Watford High Street – Why Sailors Leave Home (1930)

Why Sailors Leave Home‘ (1930) | Watford High Street

Not the best film to be made at Neptune Studios off Eldon Avenue in nearby Borehamwood in 1930. That was Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Murder!’ British International Pictures had turned out classics the year before from the single Neptune stage: Hitchock’s ‘Blackmail’, ‘Pandora’s Box’ starring Louise Brooks, ‘Piccadilly’ (at Piccadilly Circus on the Scala map) starring the incomparable Anna May Wong and featuring the first film appearance by Charles Laughton.

‘Why Sailors Leave Home’, in no way a classic or a good film, was directed by comedian Monty Banks, who went on to make George Formby’s breakthrough films ‘No Limits’ and ‘Keep Your Seats, Please’ in 1934 and 1935, respectively. A series of filmed, mostly listless music hall routines framed by a story about Leslie Fuller (“Elstree’s Clark Gable”) as a British sailor visiting a harem in North Africa. It’s of great interest, though, as the reason why both contortionist Marika Rökk and nineteen-year-old non-speaking ‘slave girl’ Jean Ross quit the British film industry at the time and went to Berlin, looking for fame.

Ross gets some dialogue – an exchange with a courtier – and in the closing sequence, where she can be seen among the members of the harem, waving – very faint-heartedly – goodbye to Fuller as he rows to his navy ship. She stands to our left above Rökk’s shoulder (Rökk is in the centre of the image in her sparkling acrobat’s costume… her routine in the film is stunning and makes it worth watching) and next to a notably genteel and English-looking turbaned man.

Once in Berlin, Ross became a cabaret performer and the basis for Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles character, later played by Lisa Minnelli in the Bob Fosse-directed ‘Cabaret’. (Lisa’s look in the film was a major influence on the subsequent Punk and Goth subcultures). Ross, a committed Stalinist who was coincidentally born in Alexandria, disliked the Bowles character. She felt it represented the hedonistic detachment of Isherwood and his friends from the fascism that was rising all around them in Berlin, a hedonism which is on display in his partially fictionalised short stories.

Cairo-born Rökk went onto significant success as a an actor in German films, is reputed to have had an affair with propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels despite her being Hungarian and therefore a Slav and Untermensch, and became one of post-war Germany’s biggest stars despite a two-year ban from the film industry due to her closeness to the Nazis. Documents declassified in 2017 showed that Rökk spied for the Soviets.

Ross was the film critic of the Daily Worker from 1935-36, and General Secretary of the British Workers Film and Photo League, doing much to promote Soviet film-makers. During this period, Ross’s fluency in German allowed her to act as a translator for the British film industry employing German directors and technicians. The introductions to film-makers Ross made for Isherwood on his return to London, led – eventually – to his move to Hollywood and career as a screenwriter.

Built in 1914 with a single, windowless seventy feet stage, Neptune Studios was innovative at the time. Film production up till this point had relied on natural sunlight, large, glazed studios, and had to be far away enough from the capital to avoid toxic fog, but also easy for film workers to get to from central London by train. Neptune Studios had originally used electricity from a gas-powered generator. It was sold in 1928 to German-born inventor and film maker Ludwig Blattner, who connected the studio to the new electricity mains and brought in a German system of sound recording. Neptune Studios, now part of the BBC’s Elstree complex, is remembered in the name ‘Neptune House’ on a building in the complex, visible in the opening sequence of Gerry Anderson’s ‘U.F.O.’.