British Cinema of the 1950s: A Celebration

By Ian MacKillop; Neil Sinyard | Go to book overview

`If they want culture, they pay':
consumerism and alienation
in 1950s comedies

DAVE ROLINSON

FOR EVERY 1950S Br i t i s h comedy assimilated into the academic canon, there are many which have fallen into obscurity, reinforcing the alleged disposability of the form. One of the highest-profile casualties is The Horse's Mouth (Ronald Neame, 1958), which was justly celebrated at the time for Alec Guinness's performance as aggressively anti- social artist Gulley Jimson, but has since suffered from the critical neglect regarding Neame's work. It is true that the film dilutes the complex themes of Joyce Cary's novel with broad comedy, and its removal of darker plot points — not least Jimson's death — reinforces complaints grounded in fidelity criticism that `beside the novel it looks very small'. 1 However, acknowledging the dispersal of authorship inherent in adaptation and judging the film in its own right, The Horse's Mouth is an intriguing oddity which proves that there is more to British comedy films of the 1950s than meets the eye. Neame's assured direction exploits Arthur Ibbetson's gorgeous colour photography, Guinness's performance and the art of John Bratby to succeed where the novel partly failed to show how the artist `expresses himself in colour rather than words'. 2

In particular, The Horse's Mouth is a fascinating starting point for a discussion of 1950s comedy, because of its treatment of the genre's defining themes: consensus and its breakdown through the alienating individualism of consumerism. It shares key characteristics with such `canonical' Ealing comedies as The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951) and The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951). As in those films, Guinness plays an obsessive (Jimson) whose pursuit of a financially configured personal vision (attaining the means to paint) leads him to clash with the

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I am a research student at the University of Hull, writing a Ph.D. on the television and film director Alan Clarke. I have written articles on documentary and the 1950s Quatermass television serials and films. Although I'm 27 years old, I can easily relate to the puritanical austerity and yearning for escape in my favourite 1950s films because I've spent all of those years in Hull. Dave Rolinson

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