Today I finally got around to watching The Passing Of The Third Floor Back (1935) all the way through. I have had a very low-level obsession with this film ever since I saw about the last 10 minutes of it broadcast on Channel 4 in the daytime about 30 years ago. To be honest, I think the really memorable aspect of it was just the image I’ve put at the top of this post, which struck me as the sort of film still that would have been used in the sleeve design of a single by The Smiths.
The film begins with a lot of captions.
In a boarding house where nobody gets along very well with each other because they’ve all come down a bit in the world lately and some of them have real money problems. Private incomes have dried up since The War, but of course we don’t talk about that, or dwell on the fact that one now has to mix with one’s social inferiors.
But at least there are some who are still so far down in inferiority everyone can wipe their feet on them. Such as the maid and skivvy ‘Stasia, who is known to have been a delinquent and was sent away to “Industrial School” before ending up in service. Her life is so miserable she can only get joy from nurturing a pot plant, which the mistress of the house flings on the ground in the first moment of wanton cruelty.
But none of the other guests are having a good time. Old Major Tomkins is so hard up he’s had to write a post-dated cheque to their landlady, and we all understand it will be paid off because his daughter is going to marry the bloated, dreary social climbing property investor Mr Wright. There’s going to be a house party tonight to celebrate the engagement, though young Vivian isn’t keen, as her heart belongs to the young architect Chris Penny.
The two residents who have regular employment are Mr Larkcom, who works in a music shop, and Miss Kite, who works in an office though her situation is less clear. We are to understand her unhappiness is centred around being single “on the wrong side of 30”. She does a very good Fleabag 80 years before Fleabag, and she was played by Beatrix Lehmann, who had a rather fruity life and career. Actually I think a biopic about her, or at least a film about the world she was part of in the 30s, would be an ideal vehicle for Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
STASIA: If only there was one decent person in the world….
Her wish is answered, when The Stranger appears and requests the room on the Third Floor Back that is available.
The Stranger is a gentle giant, speaking slowly in a foreign accent. He’s got plenty of money, nothing is difficult for him. He’s just here to provide a talking therapy for all these ghouls locked up together in this place. But first, we have to listen to that absolute crasher who is marrying Vivian Tomkins.
WRIGHT: As you may or may not all know, I am a man of property. Oh I make no bones about it: I’m a self-made man. Every penny I’ve made has gone into the safest thing I know: bricks and mortar. Safety first, that’s my motto… they can strike, they can go on the dole, they can play Old Harry with the country, but they must have a roof over their heads… They say you can’t collect in the poor districts. Don’t tell me – I’ve collected for the past 15 years, and I shall go on collecting. It’s all a matter of character. And so, take my tip, ladies and gentlemen: put yer money in bricks and mortar and keep it there.
But the penetrating gaze of The Stranger drives Vivian from the room and everyone surmises the engagement is off.
Meanwhile The Stranger is making an impression with his placid niceness and pleasantness towards little Stasia.
MISS KITE: I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment.
MISS KITE: That child.
STRANGER: I like her.
MISS KITE: It does you credit, of course. But isn’t that the teeniest bit out of date?
STRANGER: What do you mean?
MISS KITE: Can one expend one’s sympathies outside one’s own class like that?
STRANGER: Perhaps it is because of my wider experience.
MISS KITE: Oh granted, granted. But human nature is human nature all the world over.
Lecherous drunk old Mr Wright is a bit of a danger, but he can be avoided. The next day is a Bank Holiday and everyone is persuaded to go on a jolly boating trip along the Thames. The Stranger talks to Miss Kite about the unhappiness behind her dry wit, but then she gets an abrupt chance to be heroic. However back at the base everyone lapses back to their usual selves. Even Chris Penny is losing his idealistic urge to work on fancy new modernist design projects. You can see some of his ideas in the background.
STRANGER: I’m a stranger to you, and because of that perhaps I’m able to see you all a little more clearly than you see yourselves.
He can see the badness in Wright, who wants to hire the architect to sort out all the new regulations about health and safety, make sure the properties pass on paper if not in practice. What a corruption of a hopeful young idealist and lover.
There is a highly symbolic Storm in the world outside and everything comes to a spiritual crisis indoors, as Stasia stands accused of theft. When The Stranger provides exonerating evidence a kaleidoscope of jeering faces sneer and scoff at them, for a moment blurring into the climax of Dead Of Night, which also had a mind-specialist with a foreign voice teasing out secret fears.
STRANGER: How can you hurt and torment this child?
The original source text by Jerome K.Jerome is quite a lot shorter and simpler. It was published in 1908, and is completely immune to concerns about the post-War economic decline of the lower-upper-middle class and the slight wearing-away of class boundaries. There is no boat trip, no special concern for any maids. Miss Kite does already have anxieties about her status as a woman, however:
It seemed to Miss Kite that she was no longer the Miss Kite that, had she risen and looked into it, the fly-blown mirror over the marble mantelpiece would, she knew, have presented to her view; but quite another Miss Kite—a cheerful, bright-eyed lady verging on middle age, yet still good-looking in spite of her faded complexion and somewhat thin brown locks. Miss Kite felt a pang of jealousy shoot through her; this middle-aged Miss Kite seemed, on the whole, a more attractive lady. There was a wholesomeness, a broadmindedness about her that instinctively drew one towards her. Not hampered, as Miss Kite herself was, by the necessity of appearing to be somewhere between eighteen and twenty-two, this other Miss Kite could talk sensibly, even brilliantly: one felt it. A thoroughly “nice” woman this other Miss Kite; the real Miss Kite, though envious, was bound to admit it. Miss Kite wished to goodness she had never seen the woman. The glimpse of her had rendered Miss Kite dissatisfied with herself.
He does work his magic of making these awful people get along a bit better.
There were many things Forty-eight Bloomsbury Square came gradually to the conclusion were not worth the doing:—Snatching at the gravy; pouncing out of one’s turn upon the vegetables and helping oneself to more than one’s fair share; manoeuvering for the easy-chair; sitting on the evening paper while pretending not to have seen it—all such-like tiresome bits of business. For the little one made out of it, really it was not worth the bother. Grumbling everlastingly at one’s food; grumbling everlastingly at most things; abusing Pennycherry behind her back; abusing, for a change, one’s fellow-boarders; squabbling with one’s fellow-boarders about nothing in particular; sneering at one’s fellow-boarders; talking scandal of one’s fellow-boarders; making senseless jokes about one’s fellow-boarders; talking big about oneself, nobody believing one—all such-like vulgarities. Other boarding-houses might indulge in them: Forty-eight Bloomsbury Square had its dignity to consider.
In this version, Vivian is quite keen on the idea of marrying for money.
But the person seriously annoyed by the stranger’s bigoted belief in the innate goodness of everyone he came across was the languid, handsome Miss Devine. The stranger would have it that Miss Devine was a noble-souled, high-minded young woman, something midway between a Flora Macdonald and a Joan of Arc. Miss Devine, on the contrary, knew herself to be a sleek, luxury-loving animal, quite willing to sell herself to the bidder who could offer her the finest clothes, the richest foods, the most sumptuous surroundings. Such a bidder was to hand in the person of a retired bookmaker, a somewhat greasy old gentleman, but exceedingly rich and undoubtedly fond of her.
“Ah, yes, I love him,” she answered petulantly. “Your eyes can see clearly enough, when they want to. But one does not live on love, in our world. I will tell you the man I am going to marry if you care to know.” She would not meet his eyes. She kept her gaze still fixed upon the dingy trees, the mist beyond, and spoke rapidly and vehemently: “The man who can give me all my soul’s desire—money and the things that money can buy. You think me a woman, I’m only a pig. He is moist, and breathes like a porpoise; with cunning in place of a brain, and the rest of him mere stomach. But he is good enough for me.”
She hoped this would shock the stranger and that now, perhaps, he would go. It irritated her to hear him only laugh.
“No,” he said, “you will not marry him.”
“Who will stop me?” she cried angrily.
“Your Better Self.”
His voice had a strange ring of authority, compelling her to turn and look upon his face. Yes, it was true, the fancy that from the very first had haunted her. She had met him, talked to him—in silent country roads, in crowded city streets, where was it? And always in talking with him her spirit had been lifted up: she had been—what he had always thought her.
Mysterious strangers turning up and challenging the moral cores of their hosts is a bit of a theme in this period. An Inspector Calls is the most famous, but Priestley had other plays such as I Have Been Here Before and Dangerous Corner where secrets are unravelled. The novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep by Richard Sale was published a year after this film, and it soon got the Hollywood treatment. This was a prison escape where the mysterious stranger “Jean Cambreau” attaches himself and guides the convicts to a moral redemption as well, if they chose to accept it. As the New York Times reviewer wrote:
This is the raw material of modern Hollywood spirituality: quasi-religious magical figures preaching the Gospel of redemption as personal renewal and reactivation, no role for any sacraments or special ministers.
Close by that review is this advert for another forgotten soul:
That acclaimed and promising novel has not been reprinted since 1935, though you can still find that edition on-line – as well as Beatrix Lehmann’s novels, which were slightly more successful.
In unlighted streets you hide away the appalling;
Factories where lives are made for a temporary use
Like collars or chairs, rooms where the lonely are battered
Slowly like pebbles into fortuitous shapes.