Channel Crossing (1933)

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Fog in the Channel, and a plutocrat’s nightmare!

UK / 66 minutes / bw / Gaumont–British Dir: Milton Rosmer Scr: W.P. Lipscomb, C. Campion Story: W.P. Lipscomb Cine: Philip Tannura Cast: Matheson Lang, Constance Cummings, Anthony Bushell, Dorothy Dickson, Nigel Bruce, Edmund Gwenn, Douglas Jefferies, H.G. Stoker, Max Miller, Viola Lyel, Clare Greet, Ellen Pollock, Mignon O’Doherty, George Ridgwell, Gerald Barry, Stanley Vilven, Hay Plumb, Cyril Smith, Elizabeth Corcoran, Elizabeth Jenns, Rodney Millington, Bernard Miles, Michael Wilding.

Channel Crossing - closer

International magnate and philanthropist Jacob Van Eeden (Lang) needs to get to Paris in a hurry to secure his latest merger deal. There’s fog over the English Channel so all flights are grounded; instead he must take the Dover–Calais ferry. So he and secretary Marion Slade (Cummings) board the good ship Canterbury and set out for the continong.

Channel Crossing - 1 Marion Slade

Constance Cummings as loyal secretary Marion Slade.

Marion is pursued aboard by her fiancé, shipping clerk Peter Bradley (Bushell). He’s convinced she’s in a carnal relationship with Van Eeden—although she very obviously isn’t in one with Peter, despite his fiancé status: much later he yells at her, “Is that why you let me kiss you? To prevent me sending that message?” Oh, golly, they’re engaged and she’s let her kiss him.

Through the first one-third or more of the movie we’re treated to a kind of situation comedy among the passengers. Almost all of those aboard—passengers and crew—seem in one way or another to be involved in Van Eeden’s enterprises, right down to, in several cases, betting on his racehorse . . . inevitably called The Flying Dutchman. It’s obvious that so many people regard him as a father figure whose financial triumphs have redounded upon their own good fortune.

Channel Crossing - 6 The captain calls for Van Eeden

The captain (uncredited) calls for Van Eeden (Matheson Lang).

That same first one-third or so of the movie sees the majority of the contribution of Max Miller, playing the part of himself (he has a very brief reprise toward the end). Miller—“The Cheeky Chappie”—is of immense importance in the history of British music hall, and is regarded as a significant ancestor of modern stand-up comedy. Unfortunately, all his appearance here does is to remind us how bloody awful British music-hall comedy for the most part was. What we get from Miller here is fast-delivery unfunniness. To be fair, it may simply be that standards have changed a lot. Also, we should remember that in a family movie Miller obviously couldn’t use his trademark racy material.

It’s not just Miller we have to cope with as we wait for the plot to take off. Much as did the disaster movies of the 1970s and 1980s, Channel Crossing seeks to use witticisms from an army of luckless cast members as a way of giving depth to the proceedings. One or two are quite funny—

Actress A: “A duke asked me to marry him once.”
Actress B: “And did you?”
Actress A: “No. When he woke up the next morning he remembered the duchess.”

—but most of them aren’t.

Van Eeden becomes increasingly concerned about the time the ferry, moving cautiously through the fog, is taking over the journey. A succession of messages come and go through the ship’s radio. And we can see from the magnate’s reaction that one of them is very bad news: “Grave danger. Hoffman may discover truth.” Marion is perplexed:

Marion: “But what is it Hoffman may find out?”
Van Eeden: “There was a gap. I had to bridge it. It was not a very good bridge. Some nice people would say it was a . . . bad bridge. But it got me to the other side.”

Eventually he admits that the “bridge” was made of false scrip. But he explains that the criminal act was necessary: the failure of the deal would mean suffering not just for him but for many thousands of others. Marion accepts his reasoning . . . and is rewarded by an unwanted proposal of marriage!

Channel Crossing - 3 Marion has her doubts about the suddenly amorous Van Eeden

Marion (Constance Cummings) has her doubts about the suddenly amorous Van Eeden (Matheson Lang).

Peter, who’s been eavesdropping, bursts into the cabin and tells the pair that he’s going to radio ahead to France and make sure Van Eeden’s arrested for fraud immediately on arrival.

Channel Crossing - 2 Van Eeden, envisaging the catastrophe should he fall from grace

Van Eeden (Matheson Lang) envisages the catastrophe should he fall from grace.

Later Van Eeden and Peter meet on the fog-enshrouded deck, they scuffle, and Peter goes overboard. Should Van Eeden let him drown for the sake of all those thousands of dependents (and, incidentally, himself), or should he help the rescue effort . . .?

Channel Crossing - 5 Peter is brought aboard alive, but on the point of death

Peter (Anthony Bushell) is brought aboard alive, but on the point of death.

Aside from Miller, the most noteworthy of the “names” among the passengers are Edmund Gwenn and Nigel Bruce. Gwenn plays Trotter, a humble, fussy little man traveling with his wife and daughter; he reckons they owe everything to Van Eeden. Bruce plays a suave-manque character called Nigel Guthrie; he and his wife Vi plan to separate as soon as the ferry reaches Calais, and she’s taking the opportunity to flirt audaciously with other men during the crossing. One of the movie’s funniest moments comes when we see Guthrie in the bar as the cry of “Man overboard!” goes up. For just a moment an expression of hope crosses his face, followed immediately by the realization that perhaps he still does harbor affections for Vi after all.

Among the uncredited passengers on the ferry are Bernard Miles (his first screen role) and Michael Wilding (his third).

This is a modest movie, although of course it’s always a pleasure to see Constance Cummings in anything. Her two leading men, Lang and Bushell, don’t offer her much by way of backup, though, Lang in particular relying upon a sort of empty portentousness that soon becomes tedious.

While watching the movie I was struck time and time again by the familiarity of the fog-laden scenes. Eventually it dawned on me that what I was being reminded of was the first television set my impoverished family ever owned, a little 10-inch black-and-white item that my big brother picked up second-hand in a junk shop for ten shillings. The thing only lasted about three months, and I remember that all the movies we watched on it had this same indistinct murkitude through which we peered, desperate to find out what was going on.

Channel Crossing - 4 Do Not Adjust Your Set - that's fog out there

Do Not Adjust Your Set – that’s fog out there.

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6 thoughts on “Channel Crossing (1933)

  1. Actually the “fog scenes” you describe here remind me of Val Lweton’s “Ghost Ship” those the comparisons end there. Yes is always a joy to see Cummings in any case. For me it is always a cause for celebration when Gwenn and Bruce are cast in anything. Splendid review. I was taken with it from the start, even though I have yet to see the film.

  2. I liked your anecdote re: your family’s first television set. It sounds like an exciting purchase although it must have been frustrating trying to peer through all that “fog”.

    I like the word “murkitude”. I’d like to borrow it.

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