Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 39: Whisky Galore! (1949)

Apologies to those expecting the final George Formby film Let George Do It (1940), but that has been briefly postponed so that the blog can celebrate Burns Night with an appropriate Scotland-centric selection. So, with a wee dram in hand (Singleton 12 year old), let me introduce you to one of Ealing’s most well-known and well-loved comedies. 

This is the Ealing film I probably know best, although it is a close tie with Passport to Pimlico (1949) (and, I suppose Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), but that’s because I watched it several times so as to write a decent article on it!). For a film that at one stage appeared to be going so wrong – first time producer Monja Danischewsky (Ealing publicist turned writer and producer) and first time director Alexander Mackendrick, stuck on the island of Barra with a film crew, bad weather, expensive sets, and expenses that would eventually spiral £20,000 over budget – the completed product is almost perfect, a great balance of character work, strong scripting (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel), and solid filmmaking. 

For those that don’t know the plot (famously based on a real event, when the S.S. Politician was wrecked off the island of Eriskay), the islanders of Scottish island Todday are mourning the lack of whisky on their island. With no fresh delivery in sight, the island is at a low ebb; not helped by the antics of Englishman Captain Waggett (the estimable Basil Radford, never more flustered or angrily aggrieved than here), the puffed up martinet head of the Home Guard, who is there to train the locals to fend off a (highly unlikely) German invasion. When a cargo ship, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, runs aground in foggy weather, the islanders are delighted to hear she was carrying 50,000 crates of whisky. After a painful pause to acknowledge the Sabbath, the islanders rush out to sea, grab as much whisky as they can before the ship sinks... but barely have time for a suitable celebration before they have to hide it again as Waggett brings the Excisemen, led by Mr Farquharson (Henry Mollison), to search the island.  

The story is beautifully structured throughout, building up pace at key moments (such as the small boat-led assault on the stricken ship, or the frenetic hiding of whisky when the Excise comes calling – a textbook exercise in visual montage and storytelling), finding time for little character portraits along the way (Old Hector – James Anderson – who takes to his bed when the whisky runs out; The Biffer – Morland Graham – and his childish eagerness to loot the ship; Angus McCormac – Duncan Macrae – downing bottles of whisky to hide them from his superiors), but also presenting great moments that build through narrative repetition, most notably the presentation of the Home Guard’s tactics. In this early scene, the point seems to be presenting Waggett’s stuffy English by-the-books attitude, and an assumed ineptitude or laziness among the locals: yet later, when the Home Guard roar into action (to prevent Waggett taking the whisky), roadblocks spring into place, sentry points are manned, and barbed wire is flung across roads. That this is all done to frustrate and delay Waggett is simply a beautiful narrative juxtaposition. The film also uses potential splits within the island community for humorous purposes, as Waggett is given directions to the whisky stash by the unhappy pub landlord, who knows his takings will be down now the illicit spirit has arrived. 

(the film was retitled Tight Little Island for its U.S. release)

Performances are strong throughout: the grouchiest of the islanders, Joseph Macroon, is played with suitably sly grumpiness by Wylie Watson; Gordon Jackson is a believably fresh-faced and innocent mummy’s boy (who, in some of the film’s funniest scenes, finally gets away from his overbearing mother), and his beau, Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt) is a stronger female presence than main star Joan Greenwood (who, despite being second on the bill, is largely stuck in an unlikely romance plot that is tangential to the main story). 

Mackendrick and Gerald Gibb’s filming style is also strong throughout, with mostly convincing day-for-night filming, and suitable use of both the stark and harsh moorland and the softer, beaches of the island – there is a hint of the documentary realism the studio is known, and the extensive use of location filming really sells the distant, otherworldly nature of the whisky-soaked island. The emphasis on the ocean is omnipresent as well – not only a physical presence (as in the scenes of the great whisky rescue) but a barrier between the islanders and the ‘real’ world, which outsiders have to cross.

Given all this, then, the film’s ending is a partial let-down. The victory of the islanders is secured: the Excise leave, Waggett is beaten, the romantic couples are married and there are stocks of whisky everywhere. Yet, as George Perry notes, an unhappy ending was added for the American market, where temperance ruled over happy alcoholic fun – so, a brief coda shows the islanders miserable again, having drunk all the whisky and living ‘unhappily ever after.’ The only people on the island who remain happy are Peggy (Greenwood) and Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton), because they are teetotal. The final line ‘And if that isn’t a moral story, what is?’ flies in the face of the fun and gaiety seen in association with whisky throughout the film, and (to be honest) is best ignored. Stop the film 30 seconds earlier and it feels like a much more coherent and cruelly enjoyable narrative.

If you can forgive that one final slip towards respectability, Whisky Galore! remains one of the strongest entry in Ealing Studio’s comedy filmography, one that celebrates its Scottish setting and characters (an idea that would recur in The Maggie), and with sentiments around the regular imbibing of whisky that I’m sure Scotland’s national poet, Rabbie Burns, would have been proud of!

Next time, we will finish the Formby mini-marathon with Let George Do It (1940)...

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