Judge Joe Armenio would never try to keep Scottish people from their whisky.
"How much I prefer vegetables to human beings."—Alec Guinness, A Run for Your Money
In the decade after World War II, London's Ealing Studios produced a number of comedies which were variations on the same theme—the conflict between traditional, communal (often rural) values and the heartlessness of modern, urban, capitalist life. The most famous of these films starred Alec Guinness, and have already been released in Anchor Bay's Alec Guinness Collection, which includes The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Captain's Paradise. The box set under discussion here, The Ealing Studios Comedy Collection, features the best of the films in which Guinness did not star (including one, A Run for Your Money, in which he has a supporting role).
Facts of the Case
• Passport to Pimlico (1949; Henry Cornelius, director)
• A Run for Your Money (1949; Charles Frend)
• Whisky Galore! (1949; Alexander Mackendrick)
• The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953; Henry Crichton)
• The Maggie (1954; Mackendrick)
The booklet that comes along with this box set describes Passport to Pimlico as "a scalding critique of postwar government austerity measures," which made me wonder if I had seen the same film. The movie expresses a playful frustration with being unable to indulge one's appetites, but never suggests that rationing is less than necessary, or the result of any injustice or abuse of power. At the end the Pimlicans (is that a word?) gladly accept reunification with the U.K., asserting that they never knew how good they had it until they were gone. That's not scalding at all, and only debatably a critique.
In fact, I'm uncomfortable with giving any of these films credit as social criticism. It's true that most of the heroes are hard-working ordinary folks, and the villains government bigwigs or humorless modernizers, and some of the films have an anticapitalist bent (especially The Titfield Thunderbolt, which is a celebration of old-fashioned communalism as opposed to the profit motive). However, these movies (with the exception of The Maggie, which I'll get to) simply take their premises for granted rather than analyzing them (London bureaucrats are Bad; scruffy, colorful Welsh and Scots and Cockneys are Good), which makes them feel less like critiques than mechanical exercises designed to please crowds by indulging their vague prejudices. Also, it's important to point out that the political content of the films is far from progressive anyway—for all of their antiauthoritarianism, these movies are all pretty provincial and conservative, with their distrust of the city and modern life.
I liked A Run for Your Money mostly for Guinness's performance as the misanthropic columnist. Though a villain, he's much funnier and more interesting than the nominal heroes, and something is lost when he's not on screen. The film also contains some admirably crisp and flowing transitions between its subplots; director Charles Frend got started as an editor, working for Hitchcock in the 1930s, and it shows.
Whisky Galore!, the directorial debut of Alexander Mackendrick, was shot on location in the Hebrides, using local non-professional actors in supporting roles. Location shooting and use of amateur actors were fairly radical strategies in the late 1940s, pioneered by the Italian neorealists, who would have used such a setting to craft a story about the dignity and perseverance of the poor rather than an escapist fantasy. It is the most famous of the films included here, but I found it rather ordinary, aside from the strange, cruel isolation of Basil Radford's character, which rises to a sort of drama (even his wife laughs at him at the end). Still, the movie has its charms, most notably the sly, sexy performance of Joan Greenwood as a telephone operator who's courted by an English soldier. The film was a big hit in the United States, where it was retitled Tight Little Island (The Breen Office apparently was displeased with such an explicit reference to booze.)
The heroes of The Titfield Thunderbolt are the trains and the rolling hills of the Cam Valley, filmed in rich Technicolor by Douglas Slocombe (the rest of the films are in black-and-white).The plot is a good example of the sort of empty-headed provincialism I discussed above. The train is better than the bus because it's old, and because the movie says so, and no more thought is required. The characters bear no resemblance to human beings and exist only as agents of the plot; not even the villains are very colorful.
Which leaves me with The Maggie, a movie so shot through with pathos that it doesn't seem to belong in this company. After this film, Mackendrick would make The Ladykillers, then would go to Hollywood for Sweet Smell of Success, a movie that could be accurately described as "scathing." It's clear that the director has bigger things on his mind than formula comedies, and in The Maggie, one can see him straining at the limits of Ealing convention, spinning complicated variations on commonplace themes. The fact that the folks on the ship are fighting for their livelihoods rather than stolen booze or a whimsically unnecessary train gives the premise a moral weight that is missing from the rest of the films. Paul Douglas's American businessman, though, is the heart of the story, and the only truly human character in any of the five movies. While the comedy derives from his slapstick confrontations with the wily Scots, the drama comes from his gradual transformation—his realization that his life of acquisitiveness has left him hollow. This is an old, even corny theme, but one that in lovely ways suggests a low-budget version of John Ford in his lyrical, pastoral mode. For example, the scene in which a Scottish lass tells Douglas of her desire to marry a man with more kindness than ambition—as the ancestral Scottish tunes keen in the background—is very Fordian, and very touching.
Anchor Bay presents all five films in full-frame transfers, in accordance with their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. All of them have relatively little grain or scratches. The mono sound is fine, and all the dialogue comes across clearly. Occasionally I had trouble deciphering the accents—subtitles would have been helpful, but none are provided. The set comes with a ten-page booklet (already mentioned) that provides summaries, background, and some analysis of the films; unfortunately, there aren't any extras on the discs themselves. The packaging is nice and sturdy—each disc has its own thin case within the box, which is protected by a cardboard slipcover.
I probably would have forgiven these films their shallowness if they had been funnier, but I found them pretty tedious in bulk, with their endless parade of colorful yokels winning the day, and spluttering prigs getting much-deserved comeuppances. The Maggie is a different matter, though—a humane and often painful film in which the antics feel like an afterthought. Overall, it's worthwhile for fans, but Ealing novices are advised to pick up The Alec Guinness Collection before springing for this set.
The folks at Ealing were guilty of making the same movie over and over, but if that were a crime, I think most studio honchos would be behind bars.
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