Last night, we unwrapped the newly released DVD set of seven films starring British icon Gracie Fields, whom I last saw opposite Monty Woolley in the charming upstairs-downstairs comedy Molly and Me (1945), released at the end of her screen career. Included in this present anthology of earlier, British films is Fields’s feature debut Sally in Our Alley (1931). It is directed by the prolific Maurice Elvey, whose long-lost silent epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) I discussed previously. Although Elvey is not held in high regard by today’s critics—something that happens when you, like the radio, dispense a steady stream of popular entertainment, I had been favorably impressed by Elvey’s 1927 remake of Hindle Wakes (mentioned here), the story of a mill worker’s daughter lured into crossing class boundaries—at a terrible cost. Co-written by Hitchcock partner Alma Reville, Sally is a similar story, designed, it seems, to keep those boundaries intact by telling the working classes taking in such fare that it is best to stay with the folks you know and be content with what you are dealt.
Sally is the kind of movie Fields, who had her own US radio program during the 1940s and ’50s, got to sing about when she joined Fred Allen in the Texaco Star Theatre back on 15 November 1942, when she, aside from demonstrating the differences between British and American broadcasting, performed “I Never Cried so Much in All My Life”:
Oh-oh-oh-oh, it was a lovely picture and I did enjoy it so
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I never cried so much in all my life
When the villains seized the maiden everybody shouted “oh”
Oh-oh-oh-oh, I never cried so much in all my life.
In the title role, Fields gets to sing loudly and be of good cheer, while her character is being exploited, betrayed and abused by those around her. She is told that her lover, George (Ian Hunter), has died during the Great War. It is he who made up that story in hopes of not burdening his sweetheart with the physical impairments he sustained in battle. When he recovers, at last, and returns to London a decade later, other men having designs on his girl try to convince her that George has been unfaithful and married another. Such hard luck notwithstanding, Sally, never sings the “Lancashire Blues” for long, even if her performance of “Fred Fannakapan” at a posh ball ends in humiliation.
In her autobiography, Fields relates how she choked and broke into tears singing her signature tune “Sally”; the cause, though, was the air on stage, which, the scene being the coffee shop where Sally serves and entertains, was filled with the smoke generated to produce the atmosphere of an old-fashioned establishment.
Nearly stealing the show from Fields, which is difficult enough given her musical numbers, is Florence Desmond. I did not recognize her as Claudette Colbert’s fellow prison camp inmate in Jean Negulesco’s harrowing Three Came Home (1950), one of only four films Desmond made after a movie busy career in the early to mid-1930s. In Sally, Desmond plays Florrie, a girl who wants to get out—and, according to the conventions of melodramas that defend the status quo—is duly punished for her attempts at transgression until she finds salvation in fixing things so that Sally gets her man.
Florrie is flighty and wouldn’t mind being a floozy; she is also a consummate fibber and faker. After all, she is caught up in the world of Hollywood (not British film, mind you); and in the to me most intriguing scene of the movie (pictured above), she rivals Marion Davies in impersonating screen siren Greta Garbo. Just how to seduce and betray she seems to have gotten right out the movie magazines she devours; and if seduction is not quite her forte, she proves an expert at spreading malicious rumors about Sally, who had it in her tremendously roomy heart to take Florrie in and shelter the girl from her abusive father.
It seems to me that the British film industry was trying to get back at Hollywood, having largely failed to copy its successes. That said, I am going to continue my Fields trip tonight with Elvey’s Love, Life and Laughter (1934) . . .