Yesterday was Googie Withers’ 100th birthday. Blake Backlash celebrated by rewatching two of her films
‘I didn’t want, and never played, the genteel parts, the English-rose type.’ Googie Withers once said. ‘Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m not altogether English’. Her father was English but her mother was Dutch (a little bit French and German as well) and Googie was born one hundred years and a day ago. In the forties she made films for Ealing that were unlike anything the studio had made up to then – and unlike any other British films.
For a long time the men that made British films didn’t know what to do with her. They wanted her to change her name. They got her to dye her hair blonde and cast her in comedies with Will Hay and George Formby. She had a small part in The Lady Vanishes in 1938 as one of Margaret Lockwood’s pals, blonde and high-spirited.
But the war and what came after changed the kind of films people wanted to see and make. In 1942, Michael Powell cast her as a resistance fighter in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. She got to be Dutch, she got to be dark-haired. This was also the film that introduced her to her husband – although they didn’t meet until after the war. John McCallum was fighting with the Australian army in New Guinea and they showed the troops One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. And that’s how, on a makeshift-screen in the rainforest, he first saw the woman he was going to marry. He was in awe of her five years later when they were both cast in The Loves of Joanna Godden. She had no idea who he was.
It’s probably true that One of Our Aircraft Is Missing changed the way Ealing saw Googie Withers. But it’s also true that Ealing needed her earthy vitality to change the kind of films they made – and to remain relevant and survive after the war. On screen she could be sensual, unsentimental, direct – and there were people working at Ealing that wanted to make films like that. One of them was an editor called Robert Hamer. He’d been working for Ealing since 1940 and in 1945 he got his first shot at directing, when he made the Haunted Mirror sequence of Dead of Night. This was his first collaboration with Googie Withers.
They made Pink String and Sealing Wax together later the same year. At the start of the film audiences might have thought they were getting something familiar, cosy even. We are in Victorian Brighton and Mervyn Johns is running a chemist shop (that’s where the pink string and sealing wax come from). Johns is Edward Sutton, a prototypical unyielding and repressed Victorian patriarch. In the first ten minutes he is beastly to each of his children in turn, by (in order): ripping up his son’s love poetry; dashing his elder daughter’s dreams of becoming a professional singer; and threatening to literally eviscerate some guinea pigs his younger daughter has grown fond of. All of this drives the son, David (Gordon Jackson, aged 22 but looking and playing younger, not quite hiding his Scottish accent), to sneak out of the house for a night on the lash in a Brighton pub. He puts on a rather bold-looking straw-boater before he creeps down the stairs, a bit of 19th Century peacocking which suggests he may be on the pull as well.
When David walks into the pub, we’re in another film, one with more smoke, booze and danger. Before he walks out of the pub, David bumps into Pearl (played by Withers) and his fate is sealed. Pearl is married to Joe, the pub’s landlord but when we first meet her she’s waiting in a doorway for Dan Powell, a flashy crooked jockey. She flirts with Dan, snogs him, get pissed-off when he goes off to meet his girlfriend, then gets turned-on by her own anger, relishes calling him ‘a dirty, cheating swine’ and snogs him again. Wither’s gives us three deadly-sins (lust, envy and wrath) in two minutes, but doesn’t ask for forgiveness for one second. The performance is honest and unapologetic; another actor might be tempted to either play Pearl as a villain or ask for our sympathy, to play either a femme-fatale or a woman ruined by circumstance. Googie Withers just gives us a real-person.
A fight with Joe (who is pissed all the time) leaves Pearl with a cut on her hand and David, enjoying playing the gallant, takes her to his father’s chemist shop to treat the wound. He starts showing off about what he knows about the poisons on the shelves around them. ‘Wouldn’t do to quarrel with a chap like you,’ says Pearl, and David starts talking about how similar the symptoms of tetanus are to the effects of strychnine poisoning. The word strychnine makes Googie Withers’ dark eyes glow, like gaslight shining off a bottle of rum. Her eyes tell the story as well when she gives the strychnine she’s pinched to Joe (she slices his hand with a razor first, she knows that there has to be a cut if it’s going to look like tetanus). At first her eyes wide and eager, waiting and watching for Joe’s last drink; then they’re wide with horror and disgust; and finally, there’s a second of relief or satisfaction in them as Joe dies, before they narrow and dull, revealing nothing, ready to leave the room and face the world again.
Two years later Googie Withers made The Loves of Joanna Godden, which is where she met John McCallum. Robert Hamer is supposed to have directed some scenes, although he didn’t get a credit. But Hamer, Withers and McCallum all worked together, officially, on It Always Rains on a Sunday. The two films share some cast-members (Frederick Piper and John Carol, as well as Withers) and, although I’m not a 100% sure, I think they might even have shared parts of the same pub set.
This time Googie Withers plays Rose Sandigate (the closest she got, I suppose, to playing ‘an English-rose type’). Rose, like Pearl, is married to a man she doesn’t love but while Joe Bond was a violent drunk, George Sandigate is more boring than bad. The worst thing he does is misplace his pipe-cleaners. Still, while there might only be two years between the films, Rose seems more than two years older than Pearl. Withers gives a performance that’s more turned inward, desperate instead of bold, frustrated instead of angry.
The opening sequence of It Always Rains on a Sunday shows us what Robert Hamer learned during his time as an editor. We see Bethnal Green tube station, closed and quiet, a blackboard showing the Sunday opening times; dark blotches appear in the grey dust on-top of a coal-scuttle, so we know it’s raining; George Sandigate gets up to close a window from the rain and watches his daughter Vi get out of car belonging to Morry Hyams; Morry’s car drives off, past a tea cabin where three glum looking blokes are sheltering from the rain, plotting something; they go off to do the something they’re plotting, leaving Sammy who runs the cabin filling out his pools coupon; a look at the coupon over Sammy’s shoulder also shows us a newspaper headline about an escape from Dartmoor; and we cut to Tommy Swann (that’s John McCallum) on the run by the railroad tracks.
This sequence takes less than a minute and is made up of less than ten shots . It introduces us to nine characters, most of whom have their own story in the film, which follows various Bethnal Green residents and their overlapping lives over the course of a single day. We get plot-strands about stolen roller-skates, infidelity, mouth-organs, a botched mugging and the collection for an inter-faith youth club. But it’s the story of Tommy Swann and Rose that forms the spine of the film.
Tommy and Rose used to go out so when he makes it back to Bethnal Green he hides in her Anderson Shelter. The moment where they meet again has a real charge and confounds conventional wisdom about real-life couples never having on-screen chemistry. Rose goes into the shelter, looking for some blackout material to fix a broken window. Tommy comes up out the darkness, like a man rising from his grave, damp and dirty, and clamps a hand over Rose’s mouth. The scene that follows is terse and tender and beautifully lit by Douglas Slocombe. Rose tells Tommy he shouldn’t have come, he asks her for some food, she tells him she’ll try and get some (‘There are four of them inside. I’ll have to wait till they’ve all gone out’). The rain pours down on the roof and outside the door. Rose goes to leave, then freezes, and we see her shoulders fall. She turns… and the romantics among us might be wondering if she’s going back for a kiss, or to say something she’s been waiting to tell her old-lover all those years he was in prison. But instead she picks up the blackout material she came into the shelter for. There’s a real world, the one she lives in with her family (‘four of them inside’) and she can’t escape it.
When Googie Withers and John McCallum announced their engagement, just before It Always Rains on a Sunday was released, it was a still from this scene that they sent to the papers to accompany the announcement.