On The Ladykillers and what "classic" actually means

February 1, 2018

The Ladykillers may seem like a strange film to launch this season of Smokescreen, but it represents much of the tone of this year’s program. It is dark and absurd, archetypal of a number of cinema tropes and styles (black comedy, British cinema, the caper) and it is one of those ‘Classic’ films that we may have heard of, but never quite got around to seeing.


For me, this is one of the fascinating aspects of the idea of the "classic" - how few of us actually watch these films.  We are told repeatedly how classic these films are. We may even refer to them as classics ourselves, but, be honest, how many of these so-called classic films have we actually seen? I’m a cinema lover and I admit I’ve never sat through Gone with the Wind or Casablanca.


Why haven’t I seen them? The idea of a classic implies some sort of universality; that the film (or any creative output) exists beyond ‘taste,’ beyond ‘fashion,’ beyond the whims of a fickle audience. But if these classics have moved to some otherworldly plane of timelessness, who put them there, and why, and how do we know if the films we are watching today will ascend to the celestial plane of the classic?


This year the Smokescreen program will survey some of these mystifying "classics," films that have been elevated up above the hoi polloi and signalled out for acclaim. Over the year, this blog will try to unravel and think about the value of labelling something a “classic.”


So why should The Ladykillers be included in a list of classics? While moderately successful on its release in 1955, it was produced by a failing English film studio (Ealing Studios) that was bought out by the BBC later that same year. While popular awareness of the film is not high, it is regularly included on lists of the best comedies of all time (in 2010 the Guardian newspaper listed it as the 5th best comedy of all time).


For me, The Ladykillers is a classic because it represents transition, capturing a moment of change, where the once powerful are now weakened, its pathos, its bittersweetness. 


The Ladykillers might be the epitome of English Comedy; it is dark and genteel, dry and absurdist, it navigates the perfect tightrope of eccentricity and relatability.  The best British Comedies are often about Britishness itself and The Ladykillers is no different - it is an ironic joke about the condition of postwar England. After the war, the country was going through a kind of quiet revolution; the great days of the Empire gone for ever, British society was shattered with the same kind of conflicts appearing in many other countries: an impoverished and disillusioned upper class, a brutalized working class, juvenile delinquency, and a collapse of "intellectual" leadership. All of these threatened the stability of the national character.


There is general agreement among leading writers on Ealing Studios, that the film charts this changing Britain. First, the cluttered old house, standing alone at the end of the cul-de-sac overlooking the railway yards, symbolizes decrepit England in extremis, waiting to collapse. Second, the gang, who personify the country’s feeble, grasping, self-deluded citizens. Third, the confidently Victorian Mrs Wilberforce, with her resonant name suggesting 19th-century certainties, embodies the faded grandeur of the industrial revolution and the British Empire that is holding the nation back. 


In 1955, the year that The Ladykillers was made and Ealing Studios was sold, a plaque was erected on the side of the studio buildings “Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character."  It’s up to us, the audience, to discover what The Ladykillers may tell us about ‘Britishness’



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