• U.S.

Cinema: The New Pictures, Dec. 25, 1950

6 minute read

Seven Days to Noon (London Films). A top British atomic scientist, in acute moral distress over his work, sends an ultimatum to No. 10 Downing Street: unless the government publicly renounces the manufacture of atomic bombs within seven days, he will set one off in the heart of midday London. The discovery that Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) is indeed missing from his government laboratory— along with a potent U.K. 12 that could fit into his small satchel—touches off a major crisis in London and a major moviemaking feat by Britain’s young (37) producing-directing twins, Roy and John (The Guinea Pig) Boulting.

The Boultings have succeeded in persuading London itself to act out the crisis as if it were really happening. Their film uses striking documentary detail, a wealth of British character bits; it uses no twists or gimmicks to spoil a logical, harrowing account of how the metropolis tries to head off its doom and at the same time prepares to meet it.

While Scotland Yard, aided by the professor’s daughter and his young colleague, directs a nip & tuck hunt for the man and his bomb, the cabinet secretly orders the machinery of evacuation oiled up. Rumor gives the public a bad case of war jitters. Then, crowded by the professor’s deadline, the Prime Minister shares the secret with the people in a tense radio talk. Troops and civil defense workers take over the city; packing only what belongings they can carry by hand, London’s millions queue up resolutely to roll out in all directions in a placarded fleet of buses, military trucks and trains.

The professor, ominous little bag in hand, scurries for hiding through dark, deserted streets in which floodlights roam eerily over huge posters bearing his picture. Piccadilly Circus becomes the desolate crossroads of a ghost city; Waterloo Station is an empty tomb except for confiscated pets and such prohibited excess baggage as trunks, tennis rackets and a sandwich man’s sign (“The Wages of Sin Is Death”). On doomsday morning, from the city’s rim, four army divisions move in for a house-to-house search.

Though it gives human, often humorous, color to the grim story, the film never compromises its chilling realism with the conventions of movie fiction. The heroine (Sheila Manahan) is unglamorously plump and dowdy; the young hero (Hugh Cross) wears a rumpled, ill-fitting suit; the Scotland Yard superintendent (Andre Morell) is a sternly workmanlike type with no quaint traits. The most likable character is a bighearted, middle-aged floozy (Olive Sloane) who shelters the professor. But the real heroine of Seven Days is London, with its streets, landmarks and citizens. The city gives a terrifyingly good performance.

Getting London to pose in a state of emergency entailed special permission from a dozen sources, from the War Office to the man in the street. The police held up traffic innumerable times all over town; for a single high shot of an empty Piccadilly Circus, they sealed off eight confluent streets for two hours. Railroad officials cleared out several sections of Waterloo Station for days. “When we called for a string of cars or a locomotive,” says Producer Roy Boulting, “they brought them up as quickly as if they were fetching a cup of tea.” London’s willing cooperation, and the Boultings’ clear idea of just what they wanted, resulted in something more than an exciting thriller. In Manhattan last week, civil defense planners attended advance screenings of Seven Days to pick up some pointers on how to evacuate a metropolis under the threat of an atomic bomb.

Born Yesterday (Columbia), Garson Kanin’s 1946 stage hit, ran for almost four years on Broadway. After paying $1,000,000 for the movie rights, Cinemogul Harry Cohn spent two years trying to cast it, wound up with the perfect choice for its dumb blonde heroine: Judy Holliday, who created the role on the stage. Thanks largely to Actress Holliday’s hilarious performance, the movie deserves to repeat the play’s success.

Straining Hollywood bounds to the limit, Scripter Albert Mannheimer sticks surprisingly close to Kanin’s comic account of a gum-chewing doxy’s political awakening and her rebellion against the tough junk tycoon (Broderick Crawford) who has come to Washington to buy a piece of the U.S. Congress. The script makes it plain that empty-headed Billie Dawn is not only Junkman Harry Brock’s mistress but his chattel, and it savors the flavor of their relationship. The movie also preserves Playwright Kanin’s message (that ordinary U.S. citizens cannot be pushed around).

In most other ways, the picture falls short of the play. It is too long and too sedentary. A rather arbitrary attempt to loosen up the camera by accompanying Heroine Holliday on her Washington sightseeing not only looks like a travelogue, but is scored to sound like one. Director George Cukor’s timing permits some good lines to be swallowed up in audience laughter. Because the movie has filled the play’s major time lapse with continuous action, it loses some contrast between the heroine’s blissful innocence and her half-educated social consciousness. Worst of all, the shadings that Paul Douglas put into the character of the boorish tycoon on Broadway are absent in Actor Crawford’s bellowing performance.

Fortunately, Actress Holliday’s mincing strut, Minnie Mouselike voice and low-down genteelisms provide a delightful show of their own. William Holden is earnestly ingratiating as the writer who teaches her the facts of political life. For all its shortcomings, Born Yesterday boasts some merits that are hard to find on the screen, especially in combination. It has something to say, says it palatably on an adult level and with a keen sense of fun.

After Born Yesterday’s Hollywood press première, William H. Mooring, syndicated movie columnist for 40 Roman Catholic newspapers, blasted the movie as Communist propaganda, “a diabolically clever political satire . . . subtly molded to carry destructive comment.” Hollywood hurried to set the record straight. Hearst Columnist Louella O. Parsons (herself a Catholic) politely suggested that Critic Mooring “really reaches for something.” Inviting Catholic editors to form their own opinion, the Motion Picture Association assured them, with good reason, that the picture “gives warmth and positive support to the democratic ideas, principles and institutions of America.”

Woman on the Run (Universal-International) pins a melodrama on a creditably ambitious idea. A witness to a murder flees from both the killer and the authorities who want him to testify. His half-estranged wife (Ann Sheridan) joins the hunt to give him medicine he needs for a heart ailment. Along the way (while unwittingly playing footie with the murderer), she meets friends and acquaintances of her husband for the first time, begins to see why her marriage went wrong and how to patch it up. The picture’s attempt to dovetail its marital problem with its manhunt makes for a promising story skeleton; unfortunately, it has been fleshed out with a minimum of imagination.

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