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Sailors Three (1940)


Main image of Sailors Three (1940)
35mm, black and white, 85 mins
DirectorWalter Forde
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayAngus MacPhail
 Austin Melford
 John Dighton
PhotographyGunther Krampf
Musical DirectorErnest Irving

Cast: Trinder, Tommy (Tommy Taylor); Claude Hulbert (Llewellyn 'Admiral' Davis); Michael Wilding (Johnny Meadows); Carla Lehmann (Jane Davis); James Hayter (Hans Muller); Jeanne De Casalis (Mrs Pilkington)

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Three able-seamen mistakenly board a German pocket battleship in a South American port and eventually succeed in capturing the vessel.

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One of the recurring findings of the many detailed reports into Britain's everyday life published by the influential Mass Observation movement in the early war years was the popularity of comedy among cinema audiences. Films that took the war as their main theme or bore strong topical elements were consistently well-received, with those that depicted the lighter side of service life of particular appeal - in large part, no doubt, because many in the audience would themselves soon be in uniform. To prepare such potential recruits for their own possible riotous and fun-packed life in the Royal Navy, Sandy Powell had already taken the shilling in All At Sea (d. Herbert Smith, 1939) before Tommy Trinder did likewise with Sailors Three, following his comic misadventures in the army in Laugh It Off (d. John Baxter) earlier that same year. Sailors Three was the first of Trinder's films for Ealing Studios, the company with which he was to be most closely associated. Along with its semi-sequel, Fiddlers Three (d. Harry Watt, 1944), it is in a much broader comic vein than his other Ealing productions - beginning with the stirring wartime drama The Foreman Went to France (d. Charles Frend, 1942) - in which Trinder appeared either as comic relief or as a quasi-dramatic leading man.

With a story clearly inspired by the recent Battle of the River Plate and the scuttling of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, Sailors Three was, at least according to the film's press book, written especially for Trinder, although some sources claim it was John Mills the writers had in mind. While the early scenes in Brazil, with Trinder and Michael Wilding competing over leading lady Carla Lehmann, can be rather slack in their pacing, once our hapless heroes actually find themselves on board the Ludendorf the pace picks up, and from then on the film never puts a foot wrong. The triumvirate of Trinder, Wilding and Claude Hulbert works remarkably, if surprisingly, well (with the lugubrious Hulbert in particular succeeding in preventing Trinder from dominating the comic proceedings), and the supporting cast adds vitality and sparkle; even the frequently irritating Julien Vedey manages to be amusing. Trinder may have made more distinguished films at Ealing, but Sailors Three was not only a promising start at the studio but the film that would remain his most successful outright comedy.

John Oliver

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Video Clips
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Forde, Walter (1898-1984)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
MacPhail, Angus (1903-1962)
Trinder, Tommy (1909-1989)