Review: Dance Hall

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(Charles Crichton, 1950)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

Following the recent retrospective ‘Ealing: Light and Dark’ at the BFI, which reintroduced cinemagoers to the lesser known body of work of the distinctly British studio, StudioCanal continue the task of dusting off and digitally remastering said underlings, giving them their first lease of life on DVD. Their latest, Dance Hall (1950) – perhaps one of Ealing’s most overlooked productions – is an early and somewhat lightweight venture for director Charles Crichton before his more celebrated and refined works such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), but offers as much insight into the inner workings of post-war kitchen sink frugality as its more distinguished cinematic peers.

The slim narrative of Dance Hall centres on the lives and loves of four working-class women, who spend their days toiling in a greasy factory and nights dancing away the brewing tensions of their repressed community at the Chiswick Palais, whose music is provided by Ted Heath and his big band (who make live appearances). Natasha Parry plays Eve, a modest housewife whose love for treading the boards quickly affects her marriage to her dull husband Phil (Donald Houston), whose jealousy swells when his wife’s affections are targeted by the local philanderer, Alec (Bonar Colleano). Elsewhere, the film’s other major plot sees Georgie (Petula Clark) attempting to realise her ambition of becoming the winner of the upcoming dance championship by overcoming the diffidence of her cautious and unsuspecting parents.

Appealingly shot by Ealing regular Douglas Slocombe, Crichton’s early film is an ostensibly insignificant film whose melodramatic edges are blunted by a series of impressively choreographed but disrupting dance sequences that intrude upon the progressive flow of Eve and Phil’s marital degradation. However, once the sober development of the few dangling narrative threads begins to take shape, the evocations brought about from the film’s sociological standpoint give flavour to a once unexciting story. As explained by film historian and writer Charles Barr in the disc’s only featurette, ‘Remembering Dance Hall’, the film is one of the few Ealing films that fully concentrated on both women and their standing in a post-war society blighted by fruitless monotony and the frustrations of rationing and being a pillar of domesticity.

Co-written by Alexander Mackendrick (famous for The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955)) and Diana Morgan – who Barr clarifies was the only female writer in Ealing’s “creative elite”, Dance Hall is an interesting veering away from the studio’s overtly male-dominated army and war films not only because it features a clutch of fine and capable performances from the leading cast (especially Clark in an early role), but because it exposes a deeply unsettled context for these women within the contrasts of the factory and the dance floor. Though it is inherently unmemorable (brought about by Crichton’s clearly indifferent direction), the film is a fascinating depiction of a bygone era that, subsequently, amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

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