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Good Companions, The (1933)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Good Companions, The (1933)
DirectorVictor Saville
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
 Pearson & Company Welsh
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScriptW.P. Lipscombe
Original PlayJ.B. Priestley
 Edward Knoblock
PhotographyBernard Knowles

Cast: Edmund Gwenn (Jess Oakroyd); John Gielgud (Inigo Jollifant); Jessie Matthews (Susie Dean (The Dinky Doos)); Max Miller (Millbrau)

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Based on the stage play and novel by J B Priestley. A group of people from widely-divergent backgrounds find themselves 'on the road', for various reasons, where they meet up with a down-at-heel concert party. The two groups join forces to become 'The Good Companions'.

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J.B. Priestley's first play was a dramatisation of his own best-selling novel The Good Companions, which was produced in London and New York in 1931. As a theatrical hit was virtually guaranteed success at the cinema box-office, the play was filmed in 1933 by Gaumont British, with Michael Balcon's friend and long-time collaborator Victor Saville directing.

The studio's most ambitious effort to date was honoured with a Royal Premiere screening. The film publicity boasted that a record 72 sets had been used in the production, and the stellar cast included nearly a hundred speaking parts. Scenes set at the theatre, including a riot and a fire, were praised for their 'realism'. Balcon was well aware of the importance of star power and most of those stars came from the London stage. John Gielgud had played in the theatre production and he brings to the role the class stylishness of his stage persona, despite portraying a lowly schoolteacher who finds himself in a Harlequin costume, accompanying the soubrette at the piano. The soubrette, Susie Dean, was played by Balcon's new star Jessie Matthews, a singer and dancer from a working class background, whose high kicks made her famous. She was one of the few stars Balcon didn't lose to Hollywood.

The pivotal role of Jess Oakroyd was taken by London-born Edmund Gwenn, a respected stage and film actor who had already appeared in film versions of John Galsworthy's play The Skin Game (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1931), George Bernard Shaw's How He Lied to Her Husband (d. Cecil Lewis, 1931) and Hindle Wakes (d. Victor Saville, 1931) - another Balcon production. Employing a Yorkshire accent and a generous helping of Yorkshire common sense, Gwenn's gentle performance holds together a film made up of different acting styles - Gielgud's beautifully spoken theatricality as the romantic lead, Matthews' bright musical comedy turn, Percy Parsons' fruity old variety artiste - in a contrast between the theatrical and non-theatrical characters (although all are played by 'theatricals'!).

Priestley was looking back to the entertainment of an earlier age, as he did in his 1965 novel Lost Empires (the music hall). Pierrot was a stock character in French and English theatre; by the late 19th century he was a versatile member of an organised concert party, wearing the distinctive Pierrot costume and performing in summer resorts. By the 1930s Pierrot troupes had been replaced by the more sophisticated 'revue'.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. On the road (6:47)
2. Backstage rehearsal (1:19)
3. The show can't go on (6:41)
Production stills
Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)
Currie, Finlay (1878-1968)
Dalrymple, Ian (1903-1989)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
MacPhail, Angus (1903-1962)
Matthews, Jessie (1907-1981)
Pearson, George (1875-1973)
Saville, Victor (1896-1979)
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
1930s Writers and Directors
1930s: The Invocation of Theatre in Film
Film and Theatre: 1930s
Performance in 1930s film