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.