Cottage to Let (1941)

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Alastair Sim stars in a tale of spies and scares in wartime Scotland

vt Bombsight Stolen
UK / 86 minutes / bw / Gainsborough, Gaumont, BPC Dir: Anthony Asquith Pr: Edward Black Scr: A. de Grunwald, J.O.C. Orton Story: Cottage to Let (1939 play) by Geoffrey Kerr Cine: Jack Cox Cast: Leslie Banks, Jeanne De Casalis, Carla Lehman (i.e., Carla Lehmann), Alastair Sim, John Mills, George Cole, Michael Wilding, Frank Cellier, Muriel Aked, Wally Patch, Muriel George, Hay Petrie, Catherine Lacey.

Cottage to Let - 0 opener

A somewhat lightweight spy mystery based on a play written before the full horrors were known of what was going on in Europe; it was first staged at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in 1939–40, when opinion on the war’s wisdom was still (just) up for debate in the UK. Another sign of the piece’s date is that, in the screen adaptation, a central character even pronounces the term “Nazis” incorrectly, as “Nazzies” rather than “Natzies.”

Somewhere in Tayside, Scotland, Mrs. Barrington (De Casalis) of the big house is letting out one of the estate’s cottages; the only trouble is that, in typically scatterbrained fashion, she’s agreed to rent it to more than one tenant. Miss Fernery (Aked) is expecting to billet some evacuee children from London in it; Dr. Truscott (Petrie) is expecting to use it as an emergency hospital; while the eccentric Charles Dimble (Sim) is expecting to make it a temporary home. The latter tries to remind his new landlady of this in an exchange that has “stage play” written all over it:

Dimble: “I’m Dimble.”
Mrs. Barrington: “Oh, are you? I’m so sorry.”

Cottage to Let - 2 Dimble exercises his charm on Mrs Barrington

Dimble (Alastair Sim) exercises his native charms on Mrs. Barrington (Jeanne De Casalis).

She airily offers a compromise: Dimble can have a room in the cottage, Truscott can have the rest of it for his patients, and she’ll put up one of the evacuees, the boy Ronald (Cole), at the main house. Just then the first casualty arrives for treatment: an RAF officer, Flight-Lieutenant George Perry (Mills), who had to bail out over Loch Tay and was almost drowned.

Almost immediately we realize there’s more to Perry than meets the eye, although it’s difficult to know what his game is. Is he perhaps a secret serviceman, here to keep an eye on Mrs. Barrington’s husband John (Banks), a celebrated inventor of military gadgets that are invaluable to the war effort? Certainly there’s concern that details of some of the gadgets are somehow leaking to the Germans.

Once up at the main house, Ronald is warned to keep away from John’s laboratory, so of course that’s the first place he goes. Once he and John have introduced themselves to each other, they get on like a house on fire, especially since Ronald has alerted the inventor to the fact that his beefy butler Evans (Patch) isn’t a butler at all but a cop. Meanwhile John’s assistant, Alan Trently (Wilding), is suffering the miseries of jealousy because John’s daughter Helen (Lehmann), with whom Alan is much in love, is spending most of her time doing nursing duty for the recuperating Perry in the (literally) cottage hospital; are they conceivably becoming too close?

Cottage to Let - 3 John B explains aerodynamics to Ronald

John Barrington (Leslie Banks) explains aerodynamics to Ronald (George Cole).

Cottage to Let - 4 Dimble and Trently

Charles Dimble (Alastair Sim) and Alan Trently (Michael Wilding) compare notes.

Cottage to Let - 5 Helen seems responsive to Perry's blandishments

Helen (Carla Lehmann) seems responsive to the blandishments of Perry (John Mills).

The standards of care at the hospital seem to be rudimentary at best—”Your supper ought to be ready, if Betty’s found a tin-opener,” says Helen to Perry at one point—which is maybe why he has his arm strapped to his chest for what seems an unconscionable amount of time.

There is, of course, a nest of German spies in the area, operating out of Glasgow, and eventually they seize John Barrington in hopes of smuggling him out of the country and forcing him to do the Nazis’ bidding . . .

Cottage to Let - 7 John in captivity

John (Leslie Banks) bears up defiantly in captivity.

Humor and suspense can be difficult bedfellows to reconcile, and that proves to be the case here. After Perry has been rescued from the loch, there’s a long, supposedly comic second scene outside the cottage as it becomes clear how Mrs. Barrington through her irresponsibility has completely muddled the letting of the place. We’re introduced to Truscott, to Ronald and to Dimble. In theory we should be rolling in the aisles; in practice, because the feckless Mrs. Barrington is such a rebarbative piece of work—”Happiness is the one thing I insist on,” breezily trilled, serves as her watchword—we’re grinding our teeth in irritation where we should be laughing.

Cottage to Let - 8 Perry finds Ronald as maddening as everyone else does

Perry (John Mills) finds Ronald (George Cole) as maddening as just about everyone else does.

Cole, as Ronald, does a little better in this respect, although he was a child actor whose appeal never became obvious to me (he’d made the role his own in the stage version of Kerr’s play), but the only person who’s really capable of marrying the two styles of the movie, gliding easily from one to the other and back again, is, as one would expect, Sim. When his true nature is finally revealed and the steel shows through the quirky exterior, one can see for sure how much one wouldn’t want to make an enemy of Charles Dimble.

Cottage to Let - 6 Dimble

Alastair Sim as Charles Dimble.

As for the rest of the cast, most of them aren’t really given enough to do. Mills, Banks and Petrie, three very different actors but all fine when given something to work with, are simply wasted. Lehmann’s role demands merely that she be pretty and desirable, which of course she most certainly was, while Wilding’s character is through no fault of the actor’s so anonymous that it’s entirely possible to forget that he’s here at all.

Cottage to Let - 1 La Belle Helen Barrington

Carla Lehmann as La Belle Helen.

If it weren’t for the presence of Sim, one could ignore Cottage to Let, but somehow he manages to have the effect of holding everything together, thereby turning what would otherwise be no more than a mediocre movie into something that, even though still somewhat mediocre, is well worth watching—although maybe not more than once.

Cottage to Let - In a hall of mirrors [closer]

*****

This is a contribution to Rich Westlake’s 1941 roundup at his Past Offences site.

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On Amazon.com: Cottage to Let

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19 thoughts on “Cottage to Let (1941)

  1. Great review, I’ve only watched it the once and you picked up on a number of things I hadn’t noticed at the time. I quite liked it and thought it was a daft film and just had to be taken as such.

    • a daft film and just had to be taken as such

      That’s a reasonable reading of it, I think — although not so daft at the time, I’d imagine. Part of the reason for making it would surely have been propagandistic, with an eye to ginning up some American support against the Nazis.

  2. I actually enjoy the film although I nodded my head in agreement with much of what you say. It doesn’t hold up particularly well to any kind of analysis, certain characters seem to be forgotten for large portions of the film and I find it hard to take John Mills seriously in this film for reasons I can’t really reveal without giving the whole plot away, however I think it is a pretty entertaining film even if some of the comic moments do fall flat. The pronunciation of Nazis is an interesting one, in the Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror which I watched recently Basil Rathbone refers to them as Nutsies or something similar. Always interesting to read blog posts which offer a different viewpoint on films we like.

    • Many thanks for dropping by. I’m much in agreement with you in that when, many years ago, I had the same sort of reaction to the movie when I first saw it: what fun it was, especially Sim. I gues I’ve grown more callused in my old age.

      Since posting this piece I’ve learned more about Sim’s relationship with Cole. Apparently Sim and his wife Naomi were in the habit of giving a home to disadvantaged young actors, of whom Cole was one of a number. When eventually Cole married, at age 27, he bought a house near the Sims’ and, after Alastair died, was hugely supportive of Naomi. It was wonderful to learn that the Sims were genuinely the fine people that I’d always assumed they were.

      My fandom for Sim began when, modest koff, I first encountered him when he was playing Prospero in The Tempest in Aberdeen, Scotland. Me and my mum were somewhere near the front; I was small enough that my feet didn’t reach the ground as I sat in my seat. Sim was magnifique, as you can imagine. It was all a life-molding experience on a number of fronts.

  3. This is the time of the year when Alistair Sim’s face resonates in our consciousness, though of course for the one film is is universally revered for. I have not seen this lightweight spy mystery, but it sounds like it is distinctly mediocre. I do love the genre of course and applaud you for another masterly presentation John!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Sam. As you’ll have noticed, others here regard the movie far more highly than I do, but even I wouldn’t think of it as outright mediocre. And, as others here remark, just about anything with Sim in it is worth watching. I’m also finding that the movie seems better in memory than it was when I was watching/writing about it. It may be one of those where the good aspects are good enough that the poxy ones fade from the memory. I dunno.

  4. Sim was such a fascinating actor, that I can watch him in just about anything. Movies tended to cast him as a charming eccentric, but he had genuine gravitas and could turn his hand to just about anything. I’ve seen a number of versions of AN INSPECTOR CALLS, but it’s Sim as the title character that is the version of the character that I see as the definitive one.
    Sim taught Cole to speak in RP English, dropping his Cockney accent. Years later, when he became famous as Arthur Daley, Cole said that he sometimes imagined the shade of Sim hovering over him, wagging his finger and saying ‘This is NOT what I trained you for!’

    • Sim was such a fascinating actor, that I can watch him in just about anything.

      I’m in absolute accord. I can’t think how many movies I’ve got to the end of thinking: “If it hadn’t been for Sim, that would have been a dreadful waste of time.”

      he had genuine gravitas and could turn his hand to just about anything

      Too true. I first encountered him onstage as Prospero, and that’s been the performance against which I’ve matched all the other Prosperos I’ve seen. He managed to move from whimsicality and humor to the expression of great power so easily you barely realized it was happening. Marvelous.

      Cole said that he sometimes imagined the shade of Sim hovering over him, wagging his finger and saying ‘This is NOT what I trained you for!’

      That’s a very funny story! Many thanks for it.

  5. First of all, I like that you used the word “rebarbative”. Can’t remember the last time I’ve seen or used it.

    Secondly, I love that the Sims were such generous people, as you pointed out in a comment above. I have even more admiration for him.

    Lastly, I will give this film a go just because Sim is in it. It does sound like a “daft” film as the first commenter said, which is good to know going in.

    • Many thanks for dropping by!

      When I was about fifteen, the word “rebarbative” was very much in fashion, for some reason — I think it was just one of those word-fads, or maybe someone was using it a lot on telly, or something. Whatever the case, it just sort of slid into my vocabulary and, of course, I was exactly the right age for it to stay there. Nowadays I use it without thinking — unless, that is, I pause to wonder if perhaps I’m being rebarbatively pretentious to do so!

      I, too, was really overjoyed by the discovery about the Sims. And I hope you enjoy the movie should you get the chance to catch it!

    • I was watching a movie yesterday and realized in the middle of one particularly effective sequence that I’d seen it before . . . in the early 1960s. Now that‘s scary!

  6. I haven’t seen this one, but what a fantastic cast. I like seeing Sim and Cole together, as in Scrooge where Cole plays the young Scrooge – their voices are spookily similar, so you can almost believe it really is the same man at different ages. Will have to get hold of this and give it a look!

    • I’ve never much liked Cole’s work, and I’m not sure why. My first encounter with him was in one of the St Trinian’s movies, where he was so obviously so much older than the girls that the whole setup left a nasty taste in my mouth. Whatever the case, he has ever since given me real difficulties.

      Small world, etc.: One of those St Trinian’s schoolgirls was later for many years the partner of my ex-brother-in-law.

  7. Pingback: ‘The shadow of war’: #1941book results | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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