'Careless Talk Costs Lives' was a famous campaign run in Britain during World War II. It was aimed at stopping the unwitting spread of information that might be useful to the enemy. The campaign was accompanied by a series of iconic posters, including the cartoons of 'Fougasse' (Cyril Bird), and by a series of informational films, including three short films made by Ealing Studios.
Ealing would later produce a feature length film related to this campaign and directed by Thorold Dickinson, Next of Kin in 1942. That film told the story of a British raid on a German-held port in France. The raid almost goes disastrously wrong, because the enemy have pieced together information about the operation in advance from their spies in Britain.
|Leueen McGrath and John Mills in 'All Hands'|
Before Next of Kin, Ealing made three short films to accompany the 'Careless Talk Costs Lives' campaign in the first year of the war. The three films were all released in May 1940, and each film was aimed at a different socio-economic group. Each film used a similar structure, but the characters and the settings were tailored to the different audiences.
The films were distributed in the UK by MGM Pictures Ltd, and all three were directed by John Paddy Carstairs. Carstairs was mostly associated with comedy films and is probably best known for the series of comedies he made with Norman Wisdom in the 1950s. These included Wisdom's breakout role in Trouble in Store in 1953.
These are the three short films Ealing made for the 'Careless Talk Costs Lives' campaign.
This 10 minute short features John Mills as a young sailor, Jack (as in Jack Tar, I guess), who meets up with his girl Joan (Leueen McGrath) just before he's called away to his ship. A nosy waitress (Gertrude Musgrove) at the cafe where they meet overhears their conversation and the fact that Mills's ship is about to set sail.
The waitress blabs carelessly to her unassuming co-worker who is, of course, a German spy. The German spy network in Britain leaps into action, and a spy on the coast is soon signalling to a German U-boat at sea and directing it to the British warship.
All Hands illustrates the slogan of the American equivalent of the 'careless talk' campaign, namely that "loose lips sink ships". This short film is quite a neat little cautionary tale that gets its message across quickly and succinctly.
As with another of these films, Dangerous Comment, the source of loose talk here is not the serviceman himself, or even his sweetheart, but a third party, the waitress who overhears them. It's also notable that the gossip in both of these films is a woman. Presumably the Ministry of Information, who sponsored these short films, thought that women were particularly likely to share too much information with their friends.
All Hands was aimed particularly at middle class audiences, but was the most widely shown of these three shorts. With its ordinary sailor protagonist, it was probably also the one with the widest appeal. The film was written by John Paddy Carstairs.
Two military chaps tell a third a story illustrating the dangers of "careless talk". This story involves a pilot who is about to go on a bomber raid when it's suddenly called off. He tells his relieved wife and she passes the news on to her friend. But the raid is then back on again and his wife's chatty friend is later overheard spilling the beans in a cocktail bar.
This 12 minute short has a cast including Penelope Dudley Ward, Frank Lawton and Roland Culver. It's interesting to note that the planned air raid in the film is called off at the last minute and danger averted. This shows the reluctance, ironically, to portray careless talk doing too much actual damage, as that might have harmed morale. There were similar qualms about the ending of the feature film Next of Kin. Dangerous Comment ends on an ironic note, as it seems that the recipient of the lecture hasn't really taken the lesson on board, as he tells the other two men that he's going to pass the story on.
The three "careless talk" films were made for different audience segments. All Hands, with its cheerful sailor and his respectable girlfriend meeting in a cafe, was made for a middle class audience. Now You're Talking, with its story of a disgruntled factory worker, was aimed at the working classes. Dangerous Comment, with its cocktail bar setting and "Darling, I must go and bomb Germany now" plot line, was clearly aimed at a more wealthy class of cinemagoer.
Dangerous Comment was written by John Paddy Carstairs, Roland Pertwee and Roger MacDougall.
Now You're Talking
This 12 minute film stars Edward Chapman, later more familiar as "Mr Grimsdale" in Norman Wisdom's comedies. Chapman plays a factory worker who gets a bit free and easy with his talk when he gets a pint in his hand in the local pub. He lets slip that a downed German plane has been taken to the laboratory where he works. German spies then spring into action, determined to destroy the secrets held within that plane.
With its German saboteurs blowing up a factory building, Now You're Talking is one of the more fanciful films in this campaign. As with Dangerous Comment, the film ends on an ironic note, as the blabbermouth sits in the bar lamenting the fact that German spies have managed to destroy the lab and declaring that someone must have talked. "Why people can't keep things to themselves, I dunno" he says.
This film features not only Mr Grimsdale, but also Alec Clunes, father of Martin (and there's a definite resemblance), and Sebastian Shaw, best known as the original Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.
Now You're Talking was written by Jeffrey Dell, Basil Dearden and Roger MacDougall.
The films Ealing made to support the war effort were significant in helping to change the style and tone of the studio's output, and in developing its recognisable house style of the 1940s and 1950s.
Screenonline has a good overview of Ealing's wartime short films, written by Mark Duguid: