Michael Powell

Scen.: Michael Powell, Jerry Jackson. F.: Leslie Rowson. M.: Geoffrey Barkas. Scgf.: Alfred Junge. Int.: Leslie Banks (David Barr), Carol Goodner (June MacKinnon), Frank Vosper (Lord Dean), Alfred Drayton (Manning), Donald Calthrop (MacLeod), Allan Jeayes (Emerson), Campbell Gullan (Hannay), Percy Parsons (Casey), Fewlass Llewellyn (Sir Gregory). Prod.: Jerry Jackson per Gaumont-British. 35mm. D.: 66’. Bn.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

When Powell came to write A Life in Movies, he took the precaution of explaining that the red ensign (“rhymes with ‘tocsin’”) was the flag of the British merchant navy. By the 1980s, shipbuilding was no longer a British industry and few of its merchant ships flew the national flag. But it was a cheap film he remembered with considerable pride, for “the staging of the shipyard, the high standard of performance… and the overall seriousness of directing”.
These qualities were rare in the world of cut-price quota production, even for a commission from Gaumont-British, headed by the future maestro of Ealing, Michael Balcon. Powell and his partner Jerry Jackson boasted of their “films from tomorrow’s headlines”, and here Powell himself had a hand in the script. While British industry was struggling to recover from the Depression, memories of earlier militancy among Clydeside workers would have been strong, which fuels part of the plot. But having Leslie Banks to play the dynamic ship-designer, between his Hollywood starring role in The Most Dangerous Game and forthcoming appearance in Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much, gave Powell his first memorably ruthless character. Banks would return in the Archers’ The Small Back Room, while John Laurie, already a distinguished Shakespearean, appeared here only in an uncredited bit part, before becoming a key figure among Powell’s actors. Powell considered the American Carol Goodner to be his discovery, here playing “one half of our sedate, but somehow moving, love story” opposite Banks.
Although benefiting from some location shooting in Glasgow, the film’s realistic settings clearly owe much to Alfred Junge’s art department, but perhaps more significant for his sense of achievement was Powell recalling that Ian Dalrymple, a more experienced contemporary who would later write and edit Her Last Affaire, approving his script: “That’s more like it.” Working at Gaumont-British also brought Powell close to where the great documentarist Robert Flaherty was finishing his Man of Aran. Not that Powell was a devotee of the documentary movement: a character in Red Ensign named Grierson must surely be a sly in-joke?

Ian Christie

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