Classic Film Review: Crichton, Ealing and Sim begin the glory days of British comedy — “Hue and Cry”


They’ve got a lady crook — they think — tied up. And two English lads have been given their orders. One, who looks to be about 13, fumbles pulling out his pocket knife to comply.

“You ‘eard what he said. ‘Make ‘er TALK!”

The other – he can’t be more than ten — blanches.

“Couldn’t we just…tickle her?”

The “mystery” is only half-solved, and the real mayhem is yet to come. But with “Hue and Cry,” the very first “Ealing Comedy,” by London’s Ealing Studios, the die was cast from the opening credits, which are hand-painted onto the ruins of just-blitzed London.

Some of the most beloved and timeless comedies in screen history would wear that label, a couple of the very best — “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Titfield Thunderbolt” — by the “Hue and Cry” team of writer T.E.B. Clarke and director Charles Crichton He finished his career directing a modern classic, “A Fish Called Wanda.”

But here’s how it all stared, in postwar “Broke if not Broken Britain” in 1947, with a tale of boys who get the idea that their favorite comic is sending messages, in code, to London’s underworld to arrange this week’s burglary.

It’s a bouncing, energetic farce using real bombed-out buildings and London street scenes, and a sea of little kids teaming up to foil villains. It starts swell, bounces through the middle acts and finishes with a flourish, a classic that, dated-or-not, still delivers laughs almost 75 years after it was made.

Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) is the teen in tatty tie and vest who uncovers the “code.” He’s too old to admit he loves comics, “what a load’a tripe!” But “The Trump,” set among mobsters, thieves, cutthroats and pathological liars (go figure) has him hooked.

And he can’t help but notice the real street names and addresses that turn up in “The Trump” every week, among other coincidences.

He starts to enlist the other lads — billed “The Blood and Thunder Boys” in the credits — in his “theory.” The police inspector (Jack Lambert) may not want to hear it.

“Look, sonny, I really think you ought to lay off those ‘shockers.'”

Joe won’t hear of it. He even tracks down the taxidermy-crazed fussbudget (Alastair Sim) who writes the comic to prove his theory.

What follows is “The Goonies” of its day, an Anglicized “Hardy Boys” where the boys are legion and include plucky, two-fisted Clarry (Joan Dowling).

Brawls, melees, kids swarming cops and thugs alike like ants defending the colony, bees swarming to save the hive.

The fresh restoration of “Hue and Cry,” with its simple, immaculate construction, artful shadows, vivid depiction of late ’40s London and jaunty, roiling action, is part of a new Alastair Sim boxed set from Film Movement, which takes another Sim film — “School of Laughter” — as its title.

Sim, who would go on to play the most memorable Ebeneezer Scrooge of them all in “A Christmas Carol,” is deliciously owlish here, his eyes bugging out of these deep, dark sockets, the words a florid whirl of plummy posh locutions.

“They’ve purloined my code! What a jape, eh?” “Oh, how I loathe adventurous-minded boys!”

Fowler and some of the of the other kids went on to storied careers. You’d have to be a frame-by-frame obsessive to see the future “Manuel” of John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers,” Andrew Sachs, as one of the kiddie extras.

It plainly took some of its inspiration from America’s “Our Gang/Little Rascals,” but “Hue and Cry” lifts any ruckus previously kids’ action movies ventured to a whole new level.

Fisticuffs, a vigorous shaking that would get your adult co-star prison time in this day and age, and all those “Beasts of the Southern Wild/Wendy” settings, with their busted bricks and exposed rebar.

Never get away with that today. Nor should you try. Here’s a classic that stands alone, a London landmark with laughs that takes us back to a more rough and tumble time, and does it with a style that would be admired and copied for generations to come.


Cast: Alastair Sim, Harry Fowler, Joan Dowling, Jack Warner, Stanley Escane, Douglas Barr, Valerie White, Ian Dawson and Jack Lambert.

Credits: Directed by Michael Crichton, script by T.E.B. Clarke. An Ealing Studios/Film Movement release.

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About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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