Ealing Ghost Stories
The Halfway House (1943) and
Dead of Night (1945)
Before Ealing Studios became synonymous with British comedy and established the
careers of Sir Alec Guiness and Stanley Holloway with PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (1949), MAN
IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951), THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951) and THE TITFIELD
THINDERBOLT (1952) to name just a few, the studio that came to epitomise the British
way of life began under the watchful gaze of Michael Balcon, (1896-1977), a boy born in
Birmingham who tried to capture "Britishness" on film before and during World
War II with a series of propaganda dramas.
Balcon's first steps as a film producer began when he
formed Gainsborough Pictures that later merged in 1931 to form Gaumont-British with film
pioneer Leon Gaumont (1869-1946) who invented the first reasonably reliable sound on disc
system as far back as 1902. This partnership headed by Balcon was responsible for 1931's
successful The Ghost Train starring Jack Hulbert
and for establishing Alfred Hitchcock's reputation as a director in Britain and abroad
with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) and THE 39 STEPS (1935).
After the studio suffered financial disaster in 1936, Balcon experienced a brief, but
unhappy stint at Metro Goldwyn Mayer before joining a small unknown company called Ealing
Studios in 1937 where he produced GAUNT STRANGER (1938), a remake of an Edgar
Wallace story titled "The Ringer". Although only a second feature it was
received well by the critics, but it was THE WARE CASE (1938) starring Clive Brook
that began to put Ealing on the map.
Michael Balcon believed for some time that war with
Germany was inevitable and in 1939 he outlined a plan on how film production could be
utilised in the national interest during wartime in partnership with the Board of Trade's
1927 Quota Act that was set up to protect British film interests against the indomitable
might of the imported Hollywood product. The administration of the Quota Act was already
being dismantled, but Balcon single-handedly campaigned to ensure its survival and in so
doing was responsible for saving the entire British film industry.
After many clashes with the Ministry of Information who were established to oversee
propaganda production during the war, Balcon decided to go it alone and produce his own
series of propaganda dramas including the successful THE FOREMAN WENT TO FRANCE
(1941), NEXT OF KIN (1942) and a little known ghost story titled The Halfway House
A film that is both
charming and chilly...
The Halfway House opens in Cardiff, the
capital city of Wales where David Davies, (Esmond Knight), a renowned musician, is being
scolded by his doctor, (John Boxer), for working too hard and his subsequent ill-health
that will soon lead to death if he is not careful. The doctor convinces David to take a
Young Joanna French, (Sally Ann Howes), waits at a solicitor's office where her parents
are attempting to reconcile custody matters in light of their impending divorce. Mr. French, (Richard Bird), agrees to take their daughter with him for a
short holiday while his wife, Jill, (Valerie White), plans to get away for a while. Joanna
conspires for both her parents to end up at the same place.
William Oakly, a black marketeer, (Alfred Drayton), organises a fishing trip for himself
after making a deal to distribute a shipment of illegal tea and stockings.
Captain Fortescue, (Guy Middleton), is released from prison after being convicted for
stealing a shipment of regimental money.
Captain Meadows, (Tom Walls), and his wife Alice, (Francoise Rosay), are grieving over the
loss of their son. He decides to become a farmer despite his love for the sea and she
turns to spiritualism to the exclusion of her husband in the hope of contacting her son in
Irishman Terence, (Pat McGrath), proud of his nation's neutrality travels with his
girlfriend Margaret, (Philippa Hiatt), on a train bound for Carmarthen where they indulge
in their fellow passengers' Welsh Cakes and a rousing chorus of Sosban Fach.
All the characters find themselves in the tranquil setting of the Halfway House at Cwm
Bach in Carmarthenshire, but what they don't know is that a year previously the inn was
bombed by a German plane and the landlord Rhys, (Mervyn Johns), and his daughter Gwyneth,
(Glynis Johns), were killed in the blast.
The inn appears as it was to the guests, but slowly they realise the truth of their
surroundings when they notice that all the newspapers are a year old, the radio plays year
old news and the landlord and his daughter cast no shadow. The time slip
and the guiding words of the ghostly owners affords each in turn a chance to
redeem themselves and mend their ways as they await the ghostly bombing of the inn to
reoccur. They leave the ruins of the inn with a better
understanding of their lives and their faith.
extremely enjoyable film does tend to end rather too neatly, but the cast and crew excel
themselves by maintaining an other worldly atmosphere. Basil Dearden, (1911-1971), began
his career as an editor before becoming a co-director on the later Will Hay comedies for
Ealing. He later co-directed on Dead of Night (1945), Ealing's second
and highly successful supernatural release.
Welsh actor Mervyn Johns appears for the first time with his real life daughter Glynis.
Born in Pembroke on February 18th., 1899, Mervyn attended Llandovery College before
abandoning his dentistry studies in 1923 for the lure of the stage and married Alys
Steele, an Australian pianist that same year. Glynis was born in Durban, South Africa on
October 5th. 1923 and took to the London stage in 1935. In 1948 Glynis found fame in MIRANDA,
as a mermaid who enchants Griffith Jones and by 1954 she was voted one of the top money
making British stars by the Motion Picture Herald-Fame Poll.
Also in the cast is Francoise Rosay in her first British film after fleeing France when
the Nazis invaded. This fiercely patriotic, but internationally renowned star married
French director Jacques Keyder and followed him to Hollywood where she made twelve films.
In Britain she enchanted audiences with her one woman show at the Haymarket as well as her
several screen appearances.
THE HALFWAY HOUSE is both charming and chilly, perfectly capturing the many facets
of society during wartime while weaving a satisfying supernatural yarn that was strongly
supported by The Church of England for its spiritual message.
For information about THE
HALFWAY HOUSE and for an in depth look at the film's locations click here.
"Just room for
one inside sir..."
No true horror films were made in Britain during the War in
compliance with government censorship, but borderline fantasies that included The Halfway House found moderate success. Ealing Studios were already
working on Dead of Night (1945) when peace was announced in 1945. The
film is a serious study of the supernatural that captures all the nuances of the
British ghost story with an omnibus of five tales linked by the nightmare of Walter Craig.
Architect Walter Craig, (Mervyn Johns), visits an isolated farmhouse that he has been
asked to redesign, but when he arrives at Pilgrim Farm, he is surprised to find that the
guests he is introduced to are all the subjects in his reoccurring dream. Although he only
has faint memories of his nightmare, events seem to be unfolding in a very familiar way. Intrigued, the visitors relate their own tales of the supernatural.
Hugh, (Anthony Baird), tells of a
vision he suffered after a near fatal race car accident while he was in hospital of a
hearse driver, (Miles Malleson), complete with a horse drawn hearse who announces that
there is "just room for one inside". Later when he
is about to board on a bus, the conductor, (Miles Malleson), utters the same phrase. The
man decides to miss the bus and watches in horror as it drives away, narrowly misses a
lorry and plummets off the road.
Young Sally O'Hara, (Sally Ann Howes), at the cottage relates that while at a party when
playing hide'n'seek, she wandered into a small forgotten room at the large house and found
a little boy crying in the darkness. She spends some time with him, but when she returns
downstairs to the party and explains where she was hiding, she is informed that the child
she met was the ghost of Francis Kent who was murdered by his sister some years ago.
By now Walter Craig is becoming increasingly agitated as he confirms that the events are
unfolding just as he predicted and announces that he will soon try to murder Dr. Van
Straaten, (Frederick Valk), who has been sceptical of Craig's claims since he arrived.
Joan, (Googie Withers), explains how her husband, Peter, (Ralph Michael),
became possessed by the spirit in an antique mirror that she bought for him as a birthday
present. Slowly Peter becomes a jealous, homicidal maniac as he observes a much older,
Victorian room in the mirror. Concerned Joan learns of the
mirror's history from the antique dealer, (Esme Percy), where she purchased it, but when
she returns to Peter's flat he tries to strangle her. In a moment of inspiration, she
smashes the mirror and ends the spell.
In the weaker of the stories two golfing partners, George and Larry, (Basil Radford &
Naunton Wayne), play a round of golf for the love of Mary, (Peggy Bryan). Larry loses and drowns himself, but returns to haunt his partner when he
discovers that he had cheated.
Increasingly sceptical of Walter Craig's claim that they are all living out his dream,
Doctor Van Straaten, a psychologist, relates a past case history that he was unable to
solve. His patient was Maxwell Frere, (Michael Redgrave), a ventriloquist who was slowly becoming the nasty alter ego presented
by his ventriloquist's dummy, Hugo. When Maxwell mistakenly believes that fellow
ventriloquist Sylvester Kee, (Hartley Power), is trying to steal his dummy, he shoots him
and is arrested. In prison Hugo completely takes over his personality.
Walter Craig enters a nightmarish world of images from each of the stories and then suddenly awakes when he receives a phone call to visit a
Already unnerved after the experiences of World War II, audiences and critics alike
made the film a success, except in America where it was released without the "The
Golfing Story" and "The Christmas Story". The absence of the
former, the weakest of the quintet, no doubt created a better paced film, but without the
latter it lacked the necessary humour and charm that aided the growing sense of menace
within the film as a whole. Not only did American audiences see this at 77 minutes, but
many cinema projectionists further weakened the film's impact by turning up the house
lights and drawing the curtains just as soon as the credits appeared. Of course the last
scene is played out as the credits roll when the full circle of the narrative is
Unlike most modern horror compendium tales, the framing story involving Walter Craig is
embedded into the narrative and is not just a device to link the tales.
Also deserving of praise is George Auric's score that is as equally restrained as the
narrative and never intrudes where it isn't needed. Indeed, the moments of silence are
scored with as much forethought and intensity as the music itself.
The two strongest episodes are "The Haunted Mirror"
and "Ventriloquist's Dummy", both of which take the implied horror
elements one more notch up the scale before reaching the horrendous climax. The former is
a cleverly executed ghost story that creates just the air of mystery needed. The audience
never experiences anything beyond the strange room in the mirror, but the other worldly
presence is felt through the eyes and mannerisms of Ralph Michael's superb performance.
When we are finally told of the mirror's past by the antique dealer, it comes as no
surprise, but his chilling account is nevertheless a memorable moment.
Michael Redgrave's virtuoso performance as the neurotic ventriloquist is also extremely
memorable, but this is a story of madness as ventriloquist Maxwell Frere slowly, but
surely becomes completely insane when he adopts the personality of his dummy Hugo with
whom he is completely at odds with. (John Maguire portrays the ventriloquist's dummy when
it comes to life. He was 25 and only 4 foot high). Although this episode is frequently
praised, and has been copied several times since including MAGIC (1979) starring
Anthony Hopkins, this elaborate episode fails to invoke quite the same foreboding as
"The Haunted Mirror". The reason lies in the fact that Redgrave's character is
already highly strung and neurotic from the start, so his complete insanity is not
Overall Dead of Night works well due to the juxtpositioning of
humour and terror, elements of which can be found in each of the stories, even though
different directors were responsible for their own episode. This suggests a strong guiding
hand by producer Michael Balcon who helped bring this experimental idea into full focus.
"At last I can see about me the
sort of British film industry I have dreamed about for twenty-five years."
While Ealing Studios grew during World War II, Balcon had many adversaries, all of whom
he fought against with vigour. Those technicians who left for Hollywood he called
deserters, he attacked the numerous government departments for their film policy and when
J. Arthur Rank threatened to engulf the whole industry, Balcon fought hard for the
independent producer. Continually he struggled against the might of the imported films of
Hollywood, but in 1947 Michael Balcon stated "At last I can see about me the sort
of British film industry I have dreamed about for twenty-five years. Our films are going
to the whole world. They are preferred to all others by our own people. They have got
American producers worried. They have got our Parliament interested in them."
After his Knighthood in 1948, Balcon continued to produce successful films at Ealing and
created a string of comedies that typified a way of life on these small islands which did
not just include an eternal tea-time or rounded English accents, but also injected the
stories with several anti-establishment concepts as Britain entered a new age of peace.
Ealing Studios Ltd. left their buildings on January 13th. 1956 when they were sold to BBC
television. Michael Balcon erected a plaque that read "Here during a quarter of a
century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character."
It is doubtful that we will ever experience the same environment again.
HALFWAY HOUSE (1943/Ealing Studios) 95mins. BW. UK.
Credits: Dir: Basil Dearden; Prod: Michael Balcon;
A.Prod: Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti; Sc: Angus McPhail, Diana Morgan, T.E.B. Clarke
& Roland Pertwee; Ph: Wilke Cooper; Ed: Charles Hasse; Art: Michael Relph; Sfx: Roy
Kellino; Mus: Lord Berners. From the play "Peaceful Inn" by Denis Ogden.
Cast: Glynis Johns, Mervyn Johns, Francoise Rosay, Tom
Walls, Alfred Drayton, Esmond Knight, Richard Bird, Guy Middleton, Sally Ann Howes,
Valerie White, Philippa Hiatt, Pat McGrath, C.V. France, John Boxer, Joss Ambler, Eliott
Makeham, Jack Jones, Rachel Thomas, Roland Pertwee, Moses Jones.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945/Ealing Studios) 104mins. BW.
UK. Released by Eagle-Lion.
Credits: "The Hearse Driver". Dir: Basil
Dearden. From a story by E.F. Benson. "The Christmas Story". Dir: Alberto
Cavalcanti. From a story by Angus MacPhail. "The Haunted Mirror". Dir:
Robert Hamer. From a story by John V. Baines. "The Golfing Story". Dir:
Charles Crichton. From a story by H.G. Wells. "Ventriloquist's Dummy".
Dir: Alberto Cavalcanti. From a story by John V. Baines.Prod: Michael Balcon; A.Prod:
Sidney Cole & John Croyden; Sc: John V. Baines, Angus MacPhail & T.E.B. Clarke;
Ph: Stan Pavey, Douglas Slocombe, Jack Parker & Harold Julius; Ed: Charles Hasse; Mu:
Tom Shenton & Ernest Taylor; Art: Michael Relph; Sfx: Lionel Banes & Cliff John
Robertson; Mus: Georges Auric.
Cast: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Frederick Valk,
Mary Merrall, Renee Gadd, Barbara Leake, Anthony
Baird, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Sally Ann Howes, Michael Allan, Robert Wyndam,
Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Esme Percy, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan,
Michael Redgrave, Hartley Power, Allan Jeayes, John Maguire, Magda Kun, Elizabeth Welch,
"Like nothing in this world that you've ever thrilled to before."
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