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  Poison Pen Grist To The Rumour MillBuy this film here.
Year: 1939
Director: Paul L. Stein
Stars: Flora Robson, Robert Newton, Ann Todd, Geoffrey Toone, Reginald Tate, Belle Chrystall, Edward Chapman, Edward Rigby, Athole Stewart, Mary Hinton, Cyril Chamberlain, Catherine Lacey, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Marjorie Rhodes, Kenneth Connor, Esma Cannon
Genre: Drama
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: In this quiet English village everything seems calm enough on the surface, as everyone goes about their daily lives not upsetting any applecarts, but it will just take a single individual to kick off a hefty dose of paranoia in each and every one of them. This may look like a polite society, a good Christian hamlet whose locals attend the church of the Reverend Rider (Reginald Tate) and are on good terms with his devoted sister Mary (Flora Robson) who is always kind to the children, but the levels of gossip are always capable of increasing, especially when they all like to know their fellow villagers' latest news, be that births, marriage or deaths, or even break-ups. At the dance to raise money for the church restoration fund, a marriage is announced, and sets some terrible events in motion...

Poison Pen was a supporting feature, essentially, that nobody expected great things of, and while it is not particularly famous today, if you were a student of British film, be that casual or otherwise, you would be interested to note how many participants went on to greater things, as well as noting what those well-kent faces among the cast looked like when they were relatively young. Top-billed Flora Robson was conspicuously glamorous in comparison to the roles she took later on in middle age and older, well before she became a Dame and though she was playing the spinster here, not averse to being dressed in nice frocks and having a fetching hairdo. The others tended towards the character actor type, some who would grow to be respected for their comedy stylings, but this was deadly serious.

As the title suggests, the subject was poison pen letters, which proliferate when Ann Rider (Ann Todd) is proposed to (over the phone from Australia! This causes plenty of excitement among the assembled at the dance) by her boyfriend David (Geoffrey Toone), who is on his way back to her. Suddenly, the postboxes are filled with malicious missives from an unknown party which tells them sensational things about their nearest and dearest and breeds deep suspicion throughout the village, no one now trusting anyone else. The head busybodies who you imagine are equally put out that they were not party to this gossip in the first place, circle around the woman they believe is responsible, the Welsh, and therefore foreign, Connie Fateley (Catherine Lacey), which causes her to melt down in spectacular fashion.

Yes, she was innocent, but the evildoer has orchestrated this dreadful set of occurrences, and worse is to come, as the letters continue to be sent. The source was penned by Richard Llewellyn who a short time later would enjoy a huge hit with How Green Was My Valley, a somewhat more benevolent look at a community cut off from the wider world but not turning on itself the way the locals do here. Some would have it that the ultimate culprit was too obvious, but the performer in question goes some way to disguising the character's true intentions and toxic mental maladjustment which winds up in a highly entertaining freak out in the film's finale where they only just stop short of gloating "I'm glad I did it! Glad, I tell you!" If you can giggle at the ripe melodrama (it's not quite a thriller in the way the soon to arrive Le Corbeau from France would be) there was nonetheless a serious message about not believing every wild story you hear and certainly not descending on your target without hearing their side first - and indeed taking the opportunity to believe them if the rumours are especially farfetched.

[Network's The British Film has released this on DVD with restored print and a gallery for an extra.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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