Like Anchor Bay's British War Collection, The Ealing Comedy Collection is a must-have set of five lesser-known but representative comedies from the studio that produced some of the very best British films of the 1940s and '50s. Anchor Bay had released several of Ealing's most famous films as part of their Alec Guinness Collection in 2002, but this set still offers some real diamonds in the rough. The titles are: The Maggie (1954), Passport to Pimlico, A Run for Your Money, Whiskey Galore! (all 1949), and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952). This reviewer was more enamored of the lesser-known titles, all unjustly forgotten gems, but the more famous Passport to Pimlico and Whiskey Galore! are rightly hailed as classics, and all five titles are loaded down with characteristically Ealing-esque whimsy.
The Maggie is like a distant ancestor of Bill Forsyth's wonderful Local Hero (1983). Both are fish-out-of-water tales about American businessmen bemused by a very different way of life in rural, working-class Scotland. In The Maggie, American airline executive Calvin B. Marshall (Paul Douglas) wants to ship several tons of furniture to a small island near Kiltarra, for a summer house he plans to surprise his wife with. Unable to secure a cargo vessel from Glasgow shipper Campbell (Geoffrey Keen), Marshall turns to Mactaggert (Alex Mackenzie), skipper of The Maggie, a lowly, broken-down "puffer." To say the ship is in a state of disrepair would be a gross understatement, and the same could be said for the skipper and his raggedly crew: its mate (James Copeland), diminutive, elderly engineer (Abe Barker), and young Dougie (Tommy Kearins), affectionately known as "the Wee Boy."
Naturally, the voyage is a disaster, and no amount of effort on Marshall's part can speed her along. The ship runs aground on a subway before it even leaves the harbor, and the old boat has constant engine problems. Director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success) and co-writer William Rose (The Smallest Show on Earth, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) infuse the script with many magical moments throughout, yet succeed in keeping its story dark and amusingly cynical, rather than nostalgic and sentimental.
Neither Marshall nor The Maggie's crew come off as innocent victims. Marshall is played for a sucker by the wily, mischievous skipper, while the American's trials and tribulations aboard ship make him rethink his harried, executive lifestyle much like Peter Riegert's character in Local Hero. The skipper and his men represent a way of life quickly vanishing in postwar Scotland, and their simple, leisurely ways contrast amusingly with Marshall, whose sense of urgency is looked upon with genuine puzzlement. "That would be the American way," Mactaggert says, "everything in a rush." And yet innocents they're not. They gleefully poach pheasants on an estate adjacent to a canal they ride and the Wee Boy proves to be capable of surprising violence when desperate enough.
The film has its share of delightful sight (and, sometimes, sound-) gags and amusing concepts, such as the Wee Boy's "radar" as The Maggie makes its way through a thick fog: he throws pebbles a few yards ahead of the bow. If he hears them plop into the water, he knows the ship is fine, but....
Paul Douglas, a former sportswriter-turned movie actor, was one of dozens of Hollywood near-stars or fading stars who traveled to Britain in the 1950s to make films there. (Douglas went back in 1956 to star in The Gamma People, while his wife, actress Jan Sterling, appeared in the film version of 1984.) His gruff appearance yet soft voice is well suited to his character here. Likewise, Mackenzie, Copeland, Barker, and Kearins were virtually unknown outside of Ealing, and really look as if they've just come ashore after months at sea. Besides Keen the only other familiar actors in the cast are character actor/lyricist Hubert Gregg and a both young and beardless Andrew Keir, the latter as a newspaper reporter following the shipping debacle. Also worth noting is John Addison's delightful score, with a sweet main theme written for concertina.
If The Maggie is an antecedent of Local Hero than Passport to Pimlico might be considered a precursor to The Mouse That Roared (1959). The best-known title in this set, Passport to Pimlico is a droll political satire about a Cockney London neighborhood that briefly becomes its own sovereign state. After an unexploded bomb is triggered by some mischievous schoolboys, an underground cave reveals a 15th century treasure and a royal charter recognizing the land presently occupied by 19 families as an independent nation established by the Duke of Burgundy.
Local residents soon realize that the document frees them from postwar British rationing, heavily regulated liquor consumption laws, and the like. Soon enough all of London descends upon Pimlico to buy all manner of restricted goods, which criminal types gleefully hawk right out in the open: "Lovely black-market butter!" "Nylons! Get yer nylons!" says another.
Pretty quickly Britain's ministers clamp down on the community, and an "international incident" ensues between Britain and the Burgundians, with neither side willing to give way. The British government tries to starve the community into submission, while the Burgundians halt subway lines running under Pimlico, and demand visitors declare items brought "across the border."
The picture is almost endlessly clever and rather Swiftian in its amusing critique of bureaucracy, nationalism, and isolationism. Once the premise has been established, the script plays out all the satirical possibilities of a tiny nation of Londoners joyfully, fleetingly separated from Mother England. The film has some nice surprises and sharp dialogue: "We always were English and we'll always be English," says one resident. "And it's just because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!" There's even a hilarious faux Gaumont-British newsreel about the Burgundians' plight.
At the same time, the film is mostly of interest today as a historical document of a specific time and place, a reflection of postwar England in a film that must have played like an ultimate fantasy in 1949.
A true ensemble comedy, no one performer dominates Passport to Pimlico, though many performances and characters stand out, among them: Stanley Holloway's stalwart Burgundian prime minister; John Slater's fish-loving fishmonger; deliriously eccentric Margaret Rutherford's daffy historian. Basil Radford and Nauton Wayne, so marvelous in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes turn up here as a pair of concerned government ministers.
A Run for Your Money is the least-known film of the set, this despite the presence of Alec Guinness is a supporting part and coming from a golden year of Ealing comedy that included Kind Hearts and Coronets, Pimlico, and Whiskey Galore!. This disarming tale follows two Welsh miners, brothers David "Dai" (Donald Houston) and Thomas "Twm" (Meredith Edwards) Jones, visiting London for the first time after winning the trip (and 200 British pounds) in a newspaper contest. They're soon separated: Dai is picked up by con-woman Jo (Moira Lister) anxious to steal the boys' winnings, while Twm meets down on his luck Welsh harpist and heavy-drinker Huw (Hugh Griffith, even more demented-looking than usual). Whimple (Alec Guinness), normally a columnist in the newspaper's gardening section, is assigned to follow them for a human interest piece.
The picture is a delight from beginning to end thanks to its sweet characterizations and performances, a marvelous score that adapts traditional Welsh folk music, and Douglas Slocombe's extensive location photography, which provides rare and fascinating glimpses of early postwar London, particularly the Paddington Station area and the Piccadilly Subway Line.
Houston, who later was typecast as domineering, mid-level authority types, is wonderfully naive about life in the Big City yet strong and assertive in his scenes with ruthless Jo, who plays him for a sucker. Edwards, in his film debut, might have been swallowed whole by Hugh Griffith's eye-rolling drunkard, but both Houston and Edwards give the film an authentic Welsh flavor even as the script gently kids that region's stereotypes, such as the name of their hometown, Hafoduwchbenceubwllymarchogcoch. In one scene, for example, the stationmaster pages "David Jones and Thomas Jones, from Wales" as their train arrives at the station. Naturally, most every man aboard makes a beeline for the stationmaster's office.
Whiskey Galore! moves the action to a remote island in the Hebrides, doing for Scotland what A Run for Your Money did for Wales. Set in 1943, the island of Todday is hit with news worse than a Nazi invasion: there is no whiskey! Denied the "water of life," the island's hardy fishermen are reduced to jelly, bed-ridden, and distraught. Until, that is, a cargo ship carrying 50,000 cases of whiskey crashes on her rocks, and the town's residents conspire to whisk her cargo to safety before she goes under.
But this miraculous bit of serendipity is threatened by by-the-book, stick-in-the-mud Captain Waggett (Basil Radford), who takes his position as C.O. of the Home Guard a bit too seriously. Naturally, he wants to see the answer to the island's prayers duly returned to England.
As usual for Ealing, the picture is brimming with delightful character portraits, from a dying man's (James Anderson) resurrection with the arrival of the stolen liquor, to mama's boy George's (Gordon Jackson) hilarious defiance of his stern, religious mother (Jean Cadell) after finding courage in several glasses of the newly-opened whiskey.
Though a comedy, the film has exceptionally dramatic monochrome photography by Gerald Gibbs, images so good as to evoke memories of another classic of British cinema, Michael Powell's The Edge of the World (1937). The mostly Scottish cast includes perennial favorites like James Robertson Justice, Gordon Jackson, and Duncan Macrae (Finlay Currie narrates), but also eccentrically sexy Joan Greenwood. The picture was followed by a sequel nearly a decade later, Rockets Galore! (1957), which should be considered if Anchor Bay ever does a second boxed set.
The screen comes alive in three-strip Technicolor in The Titfield Thunderbolt, a film that's like a train buff's dream come true. In the quaint village of Titfield, the tiny Titfield-Mallingford Railway, the oldest branch line in the country, is ordered closed by government decree and opportunist bus entrepreneurs Pearce (Ewan Roberts) and Crump (Jack MacGowran) move in to monopolize the area's public transportation. But train lover Reverend Sam Weech (George Relph) and local squire Gordon (John Gregson) are determined to save the railway, enlisting the financial support of wealthy "pub-crawler" Valentine (Stanley Holloway) and wily local tramp/ex-railroad man Dan (Hugh Griffith) to preserve the local line. Their surprising success, and a rapidly-spreading sentiment in support of their venture, doesn't sit well with the bus operators, who stand ready to use any and all means to sabotage the local train during its one-month probationary period.
It's hard not to be swept up in The Titfield Thunderbolt's communal spirit, the earnestness of its characters, and its love of old-fashioned trains (one featured in the film dates back to 1838!). There's a real sweetness that evokes a simpler time in the community's willingness to "get out and push" as it were, to preserve a mode of transportation vanishing from the English countryside as this was being made, just as The Maggie paid tribute to life aboard the nearly-extinct "puffers." You'll likely be rooting on the determined leads much like Titfield's residents.
Douglas Slocombe's lush photography of Ealing's first in Technicolor is mesmerizing all by itself, and adds enormously to the film's richly rural atmosphere (it was filmed primarily in the Cam Valley, Monkton Combe & Limpley Stoke, in Somerset). The film also boasts unusually good matte work, possibly an early example of Britain's yellow sodium dye process.
The cast is peerless, and there are many uniquely Ealing-esque moments throughout, such as an old lady's efforts to light the locomotive's engine as if she were lighting a stove at home, a duel between the train and a steamroller (operated by British comedy favorite Sid James), and a clever film-within-the-film, a Western seen on a pub's TV that's intercut with Pearce & Crump's scheming.
Video & Audio
The Ealing Comedy Collection presents all five films in full frame format. The Maggie, shot in late-1953, appears to have been shot flat but released for 1.66:1 cropping.** In any case it's the only title that conceivably might have been intended for widescreen exhibition, and it looks fine both in full frame and readjusted for 16:9 sets, though the 1.77:1 ratio is a bit tight here and there. The black and white titles generally look excellent, and the color on The Titfield Thunderbolt is very good indeed. The sound on Passport to Pimlico is a little rough, and a long day-for-night scene is a little too dark for this reviewer. There's also a strange, barely-noticeable electronic-like hum on A Run for Your Money. None of the titles have subtitle options, a shame as some American viewers may have trouble with the occasionally thick regional accents.
There are no supplements, with each title having only a "Play" and "Chapter Selection" option. The boxed set does, however, include a full-color, 10-page booklet. Full of useful information and observations, film historian Max Alvarez offers an overview of Ealing followed by short essays on each film. (I was particularly intrigued by the surprisingly wide American release accorded Whiskey Galore!, a fascinating story.)
Though arguably second-tier Ealings, the five films that make up The Ealing Comedy Collection are really up to the high standards of that studio's finest work, and while overpriced and undernourished with supplemental material, this set squeaks into DVD Talk Collector Series status.
**There is some debate about this, however. Click here for more on the widescreen vs. full screen debate.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.