They Came to a City
They Came to a City – 1944 | 78 mins | Fantasy, Drama | B&W
Basil Dearden‘s film was a more or less literal screen interpretation of a J.B. Priestley play, They Came to a City, which even used the same West End stage cast. It is a tract for socialism, presented in allegorical form, with a motley group of people drawn to the gates of a city wherein poverty, exploitation, slums, class distinctions and the profit motive have all been abolished. The trick is to guess which of those present will accept this Utopia. Certainly not the upper-class Lady Loxfield (Mabel Terry Lewis) or the irascible aristocrat Sir George Gedney (A.E. Matthews). A hen-pecked bank clerk (Raymond Huntley) would like to stay there, but his selfish wife (Renee Gadd) will not allow him. There is nothing there for Cudworth, the businessman (Norman Shelley). Joe, a seaman (John Clements) and Alice, a waitress (Googie Withers) might fit in but, having met and fallen in love, they feel their role is to go back and extol the virtues of Utopia to the rest of the world. Only Lady Loxfield’s repressed daughter (Frances Rowe) and Mrs Batley, a charwoman (Ada Reeve), eventually stay.
The sole concession to the cinema was the addition of a prologue and epilogue featuring J.B. Priestley himself talking to a young couple (Ralph Michael and Brenda Bruce) on a hillside overlooking some British industrial city. Otherwise, the film’s action – if that is not a misnomer – is confined to stylistic sets. It is one of Ealing’s most unsatisfactory films, a venture into an area that would be fairly difficult for any filmmaker, but one which for this studio, with its tradition of realism and a view of ordinary lives, was a disaster. Priestley’s radicalism was based on the concept of universal friendship, but this play failed to offer any ideas as to how his Utopia could be achieved. And because we are never given a chance to see inside the city we have no way of knowing whether its idealism works or not. Priestley took strong exception to John Clements playing the hero, a reaction that turned out to be mutual when the actor was denied the opportunity of speaking the last lines of the play, which came from Whitman and provided the title: “I dreamed in a dream I saw a City, invisible to the attack of the whole of the rest of the Earth. I dreamed that it was a new city of Friends.” Instead, the last shot is of Priestley himself.
Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.
Basil Dearden: Director
Michael Relph: Art Direction
Sidney Cole: Associate Producer
Stan Pavey: Cinematography
Michael Truman: Editing
Michael Balcon: Producer
Basil Dearden: Script
Sidney Cole: Script