The Clouded Yellow (UK 1950)

This is an important film for several reasons but it has suffered distribution problems and has perhaps not been as celebrated as it deserves. Its first claim to significance is that it was the production that launched the partnership of Betty Box as producer and Ralph Thomas as director – a partnership that lasted into the 1970s and which proved to be the most consistently profitable for the Rank Organisation, especially during the period of the ‘Doctor’ series of comedies in the 1950s. Betty Box had begun her career in wartime training films and then joined her brother Sydney Box at Gainsborough Studios where she ran the small production base in Islington. After a number of successful popular films, including the Huggett family comedies, Rank decided to ‘consolidate’ its empire, closing Gainsborough and re-focusing solely on Pinewood as its production base. The plans to make The Clouded Yellow were caught up in the closure procedure. Having already committed to The Clouded Yellow as a project when it was passed to her by her brother, Box decided to go ahead with the production using her own money to ensure the film was completed. The film was then released by Rank through General Film Distributors, but appears to have been picked up by Columbia in the US. It was scheduled as an Eagle-Lion release in the US but Rank wound up that company before the American release date in November 1951. A DVD did finally appear in 2008 but only in a cut version. Finally in 2010 a full 91 minute DVD became available in the UK. With PAL speed up that does equate roughly to the original 95 minute running time. Even so, there did seem to be a few frames missing in the version I watched.

Trevor Howard in 1950 was at the peak of his early fame

The first shot of Jean Simmons in the film as she turns to see Trevor Howard

The second key feature of the production is the script by Janet Green, her first for a film production. She had been a stage actor and had written a play in 1945. Her work was distinctive and as well as thrillers her scripts often picked up on social issues such as racism in Sapphire (1959) and persecution of ‘homosexual’ men in Victim (1961). There are flaws in the script of The Clouded Yellow but it still convinces as a tightly-plotted work with some original features for a British film in 1950. Betty Box in her memoir tells us that Eric Ambler worked on the script when Green was unavailable. As well as Green as a writer, Betty Box also had Geoffrey Unsworth, one of the most distinguished cinematographers of all time as her DoP. She also had a stellar cast, headed by Trevor Howard at the peak of his early fame as a leading man and Jean Simmons (British actress of the year in 1949) in her last British picture before her move to Hollywood. There were several notable players in the supporting cast, including Kenneth More and others like Geoffrey Keen who would become well-known in 1950s and 1960s cinema.

The noir scenes in Newcastle

Outline

David Somers (Trevor Howard) arrives back in the UK from a foreign trip, passing through customs at the airport without a passport. He’s a British agent now seemingly disgraced because of his failure on a mission. His boss suggests he should ‘retire’ and find a quiet job. Somers eventually takes up a temporary job cataloguing a collection of butterfly specimens for Nicholas Fenton (Barry Jones) a collector in Hampshire. The ‘Clouded Yellow’ is a ‘migratory European butterfly’ often seen in Southern England and less commonly across the whole of the UK. Jess Fenton (Sonia Dresdel) seems very concerned about the mental state of her niece Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons) who had lost her parents when she was a young child. Somers befriends Sophie and when she is suspected of murder, he attempts to smuggle her out of the country (something he presumably did as part of his time as a British secret service agent). The chase that ensues involves scenes in London, Newcastle, the Lake District and finally Liverpool.

Kenneth More in an early and untypical role as Willie

Commentary

The film is structured partly by the choice of location which in turn influences the use of genre conventions. The opening of the film and the beginnings of the chase are set in London and mainly in the West End/Whitehall area familiar from many films. The country house in Hampshire offers a very different environment and this section of the film does suggest the gothic romance of something like Jane Eyre or its Val Lewton conception, I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Somers is sent from a London office London and eventually finds himself in a large house where a young woman is seemingly kept under close scrutiny and may be under some form of ‘control’ by her guardians. Although the house is ‘light and airy’, there is still a sense of ‘disturbance’ and one fateful night the young woman goes walking in the grounds.

The large numbers of police comb the fells in the Lake District

The sequence in Newcastle includes a chase at night and this may be the basis for the suggestion that this is a film noir, such is the depiction of the city. It is also in Newcastle that we get a sense of Somers’ network of contacts, but also that he is under close surveillance by his former service colleague Willie (Kenneth More) who has been assigned to find him (to protect the prestige of the service). The Lake District footage involves a different aesthetic, reminiscent of some American crime stories in which scores of police in cars, on motorbikes and even with the aid of a helicopter (unusual for 1950) scour the hills around Ullswater. The framings become characterised by very long shots of the police on hillsides and big close-ups, especially of Jean Simmons fearing capture.

This American poster makes the link to Hitchcock and Reed

The film’s denouement in Liverpool includes two distinctive elements. Somers’ contacts involve members of Liverpool’s Chinese community, the oldest in Europe and located close to extensive docklands in 1950. The docklands themselves and the warehouses and railway network necessary to move the huge tonnage of goods provides the spectacular setting for the finale. The entire chase sequence from London via Newcastle and then the Lakes has prompted many reviewers to cite Hitchcock’s 1935 romance-thriller The 39 Steps as an important influence. That film was made by Gainsborough as were other Hitchcocks such as The Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Along with Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), these titles were used in promoting the film. Placing The Clouded Yellow alongside Hitchcock is justifiable but there is a difference in the sense that any romance between Somers and Sophie is only hinted at rather than exploited as potentially erotic. Jean Simmons plays Sophie as young and Howard is her protector. She was actually 21 while he was 36.

Newspaper puns?

Somers’ motivation is presented by the script as the ‘freeing’ of a young woman from a trap. Depending on your point of view, the script is either clever in the way it weaves the symbol of ‘entrapment’ through the narrative or possibly ‘over the top’ if you don’t like melodrama. Sophie is known in the press reports as ‘the Butterfly Girl’. We’ve already noted that the Clouded Yellow butterfly is a migrant, just like the contacts Somers has in Newcastle. In another strand, Somers reacts very strongly to the odd-job man at the Hampshire house (played by Maxwell Reed) who traps rabbits to sell. C. A . Lejeune in The Sketch magazine (December 1950) described the film as “Lively, extravagant melodrama and don’t bother your head about the symbols”. The Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in November 1950 thought it “not excitingly enough made to compensate for its improbabilities and clichés”. But these rather silly statements by esteemed critics didn’t stop the film being successful and pleasing many audiences. It repaid Box’s faith in her decision to back it with her own money and established her partnership with Thomas at Pinewood.

Somers and Sophie with their Chinese contact in Liverpool

I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Clouded Yellow for the second time with a better print than on my first viewing and I think I appreciated it more. As well as the performances by Howard and Simmons and the photography by Unsworth, what distinguishes the film is the location footage for the chase sequences. Although more films were being shot on location at this time, few made such extensive use of authentic locations with Howard and Simmons expected to traverse real streams and climb on real hills. There is a nice press release from mid-1950 pointing out that  Jean Simmons survived her scenes in the Lakes but twisted her ankle on the set at Pinewood. If you are a train or bus enthusiast I recommend the film highly. But we could do with a Blu-ray, please!

Here’s a short extract from the noir sequence in Newcastle:

5 comments

  1. christinegeraghty

    I really like this film and linked it to The Long Memory when I very briefly discussed its use of landscape. It’s very evocative of the early 50s, I think, with the war over but the ravages still to the fore. Thanks for the detailed discussion of the people involved, its various generic connections and for the rather unsympathetic critical response.

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    • Roy Stafford

      Christine discusses The Long Memory and The Clouded Yellow in her book British Cinema in the Fifties (Routledge, 2000: 53-4). She argues that these two films “stand out because they use the English rural landscape expressively and transform it into a bleak and hostile environment, not just a space for resistance but a form of resistance”. This is in contrast to so many other British films of the period in which the rural landscape was either used for nostalgia or the country house type of story. She goes on to suggest that the use of location shooting of the Lake District fells in The Clouded Yellow and the Kent marshes in The Long Memory may have influenced the New Wave films of the late 1950s/early 1960s. That seems a good call.

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  2. keith1942

    I remember enjoying this title as a young filmgoer. Howard and Simmons are both very good: as is Barry Jones as the villain. He had already made an impression in the Boulting Brothers’ ‘Seven Days to Noon’ (1950).
    I did not understand Roy’s comment on the DVD; ‘With PAL speed up that does equate roughly to the original 95 minute running time.’?

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    • Roy Stafford

      ‘PAL speed up’ refers to the faster frame rate of PAL video at 25 fps, meaning that films are screened at a faster speed than film or DCP (at 24 fps) resulting in shorter running time and slightly higher-pitched dialogue and music. The one frame per second faster speed equates to nearly 4 minutes on a 95 minute film, giving a running time of 91 minutes. When The Clouded Yellow was distributed to cinemas by Columbia in the US in 1951 it was cut by around 11 minutes I think. This review suggests what the cuts removed. My calculation is that the second UK DVD is as near as possible to a complete version.

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  3. keith1942

    I think ‘roughly’ is right. The oriignal 35mm prints ran at 24 fps, which was fairly uniform for sound. But with various analogue and digital fascimiles there are serious differences. DVD’s in Britain do run at 25 fps but in the USA it is actually around 29 fps. I am not sure what happens when a version from the US is transferred to Pal. Blu-rays can run at 24 fps but, as I have discovered to my cost, this is not always the case. Some cheapscape distributors use the existing version for DVD which runs at 25 fps. And with DCP there is not a uniform rate. The DCP projectors accomodate a range of frame rates; some exhibitors use DVDs for screening and presumably these run at 25 fps.
    If this was not enouigh, apart from distributor cuts and censorship cuts, there are the wear and tear on prints. And with computors there are now softwares that insert an extra frame for every four; at points of cuts they apparently insert a composite frame. Whilst the attention to aspect ratios has improved I am pretty sure there are still video versions which crop the academy frame. And, of course, aspect ratios for British films in the 1950s are a minefield; not always certainly known.
    I would not rely on any video versions being a ‘complete copy’.

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