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The Young Mr Pitt (1942)

CRUMBLIES… 3 crumblies

And on to Robert Donat‘s eleventh film. It’s 1942. His last movie, Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), came with an Oscar for Best Actor and then a pause. The world is now at war and the film studios pump out a mix of direct and oblique propaganda. Some good, some bad; they vilify the enemy or look to justify the actions of the Allies and the validity of our leaders…

Donat – in an interesting, workmanlike performance – took on this rôle as a none-too-subtle nod to Churchill. He is William Pitt, the UK’s youngest ever Prime Minister, in this biography of the short, celibate, powerful life of the man who held us together during our long fight with France: The Young Mr Pitt.

So, the history: possibly embellished for effect… the boy Pitt admires his Dad, the Earl of Chatham, a cracking speechifier who leaves him with “don’t pursue fame through war” as an axiom he trips over the rest of his days. Years later, into 1783, and Britain is led by some smug Whigs including Robert Morley‘s licentious Charles James Fox. Boo. Morley eats up the screen with smarmy chatter and cannot believe it when the King (George – Raymond Lovell giving off early-onset turnip love) tosses him and his fellows to the kerb and calls on Pitt the Younger to form a government.

Now, Donat isn’t entirely believable as a 24 year old (he was 37), but he’s so upright and calm that you really don’t care. We get to know him through parliamentary pettiness, as the House drown out his speeches with farmyard noises. So, firmly on his side, we’re tipped into love by some violence in the night. He’s attacked (who says politics is unfair?), but helped by a couple of boxers who assure him that while Parliament may be full of arses, the country is full of supporters. He has an agenda for change…India, rotten boroughs and the national debt…

But then history takes over. France revolts, Holland’s fate forces ours, Napoleon emerges (here played by Herbert Lom in a series of oddly creepy vignettes – the soldier becomes the monster), the Navy is built, Nelson wins at the Nile, but the war won’t end…

And this is when Donat’s skill takes over, for his Pitt goes from a cheery but determined soul, playing with kids, resigning to a political life at the expense of love (Phyllis Calvert has a go at him as Eleanor Eden, but duty intervenes), to a deteriorating, barely middle-aged wreck. He works too hard, drinks too much (port brings gout) and feels the stress of managing a nation through the paranoia of Napoleon’s game. Trafalgar ahoy…if not a happy life.

This is a long, linear, obvious film. Pitt is Donat’s Churchill, but younger. The real Pitt died in Prime Ministerial harness aged only 46, a few years short of the 53 gifted to Donat himself. His performance is smart – my Grandpa Gus loved it – and surrounded by caricatures (Morley owns all his moments), plain-spoken folk such as boxers Dan Mendoza and Gentleman Jackson (Roy Emerson and Leslie Bradley giving earnest-real-people) and Calvert doing sad nearly-lover. As is right and just, John Mills pops in to be wonderful as Donat’s career buddy and Pitt’s friend and mostly-ally William Wilberforce. He of the slave laws. All as British as British can be, but not enough to give you the feels.

I like rather than love this film. It’s okay, but a tad prosaic. There are lovely moments of dialogue, a few possibly real, but ultimately you’re never far from aware that this parallels a real war that’s just outside, real politicians, using history to tell the Brits in the cinema that they’ve always fought tyrants and their war machines…so keep going. It’s only 1942.

The Young Mr Pitt is tough to find in decent quality, but do try. The YouTube carries a rough version. Either way, it tells an interesting story, with a bunch of quality actors, albeit over-shadowed by allegory…



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