- Jolly Old Sports: English Character, Comedy, and Cricket in The Lady Vanishes
“Well, people just don’t vanish and so forth.”“She has.”“What?”“Vanished.”“Who?”“The old dame.”“Yes.”“Well?”“Well, how could she?”“What?”“Vanish.”“I don’t know.”“That just explains my point. People don’t just disappear into thin air.” — Caldicott and Charters in The Lady Vanishes
In the earlier period of Alfred Hitchcock’s career, when the British film industry struggled economically against the more polished American product and aesthetically against the experimental films from France and Russia, Hitchcock often expressed a light-hearted but defiant quality of national heritage. One of his most famous English works, The Lady Vanishes (1938), revels in the heroics of a group of English men and women who band together to counter a fictional European force attempting to capture a cheerful spinster spy, Ms. Froy (Dame May Whitty). The film, which stars Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, also features an ensemble cast of characters—representing different kinds of Englishness—devised by screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat from The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White (Spoto 173). One important late addition was the scene-stealing, cricket-loving Charters and Caldicott (played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, respectively).1 [End Page 55]
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Although their role in the film is largely a humorous one—at times Laurel and Hardy, bopping heads at the cramped Bandrikan hotel, and at times Abbott and Costello, with their “people just don’t vanish” routine above—they are also a symbolic, if parodic, example of a key segment of English culture: upper-class products of the public school system, the empire’s gentlemen-training establishment. Their presence in the film provides a certain stodgy and archetypal Englishness to be laughed at, but when danger abounds they are quick to take up arms for king and country with wry wit and sporting attitudes, actually helping to lead Redgrave’s Gilbert and the rebels against the Bandrikan forces in the movie’s climactic shootout. Hitchcock’s “old boys” occupy an interesting position, in the late Thirties, as being both culturally obsolescent stereotypes and sentimentally-charged defenders of the war-threatened realm. With a light touch, as ever, in his English films, Hitchcock plays up the roles of the immensely popular Charters and Caldicott, who themselves “play up” against the foreign powers while saving the day in the hope for cricket to come.
Leg before Wicket: the Public Schools and Sporting Privilege
Although the screenwriters Launder and Gilliat were concerned, perhaps rightly, that American audiences would not understand the characters, British audiences were unlikely to miss the immediate joke behind the two gentlemen—that is, they are overgrown public-schoolboys. In the U. K., the public schools are actually private establishments with only limited state funding.2 Prior to reforms following World War II, the great public schools like [End Page 56] Rugby, Winchester, Eton (and Caldicott and Charters’ own Repton and Marlborough3) typically boarded upper- and upper-middle class boys, often at great financial expense for the parents, during adolescence (ages 13–18 or so). During these formative years, young men were mostly taught classics, religion, and history, and perhaps a smattering of Elizabethan drama, science, and fine arts. The broad appeal of a public-school education, however, extended beyond the classroom into the class-based privilege of attending school with other boys who loved sports, spoke with fine accents, and aspired toward the gentlemanly careers of colonial administration, the military, further study at University, and the recently-respectable paths of business and industry. After the reforms of Dr. Thomas Arnold at Rugby in the 1820s and 30s, public-school education also took on an air of “muscular Christianity”— emphasizing athletics and character-building as much as intellectual growth in the educational process. As an outgrowth of Dr. Arnold’s reforms, compulsory games were established so that boys would have to play cricket, football, rugby football, athletics (track and field), or other games of local custom such as Eton Fives (a version of handball). The prefect system also allowed boys to work out problems among themselves...