February 21, 2017


The Stars Look Down – 1939 | 110mins | Drama | B&W

Plot Synopsis

The Stars Look Down

The Stars Look Down is an adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s 1935 novel of the same name, the film required an expensive production that, apart from Korda’s opuses, was uncommon in England at the time. Isidore Goldsmith, an independent producer, was able to raise the then enormous sum of 100 000, and the project went forward under the aegis of Grafton, a small production company. The financing was sufficient to permit six days of shooting at a real coal mine, St Helens Siddick Colliery at Workington in Cumberland, a coal-rich section of north-east England. Then came seven weeks of shooting at Twickenham Studios in London, where an elaborate mine-head was simulated. Later the set was moved to Shepperton Studios for an additional week of shooting. The original set of the mine-head was used to make up a huge composite set of 40,000 square yards – claimed to be the largest exterior set constructed for a British film. The set consisted of an exact replica of the Workington mine where the location work had been done; a pit-head complete with cage, ramp, outer buildings, and rows of miners’ cottages. Using three camera crews, shooting on this set lasted for a week. To guarantee reality pit ponies from the Cumberland mines were used and the miners’ costumes were clothes purchased from colliery workers.

Cronin’s novel is divided into three parts and covers a broad expanse of time and subject matter. The idealistic young David Fenwick’s rise from his lowly beginnings in the Sleescale colliery to a university education and a career in public life; his election to Parliament. The parallel rise of unscrupulous Joe Gowlan, who eventually replaces Fenwick in office, the problems of mine owner Barras, one of the more progressive captains of industry, whose son becomes a conscientious objector in the First World War; the love triangle of Fenwick, Jenny and Joe. Clearly the chief appeal of the Cronin work for Reed was its naturalism, a tendency which he had been carefully nurturing in his own work. Stars is most impressive when it concentrates on the lives of the poor mining folk. The opening sequence, a deftly edited montage of Sleescale, a typical mining town, is practically a miniature essay in itself. A few judiciously selected shots tell all – the look of the colliery; the dirty ‘residential’ streets of the community; the grim monotony of’ the miners’ homes, as grey and regular and joyless as a collection of tiny blockhouses.

A brief confrontation between Burras, the mineowner (Allan Jeayes) and Robert Fenwick (Edwin Rigby), the unofficial leader of the miners and father of the movie’s hero, establishes the film’s basic conflict with true cinematic economy. The workers refuse to work without adequate safeguards in the potentially rich section of the mine known as Scupper Flats, which Fenwick knows to be vulnerable to flooding. During the strike that follows, Reed enhances our understanding of the inhabitants of Sleescale by focusing on the Fenwick family. In a necessary simplification of the novel, the siblings are reduced from three to two, David (Michael Redgrave), the young scholar and idealist, and Hughie (Demston Tester), the buoyant, good natured football star. Under Reed’s hand, the two are as sharply and unmistakably distinguished as this description would suggest. The parents, Robert and Martha (Nancy Price), are set off in subtler opposition. Each values his dignity, but measures it by a different yardstick. For Fenwick the greatest degradation is being shamed before his co-workers or bowing to the yoke of the bosses. For Martha, it is being unable to feed her family and seeing her credit rudely rejected by the local merchants. The expression on her proud, weather-beaten face when Ramage, the butcher (Edmund Willard), brusquely dismisses her is a wonderful portrait of sublimated pain.

After David, in a remarkable coincidence, meets his old boyhood friend Joe Gowlan (Ernlyn Williams) and his unwanted mistress Jenny Sunley (Margaret Lockwood) in Tynecastle, there is nothing for the audience to do but watch the story run through its well-worn grooves. Joe’s abandonment of Jenny; her subsequent seduction of David; their hasty marriage and unhappy life together back in Sleescale, where David must accept a demeaning teaching job to support his frivolous, self-indulgent bride. When Joe also returns to Sleescale, it is only a matter of time before David’s domestic woes are compounded by his wife’s infidelity.

It is this final calamity, which Reed sensibly shifted from the early portion of Cronin’s story to the end that redeems the movie, restoring it to the sharp-eyed realism of the first scenes. Although the catastrophe is far too inevitable for its own good, Reed stages it splendidly. The on rushing tides invade every passageway and corridor, savagely devouring men and machines alike. The melding of excitement and terror as the men rush frantically for safety is cinematic action at its best. The desperate rescue attempts, intercut with bits of dialogue among the doomed miners, are handled with a delicacy and restraint that has no, the miners’ morale, fairly high at first, droops little by little each time the camera rediscovers them. The death of a small boy who was making his first trip into the mine is followed by an impromptu funeral chant (‘I am the light of the world . . .’). Knowing), he is missing the football game that might have changed his life, Hughie feverishly beats a rescue signal against the wall with a rock, as scenes of the game are superimposed. Up above, the rescue teams descend into the mine and emerge, while tense wives and children wait silently for news. Reed’s editing and direction invest the disaster with the sad glow of real tragedy.

Production Team

Carol Reed: Director
James Carter: Art Direction
Mutz Greenbaum: Cinematography
Henry Harris: Cinematography
Reginald Black: Film Editing
Hans May: Music
Isadore Goldsmith: Producer
JB Williams: Script


Michael Redgrave: Davey Fenwick
Margaret Lockwood: Jenny Sunley
Emlyn Williams: Joe Gowlan
Nancy Price: Martha Fenwick
Edward Rigby: Robert Fenwick
Allan Jeayes: Richard Barras
Cecil Parker: Stanley Millington
Milton Rosmer: Harry Nugent

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