moral lesson about older men coniving women into providing sexual favours and most disturbingly with Yvonne, on the brink of suicide, finding herself being pursued by a potential rapist down dingy back alleys. The latter is heart-stoppingly tense, brilliantly filmed and edited, as the poor woman is relentlessly chased through dank and smoke filled streets until she takes refuge in a church and finally breaks down emotionally after a narrow escape, realising that suicide is not the answer to her predicament. Religious redemption and the power of moral good over immoral evil are also clearly signposted here.

The film is therefore a fascinating time capsule that has quite a bit to say about the social and sexual mores of both men and women, exploring the hierarchies of responsibilities in the working environment of the time, the tensions and potential improprieties between male and female staff and a world of single women, all of whom are both attracted and repulsed by men and yet whose lives revolve around the desired status of marriage and its inherent security. There is a keen sense of tragedy in the film, its inevitability eliciting a sympathy in the viewer that comes from the desperate measures that these women will take in order not to be seen as 'left on the shelf'. This is brought home when one girl, Alice, hires an escort to convince her co-workers that she is capable of finding herself a man. It even questions the sanctity of marriage, where it suggests an older married woman Eve plays the field and then returns home to her husband. Quite racy stuff for 1954.
... a hierarchy dominated by men
It also pokes fun at male workers who wouldn't normally be required to change a display dummy for example or highlighting how floor managers would claim sales from the sales assistants lower down the pecking order. In its modest way it provides a commentary on the desire of women, both single and married, to be independent and go out to work and the still conformist attitudes about women that Christine Geraghty sees in British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, Genre and the 'New Look' "where men aspired to a working life that was full time and continuous, women were encouraged to see their work as part-time and interruptable so that it could be fitted in with the needs of the family."

Certainly this reflects back on the film's setting of the department store and the women working to not only improve the living standards for their family but also to "express their femininity through fashion" and the introduction of the 'New Look' all within a hierarchy dominated by men. Interestingly, the one woman given a certain amount of power, Miss Morgan (played with icy intensity by Freda Jackson) isn't seen as 'one of the girls' and is often placed as an outsider to much of the interplay. Only at the staff Christmas do are we allowed to see her with some warmth when she is seen in conversation with  Richard Wattis's Mr. Christopher.

Many of the scenes in the department store also, quite naturally, depict women trying on garments. There's a great comic scene where Suzy persuades her mother (the wonderful Dora Bryan) to try on dozens of coats to keep her sales stealing boss Miss Morgan occupied and a similarly mocking moment when Eunice (Prunella Scales) and her mother (Thora Hird) drive the sales assistants mad with their difference of opinion over which wedding dress to purchase - a symbolic battle between the reliable silk of yesteryear and the more contemporary and modern nylon!

A bittersweet film in many respects that depicts a world where women's emancipation is not yet fulfilled and where some of the major characters who attempt to do so are rewarded either with romantic reconciliation with initially unresponsive male partners and a drive toward heteronormative faithfulness, the ignominy of remaining single or worse still, or are punished by getting pregnant and considering abortion and even suicide.

While it hardly reaches the social realist heights of the later British New Wave, there is an edge to the drama that compliments some of the lighter, comedic material and writer Talbot Rothwell's script is witty and tightly written. Filmed in crisp black and white, The Crowded Day is entertaining and thought provoking in equal measure with a cast brimful of warmly regarded British character actors. Unfortunately, Adelphi were not successful in persuading the bigger circuits to play this as an A film and its winter release was a bit of disaster. A shame really as this is one of their most accomplished films.

Song of Paris (1952) is a very different film. Firmly in the realm of romantic comedy, it cycles through a series of farcical elements to bring together its male and female leading characters while also making much fun out of the social and cultural differences between the English and the French. The heart of the film concerns Matthew Ibbetson, a reluctant romantic if ever there was one and played to perfection by the laconic Dennis Price. His bewilderment at becoming a 'ladies man' is rather summed up in the way that Matthew's act of chivalry, attempting to protect a French girl's modesty, is the catalyst for the story.

Ibbetson sells stomach pills and in order to expand his client base he takes a business trip to Paris, hoping to increase the export potential of his company's products. On his trip he meets and falls in love with French cabaret singer Clementine (a charming Ann Vernon) after a PR stunt in the street accidentally brings them together but she is guarded by the insanely jealous Comte Marcel de Sarliac, a con man of lugubrious character and played utterly to the hilt, in a performance threatening to burst out of the screen on occasions, by Russo-American comedy actor Mischa Auer.
... a scene stealing performance from Hermione Baddeley
It is essentially a rites of passage story of one bachelor's journey from innocence to experience in encountering the female of the species and the various obstacles that are put in his way. These consist of a mother, a scene stealing performance from Hermione Baddeley, whose sole obsession throughout the film is with class and position and the Comte, determined to prevent Matthew from marrying Clementine by pursuing her to England. In his mother's view, Matthew must marry the right woman, someone of breeding and she's not that impressed when it is finally revealed to her the right woman is a mere commoner and not the blue blood that Matthew and Clementine claim her to be. Matthew's mother is also taken in by the Comte's own con, blinded by her own misguided elevation to a position of 'knowing' French aristocracy as the wily Comte fleeces her of her money.

The script is light and frothy, aided no doubt by the additional work provided by Denis Norden and Frank Muir, and Price, Baddeley, Auer and Vernon keep this moving along with their effective performances. Guillermin's direction whips this into shape and he makes a virtue out of the British locations that stand in for their French counterparts and allows Vernon to inject her Gallic charms through a number of songs, smoulderingly good in the French nightclub where Matthew first meets Clementine and later when she entertains at the piano in her English apartment or before the gathered ensemble at Mrs. Ibbetson's house. Clearly, a fair bit of the budget went on her glamorous gowns because she looks rather stunning throughout.
... social standing through marriage and money
Beneath this confection there is a subtext about Anglo-Gallic relations and the British government's imperative in the 1950s to forge better trade relations with its European partners, an effort that would usher in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 leading to the formation of the EEC from which unfortunately the British would be declined entry at the time because of poor economic performance. Trade is a central motif in the film and one which is seen as key to the continuing success of Ibbetson's firm. It is represented here by Ibbetson's application to the Board of Trade for an export licence eventually overseen by the officious Carter played by the very reliable Richard Wattis. Ironically, it is the French Clementine, rather than Matthew, who impresses Carter most with her grasp of economic planning and she secures the certificate.

Along with the theme of international trade and the cultural differences between the British and the French, that eventually leads to a slapstick inspired pistol duel between the Comte and Ibbetson at the film's conclusion, we also have have the notion of class and betterment of one's social standing through marriage and money. Whilst the Comte and Mrs. Ibbetson strive to maintain some kind of upper class orthodoxy in their social and moral mores, Matthew symbolises a relaxing of these rather straight mores where in the 1950s, as Andrew Spicer observes in Masculinities in British Cinema "these ‘new men’, the ‘well-spoken young’, were lovably flawed, impractical, and harassed, but espousing the core consensual values of respectability: thrift, sobriety, prudence, and self-help, all given a youthful gloss."

The farcical elements of the film, combining the classic states of mistaken identity, chase sequences and stylised performances, all reach their height in the final duel sequence. This not only settles a particular score between the Comte and Matthew, with an absurdist shoot-out in which umpteen gun shots are fired to calamitous effect on physical objects and not the duelists per se, but also demarcates the pairings of the film: Matthew and Clementine finally become a couple, as does Matthew's resourceful sister Janet and her boyfriend Jim and in a somewhat signposted revelation, the Comte and Mrs. Ibbetson also form a tryst.

A gentle romantic comedy with elements of farce, Song of Paris makes for a welcome second half of a Guillermin double bill and once again demonstrates his handling of multiple story elements and an ensemble cast. It may lack the social concerns of The Crowded Day but it is never the less a charming period piece.

Both films have been restored in high definition. The Crowded Day looks particularly lovely with a crisp, clean transfer, good detail and excellent contrast and depth. Song of Paris isn't to quite the same standards, where presumably the existing materials prevented this, and there are some instances of dirt on the film and the picture isn't quite as sharp. However, it is great to see both films looking so good.   This edition also comes with a booklet that includes film notes, original promotional materials and new essays by John Guillermin, actresses Vera Day and Prunella Scales, author Mary Cadogan and BFI Curator Vic Pratt.

The Crowded Day & Song of Paris
Adelphi Films 1954 and 1952
BFI Dual Format Edition (Blu-ray & DVD versions) / Release date: 14 February 2011 / BFIB1084
Cert PG / black & white / English language / 83 mins & 80 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1

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2 Responses to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - The Crowded Day & Song of Paris / The Adelphi Collection Blu-ray Review”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Having worked in B&H & lived ' Warwickshire Hse for seven years 1955-62 will be very interested to see future comments! Looking forward to getting a copy of film! It was brought to my attention by the article in the Sunday Express Feb:20th by a friend and will forward details to colleagesaround the world. We even had our wedding reception in the Rose Room!

  2. Anonymous - Thanks for your brilliant comment. So you worked as one of the shop's assistants?

    It's a great little film and it'll be really interesting to hear your comments about the film when you see it. Will it reflect your own experiences of that period I wonder? Let me know!

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