The British industry in 1938 was a time of turmoil. The interwar years had seen a boom and bust approach to building up a national film identity. The central Government had seen fit to intervene in what was a failing industry. The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 set down the law to ensure a certain amount of home-grown films would be shown in theatres—in 1927, it was demanded that at least 7.5% of all films shown would be British, by 1935 this figure was adapted to 20%. However, economic limitations ensured that British studios could not compete in terms of budget or the major stars that the Stateside studios—such as reigning kings MGM—commanded. What followed was an outpouring of low-budget British produced features—labelled quota quickies—that did little to establish a British identity in film, just acting as a fast turnaround to make up the numbers. By 1938, after a brief boom period, things were on the decline; which left behind a sea of mediocre long forgotten titles, in a largely uncharacteristic chapter in the history of the British film industry. Black Limelight (1938) is a film that appears to have little background or history, and on this basis could very well be one such a film. Directed by Paul L Stein—a director with a respectable amount of obscure works in his filmography—this would seem to be the perfect example of a quota quickie. The film was adapted from a successful 1936 play written by Gordon Sherry, but, while the play appears to have been held in high regard by critics at the time, little seems to have been written about the film. Although not a highly memorable example from this period, the film is not without some merit. This latest DVD release from Network provides the perfect opportunity to dip into some of the lesser-known British film history territory.The story focuses on the death of a Lily James, at the hands of a serial killer who appears to commit murder within the cycles of the moon. Her illicit lover, Paul Charrington, flees the murder scene and becomes the main suspect. Paul has a doting wife Mary and two angelic children at home, and the police start to focus on the family homestead as a possible way of trapping the killer. Paul’s wife is adamant her husband did not commit the murder, and, after picking up on a series of clues, sets about solving the mystery herself and clearing her husband’s name.
The film is interesting for a number of reasons. First, for the dark themes during a time dominated by light-hearted comedies contained within. Black Limelight differs greatly from the cinematic output of the time—with some notable exceptions; including the work of Alfred Hitchcock, who was at that point still working on British soil. The film does deal with controversial topics, such as a murderer who slays women and children by the light of the full moon. On this level, there is a certain appeal for those who like a classically styled thriller with a dark edge. Although not explicit, there is a memorable scene which could almost be described as proto-gialloesque. The silhouette of a killer is shown—wearing a hat and with their face obscured—creeping up on a female victim—who is clad only in a bathrobe—before she is strangled in the dark. Another aspect of note is that the victim, Lily James, is played by Coral Browne, a prolific British actress who went on to marry horror icon Vincent Price. For those familiar with Browne’s work in the cult favourite Theatre of Blood (1973), this is a different actress as the one featured in the aforementioned film. Here presented as a young, glamorous, and sultry, Coral Brown in Black Limelight will definitely have some curiosity value for fans of the actress and her husband, Price.On the surface it would seem Black Limelight is a film that wants to push the boundaries. We have a philandering husband and his lover. The flashback scenes between them show Lily changing from her bathing suit, letting her strap fall from her shoulder to expose her flesh. Later, a rather risqué for the time shot appears of her under garments sliding down her bare legs as the camera pans to the discarded clothing on the floor. This conveys themes of illicit sex and temptation. There is also the subject of murder and descriptions of the killing of children. Despite this flirting with boundaries, the film also has a lot to say about conservative 1930’s marital politics than immediately apparent. Paul’s wife, even after the explicit details of his affair are described to her, remains vehemently insistent she will remain by his side. Overlooking his misdemeanour and blaming herself for his actions there lays a subliminal message that wives must remain loyal to their husbands. Mary refuses to accept her husband could be a killer—regardless of the fact it has been made brutally apparent he has systematically lied and deceived her time and again. While Mary is pitted as the hero of the piece for staying a strong and loyal wife, Lily, on the other hand, is painted as a woman of loose morals, and therefore little sympathy is conveyed in the subtext over her untimely death. The character of Paul is portrayed almost as a victim, a man wrongly accused, thus supporting the notion that his wife must stand by him. There also appears to be a hidden message tucked in there that husbands need to remain at home with their families and not mix with women of questionable morals; running the risk of finding themselves in deep water if they do. Intentional or not, this angle does provide some interesting commentary on 1930’s values surrounding marriage and family. This aspect also gives the film a British feel in contrast to some of its contemporaries that in comparison were seen as pale copies of American films. There is a distinct flavor of the good old British “keep calm and carry on” attitude that, at times, provides a thought-provoking window into the outdated sexual politics of interwar British couples. The performances are fairly well balanced across the board—with the exception of one actor—, much of the focus being placed on Joan Marion as Mary. Her performance is noteworthy, ranging from hysterical to strong-willed (albeit with a lack of shock concerning her husband’s behaviour). Marion provides an endearing portrayal of a woman caught up in the restraints of her time and place, successfully conveying the fear of losing her family and security. Browne, on the other hand, is the anti-thesis of Marion’s character, the loose woman with little regard for convention. Bathed in chiaroscuro lighting, sexy and commanding, Browne’s performance carves out the perfect warning to those men who may be tempted by their uncontrollable lust. There are some minor characters in the Charrington’s range of housemaids, who pop up from time to time to offer in some quirky British humour that seems at odds with the rest of the context. While all these performances are all reasonably solid, the casting of Raymond Massey as Paul appears a little misguided. The actor who would be nominated for an academy award just two years later—for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Abe Lincoln of Illinois—fails to summon any presence in this role. Appearing mainly disinterested and lacking any emotion, he leaves the bulk of the drama to play out through Marion’s performance in lieu. For a film that is 76 years old, this release by Network seems to have provided a great attempt at restoring the print onto a digital format. The film does demonstrate organic damage, for example, crackles and dust on the print, however nothing so major that it could be counted as distracting. The film is dark—especially when you consider a lot of the scenes take place at nighttime, under the light of the moon—yet the detail remains clear. At no point does it become difficult to see what is going on. In line with the restored print, the sound is fairly well balanced. There are odd hisses or pops here and there but again nothing noteworthy. When you consider the age of the film it is fair to say this is a decent restoration. The only extra on the disc is a gallery of stills, however given the obscurity of the title, and its age, this is to be expected. Although not one of the most memorable titles from the interwar period for British films, Black Limelight is a curious film nevertheless. Regardless of its flaws and weaknesses, the film does have some noteworthy points, including its social subtext on 1930’s marriage. The inclusion of a young Coral Browne in the cast is also sure to be an item of importance to some. The dark themes contained within the central plot carry some fairly appealing concepts—such as the killing by method of moon cycles (a theme that has been reused in later films), and the M.O of the killer that contains aspects that appear to foreshadow the giallo. Now, restored by Network, it is the perfect opportunity to dip into an arena of lesser-known British cinema. Although not perfect, this is a fairly entertaining title nonetheless.