By Paul Risker.
From horror to comedy by way of black humour, this list reads like a roll call of honour that reiterates the importance of the Ealing canon in British cinema: Dead of Night (1945), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whisky Galore (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). Ealing’s Out of the Clouds (1955), now re-released, does not leave one with the formidable impression of these aforementioned big hitters, nor can it penetrate the formidable shadow of The Ladykillers, which was released in the same year. Frequently dismissed, Out of the Clouds remains a part of the Ealing family that might be most aptly described as a quieter child in comparison to its louder siblings; the Gummo or Zeppo Marx of the Ealing family. And like Zeppo who appeared onscreen with his more famous brothers and yet falls into the collective Groucho, Harpo and Chico shadow, Out of the Clouds should not be so readily dismissed. It stands as a testament to Ealing’s capacity to entertain even in lesser works.
At the time of the film’s release it offered a view of a contemporary working airport, though today it offers a view of an international airport (Heathrow) in its youth. One of the narrative devices the film relies heavily on is the traditional stock ‘romantic’ storyline, of which there is more than one that mingles with the professional relationships of duty officers, mechanics, pilots and air crews. All of the pieces of the narrative puzzle are in place, and yet Out of the Clouds lacks that magical Ealing touch. This could result from the film dividing its attention between duty officer Nick Millbourne’s (Robert Beatty) grounding in the airport, Bill Steiner (David Knight) and Leah Rosch’s (Margot Lorenz) will they, won’t they romance, and the other subplots that comprise the narrative and consequentially create a narrative congestion. If this is the case then it is compounded by the amount of attention given to Millbourne’s storyline of trying to get his wings back as well as his blossoming relationship with an air hostess, alongside Steiner and Rosch’s dalliance. While both of these are enjoyable in a familiar sort of way, they fail to help the film make a strong impression upon its audience. Rather it possesses a certain charm thanks to its Englishness, and one is easily amenable to spending a short eighty-five minutes in the company of a cast of likeable characters.
Before their transition to colour cinema, Ealing’s monochrome cinematography was a thing of beauty and well-suited for the narratives. One only has to refer to the horror anthology Dead of Night or Ealing’s two black comedy gems Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers to see the darker side of Ealing’s imagination come to life. The Ladykillers features a wonderful orchestration of the meeting between dark and light that highlights this point perfectly – the silhouetted entrance of Alec Guinness; his polite disposition beneath which lurked a stare and smile that through the silence of physical performance oozed an ominous evil. His portrayal serves as a perfect counterpoint to the meek and kindhearted Mrs. Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce. As an example of the construction of filmic counterpoint it has lost none of its potency and endures to this day. This mix of darkness and light that even if not overtly obvious was often ingrained in the Ealing palette, and while mostly a light-natured comedy, the fabric or texture of Out of the Clouds is blotted with dark stains. The romantic storylines of soul mates discovering one another or destined lovers embracing their joined fates, and of the various dramas offset with Millbourne’s hectic day, are peppered with darker shades of crime and a surprising moment in which anti-semitism is slipped in there as two of the film’s lovers cross path. Released in 1955 the Second World War and The Holocaust were vivid in the social-consciousness, and the the anti-Semitic reference, while an unexpected one owing to the film’s charming nature, is another example of Ealing’s narrative blend of light and dark. The scene is lightened by a humorous shot at border bureaucracy, which momentarily recalls the plot of Passport to Pimlico, and throughout there is a display of reflective fun at how Englishness is perceived at home and abroad. Out of the Clouds could never be accused of having a patriotic stiff upper lip nor of failing to mix melodic beats of comedy and the heavier notes of profound human tragedy and tragedies of our own social history.
Once any high expectations are tempered and we move past the slow opening twenty minutes, Out of the Clouds becomes a pleasant enough encounter that, regardless of its shortcomings, captures the coming and going nature of its setting and characters. It stays true to itself in spite of harsh impending judgement and that is something to be admired. Although Out of the Clouds is perhaps a reminder that the pendulum will always swing back to the centre – there will be moments of humbling mediocrity that remind of the fortuitous nature of the creative and storytelling process.
Out of the Clouds is re-released in the UK on DVD courtesy of StudioCanal on 13 July 2015.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.