After he cons a small boy out of his toy magnet, little Johnny Brent (a young James Fox) finds himself wracked with guilt. His attempts to rid himself of the eponymous item only end up causing a great surge in the charitable nature of his community, general confusion for his psychiatrist father and himself a great deal of personal distress.
There’s a certain logical leap one makes on hearing the term “Ealing Comedy”; it’s a cinematic hallmark equivalent to “Gainsborough Melodramas”, “Hammer Horror”, or “The ‘Carry On’ Films” (each one more terrifying than the last) that pertains to famous, hefty-reputation-holding British cinema. Given the age of certain productions in a lot of these collections, there was the risk that we’d lose them forever, but thanks to the BFI and Studio Canal that won’t necessarily be the case. As part of their collaboration on the Unlocking Film Heritage programme, a lot of classic British cinema is under the process of complete digital restoration for redistribution on DVD and Blu-Ray. One of the first to make an appearance from this programme is the 1950 Ealing Comedy The Magnet.
I sat down to watch The Magnet with the appropriate medical gear on stand-by in case my sides should rend at the seams from the sheer hilarity held within, I mean, this is an Ealing Comedy after all. That’s not to say that the fact the 74-minute picture did NOT cause a serious surgical emergency is a bad thing, it’s a different kind of film: a boy’s-own adventure in moral repercussions with a side-line in the ridiculousness of psychiatry all told in as British a manner as is humanly possible to commit to celluloid.
The Magnet‘s protagonist, John Brent, is the poster-boy for the British post-war sensibility and the spirit of Ealing Comedies: despite being coddled, he’s an excitable energetic figure with a nose for modern and quick thinking. I personally can’t believe that James Fox was ever THIS young (surely he was born in his late thirties at least?) but he certainly holds the screen. Then again, this isn’t The 400 Blows and James Fox isn’t Jean-Pierre Léaud; great leaps of presence and skill aren’t really required for what’s going on here. Whilst unwittingly at the centre of escalating peculiarity, Fox isn’t the focus of The Magnet is as much as it’s everything around him.
Seeing the residents of Merseyside reacting to an iron-lung manufacturer’s ever-increasingly tragic tale of a boy who gave away his only possession is a delight and welcome narrative mix-up in the narratively-reserved style of early 1950s cinema. Not just this but despite the dense moralizing that circles around Johnny Brent, the film showcases just how light-hearted and high-spirited the British public are in the wake of that terrible Second World War. The casual flippancy with which bombed-out houses, ethnicity and the German language is flung around shows a country without fear, looking forward to the future, even if it is one painted in uneven Scouse accents.
But is it any good? Well the restoration is a staggering job; I watched it though a 4K television and was amazed at the audio-visual clarity and sharpness of what I was seeing and hearing. ‘But, Scott, isn’t that just the nature of 4K tellys?’ I hear you jibe, well, I say in retort, a 4K telly is well and good but I’ve seen enough poor restorations on Film4 to know that a decent set is only half the issue. That we can preserve such cinematic snapshots of a time when society was literally pulling itself out from the ruins of an old world AND be so cheery about it is art unto itself.
That’s all right, but I still haven’t answered the question, though: Is it any GOOD? Well if I had to say it was anything, I’d say The Magnet suffered from a lack of focus. The central story branches off in so many ways it’s like watching cold Angel Delight slowly pour into a peculiarly-shaped mould, going this way and that. The only problem is you don’t get to eat any of it once it’s settled. As I mentioned several paragraphs ago there’s an attempt to mock psychiatry which incidentally feels underdeveloped and certain aspects over the fate of that all-important magnet becoming a symbol for the St Valentine’s Charity being skirted and shorn. There is the occasional good visual gag and shot composition, but on the whole The Magnet feels too much like it’s trying to be a novel of incidental events and oddities.
If you found yourself hankering for a smart bit of historical, British cinema, The Magnet will see you right. If you want plots, characters, thrills or introspection into the tail spinning terrors of the human experiment, it’s not going to propel your socks off with any great conviction. It’s just a nice film, a very 1940s-1950s film where the loss of a budgerigar is mistaken for implied infanticide, but, yes, a nice one all the same.
Director: Charles Frend
Starring: Stephen Murray, Kay Walsh, James Fox
Running Time: 79 minutes
Release Date: 15th June 2015