By Roger Mellor
The critical and financial failure of the extravagant London Town (1946), Britain's first major Technicolor musical (there were one or two attempts in the thirties, but not on this scale), is part of British film legend. Lavishly funded, and produced by the Rank Organization in association with the American director Wesley Ruggles at a time of rationing and shortages of materials (perhaps this explains why so many of the chorus girls costumes are muddy green or khaki!), it was filmed in the shell of 'Sound City Shepperton' (later renamed the London Film Studios by Korda, and later Shepperton Studios) which had just been made available as a film studio after being requisitioned during the war as a factory for aircraft parts. According to reports, part of the studio was still being used for this purpose during the production of London Town. It was unusual for Rank to produce a film here, but perhaps Denham was fully booked! (Pinewood was still occupied by the goverment, not being released for film production until well after the war).
Sid Field was the talk of London town at the end of the war, having just conquered and cheered up wartime London audiences with his enormously successful stage variety shows, and so he could more or less dictate his own terms for the film. He insisted on having an American director, as he was of the opinion that no British director was capable of making a good musical (hadn't he heard of Victor Saville?). J.Arthur Rank, flush with funds (cinema admissions in 1945 were at an all-time high), was happy to spend large sums of money to bring over a fading American comedy director of the 1930's with little experience of musicals, whose career was, frankly, on the slide in Hollywood, then give him lots of money and a financial stake through his own production company, mainly funded by Rank. Top US songwriters were comissioned, musicians were placed under "long term contracts", and the studio also had to be re-equipped from the ground up! Rank was confident that, even though he was wasting money left, right and centre, the cinema business was so bouyant at this time, that he would still make a healthy profit. And financial controls were slack, to say the least....
The movie became a legendary turkey! It was not that UK audiences stayed away in droves from London Town, just that the film needed to perform spectacularly well just to break even at the box office. Critics were dismissive, calling it "Tacky and Tasteless". In hindsight, and especially for 1940's nostalgia fans, these aspects make it absolutely fascinating! Apart from the kitsch elements, the film is also interesting historically. After Britain's victory in the war, it can be seen as a tribute to London and its citizens, and as a celebration of popular cockney culture, especially music hall. It also, in a way in which the makers almost certainly didn't intend, celebrates the sense of community, the "all classes in harmony" as seen in the Riverboat sequence, filmed as a day out on the River Thames, below Windsor Castle. The symbolism of this is fascinating, as all are included, from the very high Royalty in the Castle, to an Eton Schoolboy, to the cockney folk, all living in harmony in this "English Utopia." With its emphasis on "Community Values," it could almost be an election commercial for Clement Atlee's Labour government, which swept to power in the same year!
The Songs in London Town include: 'You Can't Keep a Good Dreamer Down,' 'The 'Ampstead Way,' 'Any Way the Wind Blows,' 'So Do I ' (performed by 1940's Dance Band singer Beryl Davis), 'My Heart Goes Crazy,',and a medley of cockney songs: 'Knock 'em in the Old Kent Road/Any Old Iron/(My Old Man Said) Follow the Van.'
The musical director was Tutti Camerata, from Decca Records, and many of the musicians who played on the soundtrack went on to form the Ted Heath band. The film orchestra is, in effect, the Ted Heath band of 1945 in embryonic form. (Ted Heath was the "orchestral contractor" for the film, which may have given him a taste for band leadership!). The music and lyrics were by Bing Crosby's regular collaborators Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, and the film is not without interest. Much of the material for the comedy sketches comes from comedian Sid Field's two West End wartime variety revues, Strike a New Note (Prince of Wales, 1943) and Strike it Again (Prince of Wales, 1944), which were highly successful with the public (followed by Piccadilly Hayride (Prince of Wales,1946). Strike it Again featured the golf sketch which is seen in London Town. Thus the film provides a valuable historical record of 1940's variety, with comic sketches and musical production numbers, all in Technicolor. Among those featured are Kay Kendall singing 'The 'ampstead way,' and with The Dozen and One Girls (also known as The London Lovelies, as they are billed in the film's press book) 'My heart goes crazy': fourteen year old Petula Clark appears in a non singing role, and Tessie O'Shea, later to appear in Noel Coward's The Girl Who Came to Supper (Broadway Theatre NY, 1963) demonstrates her ability to steal the show, in the 'Pearly Kings and Queens' sequence. London Town was released in the US in a truncated form by United Artists in 1953 under the title My Heart Goes Crazy.
Check out the British Musical Movies site.
Back to World Cinema Review home