The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), a superior comedy caper about robbing the Bank of England, teamed the relatively recent film sensation Alec Guinness with veteran star Stanley Holloway, Alfie Bass (later in Are You Being Served?) and Sid James (later in twenty Carry On… movies). In a lesser yet brightly memorable role was Edie Martin, (Ealing’s resident “Little Old Lady), as a boardinghouse proprietor. The resulting film, still ranked #17 on the list of British Film Institute’s top 100 films made in Britain, won an Oscar for its story and writing, and Guinness was Oscar-nominated for Best Actor.

When The Lavender Hill Mob was first shown in the USA, American culture had changed substantially since World War II. A generation of ex-GIs were going to college, and many women were also in college or pursuing careers. Television, FM radio and long playing records were luring audiences away from movie theaters. Even some powers in Hollywood and film booking agencies recognized the increased sophistication and awareness of audiences. Some producers survived by making serious modern-themed films adapted from the Broadway stage.

At the same time, independent art cinemas were blooming, especially in college towns and cosmopolitan cities by offering a mix of classic Hollywood movies and foreign language films from Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, Asian directors Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, New Wave French (Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Demy, etcetera) and Italian neo realist filmmakers (De Sica, Visconti, Rosselini, etcetera).

The United Kingdom held the advantage in American art cinemas. After all, British actors spoke some form of English—although in a proper dialect nearly incomprehensible for some Americans. The British film industry had long led the documentary movement globally and had always maintained a line of worthy dramatic films, yet best remembered is the fabled decade of 1947–1957 of sly insurrectionist comedies starring Alec Guinness, Alastair Sim, Joan Greenwood, Joyce Grenfell, Margaret Rutherford, Ian Carmichael, Peter Sellers, Glynnis Johns and Terry Thomas.

Deft and understatedly daffy, English film comedies—whether from Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studio or from Frank Launder & Sidney Gilliat’s partnership for Individual, London or British Lionel pictures—successfully propelled British films into distinction within the world movie market.

Ealing’s great comedies were possible because Michael Balcon had assembled a cadre of talented writers and directors: Henry Cornelius, T.E.B. Clarke, Charles Crichton, (Alberto) Cavalcanti, Charles Frend and Sandy Mackendrick, along with a roster of smart character comedy actors to enliven their films.

Among the best from both teams are Man in the White Suit, Hue and Cry, The Green Man, Happiest Days of Your Life, Laughter in Paradise, I’m All Right Jack, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Belles of St Trinians, Tight Little Island, Passport to Pimlico, A Run for Your Money, The Ladykillers, and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).

The Lavender Hill Mob stars Alec Guinness (well prior to his extra-terrestrial forays as Obi Wan Kenobi or as spy master George Smiley). By 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets and A Run for Your Money Guinness had devised a dry and wry comedy persona that served well six more of his 10 eccentric Ealing comedies.

Wildly successful in the 1950s USA and Europe, Guinness’ comedies elevated Ealing Studios from a respected cottage film studio into a respected international motion picture powerhouse. Although Balcon brought many new talents to Ealing, he also built upon his predecessor’s (Basil Dean) success—Dean had wisely created a distribution network, Associated Talking Pictures, thereby ensuring Ealing’s reach to both overseas markets and domestic audiences. The Balcon era at Ealing began with Hue and Cry in 1947 starring Alastair Sim and ran aground in 1957 with the becalmed All at Sea/Barnacle Bill starring Alec Guinness.

Although Ealing’s glory days, under Dean, then Balcon, are in its past, Ealing Studios (1902–present) remains the oldest and still-operating film production studio on Earth.

Watch The Lavender Hill Mob online here for free: https://archive.org/details/TheLavenderHillMob1951

Movies in the Mountains (in Exile) is presented for the Independent by Frank Cullen, published historian and novelist, cofounder of the American Vaudeville Museum, and 2011 recipient of NYC Theatre Museum Award for Excellence in the Preservation Theatre History. Send inquiries and comments to announcements@vaudeville.org.

Frank Cullen
Frank Cullen