`Ladykillers' could spark raid of studio's vault

It is first remake of Ealing Studios' British comedies

March 27, 2004|By Sean Piccoli | Sean Piccoli,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

Before the Monty Python crew gave us humble Men of Yorkshire, before Peter Cook and Dudley Moore made mincemeat of the upper crust, there was another creative shop that specialized in British comedy. Ealing Studios, in fact, practically invented the movie version of it, using the big screen to satirize a culture's habits and sacred cows, with a wit that ranged from blithe to black.

From 1947 to 1955, the London studio put out several popular and well-reviewed movies that came to be known as Ealing comedies. The last of these was The Ladykillers, and it is the first to be remade (it opened yesterday in Baltimore; see critic Michael Sragow's review at www.baltimoresun.com). But the just-released American update, if it does well, could spark a run on the century-old studio's vaults. Two more Ealing originals already have been optioned for remakes: the shipwreck farce Whisky Galore! (1949) and the murderous estate comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

The stage looks set, if not for an Ealing stampede, then at least a renewed celebration of the studio's quietly influential body of work.

The Ladykillers, re-imagined by filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and starring Tom Hanks, does take liberties. The story is relocated from postwar London to a vaguely contemporary Mississippi. But the Coens' changes are more stylistic than structural. In both movies, five robbers posing as musicians make a sweet old landlady their unwitting accomplice, then try to murder her when she gets wise.

The largely tamper-proof design of the 1955 original, which starred Alec Guinness, has been noted by other filmmakers.

"You can learn everything you need to know about comedy, whether it's movement, whether it's dialogue, whether it's character - it's all in that film," said Terry Gilliam, who directed two Monty Python comedies as well as the future-shock movies Brazil (1985) and Twelve Monkeys (1995).

The American-born Gilliam made that observation in Forever Ealing, a documentary (as well as a book) on the studio's history that aired in 2002 on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. "We all have our roots in Ealing," he added.

Ealing comedies dealt in larger themes such as morality and character, but with a down-to-earth situational ingenuity. People trying to rise above their station through deception, robbery or worse ran smack into their own limitations. People who lived humbly fared better. In The Ladykillers, Guinness' oily Professor Marcus is so pleased with the progress of his robbery plot that he crows, "What can possibly go wrong now?" He will find out soon enough, to the viewer's great amusement.

With their droll sensibility and finely tuned interplay of dialogue, direction and acting, the best Ealing comedies affirmed British manners - and humor - while skewering pomposity and class-conscious entitlement.

"The whole idea of Ealing studios is rebellion," Martin Scorsese says in Forever Ealing, "revolution of some sort, but very quiet, very gentle."

If so, it took a while for the studio to launch its quiet revolution. Ealing started out near the turn of the 20th century as Will Barker Studios. Its namesake was a traveling salesman who jumped into film production after getting himself a movie camera. Barker opened shop on property in the Ealing Green area of west London and started cranking out silents such as Sixty Years a Queen, which dramatized the life of Queen Victoria. Only a few seconds of the original reel survive.

The studio would change names and owners during the next few decades. It nearly went bankrupt in the 1930s, but was saved by a series of hit musical comedies. The Ealing era began in earnest with the arrival of a new production chief, Michael Balcon, whose claim to fame was producing some of Alfred Hitchcock's early films.

Balcon renamed the facility Ealing Studios and transformed it into a model of the self-contained creative factory. He recruited the best actors, directors, writers, film editors and cinematographers he could find. They in turn did everything: brainstorm, write, cast, perform, shoot, produce and promote.

Balcon also decreed "the majority of films would be based on original screenplays, rather than books and plays," wrote film historian Rand Vossler in the liner notes for the DVD of The Ladykillers, "and they would be, as Balcon put it himself, `a projection of the true Briton to the rest of the world.'"

The Balcon-Ealing combination of chauvinism and vertical integration took the form of documentaries and dramas about World War II. The studio found its comic touch in the late 1940s. Hue and Cry (1947), about a group of London boys who take on a local crime gang, is "the first of what were later to be known as the Ealing comedies," according to Forever Ealing author George Perry.

Hue and Cry apparently fulfilled Balcon's other maxim: Perry quotes a critic of the day describing the movie as "English to the backbone." A string of quintessentially British comedies followed. Some of the most popular starred Guinness - as a criminally disloyal bank clerk in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951); as a chemist trying to invent an indestructible fiber in The Man in the White Suit (1951).

If all great runs must end, Ealing at least went out on top. The Ladykillers arrived at the same time the studio announced a buyout by the BBC. The state-owned broadcaster converted Ealing to full-time television production.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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