The eccentric, old-fashioned home of Mrs Wilberforce, in a quiet London cul-de-sac, provides the unlikely venue for the planning of an audacious train robbery. The sinister figure of Professor Marcus takes a lodging room with the seemingly gentle old lady and holds regular musical soirees there with his friends, forming a string quintet. These meetings are actually a cover for the criminal gang’s planning sessions, the music provided by a gramophone record! All goes well until Mrs Wilberforce discovers the robbers with their ill-gotten loot in her beloved home. While she decides on a course of action, they decide to draw lots to select someone to bump ‘Mrs Lopsided’ off! However, she proves to be a much more resilient individual than they imagined. Despite being outnumbered, she soon has the advantage as the house and the neighbouring railway yard become the setting for a darkly comic game of cat and mouse.
The Ladykillers is widely recognised as the last of the major Ealing comedies and thereby acts as coda for this sequence of films. Hue and Cry (1947) is usually taken as the starting point and the other substantial landmarks include Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whiskey Galore (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Man in the White Suit (1951). Along with several minor films, they form a body of work which has retained its popular appeal and become synonymous with a particular vein in British film comedy. In The Encyclopedia of British Film, Charles Barr describes them as ‘gentle, cosy, whimsical’ (McFarlane 2003: 193). They typically celebrate the British love of eccentricity and side with the uncommon individual against larger corporate or state institutions. In doing so, there is often a fascination with the minutiae of British life, from schoolboy comics to those endless cups of tea. Individuals or whole communities frequently find themselves having to rebel or even turn to crime to protect themselves against bureaucracy or big business. Despite the potential seriousness of this as a topic, the handling is consistently light and warmly sympathetic.
Much of the responsibility for the company’s ethos can be attributed to its head of production, Michael Balcon. Although Balcon often takes the producer credit on Ealing’s films (including The Ladykillers), the job of producing individual films was usually in the hands of an associate producer (in this case, Seth Holt). Nonetheless, Balcon’s influence was writ large throughout the company. Ealing adopted the slogan, ‘The Studio with the Team Spirit’, and its symbol ‘became the Round Table at which, every week, producers, writers and directors consulted freely together’ (Barr 1977: 6). Balcon seems to have viewed the studio as a family unit, with himself cast in the role of the firm, but kindly father (Balcon 1969: 138). A communal spirit was both part of the company’s production ethic and also reflected in the films they made. By the late 1940s Ealing had established a reputation for both populist comedies (with a strong appeal to working-class audiences) and for documentary-realism (as seen in the propagandist films they produced during the Second World War). Elements of both approaches are apparent in the Ealing comedies. Realism is evident in the use of location shooting, the strong sense of place and the focus on ordinary citizens, although this realism is often overlaid by fantasy and visual stylisation, as is the case with The Ladykillers.
Balcon was also concerned that Ealing’s films should reflect the intrinsic nature of Britain and then project this image out to a wider world. When the studio was sold in 1955 he provided the wording for a commemorative plaque: ‘Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character.’ As a result, Ealing’s films often reflect in a direct way on the contemporary condition of Britain. The political landscape of the immediate post-war period was radically shaped by the election of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in 1945. Atlee’s administration set about realising the socialist dream of a welfare state which would offer its citizens care and opportunity ‘from the cradle to the grave’, whatever their individual social background.1 This was a social experiment which Balcon broadly supported, although not without a sense of ambivalence:
“Though we were radical in our points of view, we did not want to tear down institutions. We were people of the immediate post-war generation and we voted Labour for the first time after the war: this was our mild revolution.” (Ellis 1975: 119)
However, by 1951 the Conservatives were back in office, where they were to remain for the next 13 years. The forces of reaction had seemingly prevailed over Labour’s short-lived ‘mild revolution’. It is against this context that The Ladykillers needs to be read.
Another factor in assessing the film is the position within Ealing of its director and its writer, Alexander Mackendrick and William Rose. Rose was an American, whilst Mackendrick was born in Boston and brought up in Scotland. Although it’s easy to over-interpret the importance of their backgrounds, at Ealing, the most English of studios, they seem to have shared a sense of distance from the prevailing ethos which Balcon fostered. Roy Armes suggests that Mackendrick’s work ‘transcends the self-imposed limitations of the Ealing style’ (Armes 1978: 190). Similarly, in his study of Mackendrick, Philip Kemp suggests that ‘by disdaining the bland, conciliatory endings that Ealing favoured, he constantly questions the studio’s assumptions even while ostensibly operating within them’ (Kemp, 1991: 135). Mackendrick was frequently at odds with Balcon and The Ladykillers has the air of a final declaration of intent before his departure for America.
At first sight, the film has many characteristics which position it firmly within the canon of Ealing comedies. It sympathetically portrays a criminal gang and its action is rooted in a strong sense of place, with the central robbery taking place at Kings Cross Station and several sequences shot in nearby streets. The minutiae of English life are recreated with Ealing’s typical attention to mundane detail, from the rank of shops near Mrs Wilberforce’s home to the cluttered interior of her house. The love of eccentricity is embodied in the all the characterisations and encapsulated by the attitude of the local police superintendent (Jack Warner) towards Mrs Wilberforce; we are first introduced to her when she makes one of her regular visits to the police station to explain that her friend Amelia’s sighting of a spaceship was actually just a dream. The police treat her with characteristic kindness and indulgence. The film even offers a little gentle knockabout humour in the sequence following the robbery when Mrs Wilberforce manages to inadvertently cause a street brawl between a barrow boy and a cab driver, played by the two popular comics Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Connor.
However, the film is more remarkable for the ways in which it deviates from the Ealing norm. From its opening, when the sinister, grotesque Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) arrives to rent the spare room in Mrs Wilberforce’s house, the film abandons Ealing’s usual reliance on surface realism and adopts a stylisation which borders on the Gothic. This stylisation is apparent in the depiction of the interior of Mrs Wilberforce’s house, with its mountains of bric-a-brac, caged birds and heavy drapery. The house itself is ‘lopsided’ from subsidence caused by wartime bombing and the plumbing can only be persuaded to work if the pipes are pounded with a wooden mallet. The cramped interior creates a feeling of claustrophobia, rather than the cosy comfort one might expect in an Ealing comedy, and Otto Heller’s colour cinematography, with its palette of garish greens and yellows, gives the film an ambience of decay. The underlying menace comes to the surface in the second half of the film as the humour gradually drains out of Rose’s script and we are faced with a modern morality play, as the criminal gang destroy themselves, leaving the scene scattered with bodies in the manner of a Jacobean revenge tragedy.
At the core of the film’s approach is the ambiguous presentation of Mrs Wilberforce herself. In more conventional Ealing fare she would simply be a loveable old lady, but she proves to be rather more formidable and destructive than might be expected. After all, she sees off a hardened gang of train robbers and ends up with the loot herself. At the film’s conclusion, the increasingly deranged Professor Marcus is forced to conclude that she is too strong for them; even with a hundred men they wouldn’t have been able to beat her. Her chosen weapons are the endless cups of tea with which she attacks the gang, but they prove more potent than Louis’s (Herbert Lom) gun. For Philip Kemp, Mrs Wilberforce is a representation of traditional England: ‘what she patently symbolises, besides innocence, is the past in which England is mired’ (Kemp 1991: 120). The film presents Mrs Wilberforce, and her house, as a metaphor for post-war Britain, a place crippled by inertia, clinging to the past and blindly ignoring the fact that the whole construction is falling to bits. Mrs Wilberforce, and all her friends, dress in Edwardian clothes and have names like Constance and Lettice; they seem to have been preserved from an era before the First World War. This world certainly has its appeal; it is genteel, polite and ordered, but it also doesn’t work properly (the plumbing) and has no room at all for the modern. Mrs Wilberforce’s victory over the gang is a clear indication of the real power of ‘old England’ to maintain the status quo.
Aldgate and Richards suggest that the film provides an oblique commentary on the nature of 1950s Britain, or ‘cul-de-sac England’ as their essay is called. They interpret the gang as representatives of the social forces (youth, the working class, intellectuals) which would soon come to the fore and radically alter British society during the 1960s. Their defeat by the forces of repression and reaction (Mrs Wilberforce) encapsulates a key historical moment, as ‘1955 is almost the last year in which these dissident elements can be contained, for they are about to burst forth in all directions’ (Aldgate and Richards 1999: 163). This is most perfectly captured in the scene when the gang are forced to join the tea party which Mrs Wilberforce throws for her friends. Charles Barr, slightly playfully, pushes this reading even further by suggesting that the gang actually represent Atlee’s post-war Labour government (Barr 1977: 171–2). They take over ‘the house’ (parliament), with plans to redistribute wealth (the robbery), but find themselves unable to surmount the forces of conservatism which eventually defeat them (the Tories election victory of 1951). Barr offers this reading in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but nonetheless argues that the film illustrates ‘the absorption of the dynamic by the static, of change by tradition, of the new by the old, which is the essential pattern of post-war British history’ (Barr 1977: 172).
A further fascinating level of metaphor, which is picked up by Aldgate and Richards, is that the film’s allegory is a critique of both post-war Britain and Ealing itself (Aldgate and Richards 1999: 159). Mrs Wilberforce stands for Balcon, the eternal nanny, benevolently overseeing her slightly wayward young men and trying to keep them on the right path. It’s hardly surprising that Mackendrick left for America after making the film. The remarkable achievement of The Ladykillers lies in its ability to move beyond the familiar comforts provided by the secure world of the Ealing comedy and provide instead a mischievous portrait of a country caught on the brink of change. With a foot in both camps, it offers us a picture of traditional English values in the form of Mrs Wilberforce, a figure as likely to induce alarm as affection.
1. See ‘That Topic All-Absorbing: Class’ and ‘The Welfare State’ in Arthur Marwick, British Society Since 1945, London, Penguin, 1986.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: UK. Production Company: Ealing Studios. Director: Alexander Mackendrick. Screenwriter: William Rose. Cinematographer: Otto Heller. Music: Tristram Cary. Editor: Jack Harris. Cast: Katie Johnson (Mrs Wilberforce), Alec Guinness (Professor Marcus), Cecil Parker (Major Courtney), Herbert Lom (Louis), Peter Sellers (Harry), Danny Green (One-Round).]
Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present, London, I.B. Tauris, 1999.
Roy Armes, A Critical History of British Cinema, London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.
Michael Balcon, A Lifetime of Films, London, Hutchinson, 1969. Charles Barr, Ealing Studios, New York, The Overlook Press, 1977.
John Ellis, ‘Made in Ealing’ in Screen, 16 (1), Spring 1975. Philip Kemp, Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick, London, Methuen, 1991.
Brian McFarlane, The Encyclopedia of British Film, London, Methuen, 2003.
Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1939–1949, London, Routledge, 1989.
Tim Pulleine, ‘A Song and Dance at the Local: Thoughts on Ealing’ in Robert Murphy (ed.) The British Cinema Book, London, BFI, 2001, pp. 79–84.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.