Title: Pink String And Sealing Wax
Director: Robert Hamer
Major Players: Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Gordon Jackson
Out Of Five: 3
Another piece of nostalgia finds its way onto DVD this week, but an even lesser known film than David Lean’s The Sound Barrier. Yet its director went on to make Ealing classic, Kind Hearts And Coronets.
Robert Hamer made his first solo film, Pink String And Sealing Wax, in 1945, four years before what turned out to be the high point of his career. Despite working again with Alec Guinness and British acting stalwarts like Eric Portman and Jack Warner, he never quite hit those heights again. The film was also the start of a series of collaborations with actress, Googie Withers.
This film’s foundation is in the Sutton family. The father (Mervyn Johns) is a prosperous dispensing chemist who rules with a rod of iron. His eldest son, David (Gordon Jackson), is trying to follow in his father’s footsteps, but is a romantic at heart, regularly falling head over heels for any girl who catches his eye. He takes a fancy to publican’s wife, Pearl (Withers), who’s saddled with a violent alcoholic for a husband and, unwittingly, the young man offers her a way out of her problems.
This came out during the same year as Gainsborough’s rip-roaring success, The Wicked Lady, with Margaret Lockwood. It seems to be pitched at the same audience, with Withers looking like Ealing’s answer to Lockwood – long, dark, elaborately coiffed hair, strong make-up and low cut dress complete with heaving bosom. But while The Wicked Lady was rollocking good fun and didn’t take itself in the least bit seriously, this has a decidedly different tone and is a much more sombre and moral little tale.
It’s not quite a bodice ripper, but it’s certainly a Victorian melodrama in both setting and style. And it paints a less than flattering portrait of Victorian society, one divided by class and where women have little or no security. Sutton and his family live in a comfortable house and we see him at work in his shop: the pub, on the other hand, is frequented by ne’er do wells and we never see them doing a stroke – except for the staff behind the bar, of course. Married women have no property of their own, with everything belonging to their husbands, divorce is unthinkable and domestic violence simmers just below the surface.
All of which accounts for why the structure of the film is back to front. What is actually the main plot – the publican’s wife murdering her husband – is relegated to sub-plot status and the main focus of the film is the portrait of the Suttons. As well as the drippy older son, there’s the older daughter who dreams of being a classical singer and her younger sister, (Sally Anne Howes in an early role) who helps her make it come true. There’s two other sons, briefly in the background and dressed like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but we never hear from them or even find out their names.
By today’s standards the acting is OTT, certainly on the part of Withers, whose eyes widen like saucers at the slightest opportunity. Gordon Jackson’s Scottish accent isn’t totally concealed, which makes him something of an oddity in an extremely English family. If anybody had noticed, the shame for his dictatorial father would have been unbearable! And Jean Ireland and Sally Ann Howes are irritatingly unconvincing as the two daughters. What makes it watching is Mervyn Johns as the father, who is in the great tradition of Mr Barratt in The Barratts Of Wimpole Street, but never overdoes it. He’s unsympathetic, pompous and prefers his children to be afraid of him rather than love him, but when his eldest son is implicated in the murder, we see another side.
Hamer displays a great eye for period detail. Look at the interiors, the wallpaper, the walls crowded with pictures, the gas lights and, of course, those miraculous candles that completely light up a room as soon as they’re lit. It’s so well done that you wish you could see the colours of the costumes and decor. The women’s dresses are elaborate and, you suspect, gaudily opulent. Instead, you have to settle for newly re-mastered black and white and a bit of imagination.
This is a proper Sunday afternoon film. CSI would have had the murder plot sorted in seconds, especially as Withers’ murderess is nowhere near as clever as she thinks she is. So make a pot of tea, get the biscuits out but, most importantly of all, make sure it’s a wet Sunday afternoon. That’s when the film comes into its own.
Pink String And Sealing Wax is released on DVD on Monday, 25 April and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 28 April.