(Note: There is some confusion among various sources about whether this is a 1939 or 1940 release. IMDB claims the movie was released in January 1940 and I suspect that is correct but I didn’t figure that out until recently, after I had already put the list together. So, for the time being, it will stay in 1939. One day, when I confirm this, I will fix it.)
In Carol Reed’s classic The Stars Look Down Michael Redgrave plays Davey Fenwick, an intelligent young man in a northern English mining community who works with his father Robert (Edward Rigby) in the mines while saving for college. Life for the Fenwick family and the entire community is thrown into disarray when Robert claims to have seen a plan for the mine in which they are working which shows a mountain of water dangerously close to the operations. The company denies the existence of the plan and demands the workers continue to dig, but Robert insists he saw it and the workers go on strike.
The strike is only the prelude to the story of Davey and his family, which turns out to be one of the best portraits of working class life ever committed to film. It would have been easy to focus on the strike, but as important as the event is in the lives of the miners, it does not define them. Davey is the center of the picture, but his brother Hughie (Desmond Tester), an aspiring footballer, and their long suffering father help complete and humanize a people that can be easily overlooked or discounted. An especially rich performance by Nancy Price as Davey’s mother Martha allows Reed to explore the emotional complexities and adversity of life in a mining town. She is strong – rigidly so. She voices her complaints quietly, almost as if she were talking to herself, but clearly meant to sting whoever may be sitting nearby, usually her husband. She doesn’t understand why her husband is leading the strike when her father, also a mining man, worked for years without striking and failing to bring home a paycheck. And she doesn’t understand why Davey would turn his back on his family’s profession and go to university. Is he, she wonders aloud while going about her chores, too good for the rest of the family? Martha isn’t heartless, but this passive-aggressive callousness may be the only way she knows to let her son know she will miss him.
Davey does eventually get to university but he is sidetracked by the beautiful though frivolous and vain Jenny Sunley (Margaret Lockwood). He rushes into marriage, fails to complete his studies, and, missing the professional opportunities the degree would have conferred, he takes a teaching job at his hometown’s school. Jenny bristles under the economic hardship of a village teacher’s salary and the social restrictions of the small town. Their marriage falters under the burden of poverty and unfulfilled expectations. This was quite a different pairing for Redgrave and Lockwood from their teaming in Hitchcock’s more lighthearted film The Lady Vanishes.
Reed demonstrates great affection for the working class characters. Even the owner of the mine is not completely unsympathetic, though his decisions lead to disaster and tragedy. (Maybe Jenny is the only character for which we feel no sympathy.) It is, Reed argues, bad choices, not stock movie bad guys, that are the true villains. Throughout this film we watch characters sacrifice long term security for short term gain, destabilizing families, industries, and societies. Sometimes these ill-advised decisions are understandable, like when hungry strikers dramatically loot the butcher shop. That action, however, cured their immediate hunger, but doomed the strike. We see long term security traded for immediate profit again and again – Davey’s marriage to Jenny before graduating, the mine owner’s decision to mine where he knows there is a danger, etc. Just as the stars always look down, people will always consider their own immediate benefit and ignore the larger picture. It may be a sobering thesis, but it’s a fact that Reed sees as a danger on both the micro and macro levels, and a fact with which we have to come to try to overcome in order to truly heal some of the ruptures society faces. Life, especially in an industrialized capitalistic and democratic society like the one depicted in the film, will never prosper when owners only think of their profit and workers only think of their rent and the next meal (though it is certainly easier to privilege those needs).
Reed seems to think we must be doomed to continued social and economic disaster, and I can’t say I entirely disagree. I think Reed intended the movie to be read on a more personal level, but there are larger implications. Look at the world today. As Japan nears nuclear disaster after a massive earthquake, we discover that California’s nuclear plants have no earthquake emergency plans, potentially setting up a radioactive disaster here in California. Reasonable people would immediately begin work making sure the plants are upgraded to meet new seismic requirements, and plans are instituted to deal with a situation should those retrofits fail in an earthquake. But I can almost guarantee that won’t happen because it would cost boatloads of money, and that would cut into short term profits. (Ignore the billions of dollars worth of lawsuits should southern Orange and northern San Diego counties require evacuation if the San Onofre plant goes kaflooey – but the scary thing is, I am sure they have considered that in their cost analysis, believing it to be more cost effective to risk a nuclear disaster.) This is a dramatic modern example (and there is a laundry list of others I could tick off), but it illustrates the continued relevance of Reed’s film.
I don’t want The Stars Look Down to sound like a heavy socio-political treatise against self-interest. There are certainly strong elements of that theme, but at the end of the day it is a movie about personal relationships in and among the Fenwick family, the workers of the mining union, and the entire community. In these days of increased attacks on the working man and their unions it is a story that deserves to be seen and appreciated.