A Kid For Two Farthings
Director: Carol Reed / Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz (from his own novel) / Editing: A.S. Bates / DP: Edward Scaife / Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Celia Johnson / Diana Dors / Joe Robinson / Jonathan Ashmore / Brenda De Banzie / Primo Carnera / Lou Jacobi / Irene Handl / Sidney James / Alfie Bass
Carol Reed, that iconic British director, responsible for classics such as The Third Man (1949) and The Fallen Idol (1948) had, by the mid-Fifties, hit something of a creative doldrum. It’s a common problem: be it a writer, musician or film-maker, the pressure’s always on to repeat previous success.
Whilst searching for ‘the next big thing’, Reed’s long-term production partner, the inimitable Alexander Korda, introduced him to A Kid For Two Farthings. A semi-autobiographical novel by Wolf Mankowitz, ‘Farthings revolves around a young boy’s imagination-fuelled experiences in East London’s Jewish quarter. Aside from being completely different to his previous projects, I surmise that ‘Farthings appealed to Reed, for two other reasons.
First, its modest budget and cheaper British stars, promised to deliver a ‘quick’ picture on a small scale, buying Reed time while he planned something grander; that turned out to be Trapeze a year later, starring Burt Lancaster & Tony Curtis. Second, was that ‘Farthings was Reed’s first film in colour. A transition to colour shouldn’t be underestimated for the creative step-change it undoubtedly was; especially for a director for whom B&W had been so integral to the creative process. Whilst actual photography is of course the responsibility of the DP, it’s the Director who literally calls & plans the shots; they who consider how the film is going to look. ‘Farthings limited scope would therefore be a perfect, low-key petri dish, in which Reed could experiment, away from Hollywood.
Just as well too, for if you’ve ever seen it, the last thing you’d criticise Trapeze for, is lack of spectacle!
Centred around London’s Petticoat Lane, ‘Farthings sees the world through the eyes of young Joe (rosy-cheeked Jonathan Ashmore). A boy of around nine or ten, he lodges with his mother, Joanna (a brittle Celia Johnson) above a tailor’s shop run by Mr. Kandinsky; a genial, reflective old man, who no longer dreams of a better tomorrow. Played by David Kossoff with studied indulgence for Joe’s own naïveté, he has a later, revealing scene with Joanna, in which he reveals a private bleakness with such economy, you almost miss it (‘My first name. It’s Avrom’). The film comes just ten years after the Jewish Holocaust finally ended and Mankowitz’s writing is weighed down by grief, embodied in this single character. The Holocaust sits at the edge of this film, like the elephant in the room; everyone’s aware of it, but no-one’s talking…
An un-named, enigmatic character is seen at random throughout the picture: a bearded, gaunt-faced man, who appears to do nothing but push along a pram filled with a gramophone player, whilst intently reading a book. Having not read Mankowitz’s novel myself, I’d be intrigued to learn if this character is present within its pages, as in the film, he comes over as someone trying to forget – or be forgotten. He’s also something more. For this anonymous figure, weaving in and out of the film, is in some ways, its conscience. Its witness & common thread and, whilst watching the film, I became intrigued by his deeper purpose which, for a silent extra, can be no higher praise. Moreover, he’s a living relic. A remnant from any one of the ghettos created – then purged – by the Nazis.
While on the topic of enigmatic characters, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have seen for Joanna, than Celia Johnson. That this is a difficult role to carry off, I’ve no doubt. Joe would’ve been born around the end of the war, and the fact that his absent father is in Africa ‘trying to make it as a farmer’, is itself telling me that his marriage to Joanna – neurotic, fragile Joanna – can’t have been an easy one. Had it been anything other, they’d have either been out there too, cheering-on Father from the sidelines, or he’d never have left in the first place. Yet here they are: marooned above a run-down tailor’s shop, in the hardscrabble East End.
Joe is their consolation; shining like a beacon into dull, drab lives. Despite having little to call his own, this lovable, credulous boy is surrounded by a wealth of richly-observed characters. Everyone, from Irene Handl’s cheek-pinching Mrs Abrahamowitz, to Lou Jacobi’s gym owner, Blackie Isaacs indulge and, importantly, listen to Joe. They take him seriously; Reed often keeping his camera at Joe’s head-height, to ensure we see the world from his perspective. Joe deserves that much at least, for he’s a true catalyst for change.
A granter of wishes in his own right.
After the latest in a string of chicks has been buried, with due reverence in the back-yard, Joe resigns himself to a lack of skill at raising pet birds. But a fanciful conversation with Kandinsky turns to Unicorns and how, tired of life in London, they migrated to Africa and lost their horns, along with the power to grant wishes. Undeterred by Kandinsky’s pessimism, Joe’s set on acquiring one as his next pet, believing it might return his long-lost father. So, Kandinsky spares him a few coins (indulging two farthings, one imagines) and urges Joe to get a dog, instead. This is Kandinsky settling for the obvious; the default option: get a dog. But Joe is made of nobler stuff. He sees what everyone else has forgotten. He hasn’t lost his power to make wishes come true.
Having been uninspired by the few puppies he sees in the market, Joe spots a young, white goat – a Kid – improbably owned by a tramp. The clincher for Joe? It only has a single, twisting horn… Convinced that he’s found his Unicorn, Joe hands-over all his money and returns with his prize. The respect paid by the adults, on seeing his ‘Unicorn’ is of course, a sentimentalised version of their likely reaction, but the film is seen through Joe’s eyes remember. As a result, these kindly adults go along with Joe’s version. From that point on, Joe will invest every scrap of his emotional capital, in the
Kid Unicorn; almost willing a miracle to occur.
Meanwhile, Kandinsky’s assistant, Sam (Joe Robinson) is preparing for a prestigious body-building competition. Aside from the prize money, should he win, is the prospect of marrying Sonia (Diana Dors in a rare ‘serious’ role). But that’s a long way off and, in the here and now, money’s tight. So, an unscrupulous local gym owner offers Sam the chance of a few (rigged) wrestling matches as a way of raising money. I found the juxtaposition of Sam as both tailor and celebrity beefcake amusing and suitably off-beat; especially when things escalate to a fight with The Python, played in the film by wooden actor, but real heavyweight boxing champion, Primo Carnera. Robinson’s good here, at playing the meat-head who thinks more of his muscle tone, than having Diana Dors as a fiancée. He’s a walking parody of Charles Atlas, right down to his leopardskin trunks.
In the build-up to the Big Match, Kandinsky once again talks of dreams coming-true for, thanks to Joe, he’s learnt that a rival, prospering tailor has acquired a new steam-press and that his old, clapped-out model is for sale. Along with Joe, he visits the rival and haggles the price down, yet it’s still too much. Undaunted, Joe has an idea: rather than blow his winnings from the fight, on an engagement ring from the irrepressible Sid James as Iceberg (named after the generous – but flawed – stones in his range of dodgy jewellery), Sam ought to buy the steamer himself, thus become a partner in the shop…
There’s only one problem: The Python dwarfs even Sam. Moreover, Sam’s only just begun to learn the ropes, if you’ll forgive the pun. The fight promises to be a walkover for The Python, which makes Joe’s belief in victory, all the more credulous…
I won’t tell you how this one goes – you can probably guess the narrative arc – but this is no Hollywood fantasy. Instead, this is just a single, eventful episode in Joe’s childhood; an interval before what passes for ‘real life’ imposes its own reality. Joe will go on, granting wishes to those who believe. He doesn’t need a Unicorn.
And that final shot! Seeing the pall-bearer walk, disconsolately, out of his own celebration; with our constant witness, the only other figure in the frame, all-but floored me. Which isn’t surprising, given that I’d seen it before… Carol Reed was to pull the same trick over a decade later, with the musical Oliver! (1968); another movie featuring an unknown boy-actor wandering the streets of a crumbling East End. What’s more, consider how Reed’s interpretation of Fagin, draws on Mr Kandinsky here. If the trick worked once, then chances are it’d work again…
This then is Carol Reed making a defiantly British statement about film and the stories we get to tell in-camera; stories that carry their bittersweet taints right through to the end credits. The film can be read as having been inspired by the Italian Neo-Realists in that regard. Think of Vittoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) for example, or Fellini’s La Strada (1954); fables parading as straightforward drama.
Can you imagine how an American studio, or big-name actors would’ve treated such material, for example? Assuming, that is, that Mankowitz would’ve been granted a meeting in the first place…
It’s also a love-letter to London’s East End. From having been shattered in the Blitz, its streets would soon be echoing with accents from around the Empire: the Caribbean and India to name just two. Things were about to change forever, though the market would continue, as markets always do. The old bomb-sites would be cleared in-time and London would heal, but for the likes of Joe, miracles would be harder to come by…
Mister Python? Why don’t you give up? No-one can beat my Unicorn!