By Steve Fielding
A rogue star is hurtling towards Earth! As it approaches it is provoking disastrous floods and earthquakes! Will it destroy the planet?
No, this is not the plot for a Hollywood blockbuster in which Bruce Willis embarks on a suicide mission to save humankind. It is the premise for Once in a New Moon, a modestly produced 1934 British comedy about how the small village of Shrimpton-on-Sea is somehow plucked into space as the star brushes past Earth, to become a tiny satellite. This critically obscure movie is one of the many shown on the excellent free-to-view Talking Pictures channel, which I strongly recommend you check out.
The villagers respond to this unique situation by combining their scarce resources to ensure fair shares for all. Equality is the order of the day. According to the disapproving Lady Bravington – a strong Conservative – this is socialism. But not everybody wants to adhere to an egalitarianism imposed by a self-appointed committee formed by the great and the good. Lord Bravington, who deference dictated presides over this committee, and other members of the elite feel their own rules do not apply to themselves. In particular, his Lordship refuses to share the fruits of his vast estate with the villagers.
Angry at such selfishness the villagers hold an election to establish a democratic government and choose the humble postmaster to be their President. But Bravington refuses to recognise democracy. So, the villagers plan to seize his property; in response m’Lord arms his staff to repel the insurgents. But this class war comes to nothing, as at this very moment the village is somehow transported back to Earth. The conflict now irrelevant, relations return to their former state.
To understand the politics of this bizarre story, we need to locate it in the context in which it was produced. The year after the film was released saw the re-election of the Conservative-dominated National coalition government, which came to power in 1931 after Labour proved unable to deal with the consequences of the Great Depression. Throughout the 1930s the National government pursued a policy of austerity which led to the continuation of mass unemployment. With just 31 per cent of the vote, the 1935 election confirmed Labour as a marginal force; instead of Socialism, 55 per cent of the electorate embraced the One Nation Conservatism of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
The British film industry did not see its place as criticising this situation. Not only were most studios run by loyal Conservatives, but censors prohibited any kind of criticism of the status quo. Filmmakers who wished to ask questions of society had to do so obliquely and usually in the form of a comedy. As the cultural theorist Mikhail Baktin famously pointed out carnivalesque humour has traditionally been the most favoured form of social critique: comedy is allowed to highlight controversial issues but only on condition everything returns to where it was. Once in a New Moon exemplifies that: if the villagers are allowed their class war to advance an egalitarianism lacking in the lives of the mostly working-class cinema audience, the conflict occurs in space and ends before it even begins.
Despite the egalitarianism of the film it’s resolution is one of which Baldwin would have approved. At the heart of the movie is a romance between Stella the postmaster’s daughter and the Honourable Bryan, his Lordship’s son. Initially, their relationship is said to be doomed due to differences in class. Stella also has another suitor, a sour-faced Socialist who tries to force himself on her, the universal sign of a brute.
Once transported to space, and so freed of the bonds of class, the daughter of the lower middle class and the liberal aristocrat are however free to make plans for marriage. Bryan even makes common cause with the villagers in their struggle with his father. And, confirming the film’s ultimate 'One Nation' message, while everything else returns to normal, even after they come back to Earth Stella and Bryan’s relationship is set to make it to the altar.
It is not the conflict of the classes that makes people happy, the movie seems to say, but their reconciliation, on Earth as well as in space.