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.


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