Forgotten London films: St Martin’s Lane (1938)

Also known by its US title, Sidewalks of London, St Martin’s Lane is the story of a pickpocket, played by Vivien Leigh, who is befriended by a seasoned street performer (Charles Laughton). He discovers she has a lovely singing voice and incorporates her into his act, falling in love with her as he does so. But her talent – and beauty – are spotted by wealthy songwriter Rex Harrison, who offers her the chance of stardom and, of course, a life away from the streets. The choice she makes, and its impact on Laughton and his fellow street entertainers, forms the film’s melodramatic third act.

As you can tell from this précis, this is not the most original of films. Nevertheless, it has a lot of charm, especially in the busking scenes, with a cameo from a young Larry Adler and a rare acting role for legendary impresario Tyrone Guthrie. Neither of the two principals have particularly convincing Cockney accents, but Laughton is fabulously hammy playing a man of some ego but little talent; Leigh seems a little uncomfortable yet lights up the screen; and Rex does what Rex always does, and does it pretty well.

There are some great street scenes in St Martin’s Court, with J Sheekeys and Wyndham Theatre in the background, and there is also an extended sequence shot outside the old Holborn Empire, which just a couple of years later would be damaged beyond repair during the Blitz.

Alexander Walker is very sniffy about the film in his biography of Vivien Leigh, and claims – I don’t know on what evidence – that Leigh didn’t like working with Laughton because he was so fat, but it has a lot more character than many British films of the period and the three stars play off each other to great effect.

The film was written by playwright Winifred Ashton under the none-too-subtle pseudonym Clemence Dane. Ashton was reputed to be the model for Madame Arcati in Blythe Spirit. She is also said to have had a famously tin ear for double entendre, once inviting Noel Coward for lunch with the memorable words, “Do come! I’ve got such a lovely cock.” This has nothing whatsoever to do with the film, but is too good an anecdote to miss. “I do wish you would call it a hen,” Coward replied.

St Martin’s Lane is available on YouTube here.

The other films I have written about under the Forgotten London Film series are: Night and the City, Pool of London, No Trees in the Street, The Boy and the BridgeLondon Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road, Run for your Money, The Happy Family, and Underground.

My brief introduction to the series is here.

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