Monday, 20 February 2012

The Yellow Balloon (1953)

The Yellow Balloon is a 1953 film by the acclaimed director J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson moved to Hollywood in the 1960s, but prior to this made a string of successful and notable films in Britain. These included The Yellow Balloon, The Weak and the Wicked (1954), An Alligator Named Daisy (1955),Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and Tiger Bay (1959).  By any standards this is a productive and versatile output and it is perhaps the serious, progressive films dealing with social issues of the time which stand out as the most memorable of Thompson’s oeuvre.

The Yellow Balloon can be viewed on a number of levels: as postwar realist drama illustrating the harshness and poverty of London seven or eight years after victory; as a gripping thriller; as commentary upon the dog-eat-dog world simmering beneath the layers of conventionality and people ‘doing the right thing’.  It is probably most helpful to examine The Yellow Balloon from each of these perspectives.  References are made throughout the film to the lack of any action on the part of the authorities to the ongoing devastation of uncleared and unguarded bombsites.  This is a world where victory against the Germans has come at a great price, and rationing was still in force until the following year.  The continuing repayment of war loans to the Americans left little spare cash for renovations, let alone reconstruction.  The “you never had it so good” world of Harold Macmillan was still several years down the road.
Thompson made a start to his film career in 1938 as a dialogue coach on Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and reputedly spent a great deal of time studying the precise techniques of the master craftsman.  Certainly elements of The Yellow Balloon are tightly plotted and suspenseful, particularly the two parallel chase sequences at either end.  It is also true that public debates about spivs and petty criminals and good kids turning bad – often through social factors rather than inherent ‘badness’ were rife at this time, and the film mirrors these, a characteristic of Thompson’s penchant for holding progressive positions which would be repeated in his later films of this period.

The Yellow Balloon features an interesting and distinguished cast but few of the players turn in their best performances it must be said.  The undoubted star of the film and the chief element which draws the audience into the story is undoubtedly the 13 year old Andrew Ray as Frankie.  Ray was an old hand by now, having achieved prominence three years earlier as the street urchin in The Mudlark.  He later went on to play Brian in Woman in a Dressing Gown, but this is a much meatier part, which sees him on screen for nearly the whole of the film.
Bernard lee, as firm but fair archetypal bobby on the beat P.C., reminiscent of Jack Warner in The Blue Lamp.  William Sylvester turns in a reasonable performance as Len, the petty gangster who befriends Frankie once he spots the potential for extortion.  Kathleen Ryan, as Frankie’s mother, Emily, also acquits herself well as a tight-lipped and contradictory matriarch.  Kenneth More, however, in the unlikely guise of Ted Palmer, Frankie’s bus driver father, is something of a fish out of water, seeming a little bemused by the working class milieu in which he finds himself and struggles to maintain a London accent.  The film also has the interesting footnote of an appearance by Sydney James as a less than scrupulous barrow boy.

It is the innocence and vulnerability of Andrew Ray’s portrayal of Frankie that carries the film, however.  Ray exudes a naivety and acceptance of whatever he is told that is completely credible.  The Yellow Balloon is the story of Frankie’s tortuous and terrifying journey from innocence to experience in a mere 76 minutes.  Seeing a street vendor selling the eponymous yellow balloons outside the window of the family’s flat, Frankie hectors first his mother – with little success – then his more accommodating father for the sixpence required to buy one.  In his rush he loses the money down a drain, winning a promise from P.C. Crawford that he will do what he can to reunite it with its rightful owner as soon as possible.  Soon afterwards, Frankie meets his friend Ron who has a yellow balloon of his own.  Frankie mischievously snatches the balloon and runs off, leading Ron on a lengthy and precarious chase through an increasingly dangerous landscape of bomb sites and partially collapsed buildings. 

The music in The Yellow Balloon was written by Philip Green, later to become resident musical director of the Rank Organisation.  It is a crucial element in creating, building and deflating the tension which arises at various points in the film.  We are given no indication that the chase through the bomb ruins is anything other than an innocent, if somewhat risky, jape because the music which accompanies it is light and jaunty.  When Ron plummets to his death from the second storey of a crumbling building it stops completely for a while, leaving us with the image of Ron splayed lifeless on the concrete below, whilst the balloon floats neutrally off into the bright summer’s day.  Unfortunately for the hapless Frankie, the small-time crook Len has witnessed the whole things – there is no explanation of what he is doing in the bomb-ruined building, but he is clearly up to no good. 

Len immediately plants doubt in Frankie’s mind by asking him why he pushed his friend; despite Frankie’s urgent denials and protestations that it was an accident, he persists in this assertion just long enough to plant the doubt in the boys mind that not everyone might see it like this – the everyone, specifically, being the police.  Len assures him that the police are suspicious characters who are unlikely to believe Frankie’s version and that their best course of action would be to hide up for a few days.  Of course there is one drawback with this plan – Len has no money.  He exploits Frankie’s credulity by inviting him to find ways that they could rectify this problem.  Frankie is drawn in hook, line and sinker.

Len takes Frankie back home to his mother, having gained his promise that he will return to meet him in a café later that evening.  Meanwhile, a neighbour, drops in to break the news about Ron’s death to Emily, a task she accomplishes with a certain degree of morbid satisfaction, asserting that at least the is free of the horrors of this world.  The war is still causing casualties, some years after its end.  Unbeknown to the women, Frankie is listening at the door, and his terror is increased tenfold when P.C. Chapman calls at the flat, wanting a word with Frankie.  We, like the boy, are sucked in, but Chapman only wants to return the 6d, one suspects from his own pocket.

Chapman’s suspicions are aroused a couple of hours later when, following a tryst with Len in the café, Frankie is almost caught in the act of stealing the paper money from a newsvendor’s stand, not realising that she is downing a crafty beer out of sight.  “I hope it’s not another good kid gone bad,” muses Chapman.  Of course it nearly is: Frankie has, in his innocence, just stolen a pineapple from dodgy barrow boy Sid James in response to Len’s plea of hunger – a plea that is given the lie by his ordering egg and chips as soon as Frankie has left the caff.  Worse, much worse, is to come.  When Frankie arrives home late, to a mild scolding, he ignores his supper and waits until his parents are in bed (not sleeping, one suspects, from the slightly risqué preceding scene) to tiptoe from his room and perform a far more serious theft.

Early on in the film, Ted arrives home from work and hands his wages over to Emily, a common pattern in those days.  It is through this medium that we are introduced to the teapot which sits upon the top shelf of the kitchen dresser.  In those days, working class people were unlikely to have bank or savings accounts, and wardrobes, socks, drawers and even teapots were called into service to hold whatever meagre savings struggling families might manage to accumulate.  It is made plain that this is the Palmer’s holiday fund, without which they would never manage to breathe fresh air or see a green field.  It is clearly an object of great significance for the family and represents the virtues of hard work and thrift which the Palmers typify in opposition to the shiftiness and casual dishonesty of Len and his spivvy acquaintances.  A fear and desperation driven by Len’s relentless pouring of poison into Frankie’s ear prompts him to undertake the ultimate betrayal, and he takes the hard-earned five pounds from its place of safety.

Thompson gradually begins to ratchet up the tension from this point.  Frankie trips over a chair in the darkness following his theft, prompting both parents to appear in the kitchen.  He will surely be discovered, but no: dad carries him back to bed and accepts his excuse of thirst without question, despite the untouched supper and full glass of milk which the camera shows Ted noticing as he leaves the room.  It appears certain that discovery is only moments away as Ted wrestles with Frankie on the bed yet fails to find the money in his pocket, or as Emily similarly fails to do when tucking a handkerchief into the pocket of his best bib and tucker prior to sending him off to Sunday school.  Yet it is only a matter of time until his treachery is exposed to harsh daylight.

With an excellent irony, it is a petty domestic argument about whether Ted should buy a wreath for Ron as well as new shoes for himself that leads to the revelation that the teapot money is missing.  The Palmers try their very hardest to ignore the obvious: purses and drawers are searched, windows examined, other potential thieves are considered and discarded before the despairing parents are forced to acknowledge that their own son has taken their money.  Ted marches straight off to Sunday school, where the teacher has been regaling the children with the tale of Cain and Abel and God’s punishment.  The money is handed over without a word and the two Palmers return home where Frankie endures a thrashing with his dad’s belt, but will not offer an explanation as to his conduct.  Frankie leaves the house again to meet Len, who drags him further into his web.

Len’s latest plan is to rub a pub where his girlfriend Iris is working.  Frankie is to be the dupe who gains admittance whilst Len carries out the theft, although Frankie is not aware of the whole plan until it is too late.  When he realises what is happening he runs from the pub in terror, leaving behind the miniature of brandy which he has purchased for his supposedly sick mother.  Frankie is gone before Len murders the landlord, but neither the girlfriend nor Len realise this and Len sets off in hot pursuit, determined to silence the boy, having filled his pockets with the cash from the till first.

Frankie is befriended by Mary who comes across him in the street and who takes him home, feeds him, and eventually gets him to relate the whole sorry tale.  Mary’s status is not expressed explicitly, but it is suggested that she is a “lady of the night”, and certainly one who hates the police with a vengeance, as we later discover.  Nonetheless she urges Frankie to go to the police which fear still prevents him from doing.  She takes him home in a taxi but crucially fails to accompany him to the door.  Ted and Emily have gone out searching the streets for him and left the door on the latch in case he returns whilst they are out.  Guess who’s waiting in the shadows on the staircase and who locks the door again?  Frankie walks right into Len’s trap, and it soon becomes apparent that the boy, although he witnessed the robbery, knows nothing of the publican’s death.  He still knows enough to hang Len though and, in a final piece of deception, Len leads Frankie to a bomb-damaged tube station (again open to all and sundry) which he assures the boy is the perfect hideout they’ve been seeking.

And so the film spins to its gripping conclusion.  Len attempts to push Frankie down the disused lift shaft and the boy finally realises his life is in peril.  Another chase takes place, through the staircases and platforms of the station, which mirrors that at the other end of the film.  This time there is no room for doubt and Green’s music is urgent and sinister as man and boy charge through the deserted station.  A passing train driver witnesses the scene and police, already on the streets after Mary has told them Frankie’s tale, pour into the station from above and commandeer a train to approach from below.  Frankie is rescued and Len trapped in the lift shaft in a fine example of poetic justice.  He hangs there for a brief second with arms outstretched as if crucified, but his escape attempts are of course futile and he falls to a screaming death at the pit of the shaft, a fallen angel descended into hell perhaps.  Frankie is reunited with his parents by P.C. Chapman.

So order reasserts itself and the family are reunited and stronger for their experience.  Frankie has been on a journey and will never again be the innocent child who hankered after a balloon.  His naivety has flown away on the wind.  Actions have consequences and sometimes even the most innocent of them result in circumstances unforeseen and unforeseeable.  The civilisation which people fought so recently to preserve, and which visibly stands in partial ruin around them, is a very fragile thing indeed, yet one or two kind acts can still prevent its dissolution.  The Yellow Balloon is well worth seventy-six minutes of your time.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent review if one of my favourite films. Filmed in 1952 and released in 1953, “The Yellow Balloon” was one of the first films to be passed with the then new Adults Only “X” certificate by the British Board of Film Censors. This was because the censor felt that the chase through the Underground station in the last reel would be very frightening for young children and Andrew Ray, 13 years old when the film was shot in 1952 and 14 years old when it was released in May, 1953, was disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to go into a cinema to see his own film because he was way under the age of 16. However, after complaints from cinema exhibitors that the “X” certificate wasn’t really necessary for the film, the BBFC eventually relented and in October, 1953, they re-classified the film with an “A” certificate (children under 16 allowed in to see the film if accompanied by an adult). So Andrew Ray was eventually allowed into the cinema to see it.

    David Rayner, Stoke on Trent, UK.