Cast & Crew
After mill worker Jess Oakroyd is forced to leave home, he becomes friends with shy Elizabeth Trant, music teacher Inigo Jollifant and traveling minstrel Morton Mitcham. The foursome join forces with a floundering theatrical troupe that stars ambitious singer Susie Dean. The players christen themselves "The Good Companions," and after overcoming various trials and tribulations, Susie becomes a star and finds love with Inigo, and the other members also realize their dreams.
The Good Companions
"It's not the kind of girl I am -- especially before tea."
Jessie Matthews, blocking a pass from John Gielgud in The Good Companions
And that was about racy as The Good Companions, the 1933 British musical got (unless one can find something salacious about the sight of a backlit Jessie Matthews -- all youthful exuberance and innocence -- dancing in a diaphanous gown). Of course, unlike Hollywood films of the early '30s, The Good Companions didn't try to take advantage of early loopholes in the Production Code and its administration. In fact, the film's biggest censorship concern related to language, and the fact that off-screen the leading lady was a divorcee.
The 1929 novel had been J.B. Priestley's first success, a fond look back at an earlier time in England when the major entertainment was touring Pierrot shows (musical productions featuring a sad clown adapted from the French mime and Italian commedia dell'arte). Priestley and American playwright Edward Knoblock adapted it to the stage in 1931, where it became a major hit, with John Gielgud starring as an out-of-work music teacher who, along with a wealthy spinster and a lonely jack-of-all-trades, helps turn a failing Pierrot show into a hit touring company called "The Good Companions."
Gaumont-British picked up the film rights and scheduled the production as the second in their newly refurbished studios in Lime Grove. As director they assigned Victor Saville, a fast-rising filmmaker considered second only to Alfred Hitchcock. The first challenge was distilling Priestley's thousand-page novel into a workable screenplay. The stage version helped him figure out how to compress the material, but he also had to make changes to accommodate the film medium, including changing the troupe's gradual success, relayed in the book through the slow accumulation of details as they learn more about show business, to a sudden burst of luck when rain forces summer vacationers to go to the theatre for lack of anything better to do.
Saville drew his cast from the London stage, casting Gielgud from the original production in his first starring film role. He wanted to cast Jessie Matthews as the troupe's leading lady, but had to convince her first. Although a hit on stage, Matthews had not yet matched that success in films and was convinced that she didn't photograph well. After commissioning some glamorous photos to prove otherwise, he finally told her, "You're a hell of a good actress, just act as though you knew you were a very attractive female."
For the film's other leading male character, the Yorkshire man who becomes the company's "roadie," he cast Henry Ainley, an experienced actor who had grown up in Yorkshire. Shortly into filming, however, Ainley was felled with a case of shingles. He had to content himself with recording the film's opening narration. Saville appealed to another top actor, Edmund Gwenn, to take the role, though Gwenn first demanded two days to prepare. During that time, he went to Yorkshire and hung out with the factory workers there to master the dialect. He also paid a large sum to buy one man's wardrobe, so he would look right for the part.
Saville completed the demanding production, which included not just musical numbers but a climactic theatre fire that almost destroys the touring company, with few problems. Working with cameraman Bernard Knowles, he achieved some particularly striking lighting effects with which he created a genuine backstage atmosphere for the seedy theaters in which the troupe starts out. The climactic scene, in which Matthews triumphs in a partly burned out theatre, was equally well lit.
The Good Companions was the first film to be given a command performance for the British royal family. The occasion was a benefit matinee for one of Queen Mary's charities. First the film had to be screened for the Marchioness of Londonderry, the lady-in-waiting who supervised the charity for the queen and was charged with making sure the picture contained nothing unsuitable. This was no small concern for Saville, as the script, mirroring Priestley's attempt to capture working-class language, included the word "bloody," a swear word the British find particularly offensive (its inclusion in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion had created a scandal in 1912). When the screening was over, Saville looked at the Marchioness and asked if the line would be a problem. "Oh, no," she said. "The king likes a bit of swearing."
At the screening, Priestley and Saville were presented to the king and queen. In the days before the yearly command performance included a public receiving line, they had to meet the monarchs in a specially created private box (with its own washroom) that had been set up so they could watch the film without being stared at by the audience. But although her musical number provided some of the film's high points, Matthews was excluded from the meeting because she had been divorced. At the time, the king, who also was considered head of the Church of England, could not officially acknowledge divorced people.
That was the only disappointment Matthews faced in relation to The Good Companions. Although she does not enter the film until about halfway through, her performance made her a film star. She and Saville would remain close friends the rest of their lives, and he would direct some of her biggest hits, including Evergreen (1934), in which the song "Dancing on the Ceiling" ("He dances overhead on the ceiling near my bed") created major censorship problems, and First a Girl (1935), one of the inspirations for Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria (1982).
Producer: T.A. Welsh, George Pearson
Director: Victor Saville
Screenplay: W.P. Lipscomb, Angus MacPhail, Ian Dalrymple
Based on the novel by J.B. Priestley and the play by Priestley and Edward Knoblock
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Music: Louis Levy
Principal Cast: Jessie Matthews (Susie Dean), Edmund Gwenn (Jess Oakroyd), John Gielgud (Inigo Jollifant), Mary Glynne (Miss Trant), Percy Parsons (Morton Mitcham), A.W. Baskcomb (Jimmy Nunn), Finlay Currie (Monte Mortimer), Ivor Barnard (Eric Tipstead), Jack Hawkins (Albert), Max Miller (Millbrau), George Zucco (Fauntley), Henry Ainley (Narrator of Prologue).
by Frank Miller
Evergreen: Victor Saville in His Own Words by Roy Moseley
The Good Companions
The copyright catalog refers to this picture as a "Gaumont-British-Welsh-Pearson," and modern sources credit T. A. Welsh and George Pearson as the producers. The film was released in Great Britain by Gaumont-British at a running time of 100 min.