“When things buck up”: Love on the Dole (1941)

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of any civilization.” (Dr Samuel Johnson, 1709-84)

“They can take away our jobs, but they can’t take away our love, can they?” (Sally to her fiancé Larry in Love on the Dole)

In 1932, the year in which Walter Greenwood’s novel, Love on the Dole was accepted for publication by Jonathan Cape, the UK was suffering an economic Depression and unemployment topped three million. There were protests and riots against wage cuts and the deeply unpopular Means Test legislation in places as far apart as Birkenhead and Belfast. In October a demonstration in Hyde Park of 10,000 people from across the country had to be broken up by the police, with 40 people injured and 14 arrests. In December a Health Insurance Act led to the deprivation of pension rights to the unemployed. A Housing survey reported that 98,000 families in the UK of five or more were still living in two rooms or less.

Small wonder, then, that the appearance in 1933 of Greenwood’s novel about life in a Salford slum caused something of a literary sensation. It was hailed not simply as a powerful work of fiction but as an indelible social document of the time. It had behind it the authenticity of personal experience. Born in Salford in Lancashire in 1903, Greenwood had held at least a dozen jobs since leaving school at the age of 12, none of which had earned him a living wage. He had experienced life on the dole on three occasions and had been unemployed for three years at the time of the book’s acceptance. When he adapted the novel for the stage in 1935, in collaboration with Ronald Gow (whose wife, Wendy Hiller played the leading role of Sally Hardcastle in London and New York), it ran at the Garrick theatre in the West End for nearly 400 performances. It also enjoyed a national tour so successful that it was estimated more than a million people in the UK had seen the play in 1935 alone. The following year it had a successful run in America, playing for 129 performances at the Schubert Theatre in New York. Evidence of its impact can be gauged from an extract in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), when George Orwell described the shame felt by miners about being unemployed and their feelings of impotence and despair. “Everyone who saw Greenwood’s play Love on the Dole,” he wrote, “must remember that dreadful moment when the poor, good working man beats on the table and cries ‘O God, send me some work!’ That cry must have been uttered in tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of English homes, during the last fifteen years.”1

The passage from novel to screen was not as straightforward as novel to play. When Greenwood had submitted a script to the British Board of Film Censors in 1936 for approval, it had been rejected on the grounds that the material was “tragic” and “sordid”; that the “coarse” language and scenes of mobs fighting the police were unacceptable; and that Sally’s morally dubious situation at the end of the drama made it undesirable as a film project. However, in 1941, Love on the Dole was allowed to be filmed and released uncut, but with a Prologue and Epilogue which asserted that the social problems it depicted, notably that of unemployment, had by then been largely eradicated. Or, in the words of the critic Nora Alexander when reviewing the film in 1941: “What a difference a war makes!”2 In fact, there may have been several factors that influenced the official change of heart towards the work’s suitability for film treatment, not least the incongruity of the imposition of censorship on an acknowledged working-class classic when the country was engaged in a battle for freedom and democracy in which working men and women were playing a vital part. “Their reward must be a New Britain,” stated Labour MP and member of the wartime cabinet, A. V. Alexander in the Epilogue. “Never again must the unemployed become the forgotten men of peace.”

Rather surprisingly, one of British cinema’s leading attractions at the time, the singer and dancer Jessie Matthews had auditioned for the part of Sally. It is possible that her popularity would have enhanced the film’s box-office appeal, but it was indicative of the approach of the director John Baxter that he thought her stardom would have undermined the film’s intended realism. He cast instead a then relatively unknown actress in the leading role, Deborah Kerr, whose performance had a radiance and fervour that portended great things. Recalling her work on Love on the Dole in an interview with film historian Anthony Slide, Kerr paid tribute to her director, whose understanding of the British working class, she said, infused the cast with confidence. As an example of his attention to detail, she declared: “Who could forget Sally’s father cutting ONE hard-boiled egg into enough slices for each of the family?!!”3 It is a telling gesture indeed, revealing not only the deprivation of the Hardcastle household but also the deference in which the father (George Carney) is held, a respect which will wither as the family’s circumstances deteriorate.

No one in the British cinema at that time was better qualified than Baxter to do justice to Greenwood’s novel and play, for ever since his debut film, Doss House (1933), his work had shown a consistent sympathy with ordinary people in straitened circumstances courageously struggling to make the best of their lot. Although the setting and the situations are grim, he gives the film pace and passion, with montage sequences that not only compress information but are sometimes charged with indignation, notably when Sally’s brother, Harry (Geoffrey Hibbert) searches for work month after month without success. There are flashes of genuine cinematic imagination, like the moment when Mrs Hardcastle (Mary Merrall) is preparing in the morning for her husband’s return from work, and, as she uses a newspaper to help light the fire, the camera closes in on the headline ‘TRADE BOOM IS COMING’, before the paper is consumed by flames, suggesting a promise that is quickly to go up in smoke. There is more than irony at work here: the flames seem to connote a flare of anger at governmental betrayal, as the disparity between what the workers are being led to expect and what they are ultimately delivered becomes sickeningly wide. They are regularly being told that there are better times around the corner, but when they turn the corner, they meet a dead end. Harry becomes increasingly exasperated by his father’s tight-fistedness over money matters until the time, the father says, “when things buck up”: when will that be, if ever? Nevertheless, the film still finds room occasionally to lighten the tone and catch the novel’s touch of mordant humour, particularly from the Greek chorus of women who frequent the Good Samaritan Clothing Club to dispense credit, gossip, fortune-telling, and a minute drop of spirits at threepence a glass which is measured out with the care of a physician administering medicine to a patient. In another scene, when the pawnbroker Mr Price (A Bromley Davenport) opens his doors to the queue of customers, there is pandemonium as they jostle for service, but he knows how to bring them to order: a sudden dead silence descends when they hear the jingle of coins on the counter.

Is there any way out of this destitution? Certainly not marriage: as the most sympathetic of the Good Samaritan ladies, Mrs Bull (Marjorie Rhodes) says, “You marry for love an’ find you’ve let yourself in for a seven-day- a- week job with no pay.” Nor does political activism offer a solution. Sally’s idealistic fiancé Larry Meath (Clifford Evans) finds his Marxist analysis of the ills of capitalism cuts little ice with his workmates, who are more preoccupied with day-to-day survival; and his dreams (and skull) are to be crushed under the hooves of a police horse during a workers protest march against unemployment which turns into a riot. The availability of credit offers temporary relief that only leads to further financial entanglement and is anathema to Hardcastle, but it is the only recourse available to Mrs Hardcastle when she wants her son to have a new suit. The other outlet is the distant promise of a win at the races through a bet placed with the wealthy local bookmaker, Sam Grundy (Frank Cellier). Harry will win £22 on a three-way-bet and the camera will pan across the workers’ faces, torn between joy and envy at Harry’s luck, as Grundy counts out the pound notes one by one. Harry is prepared to share his winnings with his family, but his father generously advises him to spend it on a holiday in Blackpool with his girlfriend Helen (Joyce Howard): it will provide a happy memory, he says, that may have to sustain them for a lifetime. As if to reinforce the father’s words, Baxter lingers on the Blackpool interlude to give it its due visual and emotional weight. The couple’s luxuriance in their unaccustomed surroundings is sympathetically rendered, but that also serves to heighten their gathering gloom about the prospect of returning to the daily and deadly grind of Hanky Park, particularly in the case of Helen, whose home situation sounds even worse than Harry’s.

Sam Grundy is to play a significant role in the fortunes and misfortunes of the Hardcastle family. Much to Sally’s disgust (for Grundy is a married man), he has been pursuing her for some time, professing honourable intentions whilst offering financial favours. After Larry’s death, she is compelled to borrow £5 from him to pay for Larry’s cremation, but as her options narrow, the temptation to give in to his pleading becomes overwhelming. She succumbs. When she re-enters her home, her elegant appearance is one of the biggest visual shocks of the film, for it immediately proclaims her situation and, in her father’s eyes, her shame. The ensuing argument between the two – a veritable crossfire of recriminations and accusations, culminating in violence – is the work’s dramatic highlight and painful to watch. “You kicked our Harry out because he was married, and you’re kicking me out because I ain’t,” she cries; “Get out, or I’ll kill you!” he shouts back. The father’s rage is ostensibly motivated by the humiliation Sally has wrought on the family through her brazenly immoral relationship with Grundy, but behind it, one senses a displacement of his own shame and guilt at failing to provide for his children and for his wife (whom Greenwood has brutally described in the novel as “an old woman of forty”). When Sally climbs into Grundy’s car before being driven away, she overhears a fragment of a neighbour’s gossip – “As though I don’t know how she’ll pay him back” – but she is unmoved. The purpose of her visit home has not been to flaunt her new status but to inform them (and clearly through her influence over Grundy) that she has procured jobs for Harry and for her father, which might not be a road back to reconciliation but, for the latter, could at least be a route back to self-respect.

In the film’s final scene, Mrs Hardcastle declares: “Things can’t go on forever like this. One day we’ll be wanted: the men who’ve forgotten how to work and the young ‘uns who’ve never had a job. People’ll begin to see what’s been happening and once they do, there’ll be no Hanky Park.” This is not drawn from the novel but clearly directed at the film audiences of 1941, suggesting that the current war waged against fascism is also a fight for a better future for the working class. It reminds me of Ma Joad’s final speech in John Ford’s film of John Steinbeck’s great Depression novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1941), which subverts the author’s pessimism and replaces it with Fordian populism: “Rich fellas come up and they die, an’ their kids come, ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep on coming. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out.” Love on the Dole was not released in America until 1945, and Deborah Kerr’s recollection was that it was better received in the States than in the UK. Some critics saw the Epilogue as prophetic of the spirit that was to sweep the Labour Party to a landslide victory in the General Election of that year. Variety praised the way the direction, acting and tight scripting made what it called “the tragic journey” of the heroine “vital and real”. In the New York Times in 1945, Bosley Crowther thought the message of the film was universal and described it as “a thoughtful and earnest attempt to throw some light on a problem that concerns us all to a varying degree”.4

In some regards a precursor of the British New Wave and the social realism of Ken Loach, the films of John Baxter have often been described (by John Grierson, among others) as “sentimental”,5 but is that applicable to Love on the Dole? On re-viewing the film, I was particularly struck by a scene in a billiards hall (not in the novel), where unemployed men are shown scrabbling for cigarette butts carelessly tossed on the floor, whilst Sam Grundy’s assistant, an ex-convict called Charlie Fox (an incisive cameo from an uncredited Philip Godfrey) blithely carries on with his game and brags about his successful lifestyle. For all his humanity, Baxter was under no illusions that there will always be unscrupulous and predatory spivs like Fox who are ready to pounce on the misfortunes of others. As for the claim that the problems the film dealt with had mostly been eradicated by the time of its release, that has hardly been borne out by modern times. Poverty, exploitation, misinformation, managerial crassness, political callousness? While these persist, Love on the Dole, irrespective of its period and setting, will continue to be relevant and a landmark of social protest. John Baxter’s uncompromising adaptation pulls no punches.

Neil Sinyard

  1. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin edition, 1962), p.77. 

  2. Nora Alexander, review, Sunday Pictorial, 30 May 1941. 

  3. The Deborah Kerr quotations in this essay are taken from Anthony Slide’s Fifty Classic British Films, 1932-1982 (New York: Dover Publications, 1985), p.40 and from Brian McFarlane’s An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 343. 

  4. Bosley Crowther, review, New York Times, 13 October 1945. 

  5. Quoted in John White, Love on the Dole, in Sarah Barrow and John White (editors), Fifty Key British Films (London: Routledge, 2008), p.38. 

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