Friday, April 23, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Yellow Canary (1943)

I was in the mood for a good spy yarn this Friday evening and pulled out YELLOW CANARY, a World War II story starring Anna Neagle and Richard Greene. Missy was kind enough to send it to me to supplement my Region 2 Anna Neagle Collection, and I found it most enjoyable.

It's 1940 and Sally Maitland (Neagle), a hated Nazi sympathizer, is leaving her native England for exile in Halifax, Nova Scotia. On the Canada-bound ship Sally strikes up a friendship with a Polish military man, Jan Orlock (Albert Lieven), and develops an antagonistic relationship with an undercover British naval intelligence officer, Jim Garrick (Richard Greene). Once the ship docks in Halifax, it gradually becomes apparent that no one is exactly who they seem to be.

This is an excellent tale told with great atmosphere, whether it's London at night during the Blitz, the fog-bound ship, or equally foggy Nova Scotia. It's rather unique that Neagle spends an entire hour being presented as a cold-hearted pro-Nazi witch; given that Dame Anna was one of England's most beloved actresses, I don't think it will surprise anyone that her character is perhaps not quite as awful as she seems at first glance.

Greene didn't make much of an impression on me in LITTLE OLD NEW YORK (1940), but he is quite dashing in this and also demonstrates a nice sense of humor. He starred in numerous films at 20th Century-Fox during the '30s, including John Ford's FOUR MEN AND A PRAYER and SUBMARINE PATROL, both released in 1938; KENTUCKY (1938) with Loretta Young and Oscar winner Walter Brennan; Shirley Temple's A LITTLE PRINCESS (1939); and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939). (Happily, I have access to all of these films, as I would now like to watch more of his work.) When war broke out, Greene returned to his native England and joined the military. He was periodically furloughed to appear in movies to raise British morale, including YELLOW CANARY. In the '50s Greene would find new stardom as TV's ROBIN HOOD.

I was struck by some parallels this film has with one of my favorite Hitchcock films, NOTORIOUS (1946). Fans of NOTORIOUS may enjoy taking a look at this earlier film and noticing the big house with the creepy mother and son, as well as the woman who must feign loving an evil man for a better good.

The character of Sally also made me think of Britain's real-life Mitford sisters, as I have read a number of books on that family; Unity Mitford was a friend of Adolf Hitler.

The supporting cast includes Lucie Mannheim (who appeared in Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS), George Thorpe, Marjorie Fielding, and Margaret Rutherford.

The movie was filmed by Max Greene, who also shot SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948), which I recently saw at the Noir City Film Festival. It was directed by Anna Neagle's husband and longtime collaborator Herbert Wilcox; Wilcox and Neagle married the same year YELLOW CANARY was released.

YELLOW CANARY was released in Britain at the end of 1943 and was distributed in the United States by RKO in 1944. The U.S. running time, which matches that of the print I watched recorded from Turner Classic Movies, was 84 minutes.

IMDb says the original British print runs 95 minutes, while Leonard Maltin lists the time as 98 minutes. It seems most likely that the U.S. print trims scenes with Sally's family, probably at the start of the movie. For instance, Nova Pilbeam (star of Hitchcock's YOUNG AND INNOCENT), who plays Sally's sister, is third billed yet she only appears in the final scene of the print I viewed.

This film does not appear to have had a DVD release in either the United States or the UK. Those who like a good British spy story should watch for this entertaining film to turn up again on TCM.


Blogger Missy said...

Glad you liked the movie! It also made me want to see more movies with Richard Greene or Anna Neagle.

I did have a few complaints with the movie: as you mentioned something was definitely cut from the beginning, but worse the tone of the movie changes once they land in Canada. Once they're off the boat things get a little off. But overall, a good movie.


8:37 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Missy,

I thought the opening scene with her flashing the signal was really interesting, especially given how it was later explained. I wonder if they thought the U.S. version should open with an action sequence? I was very surprised that Nova Pilbeam's role was almost nonexistent. I tried Googling to see if I could find out any info on the two versions, but so far no luck. I have Neagle's autobiography, but it doesn't shed any light on the subject. (She does tell a cute story about watching the movie behind two little old ladies who were quite shocked that their dear Anna Neagle would play such a character.)

I can't believe I haven't yet watched more of my Neagle DVD set, but I guess I'm lucky there are so many great movies begging for my attention (grin).

I noticed that Greene's complete ROBIN HOOD series is available from Deep Discount for only $7+. Might pick that up -- I suspect some of my children would enjoy it too.

Thanks again for providing a very enjoyable evening's viewing!!

Best wishes,

8:53 PM  
Blogger Missy said...

Oh I love the opening scene...surely that's the same in any other version. The conversation the two gents have is just classic! And the set up with her using the flashlight is interesting and deceiving. ;-) I suspect whatever has been cut came after those few scenes, but before the scene in the train.

I don't remember how...library maybe...I saw the first two episodes of Greene's Robin Hood. They weren't too good, but maybe it improves as it goes along.


8:34 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I think you must be right, makes more sense that the opening would be the same in both versions and then the missing footage falls in between that and the train scene where she's leaving.

Maybe sometime we'll have a chance to see the original!

Best wishes,

9:23 AM  
Blogger Jim Wentzell said...

I too enjoyed this film. One thing that struck me, why would an admitted Nazi sympathizer (admittedly just a cover, I know) be expected to want to settle in Canada? Wouldn't that raise some red flags? Maybe the transatlantic journey would provide ample surveillance tidbits, which it did, but c'mon, I find Halifax as an allowed exile for a declared enemy sympathizer a big stretch....

8:46 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Delighted to hear you enjoyed it, Jim. I agree, some of the plot aspects did seem a bit odd!

Thanks for adding your thoughts, hope more people will check it out.

Best wishes,

6:41 PM  
Blogger Lois Padawer said...

As this article is 11 years old, the commenters might be aware that the film is available on youtube, where you can watch the first 15 minutes and then watch any other version. Around 11 minutes are missing, yes just after the opening as Laura says. Nova Pilbeam's role is still pathetically small, but at least you get a few more minutes of her and the ending makes more sense. Speaking of the ending, I was wondering whether there were two versions of the ending, but I haven't found anything about that online. I guess we can't discuss it without too many spoilers.

10:33 AM  

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