You may have heard the term ‘Ealing comedy’, but I suspect that many of those who aren’t of a certain era or live outside the UK, won’t know what I mean by an Ealing comedy. The term Ealing comedy is an informal name given to a series of comedy films that was produced by the London-based Ealing Studios during the period 1947 to 1957.
The films spanned the lively and modest, to black comedies of the darkest variety, heavily cynical, all highly amusing with their sophisticated scripts, direction and acting talent. Among the renowned Ealing comedy classics were films such as The Ladykillers (1955), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
The Ealing films were produced by Michael Balcon, after he took over the studio in 1938, he inherited a going concern from Basil Dean, whose company built the studio at the start of the decade to exploit the new medium of talking pictures. It was Dean who put the celebrated slogan ‘The Studio with the Team Spirit’ up on the studio wall, and who first used the end title, ‘A British Picture Made and Recorded at Ealing Studios’, set against a Union Flag background.
It was Dean who gave a chance to a young director, called Carol Reed, who had worked for him in the theatre. Reed, who left Ealing shortly before Balcon took over, is best remembered for post-war noir films like Odd Man Out and The Third Man, but his early work had a light touch which was very much like the films Ealing studios would become known for.
It is worth mentioning that Ealing was not only a comedy-specific studio during the era, and films like It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a crime drama, and the docudrama Scott of the Antarctic (1948) about Robert Falcon Scott’s journey to the south pole, were also produced. However, there’s no denying that it is the studio’s comedies which have managed to remain firm favourites with the British public.
Although, the majority of what we class as the Ealing comedies were produced in the forties and fifties, many film historians declare that the 1939 film Cheer Boys Cheer was the Ealing prototype of their later comedy films that followed the war. Although the first ‘proper’ Ealing comedy was in fact Hue and Cry released in 1947.
However, it was between April and June 1949 where comedy at Ealing really took off with a trio of films being released. These films were Passport to Pimlico (directed by Henry Cornelius), Whisky Galore! (directed by Alexander Mackendrick) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (directed by Robert Hamer). And all three would define the studio’s new direction. These three films were written by former journalist and policeman T.E.B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke – also the writer of Hue and Cry – who did more than anyone to establish the reputation of an Ealing comedy.
The Ealing comedies were a celebration of community, and places where mild but lovable eccentricity is accepted and encouraged. They are seen as representing an idealised Britain where small-timers invariably thwart big, bad bureaucrats. Ealing stood for continuity and decency, and as film historian Charles Barr wrote, “in a business notorious for size and instability, for a rapid turnover of money, ideas and people, Ealing succeeded in keeping itself small and stable.”
The comedies of Ealing are exceptional films, however they are still seen as the benchmark against which almost every other British comedy must be judged, and perhaps that seems unjust. The legacy of Ealing comedies still hangs over British comedy, but times and tastes have moved on.
The studio where Ealing shot still operates today, existing as the oldest continuously working studio facility for film production in the world. There are so many great comedies that I can recommend, from the likes of The Lavender Hill Mob to The Titfield Thunderbolt, and you don’t have to be British to enjoy them, they are good-hearted films with some genuinely laugh out loud moments, which stand the test of time.