Hue And Cry
UK (1947) Dir. Charles Crichton
For a film company with such a rich history within British cinema it is something of an anomaly that Ealing studios is mostly recognised for its specific output during a ten year period, affectionately known as the Ealing Comedies.
Hue And Cry kicked off this decade long, sixteen film run, although it is more of a crime thriller than a comedy, albeit one with kids at the centre of the tale. Regardless, it was a huge success and Ealing pursued this unique brand of typically British outings, featuring well-known names of the era and cultivating a few rising stars in the process.
Written by T.E.B. Clarke, the setting is post-War East London where bombed out buildings remain a feature on suburban landscapes and teenagers were miniature versions of their parents. Without the same distractions kids today have, back in the 1940’s youngsters had to make their own entertainment using their imaginations.
Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler) reads the latest adventure featuring detective Selwyn Pike in Trump comic. He suddenly notices the registration of a lorry used in a crime in the comic matches the registration of a lorry in real life. Caught whilst trying to see how far the similarities go, instead of being charged, Inspector Ford (Jack Lambert) sets Joe up with a job with Covent Garden grocer, Mr. Nightingale (Jack Warner).
More coincidental details regarding the local area appear in Trump comic, but no-one will listen to Joe. He tracks down Selwyn Pike’s creator Felix Wilkinson (Alastair Sim), shocked to find that he never uses real life references in his works, concluding that his scripts must have been altered to send coded messages amongst criminals. With the police refusing to pay attention, Joe and his friends set out to solve this themselves.
As hokey as the premise sounds it does have some foundation in reality, as it was revealed that during the war, coded messages were hidden in crossword clues to avoid Nazi suspicion. The use of a kids’ comic in this instance to disseminate details of an upcoming scam or heist was presumably a means to evade adult eyes whilst passing by the eyes of the unaware youngster. The contrivance of it being noticed by a local lad is one we just have to swallow as without it we have no plot.
While gangs today usually carry negative, threatening connotations, in the 40’s it was a commonplace sight and their activities were mostly harmless, with any trouble being dealt with by a clip round the ear. As Joe’s suspicions grow about the abuse of Trump comic’s stories, he has rabid Selwyn Pike fan Alec (Douglas Barr) with his encyclopaedic knowledge of his catalogue as a guide.
It’s bad enough that the adults don’t believe Joe – Nightingale may listen intently to his theories but usually laughs them off – but the gang start to make fun of him too, until Joe meets Norman (Ian Dawson), an errand boy at Trump’s publishers able to offer inside proof that something is awry.
Cue the industrious hijinks of the kids as they try to foil a robbery at a department store as per the clues in Trump comic, or pursue Rhona Davis (Valerie White), the obligatory criminal moll working at the publishers with every opportunity to tamper with the scripts. It doesn’t all go smoothly, often with humorous intent, but as the adults are one step ahead of the youngsters, the consequences are often darker.
If you are wondering why the police are so far behind on this case whilst Joe and his gang are solving the crime with their vivid imaginations, it becomes evident fairly quickly that adults are not meant to be trusted on either side of the law. This serves simply to propagate an age old divide between the generations, yet somewhat foreshadows the creation of the teenager as we know it today just a few years later.
The other side of the coin is the always wonderfully inspiring but utterly implausible way in which kids can organise a wide scale call to arms without recourse from adult superiors, which forms the climax of this tale. A superb and vibrant piece of filmmaking, it is difficult not to get a rush from witnessing the sight of hundreds of boys descending on Ballard’s Wharf like a herd of stampeding buffalo.
For all its nostalgic charm, a story like this just wouldn’t work today, not in the least due to modern technology being a quick fix way to corroborate a kooky claim or notion – that is the youth of 2017 can tear themselves way from computer games or social media. This is something of a shame as there is an urgency about the way Joe and the kids use their time in a positive manner, employing their brains and consciences in the process.
Because of the era this was made, the sight of unruly kids wearing ties and jackets to roll around in the dirt instead of jeans and T-shirts will amuse and bemuse modern audiences. True to form however, the main youths are played by young adults – Harry Fowler enjoyed a long acting career but at 21 was already a screen veteran when playing Joe.
Ealing stalwart Alistair Sim gets top billing in this film yet only makes a few appearances as the loquacious but nervy writer Felix Wilkinson. Very much a role suited to Sim, he is required to indulge his eccentric side, which of course was his speciality. Another curious point of reference to take away from this is seeing Jack Warner, the perennial amiable policeman Dixon Of Dock Green, playing a villain.
It may be 70 years old this year but Hue And Cry still has the power to entertain with its youthful energy, ridiculously engaging story and British working class charm. Even if modern audiences scoff at it, they should be able to relate to the sentiment surrounding the portrayal of the youthful protagonists.