This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The British Invaders Blogathon, currently underway from August 1-3 at A Shroud of Thoughts and spotlighting the best in classic films that originated on the other side of the pond. For a list of participating blogs and the movies/topics discussed, click here.
There’s very little doubt as to the outcome of the events in Went the Day Well? (1942)—Charlie Sims (Mervyn Johns), the verger at the local church, explains in the first three minutes of the movie that the famed “Battle of Bramley End” came out all right in the wash. We then flashback to a Whitsun weekend in the sleepy little English hamlet—Whitsun being the English designation for Pentecost—where there wasn’t much going on save for a platoon of British soldiers who have arrived in Bramley under the supervision of Major Hammond (Basil Sydney). Hammond makes arrangements to billet his men, with the inhabitants most welcoming of their temporary guests.
Nora Ashton (Valerie Taylor), the vicar’s daughter, finds it curious that when the back of a telegram was used to mark down scores in a card game that took place among several soldiers—the figures were jotted down in the “Continental” manner, with elongated fives and strokes through the sevens. Nora’s suspicions are further aroused when young George Truscott (Harry Fowler) finds a chocolate bar among Hammond’s personal effects. An Austrian chocolate bar.
Wilsford is a fifth columnist, working with Hammond—whose real identity is Kommandant Orlter, and who’s on hand as the leader of a vanguard of an invasion of Britain. Oriter and his men quickly establish their authority in the blink of an eye (by killing the Reverend Ashton, Nora’s father, when he attempts to signal outside help by ringing the church bell) and inform the stunned populace that no one is leaving Bramley…and any attempts to contact anyone outside the village will be dealt with most severely. (Nazis. I hate these guys.)
The source for the script (written by John Dighton, Angus MacPhail and Diana Morgan) was a short story written by Graham (The Third Man) Greene; in “The Lieutenant Died Last,” published in the U.S. in 1940, a poacher single-handedly stymies a Nazi attempt to invade a rural English village. Dighton, MacPhail and Morgan considerably expanded the scope of Graham’s tale, though they did feature the poacher (played by Edward Rigby) as a minor character.
Despite the spoiler warning at the beginning of the movie, Went the Day Well? is a model of cinematic suspense; sure, we know the villagers eventually get the word out concerning their plight, but director Alberto Cavalcanti makes us squirm in true Hitchcockian fashion. (Cavalcanti would later go on to helm the most famous segment of the 1945 British horror anthology Dead of Night—the one with Sir Michael Redgrave and that freaking ventriloquist dummy—and the underrated 1947 noir They Made Me a Fugitive.) Two Land Army girls, Peggy Fry (Elizabeth Allan) and Ivy Dawking (Thora Hird), manage to scrawl a message of help onto an egg that is placed in a box with other hen fruit and handed off to a boy delivering newspapers by bicycle. The paperboy is sideswiped by a car on its way to Bramley, and the eggs wind up smashed. This sets up the next attempt: the driver of the car is a woman named Maud Chapman (Hilda Bayley), who’s there to pay her dowager cousin Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr) a visit. Fraser manages to smuggle a note to her cuz in the pocket of her jacket, but Maud uses the paper to steady a rattling window on the passenger side of her automobile. (The paper later becomes dislodged and is devoured in the backseat by Maud’s dog.)
Held hostage in her home by one of the German soldiers, she springs into action by throwing pepper into the Nazi’s eyes and dispatches him to the Great Beyond with the help of an axe. She then tries to ring for help but her call is ignored by a gossipy phone operator from a neighboring town…and by the time chatty Gertrude returns to the desperate woman she’s met the business end of a German bayonet.
Most scholars are in agreement that by the time of the movie’s release, that scenario was highly unlikely. Still, the movie continues to exert its influence; the 1971 feature film version of the hit Britcom Dad’s Army (as well as a couple of episodes of the series) covers similar ground as well as the 1972 novel The Eagle Has Landed, which was brought to the big screen in 1977. The mention of “the Home Guard” in the film kind of made me smile because I couldn’t help but think of what Dad’s Army fans call “The Magnificent Seven”…though I would be remiss in pointing out that what happens to the Guard in Went the Day Well? is far more savage than any of the shenanigans that befell Captain Mainwaring and Company.
(“Went the day well?/We died and never knew/But, well or ill/Freedom, we died for you”) It’s been off the radar screens of most classic film buffs—but according to TCM oracle Robert Osborne, it was one of the surprise hits of the TCM Film Festival in 2011…and recently premiered on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in April of this year. Bobby Osbo and guest programmer Glenn Taranto noted that with the exception of Leslie Banks (subversively cast as the treacherous Wilsford in light of his heroics in 1935’s Sanders of the River) and Mervyn Johns (Glynis’ pop; he’s also in Dead of Night) most of the British thesps will be unfamiliar to us Yanks; but I recognized Dame Thora, or course, as well as Patricia Hayes (as the postmistress’ assistant) and David Farrar (Black Narcissus). (James Donald and Dad’s Army’s Private Godfrey, Arnold Ridley, also appear in bit parts.)
It’s unquestionably one of the finest war films I’ve ever watched, a masterful blend of comedy and suspense…and the next time it makes the rounds again on Turner Classic Movies, I suggest you make an appointment to see it.