Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (UK 1948)

Thanks again to Talking Pictures TV for screening this interesting late 1940s British picture which I’ve read about but not previously managed to see. The print seems to have been originally supplied to North America since it carries the ‘Eagle Lion’ brand for Canadian distribution. The production company is Two Cities working within the Rank empire and shooting at Denham with just a couple of location scenes of beaches and high cliffs. Hugh Walpole wrote the original novel in 1911 and he died in 1941. Walpole was active as a novelist in the 1910s, 20s and 30s. Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill was his first success and he later became bracketed with D. H. Lawrence by one critic and for a period worked in Hollywood as a writer on productions of David Copperfield (1935) and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) for MGM. Although he tends to be forgotten now, his many novels and short stories were still attractive to TV producers in the 1950s and 1960s and in his adopted home in the Lake District in England one of his best-known novels, Rogue Herries, was staged in an adaptation for the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick in 2013.

Greta Gynt and David Farrar in a strong image suggesting a romance element in the film

Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill is set in a minor boy’s public school somewhere on the coast. Walpole had been an unhappy boy at a school in Truro and he had also taught (French) briefly at Epsom College which has been seen as the inspiration for ‘Banfield’s College’ in the film. Marius Goring plays Mr. Perrin, a maths teacher for over 20 years, still living with his mother and trying to summon up the courage to ask the school’s nurse Miss Lester (Greta Gynt) to marry him. The school is run, coldly and sometimes cruelly, by the Headmaster Moy-Thomas (Raymond Huntley). Staff and boys follow the public school convention of using only surnames. The teaching and other staff are all resigned to the Head’s dictatorial style and this provides the opportunity for disruption in the form of the arrival of a new younger maths (and rugby) teacher Mr. Traill (David Farrar). Traill is announced as having ‘come from the Army’ and with a reputation for his rugby-playing. He is presented as young and thrusting and therefore potentially attractive for both the boys and Miss Lester. The novel was described as a tragi-comedy and there are certainly comic moments but, in keeping with much of the British cinema of the period, a dark mood prevails. This comes mainly from the sets of the school and its surroundings photographed by Erwin Hillier, the German-born cinematographer used by Powell and Pressburger on The Archers black and white films (The Silver Fleet, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going). Allan Gray, the film’s music composer is another of The Archers alumni, though I didn’t find the music as memorable as in The Archers’ films. Thomas N. Morahan as production designer had an Ealing background in 1948 and although some scenes have intriguing settings, I didn’t feel that the production overall met the standards of The Archers. The fault possibly lies with the inexperienced producers and director Lawrence Huntington. Huntington was highly experienced as a director and I like some of his films very much, including his previous film, the James Mason starrer The Upturned Glass (1947) (which Mason also co-produced). It seems to me that Huntington didn’t bring out the full potential of the gothic elements in the story (Walpole was known for ‘macabre’ elements in his stories). However, I’m also aware that after Filippo Del Giudice, the founding force behind Two Cities, left in 1947 the company may have suffered from declining budgets and lack of overall direction.

Marius Goring as Mr. Perrin with Traill in the background

The Archers elements in this film are rounded off by the casting of Marius Goring and David Farrar, two star actors probably best known for their work in Powell & Pressburger films. Goring, so memorable as Heaven’s ‘Conductor’ in A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and the composer in The Red Shoes (1948) here plays against Farrar for the first time on film, I think. Farrar in 1948 was on a hot run with Black Narcissus (1947) followed by The Small Back Room (1949) for The Archers and Frieda (1947) for Ealing. In Frieda he also plays a schoolteacher returned from war in a different kind of narrative. The irony of Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill is that Goring (b. 1912) plays the older man and Farrar (b. 1908) plays the younger. The film is curiously ‘out of time’ (though rationing is mentioned at one point). Farrar’s Traill could be younger than he looks but Goring has to be made up quite heavily and his clothing and posture help to suggest the stuffy/fussy man he is – worthy of the nickname ‘Pompo’ given to him by his students (he is also a House Master). He is not, however, ‘elderly’ as the IMDb summary suggests. At the most he is in his late 40s/early 50s and old before his time after vegetating in the school. In one sense, Farrar has the easier role – he has to be the reasonably affable and friendly man, but prepared to stand up for himself. This simple presentation doesn’t stop all the other masters bar one (played by Edward Chapman) from seeing him as uppity, boorish etc. because he poses a threat to the status quo.

I’ve no intention of spoiling the narrative but I will say that the most striking image of the film comes when Perrin looks down from the coastal path and sees Traill and Miss Lester as small figures on the beach far below. This reminded me of some of the shots in Black Narcissus. I think that the cinematography and set design of the film tip it towards the expressionist mystery/film noir cinema of films like Dead of Night or The Small Back Room. The poster above indicates that Farrar was the star name and that Greta Gynt also featured in the film’s promotion. Gynt (born 1916 in Norway) was well-known in the UK, having played in many films since the late 1930s and having one of her biggest successes in 1947 with Dear Murderer. In some ways, her career path is not dissimilar to Frarrar’s and she too went to Hollywood in the early 1950s after her profile was raised by the appearance of some of her films on American TV. Like Farrar, she came back disappointed. She’s perhaps a little wasted in Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill as the main interest is the men. Nevertheless, the potential for romance is there and she and Farrar make an attractive couple.

Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill is also available, free to play online at BFI Player (https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-mr-perrin-and-mr-traill-1948-online). I think that Talking Pictures TV has the better print, but I would like to see a restored print on the big screen. The novel is available in paperback

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