“Climbing High” is a delightful comedy by Carol Reed, made during the World War 2 years when audiences looked forward to viewing uplifting movies. While this is not one of Reed’s better known films, it provides a vehicle for Jessie Matthews to display her talents on the screen. “Climbing High” explores mistaken identity in a love affair along with a critical look at social expectations of marriage in the 1930′s.
The film opens with a scene in Canada, with giant sequoias decorating the sky, a place far away from London, a city of eight million people back in 1938. Jim Castle (Torin Thatcher) is a logger by trade, preferring to work in nature than a bustling metropolis. He is the older brother of Diana, who lives in London with her friends and roommates Patsy (Tucker McGuire) and Max (Alistair Sim). Jim considers Diana to be a good girl, someone who stays at home and out of trouble, and is definitely protective of her, when he shows his foreman a photo of her holding a kitten. Matthews conveys the sweet young sister quite perfectly in this film, who is more carefree about life than planning on settling down. When the scene cuts to her apartment in London, Diana is shown giving dance lessons to the children in the neighborhood. Not having any money, Patsy suggests to Diana that the children pay for their lessons so they will have rent money. The children are unable to pay for lessons, since their families are as poor as Diana is. Patsy is a sculptor by trade, and Max is a writer and self professed communist who believes the capitalist system is criminal and unfair to those who are the have-nots.
Work is a four letter word to him, but Diana and Patsy are afraid of being evicted so they finally coerce Max to go out and get a job. Max is reticent about doing so since it goes against his beliefs, but he too is afraid of being without a roof over his head. He goes out to look for employment when Diana decides to go out after him. In doing so, she accidentally gets hit by a car. She is trying to recover from being hit when the driver and passenger of the car get out and see if she is all right. The passenger, Nicky Brooke (Michael Redgrave), is immediately smitten at first sight, while the driver (Basil Radford) is happy to see she is not seriously hurt. Michael does not yet reveal his real name to her but is intrigued enough to want to have tea with her. Diana declines the invitation and returns to her apartment while Redgrave and Radford move on. Redgrave is to meet with a woman who manages to get an engagement notice to him published in the society page of the London newspaper. Nicky is not in love with the woman – a Lady Constance Westaker – but he knows that she wants to marry him only for his money. Nicky sees Lady Constance to find out why the engagement notice appeared in the newspaper, since he never gave his consent to marry her. Nicky’s thoughts keep drifting to Diana, the girl he accidentally hit, and he knows deep down that he would rather be spending time with her than Lady Constance. For Nicky, marriage should be more meaningful than just living comfortably in the post-Depression years.
Max almost gets gainfully employed when he thinks he can try to steal a found handbag sitting on the counter of an advertising agency. The front desk clerk sees Max and thinks he will be perfect for an advertisement. She calls down the agency manager, Gibson (Noel Madison) and at first sight; Gibson hires Max on the spot for a job as a model. Max does not know what is ahead for him when he is positioned as a before image for a special tonic that will make a man more masculine and virile. Max proves to be successful as a unique, scrawny model and continues to stay with the agency. Soon he gets Diana a job at the agency; only she becomes more successful than Max as a model.
Diana and Nicky continue to meet in unsuspecting ways, but it is not until he has her literally pinned down when her shoe gets stuck in a pavement grate outside her workplace. Diana wants him to free her shoe so she can get on, but he prefers to speak with her right there. He tells her his true feelings even though she remains disinterested, but inside the lobby at the receptionist desk, Nicky lays the grate on the desk and begs the receptionist (Enid Stamp Taylor) to tell him who his love interest is. As with Max and Diana, Gibson soon recruits Nicky into the modeling business. Before he knows it, Nicky is posing alongside of Diana when disaster strikes: a wind machine is set to high and destroys the modeling layout sets in the studio, with some very amusing results. By now, Nicky has given his name to Diana as John Smith, unaware of what his dual identity was going to set him up for since he has not yet broken off his engagement with Constance.
Diana and Nicky go out to the country for a picnic to get to know each other better. While eating lunch, they meet a madman (Francis L. Sullivan) who has escaped from the nearby Green Marsh Insane Asylum. He introduces himself to Diana as being the “Greatest singer in Switzerland.” He wants her to sing along with him and together they sing “Il Bacio.” Nicky returns from getting some tea for Diana and soon he gets entangled with the singing. The security men from Green Marsh drive by and capture the madman, hustling him off.
Nicky finally proposes to Diana the following morning, which she happily accepts. She is charmed by his demeanor, unaware that he has some unfinished business to take care of: breaking off his relationship with Lady Constance. Her mother, Lady Emily, tells him that her daughter has been taken ill. Unknown to Nicky, Constance is faking illness in an attempt to get him to come back to her. By this time, Jim is on his way back to London via a steamship to visit his sister. A man near Jim drops a magazine which happens to be open to a page that shows Diana modeling. Jim is surprised to see her and is in a bigger hurry to bail her out of whatever trouble she has gotten into.
It is not until Diana and Lady Constance share the grooming room at the advertising agency that they both speak of getting married to the same man, yet refer to him by the different names of Nicky Brooke and John Smith. Diana finally learns the true name of Nicky, the man she learned to love and care about, when she finally thinks she breaks off the engagement. Jim comes home once Nicky leaves Diana’s apartment and learns about him, believing the honorable thing for him to do is to face up and marry his sister. Nicky flies to Switzerland, with Jim, Diana and Gibson, her boss, were following him. Diana and Nicky finally reunite after some amusing incidents, including their former friend the madman on one of the Alps. The unusual ending to “Climbing High” is a double entendre on the film’s title, with the previously poor Diana Castle marrying socialite Nicky Brooke.
Carol Reed is brilliant in directing “Climbing High” which exhibits Jessie’s dancing ability but not as much as in her 1934 hit film “Evergreen.” Matthews is charming nonetheless and Redgrave executes a credible performance as a wealthy man who is dishonest about his social status just so that he can be with the woman he falls in love with. The 1930’s were an early decade for social boundaries to be broken with regards to who could marry who. As a comedy, the movie is comparable the style of Deanna Durbin’s “Three Smart Girls” which was released two years earlier in Hollywood. Alistair Sim, Torin Thatcher, Basil Radford, and Noel Madison round out the cast in this comedy. Written by Marion Dix and Lesser Samuels, “Climbing High” is the kind of movie that is meant to provide an escape with its sometimes off the wall humor and love story that many people can relate to, asking themselves if money or love should be the basis for marriage.