Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sweet, Sweet Booze

Film: Whiskey Galore! (Tight Little Island)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

For about a decade, from 1947 to 1957, Ealing Studios became known for a particular brand of comedy. Four of them appear on The List, and I could argue for a fifth in The Man in the White Suit. There is a particular feel to Ealing comedies. They aren’t particularly laugh-out-loud affairs, but are instead an appealing combination of situation and attitude. Ealing comedies tend to be more sweet and entertaining than funny.

Such is the case with Whiskey Galore!, the earliest of the Ealing comedies to make The List. Released shortly after World War II, this is the tale of the small island of Toddy in the Hebrides about 100 miles west of Scotland. In 1943, the war hadn’t really affected this people until one sad day when the island ran out of whiskey. Nothing beyond a full scale invasion could affect the people more. So, when a ship loaded with 50,000 crates of everyone on the island’s favorite libation runs aground and begins to sink, there is a certain amount of excitement in the little community.

But, since this is a comedy, there’s a lot more to it than just a sinking ship filled with sweet, delicious booze. To complicate matters, we need a couple of cute love stories and someone to act as the foil for the entire town. Fortunately, we have that here. One love story concerns Sgt. Odd (Bruce Seton), on leave to court the young and sultry Peggy Macroon (Joan Greenwood), who likes him but isn’t pleased with the large gap in their ages. Peggy’s sister Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt) has recently become engaged to the timid local schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who lives under the thumb of his domineering, religious, and ultimately sort of evil mother (Jean Cadell). The home guard commander of the island is Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who needs everything done his way and attempts to run the island like his own little fief. Naturally, it is he and Mrs. Campbell who will prove to be our foils throughout the film.

Since this is a comedy, there shouldn’t really be any surprise when the love stories work out the way we as the audience want them to. That’s less a spoiler than a statement of obvious fact. It’s the whiskey that we’re really concerned about, and the whiskey that truly takes center stage here. In fact, it’s the whiskey that becomes not just the central theme of the film, but the solution to all of the problems the Isle of Toddy. It rescues relationships, and in the case of the infirm Hector (James Anderson), saves lives.

Ah, once again I’m ahead of myself. Allow me to backtrack a bit. It must be the whiskey going to my head.

One of the most entertaining—and specifically Hebridean moments—of the film comes just after the ship runs aground off the island. The men of Toddy rush to their boats to unload crates of whiskey when the bells of the local clock start chiming midnight, meaning has changed to Sunday. On the Sabbath, no work can be performed, even the desperate work of clearing as many crates of sweet, life-giving elixir off the sinking ship, and so the men slowly walk home, gazing longingly at the dying ship. It sets up a day of tension. The men stand on the beach praying that the ship will remain upright. It also moves Waggett into action; he sets Sgt. Odd to guard the ship. However, Odd knows that he and Peggy can’t properly announce their engagement without a whiskey-fueled party. All of this means that he very calmly and cutely allows the men of Toddy to “overpower” him on their way to the ship moments after the clock chimes that it is Monday. The haul of whiskey proves to be a true tonic for the island. Even lifelong teetotaler George has a few glasses, and uses his newfound courage to stand up to his mother and demand his engagement to Catriona.

What this sets up is a lovely game of cat-and-mouse as the men of Toddy attempt to hide the whiskey they have taken off the ship from Waggett, who is determined to round up all of the ill-gotten liquor and punish the men for taking it off a sinking vessel. Fortunately for them, old Hector has been so roused by the addition of booze to his sickbed that he becomes aware that men searching for the alcohol are coming to the island. And so the hiding of hundreds of bottles begins all over the island, with bottles being poured into hot water bottles, dropped into kettles, covered with pastry crusts, and even hidden in the blankets of infants.

I didn’t ever laugh audibly while watching this film, but there was not a moment of this film that I thought my time was wasted watching it. It’s sweet and entertaining and entirely British. That it seems to promote alcoholism in one sense might potentially offend some people in the modern world, but probably not more than would have been offended by this film in 1949. It’s also a very smart comedy in that it sets up something early in the film that feels like a throwaway comedy moment that turns out to be something that turns the entire plot in the last ten minutes, and sets up something in here that almost wrecks everything.

Ealing comedies are absolutely joyous and fun, and if the comedy sixty years later doesn’t make the audience laugh uproariously, it still pleases and entertains. Don’t expect this film to educate you or teach you anything about life and the world, but do expect to walk away with a grin, even in spite of the strange moral of the tale tacked on at the end.

It seems that August is becoming a month of films that were previously difficult to find. Whiskey Galore! is a film that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to locate, and yet it’s now conveniently parceled into six individual files on YouTube, and the transfer is excellent.

Why to watch Whiskey Galore!: An appealing combination of humor and sweetness.
Why not to watch: Because your family is starting to be concerned with how much you’ve been hitting the bottle lately.

6 comments:

  1. I completely agree with your point about there not being any moment of this film that wasn't worth watching - despite the fact that there were no real big laughs. Witty dry humor at its best.

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  2. Even if I don't laugh out loud at Ealing comedies, I almost always smile at them all the way through.

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  3. And despite the fact that these movies pre-date me, I get a nostalgic "comfortable" feel from these films. I wonder if they were intended to feel that way? And how they were initially perceived by audiences? I also suspect that as a Canadian, I may get a different vibe from these films - than say an American viewer?

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  4. I don't know--I get the same sort of feeling from them. "Comfortable" is a great way to describe them.

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  5. For me this was a lot more than a smile and grin film. It was a laugh-out-loud-slapping-my-knees film, but you know that. Otherwise I agree on all your points. I figure that the throwaway you mention is the roadblock. It certainly gets an important role later on. Love all the characters!

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    1. It's a fun little film, sadly overshadowed by a lot of the other Ealing comedies. The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers are both on the list and worth seeing. The Man in the White Suit is not on the list, but I could make an argument for it.

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