“Whisky Galore!”, “Passport to Pimlico,” “Maggie,” “The Titfield Thunderbolt” – Fun, fun, fun [MOVIE REVIEW]
A quartet of classic Ealing Brothers British comedies has just been digitally restored and released on DVD and Blu-ray. The Ealing Film Studios were famous throughout the world for the comedies they produced in the 40s and 50s and the stars they highlighted. The films included in this set have been valued and sought after by cinephiles for years and their digital restoration makes them an even more valuable archive of British comedy in the post-World War II era.
“Whisky Galore” and “Passport to Pimlico” are, perhaps, the most renowned of the quartet; “The Titfield Thunderbolt” and “The Maggie” aka “High and Dry,” the least. Due to time constraints, “The Maggie was not reviewed but the bones of this film are good as it was directed by Alexander Mackendrick who also did “Whisky Galore.”
The best of the group is “The Titfield Thunderbolt” (1953). The village of Titfield is connected to the rest of the world by its small steam locomotive, the Titfield Thunderbolt. But the newly nationalized British Rail service is eliminating many of the small passenger lines and Titfield’s is just the latest casualty of progress. The Ministry of Transportation has deemed this line redundant. Henceforth, transport to the local hub rail station must be done by bus. The bus line is a monopoly run by Alec Pearce and Vernon Crump and they are gleeful at the thought of controlling transportation into and out of Titfield. They envision their own empire.
But all is not yet settled as Gordon, the great grandson of the founder of the railway, and Vicar Sam Weech, a railway hobbyist who reads train magazines as if they were Playboy, decide that they should take over the rail line and run it themselves. All they need is to find £50,000 to make their dream come true. Lucky for them, wealthy local eccentric Walter Valentine who loves nothing better than buying everyone drinks in the local pub from opening ‘til closing is convinced to lend the money when he’s told he can open a bar on the train the minute it leaves the station at 9:15 a.m. Now all they need to do is meet the standards of the officious government bureaucrat who approves the licensing to make this the little engine that could. They have some work to do and it will place them at odds with Crump and Pearce who won’t stand idly by as their dream of domination starts to crumble.
“The Titfield Thunderbolt” is a funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud, warm-hearted comedy with vibrant characters, terrific plot, identifiable good and bad guys, and all the eccentricities the Brits hold dear. The performances are terrific. John Gregson, who played in many Ealing comedies as well as a number of international dramas, is just the right amount of sincere and idealistic as Gordon. George Relph as the Vicar is hilarious and an excellent counterpart to the slovenly Hugh Griffith (“Tom Jones”) with whom he battles to drive the train. But Stanley Holloway, whose career ran the gamut from Olivier’s “Hamlet,” and “The Lavendar Hill Mob” to “My Fair Lady,” both on Broadway and in film, is the anchor, wanting nothing more than to spread alcoholic cheer, especially if he’s included.
Tightly written by T.E.B. Clarke, who also wrote “Passport to Pimlico” received an Oscar for writing the screenplay of “The Lavendar Hill Mob,” another Ealing comedy. “The Titfield Thunderbolt” was directed by Charles Crichton, whose first feature directing job was “The Lavendar Hill Mob,” a not inauspicious beginning for someone whose final foray in 1988 was directing and writing the John Cleese-starring “A Fish Called Wanda,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar in both writing and directing. Early on, it’s quite apparent that Crichton was a master at moving the story along at a brisk pace and deepening character beyond the comedic aspects of the film.
“Whiskey Galore” (1949), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, was based on a true event. It’s the middle of World War II and rationing is in full force. The tiny Scottish island of Toddy is in dire straits. They have just run out of scotch and the provision ships supplying the island have no scotch to offer, ration cards or no ration cards. This is an emergency of epic proportions. Depression and lassitude have set in and collateral damage is everywhere. The two engaged couples on the island cannot get married for lack of the imperative scotch-fueled engagement ceremony called the rèiteach. Good natured as they may be under most circumstances, their patience is further tried by the officious English military representative, Captain Paul Waggett, who presides over a rag tag group of voluntary local guards who do their best to humor him. It is unlikely the Nazis will target this dot in the rough seas but Captain Waggett runs his drills as though they are under constant siege.
One day an ill wind, or rather a giant storm, actually blows them some good. An English freighter loaded with cases and cases of whiskey bound for the U.S. runs aground off shore. And this is where local ingenuity collides with government rigidity to see who will win the whisky war.
Slight in nature, soft in humor, “Whisky Galore” is full of fine performances of actors who went on to greater fame. Led by Basil Radford, an Ealing stalwart, as the overbearing Captain Paul Waggett, he bleeds officiousness and is the perfect foil for his Scottish antagonists. Joan Greenwood as one of the thwarted fiancées has a voice like sparkling wine and an illustrious career that included starring roles in “The Man in the White Suit,” “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and “Tom Jones,” all classic British comedies. Gordon Jackson, who had a very impressive film career that included “The Great Escape,” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” achieved his greatest fame as Hudson, the butler in the original “Upstairs/Downstairs.” Here he plays a sweet young man still living with his mother who yearns to marry his fiancée but can’t due to the lack of whisky and the bullying he receives from his domineering mother. Will he ever be able to stand up to her? That is a question asked by all the villagers, not just his fiancée.
The first feature directed by Alexander Mackendrick, he went on to an extraordinary career both in Britain and the U.S., helming “The Man in the White Suit,” for which he was nominated for a writing Oscar, and “The Ladykillers,” iconic British comedies starring Alec Guinness. His career in the U.S. was equally successful, highlighted by “Sweet Smell of Success,” (1957) starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. “The Maggie,” included in this set as well, but not viewed, was also directed by him.
“Passport to Pimlico,” (1949) perhaps the most famous film of the quartet, also has the most storied cast, led by Stanley Holloway (“My Fair Lady”); Margaret Rutherford, an Oscar winner for “The V.I.P.s” and known for an early series of Miss Marple” movies; Hermione Baddeley (the maid in “Maude”); and the aforementioned Basil Radford at his officious best.
The story is farcical in the telling. Post war London is still jittery over the various unexploded bombs that still exist within the city. When one accidentally explodes in Pimlico on one of the squares near the Vauxhall Bridge, a treasure trove of artifacts, jeweled goblets, and, most importantly, a deed is unearthed. The document shows that Pimlico was originally part of the Duchy of Burgundy. Further, the last living Duke had neglected to turn his holding over to the English king before he died. Hence, Pimlico is still part of Burgundy; it is its own country. The citizens are jubilant. They have decided that because they are not part of England, at least according to the deed, then English law and English rationing no longer applies to them. They can now keep their bars open at all hours; they can buy whatever foodstuffs they want in whatever quantity they can afford. They are, in essence, a legal black market. Once this is discovered by the rest of London, Pimlico is flooded with people trying to avoid rationing, whether buying or selling. It’s chaos. The British government is anxious to get Pimlico under control and institute harsh directives that include creating a foreign border through which everyone going out or coming in must provide a passport. All foodstuffs are now subject to exorbitantly high taxes. The government is hell bent on starving the Pimlico citizens into submission. The rest of Europe watches in horror as the Foreign Office uses the same tactics that the Nazis used during the war. Who will win and what will the cost be?
The film itself is well directed by Henry Cornelius (“I Am a Camera”) and written by T.E.B. Clarke. Again, this is a soft film whose subject matter during the rationing era of Britain was much more relevant and edgy for the time. An excellent reason to watch the film, however, is to get a good look at what London looked like after the war. The devastation from the blitz is everywhere; rebuilding was only just beginning.
The Ealing Studios Comedy Collection is definitely a worthwhile addition for any movie buff. The chance to revisit these films and see “The Titfield Thunderbolt” for the first time was well worth it. All the films celebrate the post war British independent spirit rebelling against authority, the hardship of rationing, and the perceived horror of nationalization.
Available at Amazon.com and Filmmovement.com starting November 24.