There seems to be no slowing-down in the unceasing instances of the film as a
point of reference, in matters of varied significance. The film clearly
touched on matters of human significance in such ways as account for the
longevity of its place in the culture. It is not just a matter of nostalgia;
and it’s not just because of its moral stance, crucial as that is. It is
also, finally, a superbly crafted piece of filmmaking with some
unforgettable performances and moments of visual and aural power.
Lance Comfort had been in the film business for twenty years when, in 1946, he directed Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia. The dominant positions, in terms of either economic or symbolic capital, in the field of cultural production, as it obtained in British cinema in the 1940s, just managed to elude Comfort. During the war, Comfort ventured into historical drama, regional comedy and spy thrillers, but did not again attempt full blooded melodrama during the period of Gainsborough's commercial ascendancy. Comfort's melodramas, including Temptation Harbour, Daughter of Darkness, Silent Dust and Portrait of Clare, were all perhaps too sombre for popular taste. The field of cultural production is not of course governed purely by critical or audience reception, and in the case of cinema the conditions of film production, distribution and exhibition all play their influential roles.
This chapter presents a contemporary production reports and reviews of Lance Comfort's films. Sight and Sound in its round-up of British directors in 1959, claimed that Comfort 'became animator and cameraman on medical research films in 1928'. Dallas Bower recalls how Comfort came, in the early 1930s, to join his staff at Cricklewood where Bower, 'fed up with BIP (British International Pictures)' had gone to take charge of the sound department for Stoll Picture Productions. Towards the end of his apprenticeship, in 1938-39, he directed several short films for children. Comfort's film may be seen as urging America to fulfil its function as the most powerful nation of 'the free world'. Comfort was one of those comparatively rare English directors who were prepared to let the camera do a great deal of a film's narration.
Lance Comfort's reputation as a feature's director seemed to be made when Hatter's Castle, made by Paramount's British operation, opened at the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus, after a well-publicised charity première attended by the Duchess of Kent and luminaries like Noel Coward. The first name to appear on the screen after the Paramount logo and the film's title, and in appropriately Gothic script, is that of A. J. Cronin, author of the novel on which the film is based. The film is a passionate melodrama, polarising tyrant and victims. While the film was in production, there was a steady stream of press releases stressing that Hatter's Castle was to be an important production. As for Comfort himself, his reputation as a feature director should have been made by the film's general success with critics and public alike.
Lance Comfort might have established himself more firmly in the field of British cinema production, if he had followed up his success with Hatter's Castle by several more films in a similar vein. There were six intervening films that include Those Kids from Town, Squadron Leader X, Old Mother Riley Detective, When We Are Married, Escape to Danger and Hotel Reserve. 'One of the best spy melodramas yet made.' This was the verdict of Lionel Collier on the first of Comfort's wartime thrillers, Squadron Leader X, made at Denham for RKO-Radio, from a story by Emeric Pressburger. Comfort had worked, at British National, as assistant director and/or technical superviser to John Baxter on three of the series: Old Mother Riley in Society, Old Mother Riley in Business and Old Mother Riley's Ghosts.
The period of Lance Comfort's most sustained achievement, when he comes nearest to being an autonomous cultural producer, begins with Great Day in 1945 and cuts off sharply with the commercial failure of Portrait of Clare in 1950. These two and the four intervening films, Bedelia, Temptation Harbour, Daughter of Darkness, and Silent Dust are all melodramas of one kind or other. Great Day is a film which belongs on the cusp of peacetime British cinema. If Great Day is only melodrama in part of its action, two further pieces centred on the activities of 'wicked women', Bedelia and Daughter of Darkness, epitomise the mode in full cry, their protagonists exemplifying Comfort's interest in the melodrama of obsession. Like Daughter of Darkness, The Silent Dust is based on a play on which it considerably improves: The Paragon, by Roland and Michael Pertwee, first produced in London in 1948.
By the end of the 1940s, Lance Comfort had established a solid record of achievement in 'A' features, primarily in the melodramatic mode. Towards the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s, the dominant figures in the British cinema's corner of the field of cultural production were those whose output could be seen as having literary or social realist affiliations. This was the period of the ascendancy of Carol Reed, David Lean and Anthony Asquith, all of whom enjoyed critically privileged positions in British cinema. In a field dominated by the likes of those, a number of directors who had made some mark in the 1940s were to find difficulties in conducting careers at the same level in the succeeding decades. Among those who, like Comfort, had made their names and their most attractive films in the melodramatic mode were Leslie Arliss, Bernard Knowles, Arthur Crabtree and Lawrence Huntington.
The hierarchy in 'B' film-making is partly explained in terms of studios and companies, partly in terms of a distinction made between 'second features' and 'co-features', on the basis of cost, concept, length and billing. Most British 'B' films did not look like even modest 'A's, though a couple of Lance Comfort's do fall within this description. It was more common, drawing again on Picturegoer, to find much more characteristic British double-bills advertised. The most unusual of Comfort's co-features is Bang! You're Dead, the title of which is taken from a record played constantly by a simple-minded boy Willy on a gramophone. He has salvaged from a former wartime US army base in Southern England. One of the recurring characteristics of Comfort's later films is his use of the popular music of the day, because he felt it helped to make co-features more acceptable to wider audiences.
Lance Comfort has been shamefully neglected in the standard histories of British cinema, which have tended to be dominated by the work of major figures to an extent which obscures beguiling work done in less obviously prestigious areas of the field. His work exhibits strengths in categories that have been habitually undervalued in the discourse on British cinema: melodrama, genre film-making and the 'B' film have only very recently been given overdue attention. Actually, the word 'reappraisal' is a misnomer since Comfort has never had serious appraisal, even when he was the 'busiest film director' in Britain in the early 1940s. The rehabilitation of his critical reputation may depend on further work in melodrama and on an openness to the possibility of finding rewards in the too-often dismissed category of the 'B' film.