‘Love and fear are inseparable.’
The Ealing Studio’s approach to class, culture and tradition, often mixed with a dark subtext (even, or especially, in the comedies for which they are most renowned today) is perhaps shown in its most acerbic form in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), a film that has recently been restored from the original negative for release on Blu-ray. The directorial début of Robert Hamer (who would later direct the wonderful class based murderous black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets ), this is a drama about life in late Victorian Brighton where social desires mix with drink and debauchery and result in shocking outcomes.
Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns) is the proprietor of a pharmacy but also provides a service to the courts as an expert in medical matters. He is a profoundly Christian man, something that places him at odds with his children who simply want to grow up and live their lives in their own manner, finding that Edward’s dogmatic beliefs dominate their own desires. He wants his son David (Gordon Jackson) to follow his own career and run the shop. His daughter Victoria (Jean Ireland) wishes nothing more than to become a singer, perhaps even obtaining a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, but her father is convinced that this occupation is thoroughly inappropriate for a young lady. Peggy (Sally Ann Howes), meanwhile, just wants to keep her siblings happy at all costs, and the animals her father brings home are the source of personal joy, even if their intended purpose of vivisection is shocking to her. In the wider community the Dolphin public house, whose proprietor is Joe Bond (Garry Marsh), is a place where the locals come to drown their sorrows or seek physical pleasures from the ladies of the night. Joe’s wife Pearl (Googie Withers) is struggling to deal with her husband’s alcoholism and seeks solace in the arms of others in order to numb the pain of marital life where her spouse’s sozzled savagery leads to a number of injuries. David wants to escape from his father’s puritanical demands and visits the pub, which leads him to become infatuated with Pearl. One night, David witnesses the attractive Pearl cry out and sees the results of Joe’s anger at his wife’s indiscretions with other men. Her hand savagely bleeding on smashed glass David takes her to the pharmacy, a place full of chemicals both benign and malevolent, and cleans the wound up, as he is concerned about the possibilities of tetanus infection. In explaining the symptoms of this nasty disease, and how similar the symptoms are to strychnine poisoning, an idea permeates inside Pearl’s mind, the consequences of which will be both profound and disturbing.
Based upon the play by Roland Pertwee Pink String and Sealing Wax escapes the restrictions of theatrical staging to provide its setting with a real sense of community, both socially and visually, and particularly with its thoroughly cinematic conclusion. It presents two very different social worlds – the privilege of the educated class contrasting with the bawdy working class denizens of the Dolphin pub – their social standing could not be further apart. This is most obviously played out in the lead female roles, that of singer Victoria who has to overcome her father’s opposition to achieve her dream, compared with the wretched life that Pearl has to endure, surviving numerous beatings from her husband and seeking affairs of the heart to detract from her rotten life. Despite Pearl ostensibly being the villain of the piece, she does elicit a good degree of sympathy – her motives are at least understandable but even if she manages to execute a murder without incident, her lack of ingenuity means that when her story begins to unravel her attempts at blackmail are simply not going to hold. This unhappy incident has a significant impact on David, a naïve young man whose intention was purely to assist a lady he had, foolishly, developed a crush on, when he finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a case of murder and blackmail.
Extras on the Bluray include a welcome look at how Studio Canal restored this lost film as well as a pair of fascinating contemporary interviews. Joanna McCallum (Googie Withers’ daughter) recalls her mother and her work, describing how her mother and father met and also comments on Withers’ work both prior to Pink String – on everything from Will Hay comedies to work on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Michael Powell’s One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), all roles where she was deemed to be the dizzy blond before she had the opportunity to take on more complex roles. Indeed revelations that she was told, after reading the script for Pink String, that ‘We’ll be shooting the very last scene first,’ reflects on her abilities as an actress. So she grasped the opportunity to be ‘murderous, adulterous, feisty’, and would play strong female roles henceforth in her career. It is this aspect that forms the primary theme of an interview with Melanie Williams which looks at the women who acted at Ealing, as well as placing this film in the context of other British studios’ films of the period. Pink String also reflects the contemporary ‘enthusiasm for everything Victorian around this time.’ It also comments on the male-centric Ealing studios, discussing ‘Mr Balcon’s academy for young gentlemen’ as well as Hamer’s emerging themes of ‘desire, sex and class.’
Pink String and Sealing Wax is an essential addition to any collection of Ealing films as it reflects many different aspects of the studio’s output. It’s a marvellous socially conscious dramatic thriller about families and murder.