Lance Comfort began to work in films between the age of 17 and 19, more or less growing up with the cinema. When he came to make 'B' films in the 1950s and 1960s, his wide-ranging expertise enabled him to deal efficiently with the constraints of tight budgets and schedules. He was astute at juggling several concurrent plot strands, his prescient anticipation of postwar disaffection, the invoking of film noir techniques to articulate the dilemma of the tormented protagonist. Comfort's reputation as a features 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 such as Noel Coward. He had been in the film business for twenty years when, in 1946, he directed Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia. Comfort is not the only director who enjoyed his greatest prestige in the 1940s and drifted into providing fodder for the bottom half of the double-bill in the ensuing decades. There were six intervening films, justifying the journalist who described him in early 1943 as the Busiest British film director. Great Day, Portrait of Clare, Temptation Harbour, Bedelia, Daughter of Darkness, and Silent Dust were his six melodramas. He was an unpretentious craftsman who was also at best an artist, and in exploring his career trajectory, the viewer is rewarded by the spectacle of one who responded resiliently to the challenges of a volatile industry.
The 1940s represent a high point in the history of British film, characterised by the works of such recognised greats as David Lean and Michael Powell. But alongside this ‘quality cinema’ there exists a body of popular productions by film-makers who have not yet been the objects of detailed scholarly attention. Four from the forties addresses this oversight, drawing attention to four directors whose career trajectories had a good deal in common and can tell us much about what British film-goers expected from the cinema in this crucial decade. Leslie Arliss, Arthur Crabtree, Bernard Knowles and Lawrence Huntington were all born at the turn of the century. All had been active in a range of film-making functions in the 1930s, and all would do their most proficient and popular work in the 1940s, thereafter prolonging their careers into the 1960s through ‘B’ movies, co-features and television. Taken together, they offer a commentary on the changing fortunes of mid-century British cinema.
Brian McFarlane’s The never-ending Brief Encounter is above all a book intended
for those who have seen and never forgotten the famous 1945 film in which two
decent, middle-class people meet by chance, unexpectedly fall in love, but in
the end acknowledge the claims of others. The book grew out of an article, the
writing of which revealed that there was so much more to the after-life of the
film than the author had realised. This book examines David Lean’s film in
sufficient detail to bring its key situations vividly to life, and to give an
understanding of how it reworks Nöel Coward’s somewhat static one-act play to
profound effect. It also examines the ways in which the ‘comic relief’ is made
to work towards the poignant ending. However, the main purpose of the book is to
consider the remarkable after-life the film has given rise to. The most specific
examples of this phenomenon are, of course, the appalling film remake with its
miscast stars, and the later stage versions – both bearing the original title
and attracting well-known players and positive audience and critical response –
and an opera! As well, there are films and TV series which have ‘quoted’ the
film (usually via black-and-white inserts) as commentary on the action of the
film or series. There are many other films that, without direct quotation, seem
clearly to be echoing their famous predecessor; for example, in the haunting
visual quality of a deserted railway platform.
The Tempean films succeed in hooking the view with provocative opening episodes which have an element of ambiguity that one doesn't expect in budget film-making. Bob Baker recalled that Eros would buy American films outright for showing in the United Kingdom, then take a British film as a co-feature and distribute the double bill, an arrangement which was clearly to the advantage of Tempean. Baker and Monty Berman relied on the services of personnel they could trust and built up a roster of actors and others who knew their job and could be relied on to get it done in the required time and within the allotted budget. With an eye on the US markets, Baker and Berman very often secured the services of American actors.
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.