Tag Archives: Ealing Studios

Whisky Galore! (UK 1949)

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

BBC4 is such a blessing. Without it UK TV would be unbearable. This Christmas holiday the channel revived the traditional Yuletide TV schedule and gave us a run of Ealing films. The standout for me was Whisky Galore! which I hadn’t seen for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, adapted from Compton Mackenzie’s novel, it is inspired by a real-life incident in which a ship went aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in 1941 – enabling islanders to ‘salvage’ much of its cargo of whisky. Mackenzie was himself the local Home Guard commander who turned a blind eye to the salvage operation. In the film, the locals of the mythical island of ‘Todday’ (a play on ‘toddy’?) are offered a similar opportunity during a period when their own supplies of whisky have run out. The only barrier to their enjoyment of the spoils is the local Home Guard commander, the English Captain Waggett played by Basil Radford, one half of the comic duo ‘Chalders and Caldicott’ with Naunton Wayne who appeared in several British films from 1938 onwards. Waggett brings in the ‘Excise men’ to hunt for the whisky hidden by the islanders. In doing so, he finds himself at odds with nearly all of the islanders.

Whisky Galore! is now considered a ‘classic comedy’. Initially it was only a moderate hit in English cinemas, playing better in Scotland but scoring an unexpected success in the US (as Tight Little Island) and in France where the title translated as ‘Whisky a GoGo’. Its release in 1949 alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, helped to establish the idea of the ‘Ealing comedy’. As Philip Kemp points out in his book on director Sandy Mackendrick, (Lethal Innocence, Methuen 1991), once a film gets the ‘classic tag’ it is often difficult to step back and view it objectively. But let’s try anyway.

The film’s production context is crucial. It was made in 1948 when the UK attempted to keep Hollywood productions at bay through import tariffs as part of the struggle to achieve a balance of payments. Hollywood responded by embargoing British cinemas and UK producers attempted to fill the gap with increased production. Alexander Mackendrick was a young filmmaker at Ealing given his first directorial task on a location shoot (with all available studio space taken). Mackendrick was American-born but part of a Scottish family and he would go on to become one of the stars of Ealing and a director and later film teacher with an international reputation. His first film, not surprisingly was a little uneven and took twice as long as the budgeted 60 days to shoot on the remote (from London) island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Watching the film now I’m struck by three immediate observations. First, there is a great deal of music, both in terms of score and the diegetic music used for local celebrations. Second, the location photography and the use of local non-professionals creates a very strong sense of place. Third, the narrative is actually pretty thin with the one central conflict and a couple of romantic sub-plots involving the two daughters of the island’s central entrepreneurial figure Macroon who runs the general store. This means that one of Ealing’s bigger stars, the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood is rather under-used. In fact all three central female roles (the other daughter and Waggett’s wife) are similarly under-used apart from a few one-liners. On the other hand, the film celebrates that Ealing trait of the small community working together and the film succeeds because of the sheer vitality of the camerawork and editing supporting the performances and the direction of the central narrative.

The interest for film scholars now, I think, lies in the film’s representation of certain ideas about ‘Scottishness’ and its relationship with similar films in terms of location and thematics. This dossier of materials compiled by Paul Cronin on the website ‘The Sticking Place’ provides many interesting starting points for debates. I’d like to pick up on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘kailyard’ tradition. This term can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century and it refers to the practice in rural areas whereby worker’s cottages would have attached a small plot of land to grow cabbages or other brassicas such as kale. In the 1890s the term was used to describe a certain kind of Scottish literature perceived as sentimental and nostalgic at a time when the Central Lowlands of Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) had developed into major urban centres within the British Empire. In 1982 Colin Macarthur re-ignited the debate in his book about Scottish cinema, Scotch Reels, and the kailyard and ‘tartanry’ traditions. (‘Tartanry’ refers to the whole paraphernalia of the Victorian construction of Highlands culture.) It’s not for sassenachs like me to lecture Scots on national identity but I would point out that the kailyard has its equivalent in Ireland and the parts of England that I’m familiar with – workers’ cottages with a garden for the spuds and cabbage and a pen for a pig. The kailyard itself is authentic but the problem comes when it becomes the central focus of national identity and is disproportionately represented in comparison with the industrial tenement.

Whisky Galore! with its ‘Highlands and Islands’ setting is certainly rural and culturally Gaelic, but in fact the film makes relatively little of local culture apart from the narrative necessity of a whisky-fuelled celebration for the nuptials of Macroon’s daughters. What is important is that the central narrative hinges on the response by the locals to the actions of ‘outsiders’ – Waggett and the Excise Men. This sets up a romantic, idealised local community opposed to the rational, orthodox ideas of the English ‘colonial’ administrators. This rather than the kailyard seems to be the way in to the narrative and its ideological readings. Whisky Galore! is interesting in its relationship with what went before – Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934) and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – and what came after, including The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1982). These films (and several others) all celebrate the resistance of the ‘spirit’ of the Celtic fringe in resisting the intrusion of the ‘modern’ consumerist and regulated world into the organic but fantastic community of the Irish/Scottish Highlands and Islands.

One of the important decisions about the film’s script was to jettison the local religious conflict between two different island communities. In the novel, the wreck presents a salvage opportunity for both the Protestant (Calvinist) community of a ‘Northern Isle’ and the Catholic community of a Southern isle – the ship grounding on the dividing line in the Outer Hebrides. Ealing was terrified of the religious question and Mackendrick himself , although not a practising churchgoer, was a Protestant who said he did not understand the local Catholic community who seemed more Irish than Scottish. The result is that the film fails to convince when the Todday men, confirmed whisky drinkers, are unable to go to the wreck for 24 hours because they respect the Sabbath day (surely more of a Calvinist concept).

I enjoyed watching the film again. I was thrilled by the overall presentation and, like several other commentators, I was intrigued by the use of conventions relevant to 1948 – the noirish lighting of the salvage scenes and the war film references in which the excise men seem like the Gestapo searching houses for contraband whisky. But I would have liked more Joan Greenwood and more of the romance on those wonderful beaches – one day I’ll spend some June nights in the Hebrides!

Whisky Galore! is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

It Always Rains on Sunday (UK 1947)

John McCallum, Patricia Plunkett (stepdaughter Doris) and Googie Withers in Robert Hamer’s IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.

(This post was mostly written last year when It Always Rains on Sunday was in cinemas again. It is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from the BFI.)

This welcome digital restoration by the BFI brings one of Ealing Studios’ best releases back into UK cinemas. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film offering a range of different pleasures and represents the peak period of Ealing’s output very well. Reading up on the coverage of the re-release however, I think that some of the writing could be misleading about the British cinema of the time. British reviewers refer to this as a ‘precursor to kitchen-sink dramas’ and American reviewers seem to focus on the film noir aspects. Both descriptions have some validity but the film is a mix of genres and the same elements can be found in several British films of the period – other Ealing films and also titles from Gainsborough and other studios. The East End depicted here is not the ‘near slum housing’ and desperate hand-to-mouth existence that some reviewers discuss. It’s a thriving working-class community making the best of enjoying life in ‘Austerity Britain’ (much like the present in fact!). Having said that, there is evidence that some of the residents of Bethnal Green objected to the depiction of their neighbourhood – an indication of a time when audiences were less used to seeing their locality on screen perhaps?

The film is notable for many other reasons, including its presentation of Ealing’s biggest star of the period, Googie Withers, and the direction by Robert Hamer, one of the leading Ealing directors alongside Sandy Mackendrick. The cast is chock-full of British character actors and for those of a certain age offers a treasure trove of remembered performers. The camerawork from Douglas Slocombe is very good, though the budget constraints are obvious and models had to be used for some of the action scenes. 1947 was the year after British cinema audiences peaked at 1.6 billion admissions and there were 30 million cinema visits a week. Production levels were still relatively low, so Ealing did well to release five films in 1947. Googie Withers starred in two of them (the other being the ‘realist historical’ drama The Loves of Joanna Godden in which Ms Withers is an Edwardian farmer on Romney Marsh). It was a vintage year since the other three films were Basil Dearden’s fine Frieda (in which David Farrar brings home from the war a German bride – to the consternation of his family), the Charles Crichton comedy Hue and Cry and Cavalcanti’s Nicholas Nickleby. It Always Rains on Sunday came out late in 1947. Film Review considers it as a 1948 film and reports that the Daily Mail Readers Poll made it one of the 10 most popular British films of the year with Googie Withers and her co-star (and new husband) John McCallum similarly honoured. Film Review also makes what I think is the best critical summary in saying that: “This careful, observant study of East End life bore the touch of genius. Its characters were believable, its actions normal and its background authentic.” The first half of 1948 was an unusual period in British cinemas since a dispute with Hollywood meant that no new American films were released, leaving the field open to British films. Perhaps audiences had more chance to discover the qualities of home-grown films?

The family melodrama: after a violent argument with her stepmother (Susan Shaw) has a torn dress – a reference to the cheap austerity clothes? Edward Chapman, the girls' father is coming up the stairs.

The family melodrama: after a violent argument with her stepmother Vi (Susan Shaw) has a torn dress – a reference to the cheap austerity clothes? Edward Chapman, the girls’ father is coming up the stairs.

It Always Rains on Sunday details one day in the life of East End housewife Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers). Her Sunday routine is disrupted by her discovery of her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) hiding in the wartime Anderson shelter in her backyard. He’s broken out of gaol and come to her as the only person he can trust. She hasn’t seen him for ten years but feels compelled to keep him safe despite the need to hide him from the older man she married after Tommy’s capture, her two stepdaughters and her young son. This is the central plotline of the film but there are several sub-plots, mostly involving the two stepdaughters (the elder of whom is played by the Rank starlet Susan Shaw), three petty crooks and a Jewish extended family including such archetypal figures as the amusement arcade owner and ‘fixer’, the musician/record shop owner and the charitable worker. (Bethnal Green had a long-standing Jewish community, also represented in other films of the period.) The script by Ealing regulars Angus McPhail and Henry Cornelius, alongside Hamer and taken from a novel by Arthur la Bern, is full of witty exchanges and the film fairly zips along through its 92 minutes.

Why has this film survived so well while dozens of others from the period have virtually disappeared? It is a good representation of community and that was an important part of Ealing’s success. As George Perry points out (Forever Ealing, Pavilion Books 1981), Ealing’s peak years of 1945-51 exactly match the Labour government of Clem Attlee which did more than any UK government before or since to foster the sense of ‘doing things together’ through nationalisation of major industries and the expansion of the welfare state. Ealing’s films in this period, though never overtly ‘political’, often feature communities coming together to fight for something or at least being represented as having a sense of living and developing with a collective responsibility. Bethnal Green is presented as a place where people are ‘known’ – whether because they help others or because they are up to no good. Jack Warner’s CID man knows everybody and especially the petty crooks.

A classic noir image from IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.

A classic noir image from IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947). Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures.

It Always Rains on Sunday includes several scenes that regularly recur in British films of the period. The action scenes are familiar from I Was a Fugitive (1947) (the escaping prisoner) and numerous films in which police cars with tyres squealing race through East End streets. The chase across the railway marshalling yard is a staple of British crime films and the East End dockland roads with their high walls are perfect for the entrapment of the doomed man. The scenes of cramped family life in a terraced house are similarly familiar but Googie Withers stands out as a genuine film star with real presence. She seems right for the period with that shapely, strong and powerful body and that wonderfully-sculpted mane of hair and she commands the screen. Ealing needed a female star of this magnitude to compete in a period when female stars ruled British cinema (this was the era of Anna Neagle, Margaret Lockwood, Deborah Kerr, Phyllis Calvert, Jean Kent, Patricia Roc, Ann Todd and many more).

I would contend that the greatness of the film resides in the combination of script, star performance and overall ‘quality’ of the Ealing production, both technical and creative. I include in that reference to quality the work of Robert Hamer, but I wouldn’t want to single him out quite as much as some of the high-profile commentators have done. Hamer and Mackendrick are usually singled out as the star directors at Ealing and there are various publications and online resources devoted to them. I’m a supporter of the ‘Ealing as community’ school but Hamer is definitely worth investigating on sites like Screenonline and this Criterion essay by Philip Kemp. Kemp suggests that Hamer was attempting to bring the poetic realism of Marcel Carné to the East End in It Always Rains On Sunday. I’m not sure about that but the film is as important as those French films in its combination of art and entertainment.