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Curtain Up (1952)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Curtain Up (1952)
35mm, black and white, 82 mins
DirectorRalph Smart
Production CompanyConstellation Films
ProducerRobert Garrett
ScreenplayMichael Pertwee
 Jack Davies
CinematographyStanley Pavey
MusicMalcolm Arnold
ConductorMuir Mathieson

Cast: Robert Morley (Harry Blacker); Margaret Rutherford (Catherine); Kay Kendall (Sandra); Michael Medwin (Jerry); Olive Sloane (Maude)

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A day in the life of a provincial repertory theatre company, who are visited by the author of their next play.

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Curtain Up, with its familiar cast, good humour and simple plot, typifies a kind of escapist comedy that was common in the early 1950s. A well-observed ensemble piece about an amateur author interfering in a provincial theatre's rehearsal, the film's inoffensive tone - gently mocking an easy target - is aimed at the widest possible audience. Made by an independent production company, Constellation Films, in the autumn of 1951, it came out of a production climate that was soon to end. Later that decade, television would emerge as the natural home for this kind of popular entertainment, and independent film producers would be forced to develop more acerbic material for attracting audiences into cinemas.

The script's pace, dialogue and structure all suggest a close affinity with the original source: Philip King's 'On Monday Next'. But where the play is a genial send-up of the world of reparatory theatre, as a piece of cinema the script's self-reflexivity diminishes. What remains is a series of jokes poking fun at the vanity and disorganisation of semi-professional theatre entertainers; indeed, a major plot line involves an actor getting a 'real' chance at acting by being asked to audition for a film company. As a result Curtain Up cannot help but adopt a patronising tone towards its subject matter because the banal incidents and attention-seeking characters are removed of their stage origins and the inherently knowing affection of the theatrical context is lost.

It may also be argued that the film's gentle ambitions - limited to poking harmless fun at an curious British cultural trait - could be seen to typify the kind of anaemic British cinema so vehemently criticised by figures like Lindsay Anderson during the early 1950s. The film's familiar parish world, with spirited old ladies and bumbling vicars, is already a cliché. Although it is a well-crafted amusement, the petty trivialities depicted in the film are unlikely to be shared by those outside repertory theatre, so the film reflects little of the changing Britain experienced by most 1950s audiences. As the fifties progressed, the independent film companies turned to harder hitting material and notable film movements such as Free Cinema and the British New Wave favoured more socially engaged subjects. Comparing the hapless but cheery provincial troupe in Curtain Up to the embittered amateur actors in Room at the Top (d. Jack Clayton, 1959), it becomes apparent how British cinema was changing.

Dylan Cave

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Video Clips
1. The staircase (3:00)
2. Editing the script (3:25)
3. Rehearsals (5:56)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Kendall, Kay (1927-1959)
Morley, Robert (1908-1992)
Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)