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Stars Look Down, The (1939)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Stars Look Down, The (1939)
35mm, 372 feet, black & white
DirectorCarol Reed
Production CompanyGrafton Films
ProducerI. Goldsmith
ScreenplayJ.B. Williams
AdaptationA. J. Cronin
CinematographyMutz Greenbaum
EditorReginald Beck

Cast: Michael Redgrave (David Fenwick); Margaret Lockwood (Jenny Sunley); Emlyn Williams (Joe Gowlan); Nancy Price (Martha Fenwick); Edward Rigby (Robert Fenwick); Allan Jeayes (Richard Barras); Cecil Parker (Stanley Willington)

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Veteran north-eastern miner Bob Fenwick leads a strike over safety standards at the Neptune Colliery. Meanwhile his son, David, attempts to make his own way in the world.

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Soon after its publication in 1935, a film of A.J. Cronin's novel The Stars Look Down was proposed by producer Max Schach, though its treatment of industrial relations in the mines made it an unlikely candidate for the censors' approval. The project collapsed with Schach's finances, to be resurrected by the distributors Grand National, with Carol Reed as director. The budget was fixed at an enormous £100,000, partly spent on location shooting in Cumberland and elaborate studio recreations.

Cronin's 700 pages of social observation, plot clichés, and mine nationalisation propaganda gave Reed his first stab at serious subject-matter. Critics were surprised to find sober tragedy in a drama released in January 1940; though there are limits to the film's maturity. Cronin's novel was considerably truncated and softened: Censor approval must have been helped by the script's negative treatment of the miners' union and the mine owner's readiness for redemption.

The film's sense of reality comes and goes. The first third tartly presents the miners' lives and problems, featuring location imagery angled and cut in a fashion sometimes echoing 1930s documentaries. In the central section focussing on the romantic triangle, Lockwood's performance as Jenny, though amusing, has 'film studio' written all over it, in contrast to Redgrave's earnest efforts with a northern accent and a dust-smudged face. Tension returns once Scupper Flats is flooded. By this time Jenny and Joe have vanished - commercial flotsam washed away by the drama of luckless miners trapped in shrinking air.

These final sequences have prompted comparisons with G.W. Pabst's Kameradschaft (Germany, 1931). Visually, Reed's mining disaster proves weaker than Pabst's, though the poignant character performances of Edward Rigby and George Carney make a powerful impression. So, throughout, does the photography. Interiors in the Fenwick house are haunted by the 'warning shadows' of German Expressionism. Most striking, though, is the less artful exterior footage of miners, pit-head, ambulances and wives: working-class snapshots then far from the norm in British features.

They were far from Reed's norm, too. Typically, he later told the scholar Charles Thomas Samuels that he felt no particular sympathy toward Cronin's subject; he was just doing his best for the story. Nonetheless Reed helped give the property its heart and fire. A box-office success, the film substantially improved his standing in Britain and America - where it was released with an unfortunate moralising commentary spoken by Lionel Barrymore (still persisting in current prints).

Geoff Brown

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Video Clips
1. Workers' walk-out (3:31)
2. The wrong end of the stick (3:29)
3. Trapped underground (5:19)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Blue Scar (1949)
Proud Valley, The (1940)
Beck, Reginald (1902-1992)
Lockwood, Margaret (1916-1990)
Parker, Cecil (1897-1971)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
From Pit to Screen
King Coal