Cast & Crew
After a London bus crash leaves two people dead and several injured, the clock is turned back twenty-four hours to show the lives of the bus passengers, how they happened to be on that bus at that time, and the effect of the crash upon their lives.
Friday the Thirteenth on DVD
The movie, which has nothing to do with the 1980s Hollywood horror franchise, was inspired structurally by Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which a bridge collapse inspires a look back at the lives of those who perished. In Friday the Thirteenth, the climactic event is a bus crash, on the rainy streets of London at one minute to midnight on Friday the thirteenth. The moments leading up to the crash start the film, as we are introduced to the bus's occupants. We aren't shown the outcome of the crash, but are told two people perished in it. Then the film flashes back to that morning -- signified by Big Ben's rewinding hands -- and we start to see all the occupants' individual stories, building at a faster and faster pace, leading to their stepping onto that bus, and culminating in a series of ironic resolutions.
There's a love triangle involving a stage star; a blackmailing story; a tale of a big stock trade that may or may not have gone through in time; a meek bank clerk who doesn't realize his wife is leaving him; another meek husband who tries to walk a big dog and gets comically fleeced in a park; and a garrulous barker at the Caledonian Market who traffics in stolen art. There are two or three additional plot threads woven in as well, making for a too-cluttered script that nonetheless does eventually start to sort itself out and build significant interest -- as soon as the audience has a chance to start caring about the characters, that is, and wondering which two are going to die. The multiple stories also make the film rocket a bit too unevenly between comedy and tense drama, resulting in neither being 100% effective. But despite these flaws, Friday the Thirteenth is a fascinating and immersive piece of early talkie British cinema that deserves to better known.
The picture is equally fascinating for the chance to see a roster of superb British actors of the time: Ralph Richardson (in only his second film appearance), Edmund Gwenn, Gordon Harker, Max Miller (famous British comic and something of the British equivalent of the fast-talking Lee Tracy), Emlyn Williams (an actor-writer soon to reach fame as the playwright of Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green), and of course Jessie Matthews.
Matthews had become a sensation in the previous couple of years, and while this film is not her best musical showcase, she does get the chance to sing and dance and wear surprisingly provocative outfits. She may not be to all tastes, but one can sense her star appeal, and she has a charming presence, a warbling voice, and unforgettably big, round eyes. Matthews' husband, Sonnie Hale, plays the bus conductor here. He was a frequent co-star and director of her films, and while they were by now married in real life, their relationship had begun in scandal because Hale was still married at the time to his previous wife.
There was some interesting talent behind the camera, too. Contributing to the screenplay were the aforementioned Emlyn Williams as well as Sidney Gilliat, who built a solid career as writer, producer and occasionally director, and is best remembered for writing The Lady Vanishes (1938) and writing and directing Green For Danger (1946).
Director Victor Saville was an interesting fellow who worked well as director, producer and writer on both sides of the Atlantic. He directed several other Jessie Matthews vehicles such as The Good Companions (1933), Evergreen (1934) and his personal favorite It's Love Again (1936), he directed Vivien Leigh's first starring role, in Dark Journey (1937), and in Hollywood he helmed the underrated Rita Hayworth vehicle Tonight and Every Night (1945). Among his producing credits are The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). While not a great visual stylist, certainly Saville was an artist of taste and wide-ranging interest, and he consistently turned out engaging movies.
Of Friday the Thirteenth, Saville later wrote, "[It] was perhaps the most complicated film I ever had anything to do with." The demands of telling six stories taking place in one day, all leading chronologically to one event, were very challenging. Film scholar William Everson later wrote that another impressive aspect to this film was Saville's ability to use bits and pieces of sets to suggest much larger sets altogether.
The other Jessie Matthews titles now available from VCI are There Goes the Bride (1932), The Man From Toronto (1933), The Good Companions (1933) -- an important and hugely successful entry co-starring John Gielgud, Edmund Gwenn and Max Miller, and again directed by Victor Saville -- and Climbing High (1938), co-starring Michael Redgrave and Alastair Sim and directed by Carol Reed.
By Jeremy Arnold
Friday the Thirteenth on DVD
Modern sources include Producer Michael Balcon, Camera Charles Van Enger, Design Alfred Junge and Vetchinsky, Costumes Gordon Conway, Editing R. E. Dearing and Sound Harry Hand in the production.