Film Review - Genevieve (1953)
'Genevieve' is a good old-fashioned British comedy made in 1953, and centred around the famous London to Brighton car rally, one November morning. It tells the tale of two very passionate but eccentric veteran car owners who participate in the rally.
The film marries the old mechanical contraptions that passed for cars at the turn of the 20th century, with the middle class English values of the post war years, when the film was set and made. It is innocent comedy at its best, and was made in an era which was considered something of a golden age for British film comedy.
The premise of the film is very simple. Two young couples - Alan McKim and his wife Wendy in one car, and arch rival Ambrose Claverhouse and his newly acquired girlfriend Rosalind Peters in another - drive from London to Brighton as part of a true-life rally which takes place annually, starting in London before passing through the English countryside to the south coast town of Brighton. Whilst in Brighton a challenge is made - to race back to London the next day.
The two cars they are diving are a 1904 18-horsepower Dutch Spyker and a 1904 12-horsepower French Darracq. The Darracq is named Genevieve.
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SPECIAL FEATURE - THE LONDON TO BRIGHTON CAR RUN
The London to Brighton veteran car rally is an event held in England once every year on the first Sunday in the month of November. It commemorates the 'Locomotives on the Highway Act' of 1896 which raised the permissible speed limit for the newfangled motor car from 4 mph to 14 mph, allowing such dangerously fast vehicles to drive freely on the open road without the requirement of being proceeded by a pedestrian carrying a red flag! The first formalised rally was held in 1927, and it has been held ever since and is still a popular tourist attraction today. Collectors and enthusiasts of some 500 of the oldest roadworthy cars in the world (all pre-1905) gather in London's famous Hyde Park for the start of the run, before cranking up their cars and heading off with varying rates of progress for the south coast resort of Brighton, 60 miles distant. This event is not a race. It is just an opportunity for admirers of these ancient vehicles to meet up and show off their prized possessions to each other and to the general public, and for the historic cars to do what they were originally built to do - to drive on the open road.
WHAT'S THE STORY?
Alan McKim is a man with a secret. By day he is a respectable young lawyer in the city. But when he gets home in the evening he climbs out of his suit and dons oily overalls before setting to work on his real passion.
Alan's passion is an old car called Genevieve. Make no mistake about it, Genevieve is no magical flying machine like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or some freaky car with a mind of its own like Herbie the Volkswagen. Far from it; Genevieve is a rather clapped out old thing which undoubtedly has seen better days and would now probably roll down a slope (with her brakes on) rather faster than she could drive up it. During this film, she seems to be getting slower and slower, whilst gradually falling apart; all of which only goes to make her seem more and more endeariing.
Alan's passion reaches its zenith once every year with the annual car run from London to Brighton. Each year he enters Genevieve in the rally, and each year he drags his reluctant wife Wendy along for the ride. This year as usual he is looking forward to a very nice day's driving in the country, coupled with the occasional tinkering under the hood. Only one thing can spoil it for Alan.
He has a rival. Kenneth More plays Ambrose Claverhouse, a brasher and flashier fellow who drives a distinctly more imposing (yet still ancient) bright yellow Spyker. He's actually Alan's best friend - most of the time - but put them both behind the wheels of their beloved old crocks, and all friendship goes out the window. And Ambrose is of course also taking part in the rally, and he is taking with him his newly acquired girlfriend Rosalind.
En route to Brighton everything goes wrong with poor Genevieve, and a catalogue of breakdowns makes Alan and Wendy later and later, and Wendy becomes more and more frustrated. Eventually they arrive on the south coast fed up, tired, and without a room in their usual plush hotel in which to spend the night.
Whilst in Brighton a row develops between Alan and Ambrose. Jealousies clearly exist here. Ambrose is a much more extrovert character and a bit of a 'lady's man'. He had known Wendy before Alan ever did, and had even brought her on the rally himself one time. Alan not unnaturally wonders if anything ever happened between them, and during the evening he becomes increasingly fed up and despondent as Ambrose dances with Wendy at the annual rally ball. But of course jealousies over women are one thing; it's quite another thing when Ambrose dares to insult Alan's beloved Genevieve! That's when the feathers really start to fly. It culminates in a decision to settle the argument as to who has the better car by racing each other back to London the next day. A bet is made, initially for money, but things get out of hand and Genevieve herself ultimately becomes the wager.
If the trip down to the south coast was quite eventful, the race back sees the two couples encounter all manner of hazards which seemingly conspire to ruin the chances of first one car, then the other - everything from flocks of sheep on the road, to expectant fathers, and an old lady in an even slower car than theirs'. (And also dirty tricks by the two drivers). As the cars finally enter the streets of London once more, one obstacle after another is placed in their way to trip them up as Alan and Ambrose race in their geriatric vehicles to be the first over Westminster Bridge.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Henry Cornelius
- William Rose
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1953
RUNNING TIME : 86 mins
GENRE : Comedy
GUIDENCE : No parental guidence required
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Larry Adler (Best Music)
- William Rose (Best Writing and Screenplay)
BEST CHARACTERS / PERFORMANCES
John Gregson plays Alan McKim as a likeable but possibly somewhat irresponsible veteran car fanatic, who - when he gets behind the steering wheel (or even more so when tinkering with a spanner and an oil can) - is in a dreamworld of his own.
Dinah Sheridan plays his long suffering wife, Wendy, who tries to tolerate Alan's eccentricities. However she half suspects that maybe there’s another love in his life who means more to him than she does - that’s Genevieve of course.
The internationally known British actor Kenneth More plays Ambrose, the friendly yet bitter rival with a loud extrovert attitude and a really insufferable cackling Woody Woodpecker laugh.
Kay Kendall plays Ambrose's girl (the latest in a long line) because he just has to have a girl with him on his annual day trip to Brighton. The day trip will inevitably mean a night in a hotel, and it would be a shame for Ambrose to have a boring night's sleep after an enjoyable day's drive.
There are actually five stars in this film - there are two British actors and two British actresses. The fifth star of course is one very old French car called Genevieve.
The car Genevieve was originally called 'Annie', but its name was changed for this film, and it has remained as Genevieve ever since. Even before the movie, the car had genuinely taken part in the 1950 London to Brighton rally. After the film was made, Genevieve was shipped to Australia for 34 years to become a museum exhibit, returning to England in 1992. Since then this classic car has continued to take part regularly in the London to Brighton Run, and it is, of course, the most famous and celebrated of all the vehicles on show. Indeed, the car must now be the most famous of its age anywhere in the world. Genevieve is also accredited with popularising for a whole generation, the hobby of classic car restoration.
John Gregson - Alan - couldn't drive! During the film his co-star Dinah Sheridan had to coach him on which levers to pull or buttons to press. Gregson eventually did learn to drive Genevieve, but still couldn't drive a modern car when filming came to an end.
And finally, not so much a point of trivia, but a sad postscript. Kay Kendall met and fell in love with film star Rex Harrison in 1955. Harrison was married at the time of this affair to actress Lilli Palmer, but the affair persisted. During this time, Kay had begun to feel unwell with what she took to be an iron deficiency. In 1957, Harrison rather abruptly divorced his wife, and married Kay; that may have been harsh and unfair on Lilli Palmer, but there was a sad and sensitive motivation behind Harrison's actions. He had just learned from Kay's doctor that in fact, what she was suffering from was leukaemia, (the news was kept secret from her). He then proceeded to look after her for the next two years. Kay Kendall died in 1959, aged just 33.
The film isn’t a laugh a minute. If you watch it, you probably won’t be splitting your sides with laughter. It’s not that kind of movie. This is gentle humour.
The dialogue is both a strength and a failing depending upon your point of view. For some the vocabulary and language will seem old fashioned and dated. But if you enter into the spirit of the movie, the period in which it was set and made, then the dialogue adds charm to the piece.
There’s no really standout dialogue in this movie, but the dialogue which does take place will either irritate or tickle most viewers. It’s quaint English.
The idea of Ambrose spending the night in a hotel with a woman he's just met, would have been a bit risque back in 1953. It's referred to obliquely in this exchange which also serves to nicely emphasise the passion the men have for their cars.
Rosalind: 'Ambrose only seems to think about two things. That silly old car - and the other thing'
'What other thing?' asks Wendy, momentarily puzzled. 'Oh! - My husband only thinks about the car.'
Perhaps the funniest lines are when Alan and Ambrose are arguing (as they do a lot) and Wendy mixes up her words in frustration:
'This is the end!' she says,'making a public spectacle of yourselves. I couldn't have believed you could have behaved like this, either of you. Just hauling like brooligans.'
Alan and Wendy are forced to stay overnight in a ramshackle hotel where most of the staff and guests seem to be older than the cars, where water just trickles out of one sink tap and dust puffs out of the other, and the couple’s window opens about ten feet from a clock face that resembles Big Ben, but which makes more noise.
The problems which Ambrose and Alan experience mount up steadily until they reach the streets of London, where everything - but everything - goes wrong. One of these obstacles is maybe the most touching moment of the movie. Alan and Wendy are stuck at a junction when an old gentleman spots Genevieve, and remembers his own similar car from his courting days as a young man. Oblivious to Alan's desire to move off, the man engages him in conversation about Genevieve. Alan reluctantly listens to the old man, recognising how much it means to him, but equally recognising that the delay may very well cost him the race and his beloved Genevieve. The music after this meeting becomes more sentimental and nostalgic than at any other time.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT?
The relationship between Ambrose and Alan is all important in this story; these are boys playing with their toys, and for most of the film their major pleasure seem to be laughing at each other’s misfortune, or despairing of their own. All of the other characters, even the minor ones. fit in beautifully. Even the motorcycle cops are seen to have a pleasing disregard for the letter of the law, preferring to bend the rules for the sake of a trouble-free day at work.
Apart from the characters and the old cars, two other elements contribute to the gentle mood of this film.
The pleasant backdrop of little English villages is so easy on the eye. Even more so, there is the music. There is a uniquely distinctive score by harmonica player Larry Adler; it resonates with the vintage of the cars, and it perfectly compliments the visual imagry and the general aura of a bygone age. One of the very best of all film scores.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Looking back at this review, the words ‘quaint’, ’innocent‘, and ‘sentimental,’ have all been used, and these are the words which sum up the movie best.
Of all the films I review, Genevieve will probably be one of the least well known to non-British viewers and younger viewers. This is a quintessentially post-war British comedy. But this is also a film which should appeal to any non-Brit who finds the perceived eccentricities of the British endearing and charming. It should also be loved by anybody with a fondness for the vehicles of yesteryear and the values of an era when everything - especially driving - was so much less complicated than it is now. Oh, if only the roads could still be like this today!
MY OTHER COMEDY FILM REVIEWS INCLUDE.....
- The Apartment
'The Apartment' is a romantic film comedy, an indictment of philandering hypocrisy, and a story of upbeat good nature in the face of loneliness. One of the best received movies of 1960, this great film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director
- Sleepless in Seattle
A lonely grieving man in Seattle, and a woman trapped in a relationship which lacks magic in Baltimore. A whole continent divides them. A likeable rom-com starring two of Hollywood's biggest stars of recent years - Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan
Circumstances lead to a Presidential lookalike playing the role for real - in the process exposing corruption and finding love with the First Lady! A gentle and appealing satire