Film Review: Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)

Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios in 1939, is a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the battle between technology and tradition in brewing.

Ironside Brewery as seen in Cheer Boys Cheer, 1939.

Ironside Brewery is a technological wonder, staffed by efficient white-coated technicians, resembling something from The Shape of Things to Come — rocket-like fermenting vessels reach to the sky, and everything is gleaming metal. (It is cleverly constructed using a mix of matte paintings, models, and, we think, shots of somewhere like Acton Lane power station.)

Nonetheless, in the words of a rebellious new members of its board:

The beer isn’t worth drinking…  You’ve rationalised the taste out if it… What’s the use of machinery that can produce ten million bottles a minute when you can’t offer one of them to your friend?

Old Mr Ironside (Edmund Gwenn) and his ruthlessly scheming son John (Peter Coke) don’t care about that: they want to expand for the sake of expansion. But where will they sell all the extra beer they produce? Their search for lebensraum leads them to the rural Greenleaf Brewery and it’s ‘100 first class houses’. (That reference to Nazism isn’t glib: Old Man Ironside is actually shown leafing casually through Mein Kampf later in the film.)

The Greenleaf Brewery, from Cheer Boys Cheer, 1939.

Greenleaf vs. Ironside… The symbolism in this film is not subtle. Ironside is metal, electricity, lorries and sharp suits; Greenleaf is wood, steam, horses and rumpled tweed. Taste is everything at Greenleaf and the head brewer, Matt Boyle (Jimmy O’Dea), first appears proudly brandishing a glass of the latest batch of his XXX for his colleagues to try. When he sees buffoonish brewery worker Albert (Graham Moffat) kicking a cask of XXX across the room, he reacts furiously: ‘You’ll bruise it!’ He would no doubt today be described as ‘passionate’ about brewing.

Later in the film, high on his own supply, he produces his grandfather’s tattered brewing book and boasts:

He could brew a beer for any purpose. A beer to make you happy, a beer to make you sigh, a beer to make you laugh, and a beer to make you cry.

A stereotypical drunk comic Irishman, Boyle is nonetheless the film’s most engaging character, and O’Dea certainly knew how to make a beer look tasty on screen, smacking his lips, widening his eyes and sighing contentedly with each draught of dark, foamy mild.

A predictable plot gives the film its rather flabby shape: young John Ironside inveigles his way into Greenleaf’s and seduces the owner’s daughter (Nova Pilbeam), but their simple, honest ways and truly delicious beers win him over. Proving himself to be a good egg at heart, he joins them to fight back against his increasingly gangsterish father and his gangs of violent goons: ‘Gone idealist, eh?’ sneers the old man.

It is expert brewing which saves the day when Boyle produces a batch of his grandfather’s masterpiece — a beer containing ‘all the sorrows of Ireland’, the ‘tears of Deidre’. It is literally so astonishingly brilliant that it causes grown men to cry when they drink it.

The humour throughout is of the ‘Ooo, yaroo! It’s on me blinkin’ foot!’ variety, and the double act of Graham Moffat and Moore Marriot, familiar from the films of Will Hay, has not aged well. Frankly, if this film had been about, say, the dairy industry, we would probably not have enjoyed it half as much.

Though nicely done, the pubs and breweries featured are either studio sets or paintings, so there isn’t much to be gleaned in terms of useful historical detail, either.

The value of Cheer Boys Cheer is as an early expression of a point of view that would later inform the founding of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and the Campaign for Real Ale, and which arguably underlies the ‘small is beautiful’, ‘buy local’ trend of the last forty years: dispassionate technicians in a factory cannot possibly make really satisfying beer.

Cheer Boys Cheer features is included in the two-disc, four-film set The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection Volume 9, from Network DVD. Our copy cost £10.

3 thoughts on “Film Review: Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)”

  1. Must admit I’d never heard of that one. It would surely have merited a revival in the 1970s.

    Very unfashionable now, of course, in the Brave New World of Craft, far too redolent of boring brown beer and dumpy old men’s pubs :p

  2. Maybe an updated version with some plucky craft beer brewing upstarts battle to get craft beer recognised by CAMRA would be worth making.

  3. Interesting how similar the fermenters look to today’s in an establishment of similar size. Today, they are often placed outdoors and of course most are cone-shaped at the base, the famous conical design that causes the yeast to behave like bottom yeast even if it isn’t. 🙂 Otherwise they look identical.

    The line about bruising shows the screenplay’s ignorance of common brewery practice at the time (pushing the casks to rouse the yeast), unless it was intended as pure humor.

    A really great film hasn’t been made about brewing. What was that American one, about a small town brewery closing…? Can’t think of any others. Maybe the sensory joys of beer just can’t get across to celluloid. Music somehow does a better job. “His best friend floats in the bottom of a glass”.

    Ever hear The Who’s version? Much better than Reg’s I think.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE_aXE8oudY

    Gary

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