Here are four locations in England where there reside a selection of people seeking something better from their lives. First, there is the Northern factory worker Jess Oakroyd (Edmund Gwenn) who has today been fired from his job for standing up to the bullying bosses, but his wife is less than impressed and that creates friction, especially when he starts going on about how he would like things to go for him from now on. A trip to Canada before he grows any older would be just dandy, but with his family holding him back he has only one option: no, not listen to their advice, dump them and set off down South to improve his lot. Then there’s the schoolmaster Inigo Jollifant (John Gielgud) fed up with the headmistress’s strict regime…
What Inigo wants to do is make a living as a songwriter, and that’s what all these characters wish for, an existence somehow connected to showbusiness, though in this adaptation of the hit play of J.B. Priestley’s equally successful novel, we never really do discover what it is precisely that they’re getting out of his endeavour other than a nebulous sense of self-worth by making something of themselves, either as part of a concert party or setting their sights even higher. The concert party here was called The Dinky-Doos, a more nineteen-thirties name for a troupe of entertainers it was difficult to imagine, and you can well see how this affected comedies about this industry for decades to come: Hollywood’s To Be or Not To Be and sitcom Hi-De-Hi! on television owed plenty, for instance.
Priestley was a very popular novelist and playwright in his day, but aside from An Inspector Calls and perhaps The Old Dark House he’s not much mentioned in the twenty-first century, though The Good Companions was ripe for rediscovery. After a shaky start where we are haphazardly introduced to the cast, the other important member being Mary Glynne as spinster Miss Trant who has come into money now the father she took care of has died, you may be wondering why this was such an important movie in the career of British musical star Jessie Matthews seeing as how she’s barely in it. Patience, however is rewarded, as if her Susie Dean persona here was mirroring her meteoric rise to fame.
Therefore the story took plenty of establishing, but once the troupe was assembled in a café with Miss Trant as manager, Inigo as songwriter and Oakroyd taking care of the electrics backstage, along with the existing Dinky-Doos who hoof and trill like there was no tomorrow, Susie commenced her taking of centre stage. Just as in many Matthews tales the pattern of her advance from obscurity to success, just as it had been in her own life, was what her audiences wanted to watch, and they were not to be disappointed with this – the title was from the new name the concert party adopt to indicate their fresh approach. It was akin to seeing the movie suddenly take notice of Matthews’ star quality at the midpoint and allow her to strut her stuff thereafter.
Before then The Good Companions had been an ensemble piece, and there was some novelty in the great Shakespearean thespian Sir John Gielgud singing away and tickling the ivories as a dashing light leading man, though the much-loved Edmund Gwenn’s “Eeh bah gum” accent took some getting used to if you were mostly familiar with his Father Christmas. Although billed as a comedy, there was a surprising degree of drama here too, born from the spirit of the age where folks were trying to be optimistic but financially were suffering, and the world politics were not necessarily looking up either: we are all too aware the troupe are fighting to survive, and the theatrical business was not exactly a secure one, no matter how people will always need entertaining. It built to a finale where their now-booming show is sabotaged by rivals, and the scene where Susie wins the hearts of her public by singing through the tears likewise won the hearts of moviegoers across the world. The thirties were truly her decade.
[The Good Companions along with another Matthews film Sailing Along can be found on Network's DVD The Jessie Matthews Revue Volume 4. A gallery is the sole extra.]