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Laburnum Grove (1936)

Main image of Laburnum Grove (1936)
35mm, 73 minutes, black & white
DirectorCarol Reed
Production CompanyAssociated Talking Pictures
ProducerBasil Dean
ScreenplayAnthony Kimmins
Original PlayJ.B. Priestley
PhotographyJohn W. Boyle

Cast: Edmund Gwenn (Mr Radfern); Cedric Hardwicke (Mr Baxley); Victoria Hopper (Elsie Radfern); Frederick Burtwell (Simpson); Ethel Coleridge (Mrs Baxley); Katie Johnson (Mrs Radfern)

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A suburban householder tells his sponging relatives that he is in fact a crook mixed up in forgery.

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The most notable contemporary review of Laburnum Grove, an adaptation of J. B. Priestley's "immoral comedy" about shady doings in quiet suburbia, was by Graham Greene. "Here at last," he wrote in The Spectator, "is an English film one can unreservedly praise." He took particular pleasure in Carol Reed's skill at enlivening the stage material, conveying story and atmosphere through visual details as well as words: "the tall grim granite church... the hideous variegated Grove itself... the crowded ferny glass-house, the little stuffy bedrooms with thin walls, and the stale cigarette smoke...".

Such comments are not misplaced, though they ultimately tell us more about Greene's feelings for secret lives and suburban claustrophobia than Reed himself. As on many assignments, Reed adopted the craftsman's position, doing his best for the material without becoming personally involved; and despite its sharp eye for urban bric-à-brac and ironic visual juxtapositions, the film's weight remains centred, as it was on stage, on the words and the performances. This suited ATP head Basil Dean - a leading theatre producer, and always partial to stage adaptations.

Reed's cast includes five actors from the original production, chief among them Edmund Gwenn, relentlessly jovial and twinkling as Radfern, and Ethel Coleridge, winningly caustic as his wife's grasping sister, Lucy Baxley. From his set parade of facial tics and banana chewing, one might assume Cedric Hardwicke's Bernard Baxley a stage carry-over too; in fact Hardwicke had been the play's director. The very structure of the film also shows theatre's grip, with characters coming and going at the convenience of the dramatist, rather than real life.

Even so, much of the dialogue and characterisations remains amusing, and Reed manoeuvres round any obstacles with modest skill. After Lucy's opening talk of Singapore at the church, we cut to a close-up of the exotic scenery inside a bar's penny-in-the-slot machine. Comic staging and editing generate further rewards in the West End excursion, with fear constantly biting, and sudden nervous scurries off-screen. The American cinematographer John Boyle, an ATP regular at the time, usually sticks to flat, unobtrusive vistas; all the more jolting, then, is the mock horror of the German Expressionist silhouette, thrown by the visiting policeman on the front door's glazed glass.

None of these details indicate a director making a masterpiece. But they do show someone with distinctive promise, determined to make moving pictures, rather than canned theatre.

Geoff Brown

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Video Clips
1. Confessions (7:32)
2. A visitor (3:06)
Dean, Basil (1888-1978)
Hardwicke, Sir Cedric (1893-1964)
Johnson, Katie (1878-1957)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)