Ealing Comedy #3: Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius, 1949)

Our exploration of the comedies produced by Ealing Studios continues today with what I consider a true classic of the series: Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius, 1949). Interestingly, that was Cornelius’s first film! Sadly, his career was noticeably short, as he passed away at the very young age of 44. Although the previous Ealing comedies, Hue and Cry and Another Shore, are forgotten nowadays, classic British film fans often look at Passport to Pimlico with fondness. On my side, that was one of the few Ealing comedies that I had already seen before starting that series. The main reason was Paul Dupuis (but we’ll return to him later). Looking back at this highly enjoyable picture truffled with many delightful performers was a pleasure.

As explicitly mentioned in the title, Passport to Pimlico takes place in… Pimlico, a neighbourhood in London. In a post-war decor, the area is first introduced to us with that small community vibe that reminds you of the one found in a village, although it’s a place at the heart of a big city. The citizens live their life and probably don’t expect that an event is about to enter their life and disturb the quietness of their community. One day, as children play outside, an unexploded bomb explodes and reveals a cave hiding an unexpected treasure. Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway) accidentally falls into the cave and believes he perceives things that look like coins and jewellery in a dark corner. Unsure if he dreamt, he and his daughter, Shirley (Barbara Murray, go back to the cave equipped with helmets. And they discover a collection of jewels, documents and paintings that seem to belong to a past century. Later, the collection is analysed by historian Professor Hatton-Jones (Margaret Rutherford), and lots of (fictional) historical background reveals that Pimlico is still part of the Duchy of Burgundy, France. Quickly, the citizens of Pimlico revendicate their independence from London. Arthur Pemberton becomes the prime minister. British authorities have… no more control. A passport is required to go to Pimlico. And on top of that, enters Sébastien de Charolais (Paul Dupuis), claiming he’s the last Duke of Burgundy.

I mentioned earlier that I had initially seen this film because of Paul Dupuis. For those who are unaware, he’s an actor who has interested me on a research level for some years. My exploration of his career eventually led me to watch Passport to Pimlico. This Quebec actor born in Montreal began his film career in England as he was there as a war correspondent for CBC. A member of the theatre troop in college, he was encouraged by a friend to audition while in England. Followed small and more significant roles in the country, but also in France and, of course, in Quebec. So that’s how he eventually came to play in Passport to Pimlico. Since I had seen this film only once and around five years ago, I had forgotten how handsome and charismatic Paul Dupuis was in the role of that French nobleman. After a remarkable entry where he contrasts with the more “ordinary” people of Pimlico, its with perfect ease and class that he manages to steal the show. He doesn’t have as much screen time as Stanley Holloway, who plays the leading role, but when he’s there, he’s definitely the centre of attention. He doesn’t only have an admirable aura, but we also notice his fine chemistry with actress Barbara Murray. They seem spellbound by each other!

As for herself, Barbara Murray was still in the early part of her career but presented herself as a promising actress (tho I need to explore more of her films). She is easily likeable and responds ideally to the other actors’ acting and not only to Paul Dupuis. In other words, she was a natural. Of course, one of the forces of the film is also the chemistry her character shares with her father, played by Stanley Holloway. After Another Shore, that was the second Ealing comedies in which Holloway played, this time in a leading role. His character is far different from the previous one, more of an everyday man than the flamboyant Scottish man from Crichton’s film. Therefore, it’s a character with whom it’s easier to identify. He has flaws and qualities and is presented as very human overall. Films like This Happy Breed (David Lean, 1944) or The Happy Family (Muriel Box, 1952) contributed to prove his force of playing such roles.

Many other delightful actors embellish the film. Are worthy of mention Margaret Rutherford (always great at playing someone who emanates curiosity), John Slater, Hermione Baddeley (another scene stealer!), future Carry On regular Charles Hawtrey (I like to think that he shared the screen with Dupuis) and the iconic duo of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford! I had forgotten that they were in this film. How is that possible??

With such a bunch of performers and, consequently, colourful characters, Passport to Pimlico illustrates to perfection the concept of community values highlighted by the Ealing comedies. As a matter of fact, the characters form a whole, and each one, including the minor ones, has a role to play in it. In a way, the community itself becomes a character. It is Burgundy (Pimlico) against London. But, at some point, despite Pimlico’s revendication for independence, unity and solidarity win.

Passport to Pimlico was the second Ealing comedy scripted by T.E.B. Clarke. Often associated with those, he proved how clever he was at writing chaos and developing absurd situations. If he had had a career in the United States, his sense of dynamism in actions and dialogues would have made him a great writer for screwball comedies. I like how he gave flavour to his characters, even the minor ones. Everybody, at some point, seems to have their 15 seconds of glory. Passport to Pimlico is a very narrative film and relies mainly on that for its quality. It’s not that it lacks technical qualities. For example, there’s that interesting long establishing shot at the beginning revealing a glamorous woman taking a sun bath. As the camera moves away, it shows that she is on the roof of a little market, not at the beach. That moment speaks for itself as it makes us understand that people from this community have accepted Pimlico as their home and happy place and are genuinely attached to it. However, there’s not the same quality in the cinematography as in Another Shore, for example.

T.E.B. Clarke

Passport to Pimlico was both a financial and critical success on its release. The critics particularly praised the film for its script and acting. It was perhaps the first “important” Ealing comedy, one people remember today. The film was shown at Cannes Film Festival (out of competition) and even received a nomination for Best Story and Screenplay at the 22nd Academy Awards. 

If you haven’t seen it, Passport to Pimlico is so worthy of your time! Check the trailer here.

Next film on the menu: Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949)

See you!

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Wish to follow my Ealing Comedies Blog Series closely? Make sure not to miss any article!

Introduction

Hue and Cry

Another Shore