Although Ealing Studios did not exclusively make comedies – actually, less than ten percent of their output was comic – it is the run of comedies from the late ’40s into the ’50s that the studio is best remembered for, and it’s not difficult to see why. Under the leadership of Michael Balcon, the legendary British producer who also founded Gainsborough Pictures, they produced incredibly sharp, witty and likeable comedies ranging from the whimsy of a film like Passport to Pimlico to the razor-sharp black comedy of Kind Hearts and Coronets, also released in 1949.
The movies were quintessentially British, and often got funnier as they got darker precisely because the characters had to uphold good British virtues while getting away with political upheaval (Passport to Pimlico), theft (The Lavender Hill Mob, one of their best) or murder (Kind Hearts and Coronets). This paradox is prevalent in Passport to Pimlico, where the local residents discover an ancient charter revealing that Pimlico is legally part of Burgundy. ‘It’s precisely because we are English,’ says one, ‘that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundians.’
The charter is discovered in a cave of treasures found by Mr Pemberton (the great Stanley Holloway) when he slips into a bomb site. It is examined by an eccentric historian (played superbly by Margaret Rutherford) who says it still holds water legally, and the residents, tired of rationing and licensing laws, realise they can tell the authority figures to get lost. Although it never pushes this too far, and remains gentle and whimsical, it’s here that the subtle, restrained anarchy of Ealing films can be felt.
The script, by T.E.B. Clark, is a superbly sustained piece of fantasy, following logically from one absurdity to another. Clark wrote several of Ealing’s comedies; his tended to be the less harsh, warmer films, like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. It is inspired by fact: during World War 2, a hospital in Canada was temporarily deemed to be Dutch soil, so when the Princess Margriet was born there she would still have claim to the throne of the Netherlands. As with other Ealings it somehow manages to have its cake and eat it, undermining the entire concepts of nationality and diplomacy while celebrating the inherent Englishness of the characters. It also plays on post-War sensitivity, referencing rationing, the Berlin Blockade, customs and identity papers, all at least fresh in the memory in 1949 (the Blockade was ongoing when it was released).
As was usually the case with Ealing, the casting is unusually strong. Though he is the actor most often associated with the studio, Alec Guinness is not in this one (though not his first movie, he would make his breakthrough later that year with the multiple performances he gives in Kind Hearts and Coronets). However as well as Holloway and Rutherford there are entertaining performances from familiar faces like those of Basil Radford (and Naunton Wayne), Michael Hordern and a young Charles Hawtrey.
Although not the first Ealing Comedy, Passport to Pimlico is the one that really got the ball rolling. Within a decade the studio had made their best-remembered and best-loved material, as Britain changed again and so did its film industry; Ealing was bought over by the BBC in 1955. By that time The Ladykillers, with its story of octogenarian murder, had been released and Passport to Pimlico probably seemed a little too tame and restrained for many. But it’s worth remembering that the film was released in 1949, and the dedication at the start – to the memory of rationing – was tongue-in-cheek, as rationing was still very much in force. It must have, therefore, been a great pleasure for audiences to see the residents of Pimlico look a policeman in the face and joyfully tear up and scatter their ration books, letting the pieces of paper fall through the air like forgetful snow.
FILM: 4 out of 5
Essential viewing for any fan of Ealing and a significant turning point for British cinema. It doesn’t have the teeth of later Ealing comedies, or the sheer joy of The Lavender Hill Mob, but few movies do.
QUALITY: 3.5 out of 5
A clean, crisp transfer, better than the Whisky Galore Blu-Ray but perhaps inferior to Kind Hearts and Coronets. The mono soundtrack is a bit dated, but nothing too distracting.
EXTRAS: 2.5 out of 5
Compared to the other Ealing comedies on Blu-Ray, a fairly unexciting selection. There’s an interesting, though brief, interview with Mark Duguid of the BFI and another about the locations used in filming. A restoration comparison shows the work that went into restoring the film for Blu-Ray (and its recent cinema re-release), and there’s a trailer and on-set photos.
PRESENTATION: 3.5 out of 5
As with the other Ealing Blu-Rays it’s in newly designed packaging with easy-to-navigate animated menus.
OVERALL: 3.5 out of 5
The disc is something of a disappointment, especially when compared to Kind Hearts and Coronets, but any fan of Ealing should own and treasure this movie.
Passport to Pimlico is available on Blu-Ray in the UK now.