January 1, 2015

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Stars: John Sweet, Sheila Sim, Eric Portman

What it's about. Set in the English countryside during World War II. Sgt Bob Johnson (John Sweet) is one of many American soldiers in England in preparation for D-Day. Johnson is enjoying a three-day pass but exits the train on the wrong stop, in the fictional village of Chillingbourne, near Canterbury.

The train won't come again until tomorrow, so Johnson must spend the night there. Because it is a movie, he promptly encounters a beautiful young woman walking alone. She has been ambushed by the "glue man," an ultimately harmless local eccentric whose identity is unknown. He has doused her hair in glue, a prank he has pulled on several other occasions in recent months.

The beautiful young woman is Alison (Sheila Sim, future wife of Sir Richard Attenborough). After helping her get the glue out of her long brunette hair, the two search for the "glue man," and soon suspect he is the most respected man in town, magistrate and historian Colpeper (Eric Portman).

The proud Colpeper commands respect even as evidence is amassed against him by his young adult amateur investigators, which also include movie house organist Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price). Gibbs seems the most intent in prosecuting Colpeper, even though it was Alison's hair that got the glue.

We suspect a romance is brewing between Alison and Johnson, even though he must soon return to the American Army. Johnson has a steady who hasn't responded to his letters, while Alison stills pines for her dead British Air Force pilot husband. Alas, no romance occurs, and Colpeper apparently goes scot-free because Peter is sidetracked by the great organ in the famous Canterbury cathedral.

It's also a happy ending for our would-be lovers. Johnson receives several delayed letters from his fiancée, who has volunteered to be an Australian WAC. And it turns out that Alison's beloved is alive and well, and his father, who opposed their marriage, is now enthusiastic over its prospects.

How others will see it. Written and directed by the "Archers," Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, well known to classic cinephiles for The Red Shoes (1948) in addition to several other quality productions from the 1940s. A Canterbury Tale benefits from its association with The Archers although it doesn't rank quite as highly as The Red Shoes, Stairway to Heaven, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, or I Know Where I'm Going!.

All of those films were made after A Canterbury Tale, so the modest box office of the present movie laid the foundation for its more famous successors. A Canterbury Tale was not released in America until 1949, a few years after the Nazi defeat diminished its impact.

Nonetheless, at imdb.com, A Canterbury Tale is favored with a high 7.6 user rating. This climbs to 8.1 among women over 45, the most independent demographic. Women viewers perhaps like the fact that Johnson remains a gentleman and never once makes a pass at Alison, and that Johnson and Alison both have a happy romantic ending, even if it isn't with the other. And Colpeper, who isn't such a creep after all, may perhaps stop dumping glue on unsuspecting unaccompanied women after dark.

How I felt about it. Although he is only third billed, Peter Gibbs secures the most screen time and is in effect the film's star. It turned out to be his only movie. He was an actual American sergeant in England, performing in the play "Our Town", when he was 'discovered' by Michael Powell. Gibbs' slightly nasal voice and folksy manner grate on some English viewers, but the majority seem won over by his natural performance, and in particular by his camaraderie with the local schoolboys.

Since the crime is more of a prank, the romance is more of a friendship, and the villain more of an eccentric intellectual, the expected suspense never materializes. When finally confronted, Colpeper behaves the same as before. There is no indication of remorse, anger, justification, or retribution. We still wonder: why glue, and why only on women? It's hard to believe that his motive was merely to increase the audience for his lectures about the medieval Canterbury pilgrims.

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