Thursday, 28 June 2018
The Agitator (1945)
I came across this film some time ago when compiling a Letterboxd list of films about unions and militancy but, as it was considered 'lost', I didn't hold out much hope of seeing it.
Thankfully Renown seem to have rediscovered it and Talking Pictures broadcast it on Saturday. The story of a militant socialist who finds himself, somewhat surprisingly, inheriting the very factory he works at struck me as an interesting one, but unfortunately it quickly becomes clear that neither the makers of this film nor W. Riley the author of the novel it is adapted from, have much sympathy for the cause of socialism.
What unfolds is a sort of relatively serious Brewster's Millions story which sees our firebrand hero, Pettinger (played by William Hartnell, back in the days when he was known as Billy Hartnell and a good eighteen years away from playing the very first incarnation of Doctor Who) swept from the factory floor and planted not only behind the owner's desk but also in his palatial home with £40,000 in his bank account. This rare streak of fortune occurs because, prior to his death, the owner, Mark Overton (Frederick Leister) listened to Pettinger's claims against his father, Overton senior; Pettinger asserts that it was actually his father (who also worked at the factory) who invented a machine that increased the productivity of the business ten fold, thus achieving the personal wealth the factory owner now enjoys, whilst Pettinger's father was cheated by Overton senior, receiving nothing in return. Overton subsequently changed his will to bequeath the business to Pettinger who felt his family where poorly treated. When faced with such good fortune, Pettinger presses forward believing that a co-operative stake for all workers in the business is the way forward. However he is soon met by the cold shoulders of his fellow businessmen, suppliers, buyers and factory owners who refuse to have anything to do with this chippy upstart. Equally his own workforce - who once cheered his socialist stance - now believe him to be a traitor to their class. His equally political girlfriend (the great Mary Morris, rather ill served in a small role here, despite earning second billing) terminates their relationship too, whilst the belligerent foreman, Tetley (future Dad's Army star John Laurie), who always viewed Pettinger as a troublemaker, refuses to comply with his new methods and practices.
Put like that, it's easy to sympathise with Pettinger's plight isn't it? It's clear that it is snobbery from his new class and inverted snobbery from his old class that creates his problems. But the film refuses to see it like that. Instead, Pettinger is shown to be failing because he is out of his depth and not 'to the manor born'. His inability to secure orders is explained away as his fault; he's too aggressive because deep down he knows he doesn't belong and so he employs a hostile exterior. His plans for a co-operative in which every worker shares in the factory's fortune is barely explored, scuppered by Tetley and his fellow foremen who believe the business is bound to fail. The merits of such socialist practice is not acknowledged by the film, thereby nailing its own political colours to the mast. The fact that we're later supposed to side with the intractable, truculent Tetley whose attitudes clearly arise from the grudge he holds against a workmate he once oversaw and disapproved of is particularly galling. Worst of all, the big twist in the plot which ensures Pettinger more or less relinquishes his stake in the factory, is the revelation that not only was his own father not the victim of the unscrupulous Overton senior that he believed, but was in fact the real cheat. Moore Marriott of Will Hay films fame arrives as an elderly, near senile and down on his luck contemporary of Pettinger's father who explains that it was he who actually gave his father the idea about the machine and that, whilst his father was in fact paid an ex gratia payment of £100 for the idea, he refused to share it with Marriott. The fact that the misfortune of Marriott's character, now residing in penury with the Salvation Army, is laid at the door of this payment he was cheated out of is the glaring proof of the political bias at the heart of this film. What about the labour he was cheated out of? If he's destitute after working all his life at Overton's factory then surely the cause is the (clearly) poor wages he was paid! Pettinger's idea is to end all that, to give the employees a stake in the business they can all benefit from, but it's dismissed out of hand by both the film's characters and the clearly right wing capitalist-sympathetic filmmakers and writers.
Despite its conservative stance and the expectation that our sympathies should lie with the status quo, The Agitator is still quite an enjoyable film thanks to a bristling turn from Hartnell. It's an almost Cagney-like turn, which is fitting given that he was renowned for playing gangsters and tough guys at this stage in his career. In fact, you could easily imagine the storyline of The Agitator transported across the pond with Cagney in the lead role. The storytelling, the direction from John Harlow, and some of the playing all suggest a desire to be American rather than British, which makes both its philosophy and style all the more out of step with UK audiences when you consider the fact that, when the film was released in '45, the British public voted for a socialist government in Attlee's Labour.
PS; apropos of nothing, The Agitator is one of those rare films (along with several things Alan Bennett has written and the Dirk Bogarde Bond spoof, Hot Enough For June) that has a character who shares my surname, Cunliffe - albeit it it is spelt here in the credits with a 'Y' rather than an 'I'.