Much of Ealing Studios’ core appeal begins right here, with T.E.B. Clarke’s astute look at the character of pragmatic, energetic Londoners, who in this fantasy face an outrageous situation with spirit, pluck, and a determination not to be cheated. What happens when a few square blocks of London discover that they’re no longer even part of the British Empire? A classic of wartime ‘adjustments,’ the ensemble comedy even begins with a Tex Avery- like ode to rationing.
Passport to Pimlico
Film Movement Classics
1949 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 84 min. / Street Date December 20, 2019 / 29.95
Starring: Stanley Holloway, Hermione Baddeley, Margaret Rutherford, Sydney Tafler, Betty Warren, Barbara Murray, Paul Dupuis, John Slater, Jane Hylton, Raymond Huntley, Philip Stainton, Roy Carr, Nancy Gabrielle, Malcolm Knight, Roy Gladdish, Frederick Piper, Charles Hawtrey, Stuart Lindsell, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Gilbert Davis, Michael Hordern, Arthur Howard, Bill Shine, Harry Locke, Sam Kydd.
Cinematography: Lionel Barnes
Film Editor: Michael Truman
Original Music: Georges Auric
Written by T.E.B. Clarke
Produced by Michael Balcon
Directed by Henry Cornelius
We occasionally hear talk about parts of states wanting to break free, or even the idea of a whole state or more seceding from the Union; Joe Dante addressed the subject in a satirical farce called The Second Civil War.
A much gentler take on a politically similar problem is addressed in the delightful Passport to Pimlico, a picture that perfectly defines the term ‘droll comedy.’ Between 1948 and 1955 or so, the little Ealing Studios excelled in perfectly conceived, produced and acted comedies, several of which turned Alec Guinness into a major star. Passport to Pimlico and Alexander Mackendrick’s Whiskey Galore! aka Tight Little Island are terrific ensemble comedies from 1949. Each begins with a story idea that might not even seem funny when described in brief. Set during the war, Whiskey Galore! tells the tale of a Scots isle that’s gone dry due to wartime shortages. When ship bearing a cargo of liquor goes aground off shore, a mighty communal mercy mission is undertaken, in dangerous seas, to save what whiskey can be saved. The fun comes with the joy of the illicit wreckers, and their conspiratorial efforts to keep the Brit authorities from confiscating their hard-won booty.
Passport to Pimlico also involves a spirited communal effort, but plays out in a semi-realistic political context, almost like the less sophisticated The Mouse that Roared. Pimlico is a neighborhood in London trying like most of the city to fully recover from the war, four years later. Still-present rationing makes it difficult for people to buy goods or sell them — the idea being that the country is rebuilding its economy by holding a larger share of its products for export. A substantial piece of ground leveled by The Blitz still lies undeveloped, but local leader Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway) can’t interest his fellow merchants in building a park and playground for Pimlico’s disadvantaged children. Led by the banker Mr. Wix (Raymond Huntley), the vote goes in favor of selling the parcel to outside developers. Then, the accidental detonation of an unexploded bomb uncovers a treasure vault containing gold, relics and documents over 500 years old. Antiquities expert Professor Hatton-Jones (Margaret Rutherford) finds a land grant deed that proves that Pimlico was deeded to the House of Burgundy, and isn’t legally part of Great Britain!
T.E.B. Clarke’s brilliant screenplay finds clever and cute ways to depict the chain of events that ensues: starting with the realization that rationing can’t be enforced in Pimlico, London discovers overnight that all laws can be ignored there. At first it feels great: the pub can stay open ’til all hours. But the potential for chaos becomes apparent when a horde of outside vendors and black marketeers rush in to sell forbidden goods. Whitehall diplomats (the comedy team of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) clash with the newly formed Pimlico diplomatic corps (shopkeepers and a banker), with the result being that Pimlico is quarantined with barbed wire and police blockades. First Berlin, now Pimlico … this calls for an airlift.
It’s awkward when Great Britain decrees that Burgundian passports will be required to leave the neighborhood. Since Burgundy has been technically defunct for hundreds of years, this is a problem. In retaliation, Pimlico stops underground train cars at the newly established ‘frontier.’ The kids are sent out to safety, just like in the blitz. The present Duke of Burgundy, an ordinary Frenchman (Paul Dupuis) arrives to see if he can help. Can Whitehall starve them out? The stubborn residents refuse to give up. One lady yells from a window that The Nazis couldn’t drive her from her home, so this surely won’t.
The charm of Passport to Pimlico is not in its marvelously clever plot, but in the gentle, civilized way these hardy Londoners work out their difficulties. No threats, riots or violence ensues, but mostly thoughtful gestures and good will all around, bolstering the notion (in some quarters) that Englanders are the most fair-minded people in the entire world.
In other words, Passport to Pimlico ought to be playing 24-7 on some English cable channel, in these days of Brexit Anxiety. Good will! Self-sacrifice! Fairness! Can these qualities be revived?
The satire is joyously benign — even the selfish and greedy characters become decent folk in a pinch. The banker does keep looking for ways to make a profit, as does the local bookmaker (Sydney Tafler). Grocer Frank Huggins (John Slater) has no eyes for a co-worker who loves him dearly, but moons after Arthur’s daughter Connie (Betty Warren). She in turn is impressed by the friendly Duke. He’s depicted as a nice guy — Pimlico is so sweet that it doesn’t even make fun of the French.
Pimlico doesn’t seriously want to remain separate from England, just to get free of the mundane financial hardships of 1948. They hold out for decent terms to benefit from the rediscovered treasure. When London cuts off their water, the hardy Pimlicans conduct an illicit midnight plumbing mission to create their own reservoir. When they accidentally flood and ruin their entire communal food supply, sympathetic Londoners come to their aid. They don’t like the bureaucratic snarl either, and rise in support for their good neighbors in Pimlico. The movie would make a good political contrast if double billed with Vittorio De Sica’s gentle but cruel fantasy Miracle in Milan, which takes an entirely opposite viewpoint of The Brotherhood of Neighbors.
T.E.B. Clarke finds charm and humor in every aspect of the political situation. The Pimlico children don’t suffer during their ‘exile,’ but are shown enjoying ice cream and a trip to the zoo. The sight of zookeeper feeding the seals inspires them with a way to help their parents behind the blockade fence. One reviewer wrote that every scene contains a witty situation or funny physical action. Even the final joke is a winner. The story takes place in a summer drought, which aggravates Pimlico’s water shortage problem. What’s the first thing that happens the moment the neighborhood rejoins the Commonwealth?
Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of Passport to Pimlico is a fine visual restoration. As the grocer lady says, it’s ‘ever so lovely.’ As described in the disc’s extras, the impressive production recreated Pimlico (a real place) in a bomb-flattened area of Lambeth, tying in a railroad line and outside neighborhood to the constructed film sets. It may be a fantasy, but everything we see looks real.
The extras add to our appreciation. BFI curator Mark Guguid hosts a making-of piece, and Richard Dacre is on hand with a location comparison video. The restoration comparison video shows how nicks and digs were digitally removed; a stills gallery contains nice behind-the-scenes images. Ronald Bergen’s insert essay covers all bases with the show as well.
I’ve not caught up with all of Passport to Pimlico until now because the TV copies I seemed to run into were so poor. The cover art isn’t pretty but the original poster art I’ve seen is similar and almost as homely. The one drawback to the disc is the audio, which isn’t quite as clear as we wish it were. That, and I found no English subtitles to help us through the Brit accents and sometimes not-so-clear dialogue delivery. But I did understand everything… I think.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Passport to Pimlico
Supplements: Interview with BFI Curator Mark Duguid; Locations featurette with film historian Richard Dacre, restoration comparison, and stills gallery. Insert pamphlet with essay by Ronald Bergen.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 29, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson