Talking Pictures

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Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2009

Ealing Studios 1952.

Directed Alexander Mackendrick: Produced by Leslie Norman: Script by Jack Whittingham, Nigel Balchin from the novel by Hilda Lewis. Photography by Douglas Slocombe. Art Direction by Jim Morahan: Music by William Alwyn: Edited by Seth Holt.

This is a fine, classic production by Ealing and reflects many of the values of the studio and its members. It is a family melodrama but also falls within the social problem movie genre.

Harry and Christine [Kit to her husband] Garland have a baby daughter, Mandy (Mandy Miller). Gradually they come to realise that she is deaf. Rather than place her in an ‘institution’ for deaf children, they move into the home of Harry’s parents, where a home tutor attempts to teach Mandy sign language. Christine becomes increasingly desperate about her daughter’s disability and consequent isolation from other children. The grandparents exacerbate the situation, with the father-in-law remote and unsympathetic and the mother-in-law exercising undue influence on her son.

Partly instigated by her friend Lily (Eleanor Summerfield] Christine visits a residential school, for the deaf headed by Dick Searle (Jack Hawkins). Against the wishes of Harry, Mandy is placed in the school. She makes little progress at first, so Christine moves to a flat in the area and Mandy becomes a day pupil. She also receives extra tuition in the evenings from Dick Searle. Now she starts to make progress, to lip-read, relate to other children and eventually to articulate sounds and words. The most powerful moment is when she says ‘mama’ to Christine. Significantly it is Dick who is present on this occasion rather than Harry.

A sub-plot deals with antagonism between Searle and one of the school governors, Ackland (Edward Chapman). This leads to accusation that there is an affair between Searle and Christine.

The climax has Harry taking Mandy home from the flat at night. Christine and Dick arrive at his parents’ home next morning and an argument begins between the two men, with the women left standing in the hallway. Whilst this takes place Mandy visits the room of her grandfather who is poring over his chessboard. He suddenly realises that she is articulating the letter ‘p’. He goes downstairs and resolves the argument, convincing Harry that Mandy is benefiting from the school. Meanwhile Mandy wanders from the garden to a nearby wasteland where other children are playing. As Christine and Harry watch she tells the other children her name and joins in the play.

The final long shot from Mandy

The final long shot from Mandy

Whilst the film involves family and romantic melodrama the main focus is on the struggle of the mother to free her daughter from the chains of deafness and muteness. There are a number of sequences where we watch the teachers and the deaf children in class and play activities. Dick Searle is given several scenes where he holds forth about the progressive way to teach deaf children and the liberation this can bring. He is supported by retired previous head teacher, Miss Price (Nancy Ellis), who is herself deaf.

In his excellent study Ealing Studio, Charles Barr discusses the film in some detail, drawing particular comparisons with another film by Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit. That was a film about an inventor and the disruption he brings to a cotton factory in the north of England. But Barr convincingly argues that the film actually comments on the limitations and repressions of wider British society. He comments on Mandy:

“Though the film is certainly ‘about’ the education of the deaf in a serious way. its reference is wider: Mandy stands for all children, for the potential locked up inside the new (English) generation, all of whom have, after all, to learn to com­municate and to relate to others.”

In his analysis he traces the fears and repression that frustrate the struggle of Christine and her daughter. He draws out the repressive relationships in the film:

“it works towards an image of the repressive structure of the family. The centre of gravity again shifts back, from the confused father to the grandfather­, semi-invalid, a force of inertia, but still retaining authority. (He is played by Godfrey Tearle, a magistrate in his previous Ealing film and a bishop in his next one.)”

These family structures are re-inforced visually in the film. There are constant reminders in the way that Christine and Mandy are framed and restrained within the film. There are a number of shots of them from behind bars, including Mandy’s playpen, and also through doorways and windows. Early in the film we see the family in their own home, a compact but comfortable middle class house of the period. The move to the home of Harry’ parents introduces us to a stately mansion. It is less integrated into a community and the family is given rooms at the top of the house, farther away from others. And there is close-up of Mandy behind the playpen bars, darker than the earlier shot in her own home. At the rear of the house is a garden, fronted by a wall, top by barbed wire. It feels that it is forbidden to cross it. Beyond this is an open area, presumably resulting from war damage, where other children play. Early in the film Mandy ventures out here and narrowly misses being knocked down by a passing van. It is here, at the climax that her final re-integration into the child community occurs.

Barr describes this moment,

“Moving from dark to light, it conveys Harry’s enlightenment, the release of seeing.”

In fact, light and darkness also form a visual motif in the film. A subtle precursor of the ending occurs when Christine is trying to ascertain if Mandy cannot hear. She opens and shuts her nursery door and Mandy appears to respond to the noise. Then Christine realises that it is actually the change from shadows to light. As the problems and desperation of Christine increase there are more frequent scenes cast in shadow. There is a distinct feel of the style of film noir in some sequences: in one scene of an argument Harry is lit from behind in stark silhouette. We also see Mandy’s travails in her early days at the school, when she wakens at night frightened in the school dormitory. The meetings between Dick and Christine, which give rise to the charge of adultery, are mainly at night. This includes going out for a meal and leaving Mandy with a child-minder: the very evening that Harry comes to visit.

The themes of darkness and entrapment, and of characters breaking free from their inhibitions and prejudices, gives great power to the resolution of the film. As Mandy ventures into the world of children Harry and Christine look on. The camera uses a reverse crane into a high angle shot. This provides the spectator with an omniscient view as both family and community harmony are restored.

One of the common resolutions to family melodramas is ‘Lets go home’. An erring or missing family member returns to the home and the larger unit. In Mandy the return home occurs before the final climax, and seems a negative experience. Harry bundles up Mandy and takes her home by the night train. When Christine appears next morning, accompanied by Dick, an argument immediately starts. Then, after the restoration of some sort of family harmony we follow Mandy as she joins the local children. Here, the story moves beyond the limited confines of the family to integration in a wider community. This is one aspect that seems to give so much force to the film’s closure.

It is important to note though that these positive values are set within the limitation of the 1950s British culture. In the film Christine is presented as a strong and committed character fighting for her daughter. It is her voice that introduces the story and presents the problem of the film Mandy’s deafness. But her voice over disappears early in the film, when we move to the institution. As a student pointed out, this could relate to Mandy gradually acquiring her own voice. However, it also can be related to the film’s ending. Harry in his comments, suggests that Christine tends to the hysterical and sees results that are not really there. Thus the final integration of Mandy seems an affirmation of Christine’s position. However, as Mandy approaches the other children Christine makes to follow her, in a protective manner. It is Harry who stops her, saying wait and placing restraining hand on her arm. H repeats the gesture when Christine makes to follow Mandy as she joints in the children’s’ play. The resolution of the film would seem to re-affirms the dominance of masculine power, both in the person of the grandfather and then of the husband. In fact, once the grandfather has stirred himself to reassert some authority then Harry follows his example. Pointedly, Dick Searle, who whilst an abrasive character, is the most progressive male in the film, becomes redundant. He smiles on the liberated Mandy and her parents, then turns to go. His own problems with the trustees of the school are left unresolved, though the audience can assume they will be sorted in his interest. Partly because of these contradictions Mandy remains a moving and powerful parable, and also an interesting reflection of 1950s British culture.

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