Kipps – 1941 | 95mins | Comedy | B&W
Adapted from H.G. Wells’s 1904 novel, Kipps the movie was the seventh of Carol Reed‘s films to originate in a literary or theatrical medium and can be seen as a harbinger of his life-long preference for stories that someone had already told in a novel or a play. Kipps remains remarkably close to Wells’s sociological tale of a draper’s assistant who rises above his social station by a miraculous bequest. Reed had demonstrated his aptitude as a social observer in several films, turning his camera into a delicate instrument for registering the myriad nuances and refinements of class-constricted British culture. Carol Red had now created a place for himself in international film culture and become one of the few English directors with ready access to the all-important American marketplace. In the case of some of Reed’s early films, there was a considerable lag between the time they were released in England and the time they were distributed in America. Kipps, on the other hand, opened in London in the summer of 1941 and had its American premier only a few months later. The film was rechristened The Remarkable Mr Kipps – a ludicrous and misleading change, given Kipp’s personality.
By the turn of the century, Wells had grown weary of his ‘scientific romances and began to turn his hand to novels of comic realism. Published in 1905, Kipps was the second work in this new phase of Wells’s career. It was a book that reminded almost everyone of Dickens: written to entertain as well as to instruct, with a well-made plot which was based, unapologetically, on extreme contrivances, it included a mixture of humour, naturalism and social criticism. Kipps was autobiographical, the tale of a poor boy that made good, yet in Wells’s novel the gaps between the creator and his protagonist are more intriguing than the correspondences. Wells’s escape route from the dungeon of working-class life was education – he won a scholarship to study with T.H. Huxley – and his literary talents fully liberated him. Kipps seeks improvement at the Folkestone Institute, but woodcarving is as far as he gets. Like Wells, he rises above his background, but the helium that lifts him is a mystifying legacy not the exertions of his brain.
The autobiographical roots of Kipps make it one of the more palatable of Well’s sociological novels, guaranteeing it an abundance and precision of detail in its recreation of working-class life, as well as a special emotional charge. Still, even with such ‘personal’ subject matter and a privileged perspective, Wells was not able to produce a work of major achievement. Under Reed’s touch, however Kipps was transformed into a small joy of a movie. All the fatty tissue of the narrative was trimmed away and the planed surfaces of the characters rounded significantly by the fine performances of Michael Redgrave as Kipps; Phyllis Calvert as Ann Pornick, Kipps’s childhood sweetheart; Diana Wynyard as Helen Walhingham, Kipps’s fiancée; and the rest of the uniformly excellent cast. No one could do much with Wells’s plot and Reed does not try. He faithfully recapitulates the story of Kipp’s early deprived years as a draper’s apprentice in Folkestone, his spectacular, Dickensian bequest, his painful initiation into genteel society at the hands of grasping Helen Walshingham, his bankruptcy, his rescue through yet another financial miracle. Even Shalford (Lloyd Pearson), Kipps’s tyrannical, rule-obsessed employer in the drapery shop, suffers the same satirical perforations as in Wells’s novel.
Despite its Victorian plot devices, there is relatively little action in Kipps, which uses its hero’s growth as its focus. The harshness of life among the lower classes is economically and entertainingly portrayed in the sequences at Shalford’s, where the clerks toll in abject servitude, with long hours and low pay, forever under their boss’s lash. The hopelessness of their predicament is obliquely expressed in the beautifully staged farewell dinner for Kipps in the basement of the establishment. The undercurrents of sadness beneath the boisterous festivities tell us not only that the drapers will miss their colleague, but that they know an incredible stroke of fortune like Kipps’s is the only possible deliverance from their melancholy, hole-in-the-corner lives. Before Kipps’s departure, we are introduced to a chubby young apprentice, who will presumably become the new Kipps, maintaining the dismal continuity of the profession.
After claiming his inheritance, Kipps’s newly prosperous standing renders him acceptable to genteel society in Folkestone. The tutorship which was cruelly and self-servingly performed by Shalford is now assumed by Helen, who snares Kipps as a fiancé, and the emblematically named Chester Coote (Max Adrian), a cultivated and unctuous gentleman of limited means who specialises in supplying cultural edification for the benighted. Coote’s hypocrisy – his main goal is to help the Walshingham family separate Kipps from his money – is clear from the beginning, yet Reed never over-dramatises it. Nor are the social and intellectual pretensions of the Coote-Walshingham circle punctured with more than efficient pinpricks. Helen apologises with hauteur when Kipps comes to visit; she longs for the wider society of London as an outlet for her creative instincts. In addition to her woodcarving, she writes poetry. The dilettantism of Coote and the Walshinghams reaches its amusing, frustrating pinnacle at Mrs Bindon Botting’s ‘anagram party’, in which Kipps shows his lack of aptitude for foolish literary games. The sequence brings Kipps face to face with Ann, his old sweetheart, who is working for Mrs Bindon Botting as a domestic, and, at last seeing the folly of his engagement to Helen, he flees with Ann.
‘Education is the great leveller’, says Coote, but Kipps refutes this point of view completely. Indeed, while the hero is being hauled uncomfortably through Coote’s pseudo-pedagogy and fraudulent self-improvement course, trying in vain to absorb the corona of knowledge and refinement that he thinks he sees radiating from Coote. Kipps is undergoing a different education, a slow, inward elucidation that helps him to see that the promptings of the heart are more important than the injunctions of fashionable society. The story isn’t so shallow as to allow Kipps an instant awakening to bourgeois phoniness. Instead, he and Ann embark on an unsatisfactory experience with the grandeur of upper-middle-class life when they attempt to build a house suitable to Kipps’s new station in life. Ultimately, the two finds happiness running a simple tobacco shop. Yet Reed never patronises his ‘little people’.
The moral superiority of the working class is demonstrated most dramatically in the contrast between Helen, who views Kipps as a rough but valuable commodity, like unrefined ore, with which to purchase her escape from stultifying Folkestone. Ann, who sees and appreciates the old ‘Artie’, the simple soul of her youth beneath the well lacquered, smartly suited Arthur Kipps. Ann’s unpretentiousness is typical of the other common folk in Kipps, whose capacity for relaxed camaraderie is the antithesis of the cold, formal relations of the gentry. To be sure, the same contrasts can be found in Wells’s novel, but in a more belaboured form. Reed, who is seldom overly insistent, never tugging at our sleeve, allows Helen to preserve her dignity throughout and even permits her a final, dolorous meeting with Kipps in which she has to inform him that her brother Ronnie (Michael Rennie), a solicitor with whom Kipps has been persuaded to entrust his money, has lost every farthing. The only character in Kipps who seems to exist outside the British caste system is Chitterlow (Arthur Riscoe), the actor who befriends Kipps and is his benefactor on two occasions. Once when he informs Kipps of the newspaper advertisement that leads the hero to his legacy and again when a play which he has cajoled Kipps into backing becomes a surprise success. Boisterous, exuberant, garishly dressed, Chitterlow leaps straight out of the cupboard of literary types: demonstrative, irresistibly colourful theatricals.
Reed gets a robust performance from Riscoe as the high-spirited actor; it’s just broad enough to be engaging but not so extravagant as to poke through the realistic fabric of the story. As Riscoe plays him, Chitterlow is egoistic in such a childlike, unassuming way that it is quite as loveable as intended. As a director of actors, Reed was near the top of his form in Kipps. Redgrave finds the halting, insecure yet good-hearted key in which Kipps must be played and never varies from it. Wynyard modulates from muted snobbery to insincerity to saddened resignation exactly on cue, and, as her accomplice, Adrian stuffs Coote with just the right amount of sanctimoniousness. Calvert, lit up with the unspoiled charm of Ann, is no less satisfying. For the first time in his career, Reed seemed in complete control of his story and characters. The cinematic qualities are kept at an unobtrusive level, and other than an unusual shot of Kipps in his night shirt seen through the letter slot in the front door, we are seldom aware of the camera’s eye or the cutting-room scissors. Kipps is a film in which nothing very great or profound is attempted, but what is undertaken – a pleasing comedy of manners – is executed flawlessly. The movie cannot be called a jewel, but it is certainly a semiprecious stone.
Carol Reed: Director
Vetchinsky: Art Direction
Arthur Crabtree: Cinematography
Cecil Beaton: Costumes
Alfred Roome: Film Editing
Louis Levy: Music Direction
Charles Williams: Original Music
Edward Black: Producer
Sidney Gilliat: Script
Michael Redgrave: Arthur Kipps
Diana Wynyard: Helen Walshingham
Arthur Riscoe: Chitterlow
Phyllis Calvert: Ann Pornick
Max Adrian: Chester Coote
Helen Haye: Mrs Walshingham
Lloyd Pearson: Shalford
Michael Wilding: Ronnie Walshingham
Edward Rigby: Buggins
Mackenzie Ward: Pearce
Hermione Baddeley: Miss Mergle