A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
Captain Hornsby: “What an extraordinary fellow!”
Colonel Thompson: “Well, he’s an American.”
– Too Late the Hero (Robert Aldrich, 1970)
This book, which began life as a doctoral dissertation, represents the best attributes of McFarland Publishers in bringing to publication works that would generally be ignored by prestigious publishers who would often focus on tedious dreck (e.g., http://filmint.nu/?p=20547) though suitable for an academic mandarin readership that hates film. By contrast, America Through a British Lens (McFarland, 2017) is a readable, stimulating, and well researched study complementing books such as Anthony Slide’s A Special Relationship: Britain Comes to Hollywood and Hollywood Comes to Britain (University of Mississippi Press, 2015). It begins with an introduction, “Admitting America to British Life” which cites J. Lee Thompson’s As Long as They’re Happy (1955), a film dealing with a home invasion of British family life by a tearful crooner modelled on Johnny Ray who toured England during 1953. I was gratified to see that the author refers to the singer as a “crooner” and not a “rock and roller” as one writer did in a manuscript submitted to an external reviewer whom he either thought had never seen the film or had lapsed into convenient decrepitude resulting in loss of memory! Actually, this film forms part of the pre-Hollywood work of a director whose British films were far more interesting than his later ones, especially those where he formed an Odd Couple partnership with Charles Bronson, which must have been amusing to witness on set (see http://filmint.nu/?p=23432).
As it stands, this study appeals to the general and academic reader, as the book covers the image of the American in British cinema who could range from “The Ugly American” gangster type incarnated by Jack LaRue to those heroic, masculine types such as Rod Cameron and Forrest Tucker (unmentioned in the text) who would often arrive on British shores, defeat aliens from outer space, and eventually marry the landlord’s daughter (ideally played by Rona Anderson with George Woodbridge as the beaming father of the future bride, though this never came to be). Although Hugh McDermott (1906-1972) appears in a still portraying an American singing cowboy in As Long As They’re Happy (17), little is said of this former Scottish professional golfer who made a career playing Yanks in British cinema and whose last appearances was in Chato’s Land (1972). He is surely a subject for further investigation in this area.
Stone covers a relevant amount of territory in this book aided by not only seeing his selected films and writing on them in a serious manner but also consulting key historical material, whether books or archive copies of that still missed British photojournalist magazine Picture Post that began in 1938 and ended in 1957. I remember to this day the figure of an aged Edwardian gentleman saddened by its demise and asking if I wanted the final copy. (No, Gentle Reader, this was not an attempted pick-up). Stone quotes Picture Post articles by Kenneth Allsop and dour, bearded, tweed-coated Scotsman Fyfe Robertson who would also gravitate to BBC television journalism as seen in their frequent contributions to BBC TV’s innovative news magazine Tonight (1957-1965) hosted by Cliff Michelmore that often ended with either a calypso sung by Cy Grant or a ballad by those young Scots Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor.
Images of America varied according to the time period covered by this book, which ranges from the external threat, whose classlessness and vitality would be regarded with trepidation by those self-appointed cultural guardians of morality who wanted working-class Brits to “know their place” (the dark side of Downton Abbey and Victoria), the virile American new masculine successor to British imperialism in the Cold War to more ambivalent figures. Deference took second place to another type of cinematic representation. “America, through its cinema, provided a sense that social change was at least a possibility” (11).
One, of course, misses other examples that could also have been cited, such as Dane Clark’s outsider American trying to gain a foothold in upper-class British society in The Gambler and the Lady (1952) preferring dreary aristocrat Naomi Chance to (former “Sister Ruth”) Kathleen Byron until his untimely end. Jackie Hunter’s excruciating Don Chicago in the title role of that forgettable 1945 film, the unbelievably friendly USAF Yanks in the awful and recently rediscovered Welcome Mr. Washington (1944), and Leni Lynn, whom Don Chicago director Maclean Rogers tried to launch into a major star with three unsuccessful films between 1944-45 before her last secondary role in Springtime (1946). Yet selection is always important in any field and Stone has wisely chosen what to focus on to make his main arguments.
Chapter One, titled “The Hollywood Dreams of Jessie Matthews and the British Film Industry,” deals with reservations about American and Hollywood in the 1930s films of one of Britain’s major stars, Jessie Matthews: “I used to like gangsters and newspaper films, but I’m not so sure now.” British cinema grudgingly recognized the technical superiority of Hollywood but was torn between emulation and developing its own techniques. Matthews’s films, such as It’s Love Again (1936), Head Over Heels (1937), and Gangway (1937), reflect this ambivalence featuring a star who could have been Fred Astaire’s next dancing partner but preferred to remain home. Focusing on “The Mysterious American in 1930s British Cinema,” the next chapter examines the suspicious nature of Americans in Britain, such as Robert Young’s American disguised German spy in Secret Agent (1936), Edward G. Robinson’s diffuse figure in Thunder in the City (1937), the possible criminal mastermind Hartley Power in The Return of the Frog (1938), and the elusive figures of future, Slim Grissom in No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) and Jack LaRue in Murder in Soho (1938).
Some other examples come to mind not mentioned in the book. The idea of the dangerously mobile U.S. Citizen also extended even into the early 60s, as seen in William Sylvester’s role as a trigger-happy private eye having to be subjected to the British restraint of Welsh-born actor Hugh David (1925-1987) playing Stephen Drummond the English successor to John Turner’s Adam Knight in the “Clint’s Case” 11 May 1961 episode of Knight Errant. Peculiarly, when John Turner took over the leading role in the ITV series The Sentimental Agent (1963) from Carlos Thompson for five episodes, he played his Bill Randall with an awful American accent as a last moment replacement for another series aimed at the US market. Also, the curiously unmentioned novel by Edgar Wallace – When the Gangs Came to London (1932) – about Prohibition era-gangsters coming to England, a novel never filmed, would have formed an interesting point of comparison for this book. Many cultural incongruities abound in this area of study, a factor that should lead to further studies.
Chapter Three focuses on “Middle Class Fantasies of the American G.I.” in British wartime films such as A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945), and The Way to the Stars (1945) personified by non-actor John Sweet, Dean Jagger, Douglass Montgomery, and the ubiquitous Bonar Colleano who would play a more ambivalent type in post-war films (see 194, n.17). (1) Chapter Four deals with the post-war “Age of Austerity” contrast between American excess and repressive, often harmful British restraint in key films such as Dead of Night (1945), Mine Own Executioner (1947), The Hidden Room (1949), and The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) containing ingenious readings such as the American-British battle for control of a ventriloquist’s dummy as an allegorical contest between a declining former imperial world player and a now superior world power in the first film and in the third, the ruthless, but possibly necessary, excessive role of an American Professor Quatermass (played by Brian Donlevy) presenting ambivalent choices concerning Britain’s post-war future. With further informative references to Picture Post, Chapter Five covers post-war concerns about America’s possible inexperience and immaturity to be a leading player on the world stage (recent parallels notwithstanding) as seen in films such as To Dorothy a Son (1954) featuring Shelley Winters as a post-war Material Ugly American anticipating her later role in Alfie (1966), The Maggie (1954), The Battle of the Sexes (1959), and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1959), belonging to that rare species of the British Western directed by an American Raoul Walsh, co-starring an American, but featuring British star Kenneth More and former villain of Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956) as well as future Carry On star of Carry on Cowboy (1965), Sidney James, playing a drunk.
The final two chapters cover differing approaches to redefining British National Identity in the Thatcher era in Local Hero (1983), 84 Charing Cross Road (1986), Stormy Monday (1988), and Shadowlands (1993) as well as gender issues in the post-9/11 relationship between Britain and America in works such as Love Actually (2003), 28 Weeks Later (2007), In the Loop (2009), and Special Relationship (2010).
Stone concludes his study with 2010 but wisely desists from writing a supposedly definitive conclusion because the nature of this Anglo-American relationship is still continuing in similar but also varied ways, as he documented throughout this study. Most books would attempt to state a thesis and then force conveniently selected films into awkward readings to justify the thesis. The virtue of this book is that a premise is stated and judiciously chosen films are used to demonstrate variations within this thesis over a certain period of time without any forceful impositions. All readings within this book appear plausible by the very critical arguments manner which are made. America Through a British Lens modestly fills the premise of the Roland Barthes-titled study The Pleasure of the Text. The study is readable and well documented with research material and well defined critical readings. As noted above, it stimulates readers to supply not only other titles but also extends further the premises of this study into new areas, certainly those post-2010 films that will continue explorations made by Stone. This study more than qualifies the concluding statement made in the preface:
The construction of America as everything Britain is not suggests that many of the films analyzed here are intent upon circumscribing British national identity, listing those attributes that denote insider and outsider status. Yet, though they suggest that national belonging rests on certain criteria, they also allow for the notion that national identity is, at least to some degree, malleable. In many of the films studied here, “Britishness” is largely preserved, but is also modified by the adoption of certain characteristics marked as American. (3)
1) For another examination of this actor see Tony Williams, “The Importance of Being Bonar,” http://www.november3rdclub.com, Summer 2007.
Tony Williams is author of Structures of Desire: British Cinema, 1939-1955 (SUNY Press, 2000) and has written on aspects of this national cinema for anthologies such as Reviewing British Cinema 1900-1992 (1994), Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (2006), and various journals. He is currently Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at in the English Department of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, as well as a Contributing Editor to Film International.