There is a tendency today for film buffs to think of The Lady Vanishes (1938) as the film that propelled Margaret Lockwood to stardom. This is certainly true here in the United States, where The Lady Vanishes was the first film in which Margaret Lockwood starred to capture a significant American audience. That having been said, it hardly holds true of Miss Lockwood's native United Kingdom, where she had become a star not long before the release of The Lady Vanishes. In the United Kingdom it was not The Lady Vanishes that made Margaret Lockwood a star, but an early Carol Reed film called Bank Holiday (1938) instead.
Bank Holiday was a particularly British variation on the "Grand Hotel theme," in which a film follows a number of different characters in story linked by a specific place or activity (Dinner at Eight from 1933 and Stagecoach from 1939 are other examples of the genre). In the case of Bank Holiday, the film centred on various characters who visit a seaside resort (a thinly veiled Brighton) for the August Bank Holiday. Margaret Lockwood plays a nurse from London who has consented to spend the weekend with her fiancé (Hugh Williams), something over which she does feel a good deal of guilt. At the same time Miss Lockwood's character is worried about a seriously distraught widower (John Loder) of one of her patients who had just died in childbirth. Among the other plots in Bank Holiday are one involving a Cockney family with somewhat unruly children (Arthur, played by Wally Patch, and May, played by Kathleen Harrison), and another involving Doreen (Rene Ray), who is competing in a beauty contest, and her best friend Milly (Merle Tottenham).
Bank Holiday premiered in London on 27 January 1938 and opened to very good reviews. Margaret Lockwood in particular was singled out for the quality of performance, which was entirely naturalistic and free of the sort of artificial speaking common to British stage and even film actors of the time. While the critics loved Bank Holiday, it took some time for it to become a hit at the box office. It started somewhat sluggishly, but eventually through word of mouth did quite well. In the end, Margaret Lockwood had become one of the new stars of the British screen, a position that would be solidified by her next film (The Lady Vanishes).
In the United States Bank Holiday would run afoul of Hollywood's Production Code of the time, under which even an engaged couple such as Margaret Lockwood and Hugh Williams' characters could not spend the night together, let alone a weekend. While Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, thought Bank Holiday was "a very, very good picture," he thought that it could not possibly be recut so as to be acceptable for American audiences. Gaumont British would have Bank Holiday viewed again, after which they they agreed that Larry Darmour, Gaumont's man in Hollywood, would an editor who would remove anything objectionable from Bank Holiday. In the end 1450 feet of film (about five minutes) was cut from Bank Holiday, after which it was finally passed by the Production Code Administration. It was released in the United States on 1 June 1938 under the title Three on a Weekend (presumably Americans would not know what a "bank holiday" was). Here it should be pointed out that the Untied States was not the only place where Bank Holiday faced censorship. In the Republic of Ireland several cuts had to be made before the film could be released there, and the censor said of Bank Holiday, "This was a difficult film to deal with anyhow..."
For the most part Bank Holiday holds up very well when viewed today. In some respects it is at its most effective when dealing with its secondary plots. I thought the plot involving the Cockneys Arthur and May and their family was particularly well done, a good balance of comedy and seriousness. I thought the same held true of the plot involving beauty queen Doreen and her best friend Millie. If Bank Holiday has a weak point, it could well be its central plot line. While Margaret Lockwood gives a very good performance as the nurse Catherine, the material is not quite up to par. While I enjoyed the plot involving her fiancé and her reticence at spending an illicit weekend with him, I thought the whole plot involving her concern for the distraught widower was a bit too weepy and melodramatic, not to mention on the whole unrealistic. Indeed, the whole plot involving Catherine and the overly grieving widower seems a bit out of place among the other, more naturalistic plots of the film.
While the modern viewer may or may not find fault with the plot involving Catherine and the husband who has just lost his wife, I suspect most would find Bank Holiday enjoyable. Indeed, the film works on multiple levels. Its most basic appeal is that it gives the viewers slices of English life as it might have been in the late 1930's. In fact, in the various secondary stories the viewer might find things that hold true not only today, but in the United States at that. At the same time, Bank Holiday also acts as a commentary on English society at the time. Bank Holiday examined the changing sexual mores of the times (something that would not be acknowledged by Hollywood for nearly another twenty years), the classism of English society, and the monetary constraints of the middle and working classes, among other things.
While Bank Holiday is hardly on par with many of Carol Reed's later works, one can already see the promise of things to come in his handling of the film. Several sequences of the film are very impressive, from the early scenes at Victoria Station to the mass of individuals on holiday sleeping on the beach (for lack of funds or available rooms at a hotel). Bank Holiday was only Carol Reed's sixth film, but already he was demonstrating a good degree of mastery in his handling of framing scenes.
Bank Holiday would be a pivotal film in Margaret Lockwood's career and somewhat important in the career of Carol Reed as well. While the film has its flaws, it is a very enjoyable movie over all and one that is well seeking out. Viewers might not particularly care for portions of the central storyline of Bank Holiday, but they will certainly enjoy the many other plots the film has to offer.