Pantomime and Cinema: Gracie Fields as Dick Whittington in ‘The Show Goes On’ (1937)

By chance I was watching Gracie Fields in The Show Goes On (Basil Dean, 1937) last week, and was delighted to see that it opens with a sequence showing the final moments of a production of Dick Whittington in the heroine’s local theatre in ‘Hindlebury’…

There aren’t any full length feature film versions of pantomimes that I know of, but British cinema sometimes alludes to the form in passing, often to create an atmosphere or convey a milieu. In Charley Moon (Guy Hamilton, 1956) for instance, it is used to indicate a low point in Charley’s career – a dreary and humiliating contradiction of the glamorous future on the stage that he had originally envisaged for himself. The opening of The Show Goes On uses pantomime differently but still very specifically. Here it functions as the very promise of that glamorous stage life – a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shine, and perhaps to escape for the film’s protagonist, Sally Scrowcroft (Gracie Fields). Sally is a local amateur – one of hundreds of local girls employed every season to fill out the cast of professionals as dancers in less demanding chorus roles (perhaps principally to display their legs, as the girls do in this sequence). There’s an analogy here with the ways that children and students of local drama schools are used up and down the country even today, and indeed that tradition of using children stretches back into the C19th – something that I plan to discuss in a future post. The film suggests that this run in the pantomime has been like a well paid holiday for Sally – a wish fulfilment fantasy that (as her father brutally reminds her in the next scene) must end on Monday morning when she goes back to the Mill and her ‘real work’. After her unexpected success in the clip above, Sally has other ideas, and encouraged by her mother she sneaks out of the house later that night to seek theatrical fame and fortune in London. At the corner of the street she stops to pet a cat as the chimes of a local church clock are heard on the soundtrack. It’s a subtle evocation of a parallel between Sally’s story and that of Dick Whittington himself, but the analogy is evoked here only to be abandoned as the film thereafter pursues its own course. Pantomime is evoked only once more after Sally arrives in London. She is forced to admit at an audition that the panto is her only theatrical experience, eliciting the contemptuous laughter of the West End chorines around her. To them, panto it seems, is associated with amateur work that is below them. But it is only in a panto, with its use of amateurs alongside professionals that Sally’s fortuitous ‘break’ could have come.

Gracie and Cat
Gracie, off to seek her fortune in London, meets a cat. From ‘The Show Goes On’ (1937)

There are a couple of other things I’d like to note about this opening scene. Obviously the pantomime it depicts is not a real pantomime – it has been created for the needs of the film – but it still contains some interesting clues as to what a provincial pantomime might have looked like in the mid 1930s. [1] The lavishness of the pantomime walk-down is still something that modern pantomimes still strive for – and is partly explained by the presence of Sally herself and the other amateurs, children and stage apprentices. The final walk-down of modern pantomimes can perhaps be read as a remnant of the ‘Grand Procession’ finales for which Augustus Harris became famous at Drury Lane at the turn of the last century. There, upwards of 300 performers might be involved, many of whom appeared only for this closing spectacular scene – which might last for up to 15 minutes and was offered as an elaborate spectacle on specific themes – Kings And Queen through the ages, perhaps, or the parade of fairy tale heroes and heroines.[2] The theme of the Dick Whittington walk down seen in the film alludes to the guild system which elects the old London Mayor. The chorines carry placards identifying them by trade – Butchers, Dyers, Fishmongers, Drapers etc . I’ve never seen this done in a modern Dick Whittington but it makes perfect sense given the way the story draws on ideas of civic pride, and the continuing strength of civic pride and guild cultures during the 1930s in the North West where the sequence is set. The curtain calls are as you’d expect – with principal dancers and comic tumblers in pearly costumes followed by the principal characters: Fitzwarren and the Dame, Idle Jack and finally after a fanfare (and a swift substitution) Dick and his cat. And Gracie produces the final poem and a final song, just as today.

The choice of pantomime rather than another kind of show for the opening of this film might also relate to Field’s own performance style and persona. Previously I’ve drawn on Richard Dyer’s account of television light entertainment, and the ways in which it compulsively draws on fantasies of earlier popular cultural moments. Dyer notes that modern mass communication technologies such as film and television have a particular problem in that their communication is only one way – there can be no feedback from the audience indicating how the performance is going down, thus the ‘performer cannot legitimately respond to it, and this seriously affects the nature [of the performance].’ One strategy they use to counteract this is to evoke the modes of live entertainment – the pub or the Northern club,

…where the jokes are deliberately drawn from the real concerns of the audience… and where the message of the compère is always: are you having a good time – aren’t we together having a good time now? [3]

Pantomime is of course such a situation, and it’s no accident that Gracie sings in this scene about how ‘we’re all good pals together’. The theme is emphasised by the fact that in this scene the local audience – made up of Sally’s family and friends – can shout at her from the auditorium and she can acknowledge them. ‘Turn your toes out!’ shouts her mother, and she does so. The film pivots around this effect, partly because as a film it isn’t able to reproduce it for its own audience. The tension between Fields’ singing to a crowd of her friends (in the pub, around the fireplace or crowded around a coffee stall) and the more artificial style of performance suggested by professional and commercial entertainments (the theatre, the cinema, broadcasting) is the engine of all of Gracie Fields’ films (one might argue, along with Jane Feuer, that it is the engine of all musicals).[4] Later  in The Show Goes On, when Gracie is trying to become a professional singer, she seems unable to acknowledge or respond to the audiences in the West End or in other, grander provincial houses – and unsuccessful performances are the result. It’s only once she returns to her home theatre in ‘Hindlebury’ that she can once again hear the encouragement and demands of her audience and transform her performance into a successful one.

Much ink has been spilt in cultural studies over the years, worrying about whether ‘artificial’ mass communication forms have damaged, destroyed or overtaken cultural traditions characterised by the two-way communication between performer and audience. It was said of Music Hall at the turn of the last century as it became more commercial, when the theatres became bigger and the circuits were introduced. Pantomime has perennially been understood to have been ‘not as good as it was’, and the introduction of Cinema and Television brought with it a whole range of further anxieties about the decline of more ‘organic’ cultures of entertainment. But today when all sorts of pantomimes are playing up and down the country, in amateur village hall productions, semi professional and independent theatre outfits, right up to the lavish spectaculars offered by the mighty Qdos chain, the audience can still make themselves heard across the footlights, and this particular communal pleasure seems to be in ruder health than ever before.



[1] The film, after all might not be strictly ‘realist’ but it still relies on the evocation of a recognisable working-class world for Sally escape from, as the attention to details like the heavy mahogany coat-stand in the hall and the brass-tipped bellows hanging by the fireplace attest.

[2] David Mayer, Harlequin in his Element (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press., 1969), p 324.

[3] Richard Dyer, Light Entertainment (London: BFI Publishing, 1973), p. 26.

[4] Jane Feuer, ‘The Self Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment’ in Cohan (ed.) Musicals: The Film Reader (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 31-40.

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