Film Review: Passport to Pimlico (1949)

passport to pimlico movie poster one sheetOver a hundred years of cinematic history, some studios have emerged as leaders of a specific genre. No discussion of horror films would be complete without inclusion of Hammer Films, for example. For classic postwar comedies, UK-based Ealing Studios similarly gained a reputation for its series of popular British comedies. Their top films include Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Ladykillers (1955), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Man in the White Suit (1951), and all should be on your must-watch list. That dry, caustic British sense of humor is in evidence throughout all of these brilliant films.

But one of their best is the lesser known Passport to Pimlico (1949), now available in a beautiful, digitally restored release. It’s truly hilarious and wonderfully cynical in its assessment of British politics and human nature, a film to seek out and enjoy. Set in post-war London, everyone is still recovering from the bombings and just beginning to consider the task of rebuilding their beloved city. Rationing is still in force and while everyone’s feeling the relief of WWII ending, they’re all wondering when life will get back to normal.

Typically, individual areas of London are competing to have the last unexploded bomb when locals in the tiny district of Pimlico find a bomb buried in an empty field. Meanwhile, local greengrocer Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway in one of his earlier roles) is lobbying the town council to build up a park and pool for the benefit of the local children. Playing unsupervised in the ruins of a bombed out building, the young ruffians accidentally cause the bomb to explode, which unearths a previously hidden treasure trove right in the middle of town.

Turns out that the treasure is the long-lost stash of the Duke of Burgundy from way back in the late 1400’s. The greatest treasure, however, is a royal charter signed by King Edward IV that decrees Pimlico an independent region! Local historian Professor Hatton-Jones (a hilarious Margaret Rutherford) informs the town that they are indeed on Burgundian territory and as such are free of any English laws or rules. No rationing! No pub closure hours! No austerity! No surprise, masses of Londoners rush to Burgundy to enjoy an area without postwar rationing and pub closing hours, bringing a chaos all its own.

Soon thereafter a descendant of the Duke (Paul Dupuis) shows up and asserts his royal privilege as town leader, even as he romances the lovely Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray). All well and good, but London is baffled how to respond: Do they acknowledge the independent kingdom in the midst of their city? Not to mention the equally critical question of who owns the treasure?

publicity still photo - passport to pimlico
Professor (Rutherford), Arthur (Stanley Holloway) and the Duke of Burgundy (Dupuis), from “Passport to Pimlico”

It doesn’t take long for diplomatic representatives of Burgundy (neé Pimlico) to begin negotiations with the British government to establish friendly relations between the two nations. Things don’t go quite as planned and soon there’s a military border established, complete with barbed wire and passport controls. The Underground line that passes through Pimlico territory? That’s problematic too. The situation devolves in a quite clever way, offering an amusingly acerbic criticism of English bureaucratic values. Don’t worry, the English take care of their own and even an economic siege isn’t enough to stop the stalwart Burgundians thriving in their new kingdom.

Shot on a very modest post-war budget, directed by Henry Cornelius and written by the prolific T.E.B. Clarke, this is possibly the essential Ealing Studios comedy of its era. Fun, endlessly inventive and engaging, and with just enough cynicism to keep the story moving forward, it’s the cinematic version of your favorite grandparent’s long, involved, but hilarious story about “the old days”. Passport to Pimlico has a well deserved 7.1 rating on IMDb and was nominated for both Oscar and BAFTA awards when it came out. If you can find a copy of this movie, I highly recommend it. Passport to Pimlico is nutty, amusing and slyly cynical in a way that Ealing Studios absolutely mastered in its era. Were that more modern comedies were in this vein than just crass and crude, but that’s a completely different discussion. Meanwhile, you owe it to yourself to find and watch this movie. I promise you’ll enjoy it.

Note: Film Movement sent me a Blu-Ray copy of the restored Passport to Pimlico. It’s also available in digital form on iTunes, Amazon and Vudu if you’re willing to dig around a bit.

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