Genevieve (1953)

Genevieve is a 1953 British comedy directed by Henry Cornelius and starring John Gregson as Alan McKim, Dinah Sheridan as his wife Wendy, Kenneth More as Ambrose Claverhouse and Kay Kendall as Rosalind Peters, with a whole host of faces you will know from countless other British films of the era, such as Geoffrey Keen, Reginald Beckwith and the wonderful Joyce Grenfell.

So why should you watch Genevieve?

Well, if those names weren’t enough by way of credentials, let’s take a look at the plot.

Alan McKim and his rather more successful friend Ambrose Claverhouse are veteran car enthusiasts – and let’s bear in mind that the film was made in 1953, so the veteran vehicles in question were pre-1910.

At the beginning of the film, we find Alan and Ambrose gearing up for the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. However, we are at once given the impression that Ambrose, a bachelor, is rather better off and a little more showy than Alan, who is a quiet married man, whose veteran Darracq is a little more worse for wear than Ambrose’s Spyker.

Wendy, Alan’s wife, is not overly keen on making the trip but goes along for her husband’s sake, turning out in a fashionable travelling outfit, while Ambrose begins the day boasting about his latest girlfriend who will accompany him – however, he ends up with more than he bargained for when she insists on bringing her St Bernard dog Susie along!

While the Run to Brighton is rather blighted by breakdowns and rainy weather (a bit of a nuisance when travelling in open-top cars!) for the McKims, Wendy has packed them a picnic to sustain them, having anticipated the worst, and they reach Brighton having quite enjoyed their day. Ambrose and Rosalind have passed a journey peppered with failed attempts at seduction by Ambrose, as well as the odd mishap.

However, when they reach Brighton, they all meet up for the celebration dinner held by the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain and enjoy drinks together. Rosalind performs a drunken impromptu but brilliant trumpet number with the band and then passes out. When Ambrose and Wendy dance together Alan gets jealous, based on their previous friendship and the fact that Wendy first made the London to Brighton Run with Ambrose, and Alan storms off. Later, when Ambrose goes to find him, the two wind each other up and Alan finishes by making a bet for a hundred pounds (which is rather more to him than it is to Ambrose) that he can reach London first on the return journey.

Racing and making bets is against Club rules and the ladies disapprove, however, they agree to accompany them anyway, and the ensuing mayhem is where the gloves really come off!

Now, I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but I would like to double back to the beginning for a moment because I feel that it sets a particular tone that I’d like to discuss.

When the film opens, we see Alan and Wendy both going about their daily business, he finishing work for the weekend and she returning from shopping laden with string bags; their little mews house with the front door that opens outwards because the inner hallway is too small; their little kitchen; her preparations for sleep as she sits at her dressing table and applies cold cream; their clothes which are so typical and every day: all of this really gives the film a mood which feels so authentic in some way which I didn’t fully realise until I sat down to write this. It is so subtle and right that it doesn’t really jump out at you. In all these little details, and many others as the film progresses, it’s almost like we get to see life in 1953 so much more accurately than most other films or media represent. It does feel a little romanticised to a degree, but somehow it makes it more real and grounded in reality and in the moment.

I mention the clothes worn in the earlier part of the film; they are not overly stylised, and they are not particularly fashionable. Nor are they the oft-seen garb which we so often see used in film which is almost too working-man, overly accentuated and too obvious. Alan and Wendy are right in the middle between the type often portrayed in Ealing Comedies – the rather indignant, downtrodden but plucky supposed “everyman” – and the stylish, well-off, well-spoken posh characters. They paint us a picture which is much closer to the way a young couple might have lived in London in 1953. It feels like looking into your parents’ or grandparents’ world, not through a dusty black and white photo, but also not through a glossy, slick Hollywood movie. Henry Cornelius has managed, for me, to give Genevieve an almost documentary-style, through the bright and fresh but understated colour photography and the brilliant use of costume, sets and props.

Personally, I think that this vibe is what really sets Genevieve apart from other comedies of the era. It is almost modest, yet the comedy – farcical at times, while clever and gentle at others – and fun draws you in, along with characters who only get more endearing as the plot moves along. The pacing is – for me – perfect, and it has a perky yet very real style.

Genevieve is irresistible. The dialogue is funny, the characters grab you, the mood is light-hearted, jovial, and farcical, yet there are moments of tenderness and drama as well. The photography and costume deserve much more of a mention than I had ever realised, due to that pseudo-docu-feel.

I feel I am running out of things to praise about this film, and although I look back over my words and see that I haven’t put forward a particularly balanced view, I don’t think I am wildly biased. I just think that Genevieve is such a sweet, compelling film that there is really nothing not to like about it.

If you didn’t know John Gregson before, after watching Genevieve you’ll love him. It was Kenneth More’s breakout role. Dinah Sheridan – what can I say? She was just always wonderful. And dear Kay Kendall, such a shame that film lost her so young. These four are sublime in what essentially feels like two separate two-handers for quite a portion of the film, though Henry Cornelius manages to make it all feel cohesive.

A very cleverly made film. I might almost say so cleverly that it really doesn’t show. I think that is the best compliment I can give Genevieve as a matter of fact: So good that it almost doesn’t show!

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