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London Town (1946)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of London Town (1946)
35mm, Technicolor, 126 mins
Director/ProducerWesley Ruggles
Production CompanyWesley Ruggles Productions
ScreenplayElliot Paul, Sigfried Herzig
Additional DialogueVal Guest
PhotographyErwin Hillier
MusicJimmy Van Heusen
LyricsJohnny Burke

Cast: Sid Field (Jerry Sanford); Greta Gynt (Eve Barry); Tessie O'Shea (herself); Claude Hulbert (Belgrave); Sonnie Hale (Charlie de Haven); Mary Clare (Mrs Gates); Kay Kendall (Patsy); Petula Clark (Peggy Sanford)

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A small time entertainer is offered a part in a new West End musical: 'London Town'.

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An awkward cinematic experience on both sides of the camera, London Town is notorious as one of the British industry's biggest failures. The terrible reviews of the film are justified: it's overlong, with uninspired direction and no substantial plot. But its reputation and subsequent financial loss comes mainly from the way its audacious ambition was let down by the finished product.

The film feels like a vanity project, but this is misleading. In 1945 - the year of production - Britain was enjoying a strong filmmaking culture and felt confident to take on Hollywood at creating an international spectacle. London Town, with its rags-to-riches story, opulent set pieces and expensive spectacle was producer J. Arthur Rank's attempt to introduce the great British musical to the world. The project was bound to fail. Veteran comedy director Wesley Ruggles was not used to Technicolor extravaganza, but, surprisingly, he was also out of his depth with the comic routines. Although played to perfection, the sketches are directed as though viewed through a proscenium arch, heightening the awareness that they need a live audience. The talented but ailing Sid Field (who died in 1950), struggles with this lack of atmosphere. Elsewhere, nineteen-year-old Kay Kendall, never the greatest singer or dancer, manages through her set pieces by sheer determination. Inexperienced and still to develop her assured screen persona, the film nearly destroyed her career, setting it back by half a dozen years. Only the baby of the cast, a thirteen-year-old Petula Clark, survived relatively unscathed.

Time can sometimes redeem failure, circumstance and context becoming clearer as years progress, but London Town fares little better when viewed today. The film retains the pleasure of spectacle, however audacious or grandiose, but the London depicted bears little relation to reality. Moreover, Sid Field's routines are considerably out of date. Several parts in them, most notably the golfer's idiotic response to moments of confusion, are today politically incorrect. Even at the time, the filmmakers seem to be aware of the problems with some of his characters. At the end of the film, Kendall addresses the camera and assures us that Field's effeminate photographer is only a joke. As if to assert his heterosexuality, he appears and they passionately embrace. With such a patronising, chastening and exhausting ending, it is unsurprising that London Town didn't launch a British musical revolution.

Dylan Cave

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Video Clips
1. Golfing (7:12)
2. Any Old Iron (1:12)
3. 'Ampstead Way (4:19)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Guest, Val (1911-2006)
Hillier, Erwin (1911-2005)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)
Kendall, Kay (1927-1959)