Monday, 7 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 68: The Maggie (1953)

Authors such as Geoffrey MacNab have talked about repeated themes in Scottish literature and cinema (and books/films set in Scotland) around the terms Tartanry and Kailyardism: tropes and ideas of Scotland as a land of myth and tartan-clad heroes, or a world where canny individuals regularly outwit newcomers with native ingenuity. These elements can be seen at work in films from Brigadoon (1953) and Braveheart (1992) to Whisky Galore! (1949) and Local Hero (1985). While such definitions might have been challenged with the recent expansion of Scottish films such as Trainspotting (1997) or Ratcatcher (2005), there remains an interest in films that engage with the mythic – Pixar’s Brave (2012) seems to draw from that well – and comedians and actors from Billy Connolly to Robert Carlyle regularly play off versions of the canny Scottish figure in film and television.

But what does this have to do with The Maggie? Well, the film foregrounds elements of Kailyardism (there is also a smattering of Tartanry in the opening titles, a kilt-wearing laird, and a Highland ceilidh) in this tale of a small and decrepit puffer boat, the Maggie, and her crew of misfits: the skipper, MacTaggart (Alex Mackenzie), first mate Hamish (James Copeland), engineer MacGregor (Abe Barker) and young lad Dougie (Tommy Kearins). MacTaggart is the wily Scot, an old dyed-in-the-wool chancer who, through misdirection and low cunning, convinces Englishman Pusey (Hubert Gregg) to let him take the cargo of American businessman Calvin B. Marshall (Paul Douglas) to the island of Kiltarra, where Marshall is building a home as a surprise for his wife. When he discovers what has happened, Marshall sets off in pursuit, trying to stop MacTaggart but eventually joining the crew and giving in to his inevitable defeat.

While there are, as Charles Barr has pointed out, similarities to both The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and Whisky Galore! (old form of transport winning out over new, traditional Scots win out over naive outsider), this film has a bitter and black comic centre that reduces any sympathy with either of the two male leads. Marshall is bluff and loud, throwing money at each problem rather than attempting to understand it; while MacTaggart is stubborn and mean, destroying property and livelihoods to get his own way. Mackendrick has stated that part of the ‘flavour of the joke’ was the ‘savagely unfair way in which [Marshall] is treated, the sly insult added to injury and the ultimate indignity of being made to feel that he is somehow “morally” in the wrong.’ (Alexander Mackendrick, quoted in Barr 1980, 167)

That idea of morality seems to come down to issues of money versus lifestyle: Marshall is rebuked by almost all the characters about his lifestyle and obsession with speed and efficiency. The ‘American way’ is ‘everything in a rush’ while the Scottish one (exemplified by the Maggie which, according to journalist Fraser (Andrew Keir) is ‘heartwarming’ and has a ‘touch of tradition’) is that things will get done, not quickly, but eventually. If the moral lesson about money and lifestyle remained unclear, one of the girls at the MacDougall party tells Marshall she doesn’t want a man who will have money and buy her everything, she’d rather have a poor fisherman who’ll always come home and wants to spend time with her. Yet the problem with this idea that Scottish cunning will triumph over American economic power, is that the film prevents us from rooting for MacTaggart. In making the other man so unlikeable, Mackendrick and writer William Rose paint themselves into a corner; when MacTaggart ‘wins’ (he is paid for delivering the cargo, even though it ends up at the bottom of the sea), Marshall is simply a diminished and diminishing figure who walks away down the quayside, while the crew of the Maggie celebrate. The big (Marshall) is made small, but the small (MacTaggart) remains small and petty, hardly a figure to emulate.

Is it too much to speculate that the film, despite trying to satirise two ways of life, is also suggesting that the struggle of the Maggie is ultimately futile against American economic might (even if small victories such as this can be won)? MacTaggart may be a canny and smart Scotsman, but American culture might be seeping into his world whether he likes it or not: given the presence of a Superman comic onboard that seems more enticing to the crew than the scenery of the Highlands they are sailing past...

Outside such thematic and character concerns, the film contains nice visual touches that show off Mackendrick and Gordon Dines’ work, with strong images of both urban (Glasgow docks) and rural (highlands and islands) Scottish landscapes; the Maggie, marooned at high tide, is a striking composition, as is MacTaggart and Marshall’s lonely trek along the beach to a nearby village; the camera, sinking to the level of a pier as the planks are torn asunder; there are also subtler moments, such as young Dougie stroking the ship’s wheel (when he thinks no one is looking), Dougie and Hamish swinging from the boat to the land using the jib; or Marshall, wreathed in shadows in his bunk onboard, struggling with his anger over MacTaggart.

In the end, as the cargo is thrown overboard, Marshall says ‘it was bound to happen, it was the only thing left that could happen’: the line can be read as a judgement on the film itself. Having thrown farce, black character comedy and moral judgements at the screen, the only route left is slapstick, throwing the bathroom into the water and accepting defeat. It is a lesson Mackendrick and Rose would apply to their next black comedy, The Ladykillers (1955).

[The Maggie is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we go Undercover (1943)...

1 comment:

  1. These old films still brighten a dreary winter's afternoon as the viewer sits cosily in front of the TV. Wonder if future armchair audiences will have such quality offered?