With a title like THE STARS LOOK DOWN, you might think this is an expose of the way film extras are instructed never to look directly at the faces of the superstars they work with, but instead it is a polished, well-made film about a boy, Davey Fenwick (Michael Redgrave) who aspires to better things and stifled by his upbringing as the son of a coal miner in a company town with no options but descent into the killing pit. Instead, he works like crazy and gets a scholarship to a prestigious college. His parents don't understand, but they're proud of him anyhow.
I like the symbolism of the dramatic opening, as dozens of scruffy miners plod over the hill to confront the mineowners, as well as reps from the miners union which has seemingly sold out to the big interests. The issue is whether or not colliery workers should be forced to work a potentially dangerous seam which might at any moment flood the entire valley. Even the union is backing up the owners on this one, so the men declare a unilateral strike. As the gates slam shut, you see a crazed evangelist wearing one of those billboard contraptions over his shoulders, crying out the Biblical story of "the second Angel" as the miners traipse home, clouds of coal dust blowing over them. Only Carol Reed would have filmed this scene in such a way.
Margaret Lockwood is Jenny. Those four words alone should get you into the revival house, and you can see why the beginning of the movie, with all the dirty louts, ugly owner creeps, crazed revivalists, and squalid Fenwick kitchen with the bathtub next to the oven, needs a little hint of glamor. That's where Lockwood comes in. The reigning queen of Gainsborough Studios, Lockwood specialized in being the beautiful "bad girl," like Gloria Grahame, except with a more candybox look to her, and this picture must be one of the very first such parts for her. Here she shows off a Paulette Goddard figure, while hiding her true colors, which are Paulette Goddard-style gold-digger. She's after Emlyn Williams, the cocky nouveau riche man about town, while still leading on Michael Redgrave by the short and curlies. When will these men ever learn? It takes the renewed call to social justice to shake the Jenny monkey off Redgrave's back.
People often say 1939 was the single best year for movies, what with GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH and NINOTCHKA, MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE WOMEN and EVEN ANGELS GET WINGS, and dozens of others, but THE STARS LOOK DOWN is rarely numbered among these 1939 classics, and I have no idea why. Even Renoir's THE RULES OF THE GAME gets the nod more often than our poor British import.
Maybe the temper of the times militates against a pro-miners movie? Or else it has simply slipped between the cracks. Pity, that.