It's virtually impossible today to think of Ealing Studios without adding the word 'comedy'. Even more than half a century after the curtains closed on the classic production outfit, Ealing comedy is one of British cinema's most powerful brands, its only serious rivals for lasting fame being Hammer's horrors or the James Bond or Carry On series. It's hard to believe, then, that the cycle that brought those two words together embraced fewer than ten films and under nine years - from the release of Hue and Cry (d. Charles Crichton) in February 1947 to December 1955, when The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick) first hit cinemas.
If a particularly astute film buff in, say, 1943 had been asked to describe 'Ealing comedy', they might have named the Lancashire-born ukulele-player George Formby, whose gangling underdog figure appeared in five Ealing films and had some of the characteristics of later Ealing heroes, notably Alec Guinness's apparently timid banker in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Or they might have named Will Hay, whose pompous, idle, crafty persona was no less popular, and whose fifth and final Ealing-filmed comedy, My Learned Friend (d. Basil Dearden, 1943), was a cheerily dark tale featuring a deranged killer that now seems like a dry run for the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer, 1949).
But the same buff probably wouldn't have remembered an Ealing film that now seems like an early ancestor of the studio's postwar comedies. Cheer Boys Cheer (d. Forde, 1939) was a lively tale of the battle between two rival breweries: the small, family-run Greenleaf, motivated by a genuine love of the art of brewing, and the industrial titan Ironside, whose mass-produced product is unloved even by its own board members. This big-versus-small, community-versus-capital opposition is one that would crop up regularly in later Ealing films - and not just comedies.
Even at Ealing, Cheer Boys Cheer was probably all-but forgotten by 1947. The studio had carved a niche for itself during the war years with a run of films that stressed collective heroism in place of the tales of individual courage and officer heroics commonly favoured by other British studios. But by 1944 the public appetite for war stories was on the wane, and Ealing was casting around for new types of films. Over the next few years the studio experimenting with fantasy, classic adaptation, costume melodrama, even a horror (1945's compendium film Dead of Night).
Out of this restless search came a modest little 1947 comedy about a gang of juvenile detectives who foil a criminal conspiracy that has been using a boys' comic to pass its secret messages. Hue and Cry was an unexpected success, and encouraged studio head Michael Balcon to invest more in comic films. It would be two years before he was rewarded with another hit, but it was worth the wait. Between April and June 1949 Ealing released a trio of films - Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius), Whisky Galore! (d. Alexander Mackendrick) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer) - that would define the studio's new direction.
First into cinemas was Passport to Pimlico, in which the residents of a South London street discover long-buried treasure along with ancient documents that prove that they are citizens not of England but of Burgundy. The new Burgundians take full advantage of their sudden freedom from British rule, with its petty rules, rationing and lousy weather. Passport to Pimlico established a template for sweet-natured fantasies of rebellion that would be picked up in The Lavender Hill Mob (d. Crichton, 1951), in which a mild bank clerk masterminded a plan to rob the Bank of England, and in the less successful The Titfield Thunderbolt (d. Crichton, 1953), in which the threatened closure of a rural railway line persuades the residents of a small English village to run their own train service.
These three films were all written by former journalist and policeman T.E.B. 'Tibby' Clarke - also the writer of Hue and Cry - who did more than anyone to establish the reputation for gentle, eccentric or whimsical humour that Ealing has been stuck with ever since. But Ealing comedy always had its darker side. In Kind Hearts and Coronets, a young man, disinherited by his aristocratic family because of his mother's decision to marry an Italian commoner, determines to murder all the relatives who stand between him and the dukedom he considers his birthright. Director Robert Hamer's film was an elegantly savage analysis of class and Edwardian society that has lost nothing of its wit or bite with age - film critic Philip French has called it one of the 'most perfect' films ever made in Britain. Hamer, though, would struggle to repeat Kind Hearts' success, and made just one more film for Ealing.
More prolific - but no less cynical - was the American-born, Scottish-bred director Alexander Mackendrick. In Whisky Galore!, the whisky-parched inhabitants of the Hebridean island of Todday have their prayers answered when a ship carrying 50,000 cases of their favourite tipple is sunk of their coast. But between them and their dreams come true stands the self-righteous Englishman Captain Waggett and allied customs officers, determined to protect the valuable cargo.
The priggish Waggett's humiliation at the hands of the devious, thirsty islanders set the tone for the often cruel social satire that Mackendrick would make his own in three more comedies at Ealing. In The Man in the White Suit, a meek but brilliant chemist invents a stain-proof, indestructible fabric, inadvertently sparking an all-out war between greedy textile barons and alarmed trade unions. In The 'Maggie' (1953), another devious Scot, the captain of a clapped-out puffer boat, dupes an American businessman. And in The Ladykillers a gang of crooks successfully carry off an audacious robbery, only to meet their match in the form of their apparently frail old landlady.
Ealing made more comedies than these - altogether, some 30 of the studio's 95 features were comic - and in its later years there were attempts to refresh the brand, with vehicles for international star David Niven (The Love Lottery, d. Crichton, 1954) and for newcomers Benny Hill (Who Done It?, d. Dearden, 1956) and Harry Secombe (Davy, d. Michael Relph, 1957). But the 'Ealing Comedies' remembered today sit on a more-or-less fixed list.
These eight or nine films have stayed fresh even after half a century and more in the public eye, their themes eternal, their humour still unmistakeably British. They have been rediscovered and enjoyed by each new generation of film-lovers and found themselves equally at home in cinemas, on television, on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray and online. Virtually every comedy film made in Britain since, it seems, has been compared to them - and more often than not found wanting. But then what can compare with the Ealing comedies - among the most loved films of all time?
Michael Balcon, Michael Balcon presents: a lifeteme of films (Hutchinson, 1969)
Charles Barr, Ealing Studios (3rd Edition; Cameron & Hollis, 1999)
Mark Duguid, Lee Freeman, Keith Johnston and Melanie Williams (eds), Ealing Revisited (Palgrave/BFI, 2012)
George Perry, Forever Ealing: a celebration of the great British film studio (Pavilion/Michael Joseph, 1981)
Philip Kemp, Lethal innocence: the cinema of Alexander Mackendrick (Methuen, 1991)