The Film of Love on the Dole (1941)

By the end of 1935, with the national success of both the novel and play versions of Love on the Dole, Greenwood had became something of a celebrity, with regular national and local newspaper coverage of his life and writing across the country. As discussed in the article on ‘Greenwood and Film’, he was keen to press ahead with a film version as well to expand his audience (probably for both professional and political reasons). He came in 1935 to an agreement to make a film of Love on the Dole with Gaumont Studios. However, when the play-script (in the published Cape edition) was submitted to the British Board of Film Censors their major objections made production impossible. The BBFC Censors’ reports showed great nervousness about the project on moral and political grounds:

I do not consider this play suitable for production as a film. There is too much of the tragic and sordid side of poverty and a certain amount of dialogue would have to be deleted and the final incident of Sally selling herself is prohibitive.

The language throughout is very coarse and full of swearwords [and] the scenes of mobs fighting the police might easily be prohibitive. Even if the book is well-reviewed and the stage play had a successful run, I think this subject as it stands would be very undesirable as a film.[1]

Another film company, Atlantic Productions, sent the  play-script to the BBFC again in June 1936 (and since it was still the whole printed play-text, there cannot have been any modification), but still met with no success. Logically, in that it was the same material, the censor Colonel Hanna was unmoved: ‘I have read this play a second time, but cannot modify the first report in any way. I still consider it very undesirable’.[2] It is notable that the stage version of the story met no major problem when its text was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in 1934, confirming the view taken by most film-historians that in the thirties different censorship standards were applied to films because of a fear that large working-class audiences went to the cinema and that they might be easily influenced by anything which the censors regarded as unorthodox political or sexual material. Greenwood seems to have kept supportive Daily Herald columnists updated on developments (or their lack) with the film project. Thus there is an article published on 27/2/1940 which refers to a continuing early war-time ban on a film of Love on the Dole being made and informs the reader that Greenwood has been told by the British Board of Film Censors that such a production is ‘most undesirable’ and will remain so for the duration of the war (film correspondent, p.5).

However, under unique circumstances the censors were shortly after this persuaded to change their minds. Ronald Gow, Greenwood’s co-writer on the play-version, gave the first public account of exactly what happened in a letter to the Guardian in 1984:

in 1940 he and Greenwood were summoned to meet with J. Brooke-Wilkinson, the Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors. “Brookie” told the two writers that they must turn their dramatic script into a screenplay without delay. “This film’s got to be made”, he reportedly told them. “We’ve got a tip from someone ‘higher up’. I can say no more”.[3]

Gow recalls that the context was a British sensitivity to criticism in the US, with ‘headlines in the American press saying, “Britain Bans Workers’ Film”; and in 1940 this was thought to be a bad report from a country fighting for freedom’.[4] The ‘higher up’ is usually regarded as the art historian Kenneth Clark, who had been Director of the National Gallery, but became (allegedly due to a confusion about the word ‘pictures’) Director of the Film Division at the Ministry of Information between January and April 1940. It may be significant that Churchill and Lady Churchill attended a special private viewing of the film before its general release on 30 June 1941, despite enormous calls on the Prime-Minister’s time. Lord Beaverbrook (then Minister of Supply) recorded that ‘the Prime Minister and Mrs Churchill praised it highly’.[5]  This suggests that there was interest in the film at an even higher level than that of an MOI Divisional Director – perhaps linked to Churchill’s concern with adverse American public opinion, given his concerted campaign to bring the US into the war against Germany, despite some strong anti-British and isolationist tendencies there.

Once censorship problems were thus magically cleared, British National acquired the rights to the film, against some competition.[6] The experienced John Baxter was appointed as director. This proved an inspired choice: despite his previous work on often low-budget films with musical and or comic elements, Baxter had also shown a consistent interest in social conditions and he treated this script with great sympathy and creativity. From the beginning, Baxter had a strong sense that the film must not be a star-vehicle because it should represent ordinary people. Thus after audition, he rejected the British film-star Jessie Mathews for the key role of Sally Hardcastle and instead cast the then little-known Deborah Kerr, who brought with her no association with previous roles or an established ‘star’ identity.[7] His casting decisions were indeed crucial to the film’s success: anything other than comic working-class characters were rarities in British cinema before the war, but Baxter drew on performers who, though they largely came from the working-class world of music hall, had also worked with him before in a variety of film genres. Persuasive performances were put in by George Carney and Mary Merrall (Mr and Mrs Hardcastle) and by Marie O’Neill, Marie Ault, Iris Vandeleur and Marjorie Rhodes (who played the ‘chorus’ of older women: Mrs Dorbell, Mrs Nattle, Mrs Jikes, and Mrs Bull), giving Baxter an ensemble who could reflect the ordinariness, the suffering and the sometimes grim humour of the characters in Greenwood’s story. Together with Deborah Kerr as Sally Hardcastle, Geoffrey Hibberd and the Welsh actor Clifford Evans were cast to play the younger generation made up of Sally’s brother Harry and her fiancé Larry Meath, the story’s sole working-class intellectual (Clifford Evans’ Welsh accent instantly added an origin story for Larry to the novel and play’s slightly mystifying portrayals of him as an outsider inexplicably ‘different’ from everyone else in Hanky Park).

Four Continents LoD Publicity Still 1945

This is a publicity still produced by the US distributors of Love on the Dole, Four Continents Films Inc (and must date to 1945, since the film was not released in the US till then).  The scene is the one where the seance is about to take place, and from left to right shows Deborah Kerr as Sally Hardcastle, Marry Merrall as Mrs Hardcastle, Marie Ault as Mrs Jike, Vi Kaley as a neighbour, Marjorie Rhodes as Mrs Bull, and Maire O’Neill as Mrs Dorbel (in author’s collection of Greenwoodiana: scanned 8/10/2020).

The style of Baxter’s film is direct and economical. The opening scene’s techniques and atmosphere are characteristic of much of the film: it establishes environment, situation and character swiftly and to an extent the first interior scene inside the Hardcastle house looks like a filmed play, with frequent use of middle-distance shots showing three or four characters interacting. However, the film also uses more modern documentary techniques. These include the use of thematic texts within the film, such as the newspaper front-page Mrs Hardcastle lights her fire with, on which we see the optimistic headline ‘‘TRADE BOOM IS COMING’ rapidly consumed, and the use of montage scenes such as those where Harry seeks a job at one works after another after another. Though in most respects a feature film, many contemporary reviews saw the film as equally a serious addition to documentary film: ‘Scornful of carping propaganda, it faithfully presents the facts as they are, or rather were, confident of their power to plead their own righteous cause … it is also a documentary of compelling power and urgent provocation’.[8] This positive review was characteristic and the film’s reputation has indeed remained consistently high: ‘[the director] John Baxter turned the novel into a serious and moving film’, wrote Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards in 2007.[9] The film is sometimes regarded as having been more of a critical than popular or commercial success, but the important trade paper, Kinematograph Weekly in January 1942 ranked Love on the Dole as the second-best of four films each of which ‘is a winner’.[10]

The film (like the novel and play) certainly retained its appeal in the war years, with a number of references to it in Mass Observation reports and diaries. The film adaptation’s creation of a strong link to the idea of ‘the People’s War’ may have been a significant factor. The original context for the novel and the play was, of course, mass unemployment, and this remained a focus for public concern until at least 1938. But with increasingly determined rearmament after 1936, unemployment began to fall, and though just over one-and-a-half million remained unemployed in 1939, the figure had dropped to a third of a million by 1941, when the wartime economy began to absorb all available labour. Unemployment was thus now firmly in the past (if a very recent past), but the film as well as vividly recalling the misery of the Depression also linked it through some adept adaptations to a vision of a better post-war Britain – even though in 1941, with Germany nowhere near defeat, this had to be at best a hopeful promise to the people of Britain. These adaptations especially include elements of the opening and closing scenes. The rolling captions after the credits swiftly assert that the recent past and the embattled present are part of an unfolding story of improvement, while Mrs Hardcastle’s final words which look forward wistfully to a better world can be applied to both the war as and end to the thirties and to a post-war planned economy where unemployment will no longer be tolerated: ‘Things can’t go on for ever like this… One day we’ll all be wanted: the men who’ve forgotten how to work and the young ‘uns who’ve never had a job. People’ll begin to see what’s been happening, and once they do they’ll be no Hanky Park’.

The Labour-supporting Daily Herald under the headline, ‘Film Was Banned, Now a Triumph’, took up this message strongly: ‘It is good entertainment. But it is also a social document eloquent of democracy’s freedom to criticise itself, and makes an urgent demand for a better post-war world.’ [11] A range of newspapers took a similar view – The Times agreed that ‘the lessons for the future are implicit in every foot of it’,[12] while Nora Alexander in the Sunday Pictorial wrote eloquently about what the film meant in1941:

Time after time our Censors have waxed apoplectic at the suggestion that Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole was fit subject for a film… Now with unemployment a minor headache, the moralists have relaxed and the film has been made without a single change. The result is terrific … but it is not depressing. On the contrary, it holds enormous promise for the future. If every man and woman in Britain could see this film, I don’t think we would ever go back to the dreadful pre-war years when two million men and women were allowed to rot in idleness. I don’t think the censor meant us to feel that way about it. But Walter Greenwood did.[13]

The film of Love on the Dole was a contribution to wartime civilian morale and a focus for political hopes, but it achieved those ends by being a widely accessible, entertaining, innovative and thoroughly thought-through piece of cinematography. Its continuing power as a film undoubtedly comes partly from the ways in which it recalls a particular view of the past – the pre-history of the British welfare-state and hope for change during the nineteen-forties — but also because it has worn very well as a viewing experience.

[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939, London: Routledge,1984; New York: I.B.Tauris, 2010, p.119, citing British Board of Film Censors’ Report 1936/42.The first quotation is from the censor Miss Shortt’s report, while the second is from the censor Colonel Hanna’s report.

[2] The Age of the Dream Palace, p.119, citing British Board of Film Censors’ Report 1936/87.

[3] The Manchester Guardian, 3/4/1984, cited in ‘Propaganda for Democracy: the Curious Case of Love on the Dole’, p. 867.

[4] ‘Propaganda for Democracy’, p. 867. In fact, I have found no trace through digital searches of any actual US newspaper headline of this kind.

[5] From a letter by Beaverbrook, 2/6/1941, ‘Propaganda for Democracy’, pp.849-50 and footnote 19.

[6] Brown, Geoff (with Tony Aldgate),The Common Touch – the Films of John Baxter, London: NFT Dossier No.5. BFI,1989, p. 77.

[7] Michelangelo Capua, Deborah Kerr – A Biography, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland And Co, 2010; Kindle edition, location 189, citing Matthew Thornton, Jessie Matthews, London Hart-Davis and MacGibbon, 1974, p.156.

[8] Kinematograph Weekly 10/4/1941, p.20; quoted in The Common Touch, p.81.

[9] Aldgate, Anthony, and Jeffrey Richards, Britain Can Take it: British Cinema in the Second World War, London: I.B. Tauris, 1986, 2007, p.14.

[10] R.H. ‘Josh’ Billings, Box Office Stake Results’, Kinematograph Weekly, 8/1/1942, p.41. I am grateful to my colleague Dr Sheldon Hall who found this important source for me.

[11] Daily Herald, 28/5/1941, in Walter Greenwood’s clippings book, Greenwood Archive, Salford University, WGP 3/2, p.37.

[12] 30/5/1941.

[13] (1/6/1941), quoted in The Common Touch, p.81.