It is nothing new when Britain sends us a well-made cinema comedy. But Sparrows Can't Sing, which has just opened at the Exeter Theatre in Boston, is something more: not only is it a superlative piece of entertainment, but it is also an "important" film. For it marks the debut of Joan Littlewood as a movie director.
In case you've forgotten, Miss Littlewood is the gal who founded London's Theatre Workshop, where she introduced the works of playwrights like Brendan Behan and shelagh Delaney, trained many performers, and generally ruled over the most vigorous theatrical institution in the city until she suddenly gave it up two years ago.
And now she is back in a new medium, in which she demonstrates similar mastery. She even collaborated on the screenplay with Stephen Lewis, author of the original stage play (and also one of the supporting players in the film).
Sparrows deals with the inhabitants of the colorful Stepney area of London's East End, where the whole picture was filmed. It tells the tale of a rough but appealing seaman who returns from two years of duty to learn that his doll of a wife has set up housekeeping with an unhappily married bus-driver; and it builds to a riotous climax in the Red Lion pub.
If you think this is seamy and sordid, you're wrong. It takes only a few minutes to adjust to the spirited and uninhibited Cockney way of life. And Miss Littlewood's touch is anything but heavy. She likes a fast pace, and her crosscutting is unorthodox but effective. Along the way, we are treated to a feast of intriguing cosmopolitan faces, including oldsters and children, Jews and Negroes.
The dialogue is racy, and fresh as the best cup o' tea--in some spots actually improvised. And it is utterly authentic Cockney--so much so that much of the film is provided with English subtitles, though these are often unnecessary. The difficuty lies not in the Cockney accent but rather in the numerous slang terms, which are foreign even to the majority of Londoners.
The film also introduces to our shores Miss Barbara Windsor, who rose to stardom in Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. Playing the unfaithful wife, she is a stunning sexpot (measurements 38-22-35) with a remarkable platinum poodle-pompadour (not a wig either), Britain's talented answer to the dumb-blonde Judy Holliday of Born Yesterday. (Incidentally, Miss Windsor will appear as a guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight show on television tomorrow night.)
James Booth is attractive and forceful as the young cuckold. U.S. audiences will recognize Murray Melvin from his fine work as a star in A Taste of Honey, but most of the cast are unfamiliar. Some, in fact--like the Jewish bakery proprietress and the pub owner--are not professional actors; they play themselves. Yet there is not an inferior performance by anyone. All are as convincing as the architectural surroundings, now gradually succumbing to the forces of urban redevelopment (one of the buildings used was razed two days after filming).
One can only await with eagerness the next film of Miss Littlewood and Miss Windsor (the latter's will be Crooks in the Cloister, just completed).
Playing with Sparrows Can't Sing on the program at the Exeter is Dylan Thomas, the Academy Award-winning documentary--poetically photographed, and beautifully narrated by Richard Burton sometime when Liz Taylor was not around.