Film

Great Scots: 'Whiskey Galore!' and 'The Maggie'

Still from Film Movement trailer for Whiskey Galore! (1949)

Two Scottish comedies from Alexander Mackendrick, Whiskey Galore! and The Maggie, were part of Ealing Studios movies meant for a depressed postwar England to "let off steam".

Whiskey Galore! & The Maggie
Alexander Mackendrick

Film Movement Classics

10 March 2020

Other

This two-fer of Scotland comedies directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Whiskey Galore! (1949) and The Maggie (1954), continues the parade of StudioCanal's restorations of movies from Ealing Studios now arriving on the Film Movement Classics label.

As PopMatters recently discussed in "There'll Always Be An Ealing", the Ealing comedies gave off a spirit of anarchy and subversion that, in the words of studio honcho Michael Balcon, allowed audiences to "let off steam" from a depressed postwar England of rationing and austerity. This idea defined Passport to Pimlico (1949) from director Henry Cornelius and writer T.E.B. Clarke, and Whiskey Galore! followed that hit into theatres a few months later with a variation on the theme.

Whereas Passport to Pimlico unfolds in the contemporary moment of postwar rationing, Whiskey Galore! takes place in 1943 in the middle of wartime rationing. As a wry narrator (Finlay Currie) explains, the Scots island of Todday in the Outer Hebrides remains untouched by such wartime traumas as bombs and Nazis, but wartime shortages have created a most terrible calamity.

"There is no whiskey!" shouts the bartender into the shocked and speechless visage of an old salt, who promptly staggers home, takes to his bed, and dies. A shot of the cloudy heavens implies the paradise where he'll suffer no more deprivations, and then a hand draws down the blind on the death room. Thus is a way of life threatened: the mythology of the tough, isolated Scottish islanders for whom civilization is a rumor on the wireless and at the pub.

Salvation arrives when a cargo ship with the telling name S.S. Cabinet Minister runs aground and must abandon its cargo of 50,000 cases of whiskey. Islanders are rabid to salvage the contents when the first fly in the ointment announces itself: midnight strikes on the Sabbath, and this strict Calvinist island cannot break its iron custom of avoiding work on the Lord's Day, although apparently their Calvinism isn't so strict as to avoid draining the odd dram of whiskey or three.

The second fly is represented by Captain Waggett (Basil Radford), the token Englishman in charge of organizing the locals for the Home Guard. Just as the same actor embodied English petty bureaucratic rule-following in Passport to Pimlico, here he represents the spoilsport voice of British authority in preventing anyone from helping themselves to ill-gotten booty, which he'd rather see sink to the bottom before permitting any form of "anarchy".

The rest of the film follows the competition between these mighty and determined forces almost evenly matched. Opposing Waggett literally at one point is the ironbound widow Mrs. Campbell (Jean Cadell), whose observation of the Sabbath extends to eschewing that devil's instrument, the telephone. She dominates her adult son George (Gordon Jackson) and has locked him in his room with his Bible for giving her sass. One subplot involves George drinking enough whiskey to liberate himself from tyranny and marry his chosen bride (Gabrielle Blunt), and one of the film's setpieces is the wedding party where he must drain his glass or his wife "will wear the britches."

The film combines comedy of character interaction with a sly, winking tone of visual punctuation. For example, when the narrator states that the locals have no cinema but know how to enjoy simple pleasures, the film cuts to a couple of children emerging from the doorway of a small home to play ball, and the shot is held as they're followed at even intervals by seven more children dashing from the same hut.

The sly seduction of island life is symbolized by Joan Greenwood's character, who lures the English soldier Sgt. Odd (Bruce Seton) into learning some Gaelic, and therefore learning local ways, before she'll consent to marriage and other pleasures in the fresh air. Where his tongue leads him, the rest of him follows.

The supporting cast includes Catherine Lacey as Waggett's wife, James Robertson Justice as the doctor, Henry Mollison as the English customs officer who's led a merry chase, and Wylie Watson, Morland Graham, James Anderson, Jameson Clark, James Woodburn, Duncan Macrae and Ealing regular John Gregson as locals.

Whiskey Galore! marked the debuts of Russian-born producer Monja Danischewsky and director Alexander Mackendrick. As mentioned in the bonus material, Balcon wasn't happy with the film until Charles Crichton's uncredited re-editing made its attractions clear, and then the British public responded with enthusiasm. The film proved popular outside England, becoming a hit in the U.S. as Tight Little Island, and joined two other Ealing hits that year with Passport to Pimlico and Robert Hamer's murder comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. The three films cemented Ealing's new reputation in comedy.

Actually, Mackendrick had many years of directing experience in government documentaries and commercials, so this confident film is no neophyte's work. Shot mostly on location on the island of Barra by Gerald Gibbs, the film's broad comic atmosphere is anchored by documentary qualities and local extras. At 80 minutes, it's not only a tight little island but a tight little movie.

Whiskey Galore! (IMDB)

A bonus TV documentary produced by film historian John Ellis, who also offers a commentary in which he reads from various sources about the picture, discusses the film's origin and filming and visits the present-day island. The story's source was a novel of the same title by popular writer Compton Mackenzie, who co-scripted with Angus MacPhail and plays a cameo as the ship's captain.

Mackenzie's novel was inspired by a wartime incident in which the wrecked ship full of whiskey was the S.S. Politician, and a competition for booty occurred between two islands, one Catholic and one Calvinist, with one allowed to work on the Sabbath and the other not. Mackenzie himself was a Home Guard commander in Waggett's position, but instead of taking action against the looters, he wrote a book about it. The film streamlines many elements and incorporates incidents from a previous farcical Mackenzie novel also derived from his activities, Keep the Home Guard Turning (1943).

Ellis observes that Mackendrick, with his own Scots Calvinist background, felt sympathy for Waggett's unambiguous morality, even though Waggett is basically the antagonist, and the resulting tension animates and deepens the film. Ellis quotes a statement by Mackendrick that Waggett, the British character, is really the only true Calvinist Scot in the film, while the Scots characters are "really Irish", in other words another type of Celtic stereotype.

It's certainly revealing socially that English audiences embraced a film in which "their man" becomes the goat while the islanders are rewarded for flouting English wartime authority--unlike the real incident, where people were arrested and whiskey confiscated. There's nothing malicious in the movie's social satire, except possibly against Waggett. The film celebrates the idea that the islanders should be their stereotypical selves, although the final minutes and the narrator's remarks complicate everything again.

Whiskey Galore! established itself in British culture, eventually being remade in 2016. Ellis quotes critic Philip Kemp's statement that Robin Hardy's horror movie The Wicker Man (1973) can also be taken as a kind of remake, which is an intriguing take on that film.

Mackenzie wrote a Cold War sequel, Rockets Galore (1957), in which the locals resist the government's attempts to build a missile base on the island. That same year, Danischewsky scripted a film version for the team of producer Basil Dearden and director Michael Relph, and some of the earlier film's actors reprised their roles. The U.S. release renamed it Mad Little Island. It's reputation isn't as high as Whiskey Galore! and it's not even an Ealing production, but it would be nice to have around; it's more on point than Leo McCarey's American film of similar premise, Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1958).

Mackendrick wasn't involved in the sequel, but he'd gone on to make four more Ealing movies. The Man in the White Suit (1951) and the brilliant black comedy The Ladykillers (1955) are on Blu-ray already, and we hope that the drama of a deaf child, Mandy (1952), will follow.

Happily and conveniently, this Film Movement Blu-ray pairs Whiskey Galore! with Mackendrick's other Scottish comedy for Ealing, The Maggie.

It's not too great a stretch to consider The Maggie as a disguised remake of Whiskey Galore!, for the story once again follows an outsider who falls afoul of a pack of Scots whose ways prove too clever for him and bring him down several pegs. Even the U.S. release title, High and Dry, sounds alcoholically inclined, and many a swig is taken along the way in the story.

This time, the outsider is an American businessman, so instead of representing the officious state, he symbolizes modern capitalism. The opening credits simply call him "the American". Calvin P. Marshall (Paul Douglas) is defined as "a man not at peace with himself", a man generous "when he has to be", a man who wouldn't understand why someone would refuse to sell an old heap of a boat, a man who thinks his problems can be solved by spending enough money, and a man whose marriage is in trouble. His name sounds like a combination of Calvin Coolidge and George Marshall of the Marshall Plan, which evokes the idea of someone who thinks he can organize foreigners along American lines of can-do efficiency.

By a misunderstanding, Marshall finds himself in business with an old rascal named Captain MacTaggart (Alex Mackenzie), skipper of The Maggie, an old-style independent "puffer" of a cargo boat. As a journalist (Andrew Keir) explains to Marshall, the Scots feel a nostalgic affection for the outdated puffers.

The skipper needs 300 pounds to renew his license, so he agrees to take Marshall's cargo of domestic items from Glasgow to a small town, supposedly to surprise and impress Marshall's wife. The journey's delayed several days by a number of episodes, including the boat's temporary grounding, a birthday party, and the mistaken arrest of Marshall's fussy agent (Hubert Gregg).

Going along to supervise, Marshall swings between apoplectic and chastened. "I've never seen such a man for telephoning," observes the skipper, who frequently bickers with his young mate (James Copeland) and excitable engineer (Abe Barker). The boat is really held together by Dougie, the Wee Boy (Tommy Kearins), who idolizes MacTaggart and strikes up a friendship with Marshall. He serves as a kind of interpreter between their worldviews, and the boy will be responsible for the story's flirtation with near-tragedy in the film's most sobering and hostile moment, one that taps into resentment of America and the modern world.

Still from Film Movement trailer for The Maggie (1954)

In short, it's a road movie or a river-road movie, and a kind of clashing buddy picture. While parts of the journey feel predictable or sentimental or lean heavily on slapstick, other elements take the viewer by surprise. Obviously, these latter elements can't be discussed without spoiling, so we'll leave them alone. If Marshall is sometimes too much the loud American and MacTaggart too much the wily tippling Scot, the actors find moments of self-confrontation in their characters, and their journey is consistently engaging.

Character actors Mark Dignam, Geoffrey Keen, Meg Buchanan, Jameson Clark (of Whiskey Galore!) and Dorothy Alison (of Mandy) round out supporting roles, with Fiona Clyne stealing her scene as a thoughtful young woman analyzing her marriage prospects. The disc of The Maggie comes with zero extras; a subtitle option would have been nice to penetrate some of the brogue, especially from the Wee Boy.

Writer William Rose, who also scripted Mackendrick's The Ladykillers, was an American who wrote a number of British films. Another of his road movies is Henry Cornelius' Genevieve (1953), which isn't an Ealing comedy but can pass for one in a darkened theatre. He worked more than once with Stanley Kramer and would win an Oscar for Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).

Mackendrick was an American-born Scotsman who would divide his life and career between the U.S. and England, just as Rose did. Their collaboration here shows an interest in anatomizing their double nationalities, ultimately at the expense of the successful American businessman, who must learn to change and re-evaluate his priorities.

Mackendrick's American projects starring Tony Curtis, the harsh and bitter Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the satirical Los Angeles tale Don't Make Waves (1967), would go farther in presenting American "success" as a wonderland of dollar-chasing madness, and so for that matter would Rose and Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

More in line with Mandy, Mackendrick directed two more child-centered dramas, Sammy Going South (1963, aka A Boy Ten Feet Tall) and A High Wind in Jamaica (1965). Those would make fine Blu-rays.

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