I came into these films backwards, the same way, in a sense, that I came to Hammer Horror. And I owe my initial dive to the same source: Star Wars.
As I have said before, Star Wars was a film with an absolutely inspired casting. To balance out the three relatively new faces in the main roles, Lucas brought in two British stalwarts, who happened to be the stars of two of the best series of films to ever come out of the island – The Hammer Horror films star Peter Cushing and the brilliant star of the best of the Ealing Comedies: Alec Guinness. I would eventually go to the Hammer films because of my love for Dracula films. But I came to Ealing because, after Star Wars, and all those David Lean films, Alec Guinness would eventually surpass Humphrey Bogart as my favorite actor of all-time. And so naturally I went looking for his other films. And was I ever surprised to discover that this brilliant dramatic actor had once been considered the finest comic actor in Britain. And that opened up a whole new world of films for me: The Ealing Comedies.
In 1931, Basil Dean had a studio built in the London borough of Ealing as a place to make films for his company, Associated Talking Pictures. By 1938, when ATP was in decline, Michael Balcon took charge of production at Ealing and he brought in many of his own people. “To make this fresh start, there was some juggling with names. Ealing Studios Ltd, a subsidiary of ATP had hitherto been the company which formally owned the place. Now, ATP was phased out and Ealing became a production company. What might appear to be no more than a boardroom technicality has a wider significance: films were now made not only at Ealing, but by Ealing, so that it makes sense to use the word as an adjective: Ealing films, Ealing comedies.” (Barr, p 4)
And of course, the Ealing comedies are where so much joy comes from. Barr continues: “The release in quick succession in 1949 of Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets seemed to inaugurate a cycle. Of the eight or nine films which are still, like these, readily identified with the Ealing Comedy label, all except Kind Hearts belong very much to both the landscape and the mood of post-war Britain; it is from them that our whole image of Ealing derives.” (Barr, p 4-5)
Like the Hammer films, I am no expert on the Ealing films. And Ealing made films other than comedies – in fact I have seen 21 Ealing films and only 11 of them are comedies. But those 11 include the 9 best films I have seen from Ealing. I have come to love them and love how much fun they are. So just consider this an introductory course, to the best of the films, to the core of their participants, and to where you might find out more. But perhaps this says enough about the Ealing films – five different ones in the course of a decade, including four of the six listed below, were nominated by the Academy for their writing and The Lavender Hill Mob took home the Oscar in 1952 for Best Story and Screenplay.
Passport to Pimlico (1949, dir. Henry Cornelius – ***.5)
The first of the brilliant Ealing comedies, this one exemplifies much of what makes them so great. It takes a very interesting premise, that is uses to great comic effect, and it sets it at work among the people of post-war London. In fact, it is the war itself that literally brings the bang that starts the proceedings.
A bunch of children, playing with a large tire, manage to roll it down a hill into a hole where it sets off an unexploded bomb left over from the Blitz. The explosion sends the entire area running out to see what is going on, and in the confusion, Mr. Pemberton, a local shopkeeper, falls down the hole. While down in the hole he discovers an enormous treasure. It turns out this is the leftover treasure from the last Duke of Burgundy, and that in fact this entire section of London was claimed as part of Burgundy in the 15th Century and the charter has never been revoked.
This all could have turned out very mild except for the brainstorm that the residents begin to have. No longer on British land, they are no longer subject to the rationing that has become such a part of post-war Britain. They are no longer bound by British law.
This is where things get really fun – with the town being barricaded, with British citizens coming in to shop and being stopped for not having their passports on the way back. And suddenly it becomes an international situation, one which has the people of Pimlico and the government of Britain both trying to figure out what comes next.
All of this works so well for the same reason that so many of the Ealing comedies would work so well. It has a charming premise and uses it very well, with sharp and witty dialogue. And it develops its characters, who are all played so well, the standouts being Stanley Holloway as Pemberton, Hermione Baddeley and Margaret Rutherford, who plays the historian who discovers the charter and reveals the history.
And it also works well because it reflects the world around it. It deals with the very real problems of leftover bombs from the Blitz and post-war rationing. And when the citizens are cut off and in danger of running out of food, they find food airlifted to them, here at the same time that the Berlin Airlift was going on. It’s charming and funny and smart and enjoyable, but it works so well because it never really strays that far from what is really going on.
Whisky Galore (1949, dir. Alexander Mackendrick – ***.5)
“What makes Mackendrick’s films so refreshing and I think unique in British cinema, is that the characters are so robustly Machiavellian in this truer sense, undermining the Ealing polarisation of nice and wholesome and harmless versus coarse, tough and brutal.” (Barr, p 118)
Much like Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore, part of that first way of Ealing comedies to sweep across Britain in the summer of 1949 and then come to the States, takes a very simple idea and stretches it beyond its logical conclusion. In this case, it’s that a small island off the coast of Scotland has just about run out of whisky in 1943, as the war struggles on. Into this problem step two soldiers and one very fortunate accident. The first office is Captain Waggett, desperate to get the correct ammunition for his rifles, and frustrated beyond belief at the islanders he is forced to deal with. The other soldier is islander Sergeant Odd, who is home on leave and hoping to propose to Peggy, the shopkeeper’s daughter (Peggy is played with sultry appeal by Joan Greenwood, whose smoky voice would also come in handy for her major female roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in the White Suit). These two men would likely be somewhat at odds normally. But what happens in the meantime is that a freighter runs aground just offshore – a freighter with 50,000 cases of whiskey.
Of course, the Scots aren’t going to let all this good booze go to waste. And so they set forth to rescue it from the depths of the sea. But, before they can even get into the water, one of the most brilliant things in the film happens – we hit midnight and they realize it’s Sunday. They might be willing to go forth and steal the whiskey that is being offered, but they aren’t going to violate the Sabbath to do it, and so there’s a 24 hour delay before the hunt is on. By that time, Odd has been ordered to stand watch, but, knowing he needs whiskey for a wedding reception, he spots those sneaking up on him and explains to them exactly how they need to subdue him.
Once the whisky has made its way to shore then comes the stand-off, with the islanders hiding the drink anywhere they can possibly think of to hold off the confiscation coming from Waggett. And here’s where the island unites in a sort of inspired hilarity, thinking of any place that comes to mind.
Whisky Galore works for the same reason that Passport to Pimlico works – because it simply takes ordinary people, dealing with the problems of their normal lives and introduces one very odd situation that happens to make what follows absolutely delightful.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, dir. Robert Hamer – ***.5)
It was interesting to go back to this film after quite a while and realize how little Alec Guinness is in it. I used to have him as a Nighthawk nominee for Best Actor. Now I have him as a Nighthawk nominee (and Nighthawk – Comedy winner) for Best Supporting Actor. And yet, the film still belongs to him, overwhelmingly. That may be why it can’t quite get up to the four star level. But it’s also part of why it is as wonderfully entertaining as it is.
The other part of why it is so delightfully entertaining is the kind of film it is. It belongs on a list with a few other films, and I once wanted to record them all together on the same tape and label it “Death is Funny.” We can look at this, at The Trouble with Harry and Heathers and see how delightfully dark some comedies can be while also remaining so wonderfully chipper.
If you’ve never seen it, the story revolves around the of one Louis Mazzini. His mother, having been exiled from her wealthy, titled aristocratic family for her marriage to an Italian man (who died at Louis’ birth) raises him with bitterness towards the family, but also the knowledge that he is in the line for the dukedom of Chalfont. When his mother dies poor and is refused burial with the family, Louis vows revenge and becomes determined to become the Duke by killing off the eight family members who stand in his way.
Here’s where Guinness comes in and here’s where the black comedy comes in. Because, first of all, Guinness plays not just one of the family. He plays all eight, from a young n’er do well, to a salty admiral, from a suffragette to an aging vicar. Guinness gives enough different personalities to each one that it never seems like the kind of hopeless mugging that Eddie Murphy would do with similar roles years later. Guinness succeeds precisely because he is such a consummate character actor and he provides each of them with an individual character. But what he also does it provide them with just enough of an aggravating character, of that snobbishness of the upper class that we never quite lose our sympathy for Louis, even as he is killing them off one by one.
Dennis Price is a suitable enough Louis and Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood play two very different women that are pulling at his urges in different directions. But the star here, even with considerably less screen time, is Guinness. Well, Guinness and the very black satire of the script.
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, dir. Charles Crichton – ****)
Forget Bullitt. Don’t worry about Ronin. Don’t think about The French Connection. The Lavender Hill Mob – a film that no one would think about calling an action film – has two of the greatest chase sequences in film history. Both of them are not only exciting, they are not only suspenseful, they are not only good fun, they are damn funny. And both of them fit perfectly into the film and into the studio itself – the frantic comedic pace of both.
The premise, for those of you poor unfortunates who have never seen the film, is that Alec Guinness is a mousy bank clerk who is determined to sneak away with the million pounds of gold that he is charged with transporting as part of his job. But he hasn’t been able to figure out how to get the gold out of Britain. When he meets Mr. Pendleberry, a nice man who has come to live in the same boarding house, he discovers that he works in a foundry, making miniature Eiffel Towers for sale in Paris. A plan comes to mind and the reactions from both men, as the plan is slowly laid out is pure comedic perfection. The actual heist goes off with a few hitches, but does go off (to get the proper men to assist, they talk on the Tube about how their safe needs to be repaired, then head back to the foundry and wait for a suitable thief to show up and try to rob them). They get the gold melted down and shipped off to Paris, where they plan to collect them and sell them on the European market.
The first chase occurs when they arrive in Paris and discover that six of the towers have accidentally been sold to a group of English school girls. This requires the two of them to chase the girls, first down the Eiffel Tower itself (the girls are in the elevator, while the man are racing down the stairs and get the kind of vertigo that clearly inspired Alfred Hitchcock later in the decade), then across Paris to the train, then to Calais, where they finally lose out because of the amusing persistence of French customs officials.
After they have made it back to England and managed to buy back five of the statues, they still must get the sixth. They follow the last girl, who happens to go visit her uncle at an exhibition at a police training college. In desperate straits they grab that statue and manage to steal a patrol car and end up in yet another chase, with this time, they being the pursued. But the great fun here is that they are on police radios and manage to constantly confuse the chasers (one of the sheer delights in the film is that a policeman sees the chase and rushes to a police box to call it in – yes a police box, 12 years before Doctor Who would go on the air and make that kind of police box famous around the world).
All of this is told by Guinness (whose performance as the mousy clerk is so brilliant that he managed his first Oscar nomination for it, though he lost to Gary Cooper for High Noon – he would have to wait for a grand serious David Lean role before he would actually win an Oscar) to a man sitting next to him in a cafe and it all comes to a wonderful comedic ending that I don’t want to give away (although, seriously, if you haven’t seen The Lavender Hill Mob you need to do so RIGHT NOW).
The Man in the White Suit (1952, dir. Alexander Mackendrick – ***.5)
So much of what is brilliant about The Man in the White Suit is what we don’t see. And let’s be frank here. This film is brilliant. When I first saw the film, I listed it as a low level ***.5. But now it has moved all the way up to the top of ***.5 and almost equal with Kind Hearts and Coronets. It isn’t just another fantastic performance from Alec Guinness as the perfect everyman. It’s not just the level of satire, which this time is aimed at both the top of British society (the owners of factories) as well as the dregs (the Union workers). It’s how well it all works together. And for those moments that we don’t see.
Look at three particular moments. The first is in the middle of the film, when Guinness is readying his experimental machine in the hopes of making his precious chemical that will produce the fiber that will never wear out and never get dirty. We see Guinness getting everything ready, but then we follow another character out the door into the office next door. It is only there, outside of the room, that we get the tremendous explosion that rocks the entire factory. Only then do we go back to the room, with the astounding amount of destruction, and a calm, collected Guinness, who simply walks over and says “It shouldn’t have done that.” The second moment is when the dreaded, all-powerful Sir John Kierlaw arrives. We first hear of him only as a name. Then we see the way people react to the power of the name and we imagine some hulking ogre of a man, a dreaded impressive specimen. We don’t see him yet – only a near glimpse as he gets in the car, then feet as he moves down the hall, then a silhouette on the wall, then settling into a chair. It is only then that we finally see the wizened old man who is sitting in the chair that everyone is so desperately afraid of. The third moment follows closely afterwards. Once Guinness realizes that he has been betrayed and that his miracle discovery will never see the light of day and is attempting to flee (we first see the buzzer going off on the secretary’s desk constantly, then it flashes into the office and we see it is going off because Guinness is on top of it, forced back by another man). He tries to run, but then backs into a trophy on the wall. Rather than watch it come down on his head, we see him move backwards, then we flash to the reactions of those who are chasing him as they watch him crumble to the ground. It works so much better than any attempt at showing the disaster would have been.
Of course, all of these are just wonderful set pieces among the brutal satire at work here. First, Guinness is shuttled around from job to job because no one believes in his genius (yet, it is clear he has it). Then, he finally manages to discover his miracle fiber, only to have everyone want to get rid of it. The owners can’t imagine what they would do without profits. The workers can’t imagine what they would do once enough cloth has been made that they will be out of jobs. So it must be stopped at all costs.
There are other great moments as well – the wonderful sound effects from the machine, the way the suit glows when Guinness wears it (it is slightly radioactive and is lit perfectly once he starts wearing it, especially at night), the amusing climb down from the window supported by a single thread (see below in the specific bit about Guinness), the way Guinness bellows “I won’t stay here another minute,” and then he won’t, because the butler finally gets hold of him and throws him out the door. It all works perfectly, every minute of comic timing and devilish satire.
The Ladykillers (1955, dir. Alexander Mackendrick – ****)
For the first several minutes of the film you follow the little old lady. She seems so charming and harmless (though just looking at a baby makes the baby burst into tears and the second she begins to approach the police station they get the superintendent). Then, as she asks about her advertisement, you see what is clearly a sinister shadow staring at it on the wall (with appropriately sinister music in the background). She returns home, and the dark sinister shadow looms over the doorway before we hear the doorbell. And then she opens the door, and Dear God, who is that? Can that possibly be Alec Guinness?
Of course it is, leering like a madman, with bad hair and ridiculous teeth, and introducing himself as a professor who just wants to let the two rooms available so that he and his friends, an amateur string quintet, can have a place to practice. Of course, they’re really doing nothing of the sort. They’re planning a robbery at King’s Cross Station, which happens to be overlooked by the rooms they are not letting.
If The Ladykillers were a normal heist film, it would follow them through the preparations, the heist, and the aftermath. But this film isn’t really concerned with the heist. It’s concerned with this lunatic band of characters who have gathered together (perhaps that’s the problem with the Coens remake – that it becomes so focused on the heist, that it forgets to focus on the characters). And what happens after the heist. Because the heist actually goes off fine – it’s that they stumble getting out of the house and the little old lady now realizes what they have done. So they are suddenly forced with the problem of what to do. And they decide to kill her. Or not. Or maybe kill each other. I don’t want to talk about what happens in the last frantic 45 minutes of the film, because it is so brilliant, so breakneck, so inspired, and so incredibly funny. Needless to say, like nearly all heist films, this gang isn’t going to walk away into the sunset with the loot.
At the heart of the film is the magnificent performance from Alec Guinness, which he based upon Alistair Sim, whose kind of role he thought it was (if you’ve never seen Alistair Sim, go watch A Christmas Carol or Stage Fright right now). Guinness is so demented and creepy (and those teeth!, I can almost hear Veronica wanting me to add) and so slyly funny, you’d never imagine this is the same man from those other Ealing films. In Kind Hearts he showed his grand range, but nothing could have prepared you for this. And that’s not all – we also get the wonderful pairing of Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers, a good decade before they would start facing off against each others as Clouseau and Dreyfuss.
“Alec Guinness might seem an odd choice for a star acting analysis. His eclectic body of work challenges the very idea of a dominant screen persona. Guinness is one of the very few character actors who managed to command star recognition.” (Boyce, p 66)
A lot of comedic actors come to acting from performance. As a result, they often try to be funny. But, I believe in Roger Ebert’s principle: “People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing.” Alec Guinness never tried to be funny. He was a great actor and a serious actor. That just made him all the better as a comedic actor.
In fact, I would make the argument that Alec Guinness could move between comedy and drama, and be brilliant in both, than any other actor in the history of film. There have certainly been a number of great comedic actors over the years, with Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and Peter Sellers immediately springing to mind. But because they were so often thought of as comedic actors, they didn’t necessarily get the chance to shine in dramatic roles. And the very best dramatic actors, Laurence Olivier, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Claude Rains – well, they could do comedy, but they didn’t do it very often. Michael Caine (and someday, maybe George Clooney) has shown the kind of ability to go back and forth, but hasn’t shown it to the extent and the range that Guinness did.
Look at some of his dramatic roles: Oliver Twist, The Bridge on the River Kwai (Oscar, BAFTA wins and one of the greatest performances in film history), The Horse’s Mouth, Tunes of Glory, Star Wars (Oscar nom), Little Dorrit (Oscar nom). Then look at what Guinness did in less than a decade at Ealing: Kind Hearts and Coronets (as 8 different roles), The Lavender Hill Mob (Oscar nom), The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers. And that’s not including his non-Ealing comedic performances like The Card, Captain’s Paradise or Our Man in Havana.
Alec Guinness was already established as one of my favorite actors of all-time before I ever saw an Ealing film, indeed before I ever saw him in a comedic performance. But these days, he’s not only high up on my list as one of the greatest actors of all-time, but is most definitely my favorite actor of all-time. Between those 8 different performances in Kind Hearts (and he really does give different performances with each role), his mousy clerk in Mob and his delightfully disturbing performance in The Ladykillers, he is the beating soul of talent at the heart of the Ealing comedies. Indeed, as Boyce says of his performance in Kind Hearts: “He effortlessly transforms from an elderly parson to a young aristocrat from a bluff Admiral to a female suffragette. We are struck with the knowledge, through this impressive body of work, that we are denied access to Guinness’s true face, his true voice, and his true age. He can be anyone and, therefore, as Kerr says of Chaplin, he remains no one.” (Boyce, p 67)
But, not all was fun and games for Guinness during his work at the studio, as he himself relates in his memoir: “Ealing Studios, although I am eternally grateful to Michael Balcon for the comedies he put in my way, frequently tried to kill me – or so it seemed to me during moments of paranoia. Of course I knew they weren’t really trying to kill me; it struck me only that they were rather casual about my safety.” (Guinness, p 199) At the risk of quoting an entire page of his book, he explains how he was almost blown away in a balloon in Kind Hearts, how his climb down the side of the building in Suit could have been a disaster had the string broke before he was four feet from the ground and how he almost dropped off a sixty-foot-high wall while making Ladykillers. But instead, he survived and gave us decades of brilliant work.
Most people, looking at Stanley Holloway, will instantly think of My Fair Lady. But that role as Alfred P. Doolittle, which would earn him an Oscar nomination at age 74 is merely the final culmination of some of his work at Ealing (an ironic note – he plays Audrey Hepburn’s father, after not appearing on screen with her in The Lavender Hill Mob). Doolittle is an opportunist and a bit of a con man. But then think of Holloway in Passport to Pimlico, where he is the most prominent man in the community who decides to take advantage of the fact that they are now citizens of Burgundy. Or think of him in The Lavender Hill Mob, of the gleam in his eyes when he finally realizes the plot that is being described to him by Alec Guinness and says “By Jove, Holland, it’s a good job we’re both honest men.” Or the desperate look in his eye when he realizes the jig is up and he grabs the Eiffel Tower replica and makes a run for it. And aside from the lead in Passport and the second role in Mob (earning Nighthawk – Comedy nominations for both), he also was solid as the lead in The Titfield Thunderbolt. But the big difference here is that, unlike in MFL, where he is brusque and uncouth, in the Ealing films he is charming and delightful and we can’t but hope that everything will turn out okay for him, even when it is very clear to us that it won’t.
“During Balcon’s twenty years with Ealing, 1938-58, no fewer than 60% of the feature films were directed by six men: Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Charles Frend, Robert Hamer, Alexander Mackendrick, Harry Watt. All but one of the six (Mackendrick) were at Ealing by 1942. All stayed for at least seven years; they were there together in the early ‘fifties, they made most of the Ealing comedies between them, and four of them were still with Balcon when he moved to the MGM studio in 1956 for the last cluster of films to bear the Ealing trademark . . . None of the six, then, simply passes through Ealing: it is a home and a continuing identity for them.” (Barr, p 39).
There is some irony here, in that the best film Charles Crichton would ever direct, the one that would earn him an Oscar nomination in his seventies would be with another famous British group: Monty Python.
Crichton worked for over 15 years at Ealing, starting as an editor, and moving to the director’s chair in the mid-40’s. He worked in dramas (his The Divided Heart, which is almost impossible to find, was nominated for 5 BAFTAs and won two) as well as comedies. He only directed one of the best comedies – The Lavender Hill Mob, but Hue and Cry and The Titfield Thunderbolt are both solid, enjoyable films. After Ealing, Crichton would direct a few more films, but then he did two decades worth of work in television before John Cleese finally unearthed him to direct A Fish Called Wanda, mainly because of the job he did on Mob. Not only did he finally get some critical attention (Oscar, DGA, BAFTA noms), but he actually co-wrote the story with Cleese (he wasn’t a writer at Ealing) and also earned WGA and Oscar nominations for that.
Because Crichton is a former Oscar nominee for Best Director, you can find more on him in this post. He’s at #107.
Unlike Crichton, who directed a lot of films, Mackendrick only directed nine (also, Mackendrick, though raised in Scotland, was actually born in America). He worked on propaganda films for the British government during the war and then went to Ealing where he began as a writer, moving on to directing in 1949 with Passport to Pimlico. But in the remaining years of Ealing, he directed only four more films, three of them comedies (including two of the best – The Man in the White Suit, for which he also wrote the screenplay, earning an Oscar nomination and The Ladykillers). When Ealing was sold in 1955, Mackendrick went to Hollywood and made his best film – a devastating satire called Sweet Smell of Success (#27 on my list of the Top 100 films not nominated for any Oscars). But the sixties were not a success; he directed only three films and eventually gave up directing altogether and went to California, where he was made Dean of California Institute of the Arts, a school he stayed at (as either dean or teacher) for the rest of his life.
T.E.B. Clarke was the master of taking an interesting situation, then stretching it beyond its logical conclusion. That’s how we get a film like Passport to Pimlico, with its wonderful premise and the results that follow. Clarke had actually begun the Ealing Comedies, writing Hue and Cry, which kicked things off in 1947. Clarke wrote several films that would be directed by Crichton, including Hue and Cry, the World War II drama Against the Wind, The Lavender Hill Mob (which would win Clarke an Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay) and The Titfield Thunderbolt. But he also worked with other directors. He earned an Oscar nomination for writing Passport to Pimlico, which was directed by Henry Cornelius and he wrote The Blue Lamp for Basil Dearden, an Ealing drama which would win Best British Film at the BAFTAs. Years later, after Ealing, Clarke would earn a third and final Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Sons and Lovers.
- A Critical History of the British Cinema. Roy Armes. Oxford University Press. 1978. (has a specific chapter on Ealing, though, sadly, barely mentions Hammer)
- Blessings in Disguise. Alec Guinness. Akadine Press. 2001 edition.
- Ealing Studios. Charles Barr. University of California Press. 1998 (3rd Edition).
- British Comedy Cinema. ed. I.Q. Hunter & Laraine Porter. Routledge. 2012. (chapter on Ealing by Tim O’Sullivan).
- The Lasting Influence of the War on Postwar British Film. Michael W. Boyce. Palgrave. 2012.
- Ealing Revisited. ed. Mark Duguid, Lee Freeman, Keith M. Johnston and Melanie Williams. BFI. 2012. (has chapters from both Barr and O’Sullivan).
Top 5 Ealing Comedies (my own list):
- The Lavender Hill Mob
- The Ladykillers
- The Man with the White Suit
- Kind Hearts and Coronets
- Passport to Pimlico