Red Ensign + The Night of the Party

UK 1934, 66/63 mins
Director: Michael Powell

Red Ensign
In his twelfth film in four years, Michael Powell directed his own story of an ambitious shipbuilder, David Barr (Leslie Banks), and his attempt to turn around the fortunes of the British shipping industry during the depression of the 1930s. Visionary and uncompromising – and not afraid to break the rules – Barr can be seen as the first of a number of Powell’s screen alter-egos, who would include Eric Portman’s Colpeper in A Canterbury Tale (1944) and Roger Livesey’s Dr Reeves in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and culminate in his own appearance in Peeping Tom (1960). Like Colpeper, Barr is a morally complex hero, who is prepared to commit fraud in order to overcome the opposition of his narrow-minded colleagues.

With a campaigning tone which would become familiar in his wartime dramas such as 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), Red Ensign (1934) was one of the director’s favourites of his early works. The film’s attitude to labour relations – a trade union activist is exposed as a plant representing an unscrupulous rival, and the workers are expected to go without pay for the good of the company – adds some weight to critic Raymond Durgnat’s claim that Powell represented ‘High Tory’ values. At the same time, the film draws on the work of the Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein in its romanticism of industry.

Made for Gaumont-British as a ‘quota quickie’, the film has been read as a plea for intervention to develop the British film industry, as well as a kind of manifesto for Powell’s kind of cinema, challenging the emerging documentary movement. As Powell himself put it: ‘It was the first time that Michael Powell himself realised that there was something special about a Michael Powell film, something going on on the screen, or behind the screen, which you couldn’t put your finger on, something intriguing, aloof, but in the long run memorable.’
Mark Duguid, BFI Screenonline

The film starts with a montage of idle shipyards and a flurry of written titles: ‘For over 200 years the British Mercantile Marine has carried the Red Ensign to every port in the world. Today many of our ships lie idle for want of cargoes. Shipyards are deserted. The distress flag is flying. This is the story of David Barr, shipbuilder, and his fight to bring back prosperity to British ships’. The film thus announces a strategy in strong contrast to that of John Grierson’s celebrated documentary movement, which was likewise concerned with social issues and with imperial trade (it was initially sponsored by the Empire Marketing Board) but which distrusted the use of the personal story to carry a propaganda message. In turn, Michael Powell was never slow to express his dislike of documentary methods and of the documentary hegemony in British film culture, and Red Ensign bears this out in the purposeful way it uses a triangular love affair to resolve its political story: David Barr fights the cautious businessman Lord Dean, both for the affections of heiress June MacKinnon, and for the use of her money to finance his construction programme.

Powell pointedly gives a minor character the name of Grierson and has him pointed out as ‘the best riveter in the yard’. The film has some strong documentary footage, put together in a style that evokes Soviet montage, but is not afraid of embracing the theatrical in terms of sets and acting style. This blend, and the strong crusading tone of the film, prefigure the distinctive kind of patriotic work Powell would do in wartime in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, in films like 49th Parallel (1941) and A Canterbury Tale (1944). Red Ensign is of equal interest as an early Powell film and as a document of 1934, one which now seems to be as much about the British cinema as about British shipping. Barr campaigns to have the Board of Trade impose a quota on the shipping industry: this will support British shipbuilding by compelling British ship owners to buy a minimum proportion of their fleets from British yards. It is precisely the mechanism which the Board had been applying to the film industry since the Films Act of 1921 in the face of powerful opposition from many exhibitors and distributors. When Barr speaks out against the short-sightedness of his board’s policy of ‘internationalism’, he is told that ‘we’re here to discuss business, not patriotism’, and replies that ‘patriotism is good business, can’t you see that?’ In the words of Geoff Brown (Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1981): ‘the temptation to equate Barr’s struggle to make an all-British ship with the emerging work of Powell (and indeed Michael Balcon, his executive producer) is irresistible’.
Charles Barr

The Night of the Party
By 1933 the partnership of director Michael Powell and producer Jerry Jackson had made nine bona fide ‘quota-quickies’, some of which had even been favourably received by the critics, and also by producers who, however, were chiefly impressed, in John Russell Taylor’s words, by ‘… his professionalism in bringing in his films on time and within their tiny budgets.’ On the strength of these, they obtained a contract to make four films for Gaumont British, then run by Michael Balcon, who later became better known for his running of Ealing studios in the ’40s and ’50s. It and British International Pictures were at that time the two biggest companies in the British film industry, so this was a considerable step up for Powell and Jackson.

The team was meant to provide its own scripts and shoot them for a cost of around £12,000. In the event they only wrote two of their own films, The Fire Raisers and The Red Ensign, which were book-ended by two scripts based on stage plays which were released as The Night of the Party and The Phantom Light.

The Fire Raisers was the first of the four films to be released by Gaumont, but The Night of the Party was actually completed first: according to Powell, its release was held up because it was too short, and so three days’ worth of extra scenes were shot after Banks and Powell completed their next project. Based on a play with the prototypical title of Murder Party (which was used for the American release of the film), the film is a whodunnit in which an after dinner game of ‘murder’ turns deadly shortly after all the lights are turned out. Needless to say, most of the guests have a good reason for hating the victim.

The Night of the Party is a most theatrical piece; in fact it practically never sets foot outside the studio, with the majority of the action confined to only four sets. To make it visually interesting Powell and his American cinematographer Glen MacWilliams used a number of shots with mirrors, to make the angles more unusual and more efficient. The party itself is well handled, and the scenes in the dark for the ‘Murder’ game are atmospherically photographed, while Muriel Aked steals most of her scenes in her humorous portrayal of the Princess Amelia of Corsova(!). Powell was flattered to be offered a piece with a cast that included Malcolm Keen, Ian Hunter, Leslie Banks and Ernest Thesiger (as the wonderfully named ‘Adrian Chiddiatt’) who all give good value for money. None the less he later remembered it as ‘a bad film from a bad script, from a very poor play and not very successful’, and although it only got respectful reviews, the film represents several important ‘firsts’ for Powell. It was the first of the three films Leslie Banks made for him at Gaumont (he would later also appear in The Small Back Room); it was also the first of four ‘quickies’ that he made starring Ian Hunter (who later turned up in The Battle of the River Plate); it was also the first contact that Powell had with Art Director Alfred Junge, with whom he would later work on seven films and who would play a crucial role in the distinctive visual style of Powell’s work as one half of the Archers with Emeric Pressburger.
Sergio Angelini, BFI National Archive

Directed by: Michael Powell
Presented by: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Controlled by: Gaumont-British Distributors Ltd.
Executive Producer: Michael Balcon *
Producer: Jerome Jackson *
Dialogue: L. Du G. Peach
Original Story: Jerome Jackson, Michael Powell
Photography: Leslie Rowson
Film Editor: Geoffrey Barkas
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Costumes: Gordon Conway
Sound Recordist: G. Birch
Recorded by: British Acoustic Film
Studio: Shepherd’s Bush Studios

Leslie Banks (David Barr)
Carol Goodner (June MacKinnon)
Alfred Drayton (Manning)
Frank Vosper (Lord Dean)
Campbell Gullan (Hannay)
Percy Parsons (Arthur Casey)
Fewlass Llewellyn (Sir Gregory)
Henry Oscar (Raglan)
Allan Jeayes (Jock Grierson)
Donald Calthrop (MacLeod)
Henry Caine (Bassett)
John Laurie (Forsyth) *
Frederick Piper (MacWilliam) *
George Carney (Lindsay) *
Jack Lambert *

UK 1934
66 mins
Digital 4K

Director: Michael Powell
Production Company: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Producer: Jerome Jackson *
Assistant Director: Bryan Wallace
Scenario: Ralph Smart
Original play and dialogue: Roland Pertwee, John Hastings Turner
Photography: Glen MacWilliams
Art Director: Alfred Junge
Costumes: Gordon Conway
Recording: S. Jolly

Malcolm Keen (Lord Studholme)
Jane Baxter (Peggy Studholme)
Ian Hunter (Guy Kennion)
Leslie Banks (Sir John Holland)
Viola Keats (Joan Holland)
Ernest Thesiger (Adrian Chiddiatt)
Jane Millican (Anna Chiddiatt)
W. Graham Browne (General Piddinghoe)
Muriel Aked (Princess Maria Amelia of Corsova)
Gerald Barry (Baron Cziatch)
Cecil Ramage (Howard Vernon)
John Turnbull (Inspector Ramage)
Laurence Anderson (defending counsel)
Louis Goodrich (the judge)
Disney Roebuck (butler)
Gordon Begg (Miles) *

UK 1934
63 mins
Digital 4K


The remastering of Rynox, Hotel Splendide, His Lordship, The Fire Raisers, Red Ensign and The Night of the Party has been supported by Matt Spick and the Charles Skey Charitable Trust.

Rynox + Hotel Splendide
Mon 16 Oct 18:10; Fri 10 Nov 18:10
A Matter of Life and Death
Mon 16 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by Thelma Schoonmaker and Kevin Macdonald); Sun 29 Oct 12:10; Sat 4 Nov 15:00; Tue 7 Nov 18:10 (+ intro by academic Lucy Bolton); Sun 19 Nov 18:30
Farewell (Abschied)
Tue 17 Oct 18:40 (+ intro by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald); Wed 1 Nov 20:40
His Lordship
Tue 17 Oct 20:50; Sat 4 Nov 12:20
The Fire Raisers
Wed 18 Oct 18:40; Sat 11 Nov 12:30
Black Narcissus
Wed 18 Oct 20:50; Sun 22 Oct 18:30; Wed 8 Nov 18:15; Sun 12 Nov 18:50; Thu 16 Nov 20:50; Sat 18 Nov 20:50; Mon 20 Nov 20:45 (+ intro by author Mahesh Rao)
The Edge of the World + Return to the Edge of the World
Fri 20 Oct 18:20; Wed 8 Nov 20:30; Wed 15 Nov 20:50
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (aka The Thief of Bagdad)
Fri 20 Oct 20:30; Tue 24 Oct 14:40; Sat 28 Oct 15:00; Sun 26 Nov 12:00
The Spy in Black + Smith
Sat 21 Oct 15:30; Sun 29 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow + Heavenly Puss
Sun 22 Oct 12:00
49th Parallel
Sun 22 Oct 12:20; Mon 6 Nov 20:30
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing!
Sun 22 Oct 15:10; Tue 31 Oct 20:40 (+ intro by film historian Ian Christie)
Mon 23 Oct 17:50 (+ intro by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead); Mon 30 Oct 20:30
Red Ensign + The Night of the Party
Tue 24 Oct 20:30; Sun 5 Nov 14:40
A Canterbury Tale
Wed 25 Oct 20:20 (+ intro by academic Thirza Wakefield); Sat 11 Nov 14:50; Fri 24 Nov 20:35
Library Talk: The interior life of an archive: an evening with the Michael Powell Collection
Mon 27 Nov 18:00
The Elusive Pimpernel
Sat 28 Oct 12:20; Mon 13 Nov 18:00 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
Gone to Earth
Sat 28 Oct 18:20; Wed 22 Nov 20:45; Sat 25 Nov 17:50
Silent Cinema: The Magician + The Riviera Revels + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator
Sun 29 Oct 15:00
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sun 29 Oct 17:20 (+ intro by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald); Sun 5 Nov 17:45; Thu 23 Nov 17:45; Sun 26 Nov 14:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Stephen Fry)
Paths to Partnership: Powell + Pressburger before The Archers
Tue 31 Oct 18:30
Projecting the Archive: The Queen’s Guards + intro by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator
Thu 2 Nov 18:20
Twice upon a Time
Mon 6 Nov 18:10 + extended intro by James Bell, BFI National Archive Senior Curator
Talk: Philosophical Screens: A Matter of Life and Death
Tue 7 Nov 20:20
Talk: Centre Stage: The Leading Women of Powell + Pressburger
Thu 16 Nov 18:20
Ill Met by Moonlight
Fri 17 Nov 20:40; Sat 25 Nov 12:40
The Battle of the River Plate
Sat 18 Nov 18:20; Mon 27 Nov 20:30
Behold a Pale Horse
Sun 19 Nov 11:50 Wed 22 Nov 17:50
The Wild Heart
Sun 19 Nov 15:10
Miracle in Soho
Mon 20 Nov 18:10; Sun 26 Nov 18:30

Course: The Magic of Powell + Pressburger
Wed 25 Oct to Wed 22 Nov 18:30

With thanks to

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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