Sunday, August 3, 2014

The British Invaders Blogathon: Went the Day Well? (1942)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The British Invaders Blogathon, currently underway from August 1-3 at A Shroud of Thoughts and spotlighting the best in classic films that originated on the other side of the pond.  For a list of participating blogs and the movies/topics discussed, click here.

There’s very little doubt as to the outcome of the events in Went the Day Well? (1942)—Charlie Sims (Mervyn Johns), the verger at the local church, explains in the first three minutes of the movie that the famed “Battle of Bramley End” came out all right in the wash.  We then flashback to a Whitsun weekend in the sleepy little English hamlet—Whitsun being the English designation for Pentecost—where there wasn’t much going on save for a platoon of British soldiers who have arrived in Bramley under the supervision of Major Hammond (Basil Sydney).  Hammond makes arrangements to billet his men, with the inhabitants most welcoming of their temporary guests.

Still...there’s something a bit unsettling about the presence of Hammond and his men.  Nora Ashton (Valerie Taylor), the vicar’s daughter, finds it curious that when the back of a telegram was used to mark down scores in a card game that took place among several soldiers—the figures were jotted down in the “Continental” manner, with elongated fives and strokes through the sevens.  Nora’s suspicions are further aroused when young George Truscott (Harry Fowler) finds a chocolate bar among Hammond’s personal effects.  An Austrian chocolate bar.

Nora takes her concerns to the village squire, Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks)…but today is just not her lucky day.  Wilsford is a fifth columnist, working with Hammond—whose real identity is Kommandant Orlter, and who’s on hand as the leader of a vanguard of an invasion of Britain.  Oriter and his men quickly establish their authority in the blink of an eye (by killing the Reverend Ashton, Nora’s father, when he attempts to signal outside help by ringing the church bell) and inform the stunned populace that no one is leaving Bramley…and any attempts to contact anyone outside the village will be dealt with most severely.  (Nazis.  I hate these guys.)

Went the Day Well? is a mixture of WW2 propaganda, comic nightmare and subversive surrealism that was produced at the renowned Ealing Studios, a name we usually associate with such classic comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).   The source for the script (written by John Dighton, Angus MacPhail and Diana Morgan) was a short story written by Graham (The Third Man) Greene; in “The Lieutenant Died Last,” published in the U.S. in 1940, a poacher single-handedly stymies a Nazi attempt to invade a rural English village.  Dighton, MacPhail and Morgan considerably expanded the scope of Graham’s tale, though they did feature the poacher (played by Edward Rigby) as a minor character.

Despite the spoiler warning at the beginning of the movie, Went the Day Well? is a model of cinematic suspense; sure, we know the villagers eventually get the word out concerning their plight, but director Alberto Cavalcanti makes us squirm in true Hitchcockian fashion.  (Cavalcanti would later go on to helm the most famous segment of the 1945 British horror anthology Dead of Night—the one with Sir Michael Redgrave and that freaking ventriloquist dummy—and the underrated 1947 noir They Made Me a Fugitive.)  Two Land Army girls, Peggy Fry (Elizabeth Allan) and Ivy Dawking (Thora Hird), manage to scrawl a message of help onto an egg that is placed in a box with other hen fruit and handed off to a boy delivering newspapers by bicycle.  The paperboy is sideswiped by a car on its way to Bramley, and the eggs wind up smashed.  This sets up the next attempt: the driver of the car is a woman named Maud Chapman (Hilda Bayley), who’s there to pay her dowager cousin Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr) a visit.  Fraser manages to smuggle a note to her cuz in the pocket of her jacket, but Maud uses the paper to steady a rattling window on the passenger side of her automobile.  (The paper later becomes dislodged and is devoured in the backseat by Maud’s dog.)

The film often juxtaposes moments of black comedy and jarring, disturbing violence—the most memorable sequence involves the town’s postmistress (Muriel George), who also moonlights as Bramley’s phone operator.  Held hostage in her home by one of the German soldiers, she springs into action by throwing pepper into the Nazi’s eyes and dispatches him to the Great Beyond with the help of an axe.  She then tries to ring for help but her call is ignored by a gossipy phone operator from a neighboring town…and by the time chatty Gertrude returns to the desperate woman she’s met the business end of a German bayonet.

Released in December of 1942, Went the Day Well? premiered a few months after the similar The Next of Kin (also produced by Ealing, and featuring Well? players Johns, Sydney, Hird and Johnnie Scofield)—both movies were made not necessarily to scare the British public, but to highlight the possible dangers of a Nazi invasion.  Most scholars are in agreement that by the time of the movie’s release, that scenario was highly unlikely.  Still, the movie continues to exert its influence; the 1971 feature film version of the hit Britcom Dad’s Army (as well as a couple of episodes of the series) covers similar ground as well as the 1972 novel The Eagle Has Landed, which was brought to the big screen in 1977.  The mention of “the Home Guard” in the film kind of made me smile because I couldn’t help but think of what Dad’s Army fans call “The Magnificent Seven”…though I would be remiss in pointing out that what happens to the Guard in Went the Day Well? is far more savage than any of the shenanigans that befell Captain Mainwaring and Company.

Went the Day Well? eventually reached U.S. shores in June of 1944, retitled 48 Hours…because most American audiences were not familiar with the famous quotation by John Maxwell Edmonds that was borrowed for the title of the movie.  (“Went the day well?/We died and never knew/But, well or ill/Freedom, we died for you”)  It’s been off the radar screens of most classic film buffs—but according to TCM oracle Robert Osborne, it was one of the surprise hits of the TCM Film Festival in 2011…and recently premiered on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in April of this year.  Bobby Osbo and guest programmer Glenn Taranto noted that with the exception of Leslie Banks (subversively cast as the treacherous Wilsford in light of his heroics in 1935’s Sanders of the River) and Mervyn Johns (Glynis’ pop; he’s also in Dead of Night) most of the British thesps will be unfamiliar to us Yanks; but I recognized Dame Thora, or course, as well as Patricia Hayes (as the postmistress’ assistant) and David Farrar (Black Narcissus).  (James Donald and Dad’s Army’s Private Godfrey, Arnold Ridley, also appear in bit parts.)

No, I first became acquainted with Went the Day Well? when I read about it as one of the entries in Halliwell’s Hundred; released to Region 2 DVD in November of 2006, I procured myself a copy (though the movie was re-released in 2011 to take advantage of its 2010 restoration—this is the version Tee Cee Em showed in April) and have been a champion of the movie ever since.  It’s unquestionably one of the finest war films I’ve ever watched, a masterful blend of comedy and suspense…and the next time it makes the rounds again on Turner Classic Movies, I suggest you make an appointment to see it.

7 comments: said...

Thank you--a great review. This sounds like a film I'd like to see. I like Greene's work, and what you say about the tone...

Caftan Woman said...

Very nice to read about "Went the Day Well". I only saw the film once, courtesy of TV Ontario (our province's public television). The next time I see it will feel like the first time, it was that long ago.

Jeff Duncanson said...

Nice - I will be looking for this one now.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you so much for writing about Went the Day Well?. I have read a good deal about the film, but I have never had the opportunity to see it. I will certainly have to make an effort to do so now! Anyway, thank you so much for participating in the blogathon!

Anonymous said...

This film just looks so 'British'! I've not seen many of Alberto Cavalcanti's films (I think he's very underrated) so I'll add this one to my watch list. Have you seen They Made Me A Fugitive? Reading your review, I think you might enjoy that.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

girlsdofilm asked:

Have you seen They Made Me A Fugitive? Reading your review, I think you might enjoy that.

I have seen it, and I enjoyed it tremendously!

Aubyn said...

I've heard of Went the Day Well? but never seen it. But such high praise means a lot coming from so knowledgeable a source as you, so this one's going to the top of my list.It does sound like a very unique kind of World War II movie. Very glad you were able to highlight it for the blogathon.