Sparrows Can't Sing review, The New Republic, p. 30


Joan Littlewood, the vigorous and unorthodox director of a theater in London's East End, shares some of Ray's feeling of dedication to a people and a milieu.  Her first film, Sparrows Can't Sing, adapted from a play she produced in her theater, is a folk comedy about cockneys.  A big, good-looking merchant seaman comes home after tWo years to find that his determinedly blonde wife is living with someone else.  The local code is different from the West End's.  He is not outraged by her infidelity, he is injured in amour-propre and sets out, not to wallop her, but to win her back.   (He will probably have to do it again on his next return.)  Buzzing about the principal pair is a chorus of relatives, friendly local tarts, pub friends, Jewish bakers, and a bird-breeding lodger.

The method of the picture is what might be called speedy mosaics:  a swift current of generally short scenes which, largely dependent on intercutting between simultaneous sequences, gives the picture energy and glitter.  The serious point of the film, underneath the headlong frivolity, is the intent to show the vitality, the communal richness of true working-class life.  Miss Littlewood is not in love with poverty, but, with others, she knows that the language, customs, entertainments of English workers had texture and assurances; and she sees them being dissipated by the very benefits of material progress, by commercialized culture, by spreading "middle-classism."  There is a marked contrast between the crowded, cozy flats in the old streets and the antiseptic modern fats in the council houses; and there is some sharp satire about the regulations and anonymity of the new buildings.

What she says is true enough:  something valuable is going, along with all that was inhuman, vicious, degrading.  The trouble with her film is that its light, flitting method--and it is all method, the story is negligible--is so akin to the best Lubitsch or Minnelli musicals that it acquires an irrelevant slick patina.  This feeling is launched right at the start with a title-song sung by the heroine in this otherwise non-musical picture.  The veracity of the materials takes on a somewhat false, merry-villager look in this reflected, artificial light.

                                    --Stanley Kauffmann