A very ambitious post-war production (a British-made Hollywood-style spectacular), London Town is one of the most notorious flops in UK cinema history. Made in colour by an imported American producer/director, in a studio which had to be virtually rebuilt from the ground up, it completely underwhelmed critics and audiences and took years to recoup its cost. Its reputation has never been salvaged and this is a shame because it contains a record of one of the most famous and influential comedians of the 1940's, Sid Field.
After a quarter of a century slogging round provincial theatres, Field triumphed in a London show called 'Strike a New Note' in 1943. He was an 'overnight' sensation and his character comedy was hugely admired by – it seems – everyone who saw him, from the Royal family and General Eisenhower, to soldiers bound for the war in Europe. (Eisenhower said Field was “worth a division” in boosting the morale of his troops). Fellow professionals revered him. On a visit to Hollywood in 1948 he was welcomed by Charles Chaplin (who not only invited Sid to his home, but invited him back for a return visit, an almost unprecedented privilege) Cary Grant, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope, who said Field was the greatest comedian he ever saw. He was a huge influence on the next generation of British comedians, such as Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise. Even Laurence Olivier said he “borrowed” from Field “freely and unashamedly”.
Today Field has dropped from public consciousness. He died at the tragically early age of 45 in 1950, before television had become a mass medium, and after making just one more film. With no record for posterity, his reputation simply faded away.
Had London Town been a greater success, things might have been different. As it is, its only saving grace is that it records several of Field's sketches - which are the liveliest part of the whole show.
What went wrong? Field was an overnight success in London, so he was made to star in a film about a comedian becoming an overnight success in London, as if the film-makers were playing safe with him. This was unnecessary because Field comes across as a very warm personality, with a melodious, even gentle, voice. He could have easily played a more demanding role. His last great stage success was playing Elwood P. Dowd in 'Harvey', so he was no slouch as an actor.
Then there are the production numbers which land with a thud every 25 minutes or so. Twenty minutes in there is an Agnes (sister-of-Cecil-B) de Mille ballet, no less. This drags on for seven minutes. At 55 minutes there is a huge choral number, at 70 minutes a big location scene on the Thames, at 88 minutes another big choral number, then a final sequence taking up the last quarter of an hour of the two-hour running time.
London Town could have been a good 90-100 minute film, but these wodges of 'spectacle' kill its momentum stone dead. Worse, they prevent any kind of character development. After three months as an understudy, everybody thinks Jerry Sanford (Field) is a great guy and wants him to succeed, and Kay Kendall is falling in love with him. Where did that come from? Entertainer Tessie O'Shea, meanwhile, appears in the show-in-the-film, but is never a character in the film itself.
The numbers are also not cinematic, they are very stage-bound (maybe a case of being overambitious with limited production facilities). In a Busby Berkeley film, a nightclub stage will miraculously attain the dimensions of an aircraft hangar, and there will be camera effects and geometric choreography which could never be seen by a live audience. Here the production is doggedly theatrical until the last number but, by then, who cares?
(The last number with its Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens is an embarrassing attempt to be 'British' by the director, like the river scene near Windsor Castle set on a boat called 'Britannia'.)
How does Sid Field emerge from the wreckage? As I said before, he comes across as very warm and likeable. He has genuine chemistry with Petula Clark as his daughter, who has said many times what a lovely man he was and how much she enjoyed working with him.
As for the sketches, based on what I have read, I would say we get Sid Field at something less than 20% of his potential. By all accounts he was an incredible live performer. Even sixty years later people who saw him could remember how he delivered a line, made a move or gave a look. In the studio Field could only go through the motions for technicians who could not laugh because it would ruin a take. The performances are therefore given cold but give a tantalising glimpse at some of his talent as a character comedian (the photographer juggling the plate to grab the largest cake is a superb piece of business). They are the best thing in the film, but are dotted about in the stodge of those production numbers.
The material itself is of its time and some is very camp. (For explanation, camp humour is flamboyant and can be suggestive of homosexuality; Paul Lynde was a camp US comedian.) This does not make it offensive to gay men. What is offensive, however, is Kay Kendall's aside at the close of the film assuring the audience Sid was only acting – just in case we thought he was 'one of those'.
Watching the golfing sketch you only have to imagine Ernie Wise teaching Eric Morecambe to play to see how Field influenced their work throughout their careers. This was Field's true legacy, not this bloated turkey. For nostalgia buffs it remains our only record of Slasher Green, Eustace Bollinger, photographer Sidney and the hapless golfer. The rest of Field's work must remain frustratingly beyond our reach.