Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Stars Look Down (1939)

Carol Reed reunites Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes) one year later for his adaptation of AJ Cronin's novel The Stars Look Down, detailing the hardships of a North East mining community blighted by pit owner's greed and wasted potential.

A precursor to the kitchen sink drama and the work of Ken Loach, The Stars Look Down occasionally shows its age and struggles with the now over familiarity of the tropes but it remains a powerful film and a strong ode to the oppression of the working classes.

Michael Redgrave gives a spirited and thoughtful performance as Davey Fenwick, eldest son of a mining family whose intelligence and hard work earn him a scholarship at the cities university. His ideals however remain at home with 'his people' who have gone against both management and union to strike when a proposal to mine a dangerous section of the pit is brought forward. Once in the city he meets up with a face from back home, the idle, greedy and opportunistic Joe Gowlan, a former miner himself, who introduces him to Jenny played by Margaret Lockwood. Jenny is a self centred and shallow but nonetheless beautiful young lady for whom Davey throws away his principles and takes her hand in marriage.  It's a spirited turn from Lockwood who, despite being essentially a wrong 'un, is infused with much humour. And she is of course as divine as always.

With Davey's idealistic ambitions having come to naught thanks to his unwise decision to let his heart rule his head, he returns home to pursue a career as a teacher at the local school,  frustratingly giving the basics of education to the next generation of colliery fodder. But his principles and desire to help his community and family are reignited when Joe returns to town to do a deal with the pit owner to push through with the mining, with tragic consequences.

The film was broadcast on BBC2 at 7:10 on Saturday morning (part of a Michael Redgrave double bill to start the day's schedule; The Captive Heart the POW drama followed) Unusually perhaps, they screened the US version complete with a rather saccharine, spiritual but I guess heartfelt enough voice over from Lionel Barrymore that opened and closed the tale. Clearly the US distributors found this tale a touch too bold and socialistic in its message and sought to soften the blow with a quasi religious tone.  In doing so, the film's final scene - which appears in the UK version - was dispensed with altogether; a scene which shows Davey, in the aftermath of the mining disaster, leaving home to work for the union. A crucial scene I feel.

As I say the film creaks a little with age now but its good intentions cannot be argued with, nor indeed can its message (not by me anyway, though I guess it depends on your politics) which is firmly for the nationalisation of the coal industry - a rousing speech delivered by Davey at university beautifully argues that a natural resource is not to be owned by anyone or mined for the profit of just a select and fortunate few. Also without question is the authenticity the production strove for at the time; with filming taking place at collieries in Cumberland, genuine pit ponies used in scenes and the costumes worn by the actors having been purchased from real miners. The 40,000 square yard exterior set used at Shepperton for the mine-head was an exact replica of the Workington mine in Cumberland, including cage, ramp, outer buildings and rows of pit cottages. Needless to say it was, at the time, the largest exterior set ever constructed for film.

Cronin's novel would go on to be adapted twice for television, in the UK it was a 13 part drama series for Granada in 1975 starring Ian Hastings Alun Armstrong, whilst an Italian adaptation occurred in 1971.

1 comment:

  1. My part of the world! They filmed scenes on the old Workington Central station, not far up the road from me.