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Boys in Brown (1949)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Boys in Brown (1949)
35mm, black and white, 84 mins.
Directed byMontgomery Tully
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
Produced byAntony Darnborough
Screenplay byMontgomery Tully
Original PlayReginald Beckwith
Photography byCyril Bristow, Gordon Lang
MusicDoreen Carwithen

Cast: Jack Warner (Governor), Richard Attenborough (Jackie Knowles), Dirk Bogarde (Alfie Rawlins), Jimmy Hanley (Bill Foster), Barbara Murray (Kitty Hurst), Thora Hird (Mrs. Knowles)

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The governor of a borstal institution tries to reform a group of juvenile delinquents through sympathy rather than punishment.

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Released in December 1949, Boys in Brown was one of the last films made by Gainsborough Pictures - just three more would be released the following year, after which the studio closed. It was also the final entry in Gainsborough's short-lived foray into the social problem picture.

Much of the action takes place in an unnamed borstal, whose governor (Jack Warner) is much given to allegorical homilies and repeated emphases on his concern for his charges' welfare, with particular conviction that their troubled family backgrounds explain why they have ended up in his care. To give him his due, these views are practiced at least as often as they're preached, not least through his trip to talk to Bill Foster's real mother, presumably well beyond the call of duty.

Bill (Jimmy Hanley) is unable to cope with life outside (he tries a succession of jobs, but his reputation precedes him) and ends up back in borstal. Jackie Knowles (Richard Attenborough), by contrast, has a steady girlfriend and prospects, provided he keeps his head down. Less is revealed about Alfie Rawlins, though Dirk Bogarde's performance is subtle enough to suggest a more traumatised background than the others, showing loyalty only as far as it suits his own purposes, his outsider status underscored by his Welsh accent. This was an early glimpse of Bogarde's gift for tantalising ambiguity - The Blue Lamp (d. Basil Dearden, 1949), in which he kills another well-meaning authority figure played by Jack Warner, would put him firmly on the road to stardom when released just weeks later.

A liberal and progressive portrait of an idealised borstal, complete with montages of the boys performing a wide range of useful tasks from metalwork to gardening, Boys in Brown takes a radically different approach from that of the other major British borstal film. Though appallingly violent, despairing and nihilist, Scum (d. Alan Clarke, 1979) almost certainly paints a truer picture of day-to-day borstal life than the earlier film's rosily optimistic outlook.

Boys in Brown was one of the few feature films to make extensive use of Independent Frame, an elaborate synchronised back-projection process adopted by the Rank Organisation in an attempt to make film production more mechanised and therefore controllable. But crew and cast alike resented the need to meticulously plan every camera angle and movement in advance of shooting and so, despite Rank's considerable investment, it was rarely used.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Jackie and Alfie (2:51)
2. Bill's real mother (2:41)
3. Escape plans (2:01)
4. Governor's lecture (4:27)
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Violent Playground (1958)
Out of Control (2002)
Scum (1977)
Attenborough, Lord Richard (1923-)
Bass, Alfie (1920-1987)
Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)
Hanley, Jimmy (1918-1970)
Hird, Thora (1911-2003)
Morell, André (1909-1978)
O'Hara, Gerry (1924-)
Warner, Jack (1896-1981)
Gainsborough Melodrama
Social Problem Films
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