This is another of those nice surprises that one is fortunate to stumble upon from time to time in one’s film-collecting adventures. An at-the-time unknown title that was put up on the screen late at the end of a while-back Movie Night (nearing midnight after a long afternoon-evening of film watching), more to check a few minutes for print-quality than actual viewing, and seventy-five minutes later, now heading towards two o’clock in the morning, our group realized that it had been completely drawn in by this delightful little thriller.
To begin with, for the non-anglophiles here, a “Saloon Bar” is the British equivalent of the “family entrance” and area of your typical English Pub, a higher-class connotation for your middle-class clientele. And in this particular “Saloon bar”, its Christmas Eve and things are not all their typical holiday happiness and celebrations. The publican’s wife is about to have her seventh baby upstairs, but much worse, the bar’s favorite barmaid Queenie (Elizabeth Allan) is awaiting the morning’s execution by the Commonwealth of her fiancé, Eddie Graves (Alec Clunes) for the murder of his landlady (nice folk these brits, offing a poor prisoner on Christmas morning before he’s had his Christmas Pud!). Despite Grave’s protests of his innocence, it appears no stay is forthcoming from the Guv’nor and no pardon will come to hand. Then suddenly, someone in the bar discovers a clue that may prove Eddie’s story! It is then up to the patrons of the pub, headed by racetrack bookie Joe Harris (Gordon Harker), to not only discover enough real evidence to exonerate Graves, but perhaps find the true murderer as well.
Can they make it in the wee few yuletide hours before morning? That’s what wiles away the brisk seventy-five minutes (not the incorrect 99 minutes the IMDB in their usual inconsistency states) that it takes SALOON BAR to unfold. Based on a stage play by Frank Harvey and deftly directed by Walter Forde, SALOON BAR is yet another fine film from Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios, then only in their second year of business, but already turning out some fine and entertaining films that would only get better and better.
Walter Forde is another excellent and still sadly unsung British Director who started as one of England’s top silent film comedians of the 1920’s(admittedly not a big list to begin with), making two-reel comedies, then some rather funny features like WAIT AND SEE (1927), WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT? (1929) and YOU’D BE SURPRISED (1930). Forde then went behind the camera when talkies arrived and director-chaired some terrific Brit suspensers like ROME EXPRESS (1932) with Conrad Veidt, and comic-thrillers like BULLDOG JACK(1935) with Jack Hulbert and Fay Wray, two versions of the venerable GHOST TRAIN (both 1931 and 1941 respectively), as well as solid comedy vehicles like SAILORS THREE (1940) with Tommy Trinder and TIME FLIES (1943) with Tommy Handley. Forde retired from the British Film Industry in 1949, and lived in Beverly Hills until his death in 1984 at the age of 87.
Apart from Forde’s fine direction, SALOON BAR is helped by a fine ensemble cast led by the durable Gordon Harker, already famous on both sides of the pond for his Inspector Hornleigh mystery series and star of other great thrillers like THE PHANTOM LIGHT (1935) directed by Michael Powell, Edgar Wallace’s THE FROG (1937) and RETURN OF THE FROG (1939), always quick with a cockney quip and a real audience favorite. Elizabeth Allan was Old Vic trained and had come to America in 1933 with an MGM contract after appearing in some decent early British talkies like MICHAEL AND MARY (1931) with Herbert Marshall and Edna Best, and RESERVED FOR LADIES (1932) with Leslie Howard. She unfortunately never progressed to many leading roles, though horror-fans will remember her from Tod Browning’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) and when her husband, Willfred J.O. Bryan became a senior executive at Michael Balcon’s new Ealing Studios in 1938, she returned to the U.K., though suing MGM over her being replaced by Rosalind Russell in THE CITADEL may have also had something to do with it. Not really that interested in pursuing her film career, Allan made appearances in some great early Ealings like SALOON BAR and Alberto Cavalcanti’s WENT THE DAY WELL (1942) , but she spent more time on the stage and doing some very serious war relief work during WW2. She did continue to make the occasional film and later television appearances into the late 60’s, even being an early panelist on WHAT’S MY LINE in 1951-52, and passed away in 1990.
SALOON BAR is the fourteenth release from Ealing, which Producer Michael Balcon formed in 1938 after leaving Gainsborough and continuing for twenty years releasing a rather high-caliber of quality product, from Edgar Wallace thrillers to wartime classic like WENT THE DAY WELL (1942) , THE FOREMAN WENT TO FRANCE (1942), CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE (1944), and the legendary horror film DEAD OF NIGHT (1945). Mostly remembered this side of the pond for the post-war Alec Guiness comedies like KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951), THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1952), and THE LADYKILLERS (1956), Ealing did well in many genres, and though Balcon folded the releasing arm of it in 1959, the physical studios still run today as a very busy center of film and television production.
SALOON BAR is a perfect late-night closer for a day of film-watching, and we hope it grabs your attention the same way it did us at our Movie Night all those years ago and keeps you enthralled through it’s short running time. Watch for a 12 year-old Roddy McDowall playing one of the caroling kids annoying Gordon Harker in his opening scene.
RICHARD M ROBERTS
SOUND MOVIE MAIN is the spot to discuss non-comedy SOUND films. Go figure.
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