‘Love on the Dole’’s Portrait of ’30s Poverty Retains Its Power

John Baxter’s touching portrait of social deprivation in 1930s Salford gets an excellent BFI reissue that reveals the film as a now under-celebrated British classic.

Finally released in 1941, John Baxter’s Love on the Dole initially found itself turned down for production when its scenario was presented to the British Board of Film Censors in the ’30s. Taking exception to the film’s frank portrayal of social deprivation, the BBFC dismissed the work as “a very sordid story in very sordid surroundings”. The Board’s squeamishness about the social conditions that the film highlighted was apparently only overcome by the advent of World War II, and by concern that banning a film about workers’ rights was hardly an appropriate stance for a country fighting for freedom.

The initial ban is particularly strange, since when it was presented to the BBFC, the scenario for Love on the Dole wasn’t precisely new. Adapted from Walter Greenwood’s novel, the material had already achieved huge success in a stage version co-written by Greenwood and Ronald Gow, which included around 400 London performances and a Broadway transfer. When it was finally released, the film repeated the play’s success, confirming the material’s ability to connect with audiences that clearly responded and related to its depiction of working class experience.

Released now on DVD and Blu-ray in an HD transfer by BFI, Love on the Dole reveals itself as something of an under-celebrated British classic, a “kitchen sink” precursor that retains considerable power in its presentation of poverty.

The film’s protagonists are a Harry and Sally who are fairly far removed from the Nora Ephron-scripted pair who’d grace Rob Reiner’s seminal rom-com nearly 50 years later. Here they’re the siblings of the Hardcastle clan: a working-class family struggling against poverty in the settlement of Hanky Park. The context for their struggle is the mass unemployment of the period, which sees both Harry and the family patriarch out of work.

As the title suggests, it’s through the protagonists’ romantic relationships that the drama develops. Harry is dating a girl called Helen, who comes from a dysfunctional family; the young couple’s weekend away in Blackpool results in a pregnancy. Sally, meanwhile, is growing closer to the thoughtful labour man Larry Meath, while trying to rebuff the persistent attentions of the bookie Sam Grundy, who’s offering her escape from her conditions — at a price.

The enduring appeal of Love on the Dole lies in the perceptiveness with which it presents working-class life through well-drawn domestic scenes and vivid characterization. The performances are excellent, too. As the siblings, Deborah Kerr and Geoffrey Hibbert are a great contrasting pair. Kerr (in one of her first film roles) never sentimentalizes by making Sally too easily loveable, while the baby-faced Hibbert is terrifically sympathetic throughout. As their parents, Mary Merrall and George Carney brilliantly sketch out the disappointments and frustrations of the previous generation, with their contrasting perspectives. (“I suppose that’s what education’s like,” says Mrs. Hardcastle at one point. “Knowing a lot of things that don’t really matter.”)

They’re surrounded by a fine ensemble cast who all make their mark in supporting roles. A particularly distinctive contribution comes from the posse of black-garbed neighbours who function as the story’s Chorus. As played by the formidable quartet of Marie O’Neill, Iris Vandeleur, Marie Ault and Marjorie Rhodes, this gaggle of gossips provides some of the film’s sharpest and blackest comedic moments, whether partaking in an impromptu séance or popping out lines that nicely sum up a woman’s lot in this period: “You marry for love and find you’ve let yourself in for a seven-day week with no pay…”

While a few scenes betray stage origins, Baxter’s direction keeps the story fluid, with good transitions and some memorable images: there’s a wonderful pan across the men’s envious faces in a scene in which the bookie dolls out money to Harry. At times a little bit over-insistent in its attempt to expose iniquitous social conditions, Greenwood’s writing is sharp, affectionate and often funny where it counts, and the alliance that brings the drama together — and constitutes a significant sacrifice for Sally — is powerfully conveyed in the film’s moving final scenes. Touchingly hopeful in its perspective, this is a beautiful film that’s ripe for rediscovery, making this new BFI release a welcome one, indeed.

The HD transfer has been accomplished with the BFI’s characteristic attention to detail, and the illustrated booklet, with new writing by Jo Botting and Chris Hopkins, illuminates the film’s production and reception. The excellent extras include three contemporaneous short films, including the intriguing sympathetic to communism Our Film and the enjoyable Island People, which presents an affectionate cross-section of British life.

RATING 8 / 10