There's a London double decker bus driving through the pouring rain tonight, and as it's nearing midnight the date of Friday the 13th is just about over, though the superstitious conductor Alf (Sonnie Hale) believes there is no good to come of a day like today, no matter that his past twenty-four hours have not been too bad. There are a variety of passengers who are travelling for different reasons, and one little man, Ralph (Robertson Hare), has just found his wallet is stolen when he goes to pay his fare - luckily for him, a Mr Blake (Emlyn Williams) generously offers the money for him. Then there's Joe (Max Miller), a wide boy about to pull a fast one over two tourists, and Millie (Jessie Matthews), the variety girl tearing up a photograph...
And within minutes, the bus crashes, killing two people aboard, so the question this movie asks is, who were the ones who died? A morbid hook to hang the plot on, but once the stories got underway it was undeniable that you began to be intrigued as to who would survive, for this was a movie with many plots all converging at the end once the characters wound up on public transport with lightning hitting a crane which then topples onto the road, sending the bus into a building. Director Victor Saville, a dependable figure when it came to melodrama on the big screen, then showed the hands of the clock where Big Ben is housed spinning backwards through time to take us to the morning, when we see the characters getting up for the day.
This featured what would have been a fairly starry cast for 1933 British audiences, though the main draw was two variety celebrities, comedian Max Miller and singer and dancer Jessie Matthews. Miller became a huge success with his bawdy routines and snappy comebacks, but he was considered too downright rude for any other medium but musical hall where audiences would get his jokes uncensored and at full strength. He did make appearances in movies, as just about every other performer of his ilk would, but like his radio bookings they played up his roguish persona without actually serving the material that made his name, therefore here in a rare semi-dramatic role he didn't sing one of his tunes, but was playing a spiv.
Matthews was a different matter, one of the public's sweethearts of the thirties, and here she essayed a role she would recognise only too well, that of the chorus girl who has troubles in romance, something very similar to how she had started out. She doesn't get to sing and dance much here either, but she did play scenes with Hale who was her husband at the time which would have brought about interest in seeing the film, though nowadays the most interest would be that her boyfriend in her particular narrative was a stuffy schoolmaster played by Sir Ralph Richardson. Another, perhaps more cynical, reason that audience would have wanted to watch were her skimpy showgirl costumes which she wears for most of her performance, but her glowing personality was not to be dismissed.
It wasn't just about those two, however, there were others in the cast as the structure of the film was not in portmanteau style which many of these variety pack movies would have been designed as, that is with each section played out in its entirety before moving on to the next one. Rather this was edited by way of weaving in and out of each storyline, so we would be getting Jessie's tale of heartache then jump into Edmund Gwenn's problems with business which are more played for humour (and Edmund is pretty scantily dressed too when he gets to the Turkish Bath - steady), then an outright comedy as Hare was dragged around while walking his wife's pet dog, then caught up in a scam to replace a lady's stockings. Williams was playing his patented cad role, blackmailing an innocent couple, but even if this was not captivating you there was an insight into Britain in the nineteen-thirties merely by observing the details. Being a moral account, it should have been no surprise who actually died, but the theme of fickle fate was nicely summed up in the final scene.
[Network has released this on a DVD double bill with First a Girl, just look for the Jessie Matthews Revue Volume 1. A gallery is the sole extra.]