J. B. Priestly’s novel about an unlikely trio of runaway adults finding common cause in support of a second-rate touring company of musical entertainers has been adapted as a play; a musical (with an Andre Previn score); a couple of feature films; and on tv in various lengths & formats. But it’s hard to imagine a more winning version, or one that equals the charm & pitch-perfect cast of this early Talkie. The temptation to turn this into a Little-Musical-That-Could fable is wisely avoided since the revue is provincial Music Hall stuff at best, allowing Jessie Matthews to shine all the brighter as the breakout star in the troop. Priestly’s main concern isn’t backstage drama, but mobility. Not even class-conscious British social mobility, but actual physical mobility; as in leaving your home & village, even at middle-age, for a second chance. So we have John Gielgud’s teaching master; Edmund Gwenn’s factory drudge; and Mary Glynne’s drab spinster all daring to restart their lives from scratch. The first act, which largely charts their separate progressions toward the cash strapped players, offers the most imaginative parts of the film, then show-biz tropes kick in. But those are also nicely handled by director Victor Saville who refuses to over-sell the players talents, eccentricities or lovability quotients. (No doubt, inadvertently helped by the teething-pains of unpolished 1933 British Talkie technology.) It’s a rare treat to see John Gielgud still in his 20s, even if the camera doesn’t exactly ‘take’ to him. (He’d recently triumphed as Hamlet on stage, but looks more like Yorick.) Lenser Bernard Knowles licked the problem in the last act, look for the scene between Gielgud at the piano and a fast-talking song scout. Ah, much better. And if Matthews never does live up to her publicity rep as ‘the female Fred Astaire,’ the film’s semi-musical format shows her off at her best. (Note: VCI’s DVD, officially sourced from Rank, lists a short 93 minute cut on the box, but actually runs about 108 minutes and certainly looks complete.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: When Jessie Matthews gets called back on stage at the film's climax to finish her wistful, star-making song after a theatre riot, she suddenly looks like Judy Garland’s older sister.