WolfmanOz at the Movies #52

Ealing comedies

As promised last week, this weeks post will be taking a look at the comedies from Ealing Studios – thanks to Pogria for the suggestion.

Ealing Studios is a London based film and television production company and is actually the oldest continuously working studio facility for film production in the world of which its’ output numbers in the many hundreds.

But it is the small block of comedies released in the late 40s to the late 50s that the reputation of Ealing became so well known. Their success was not just restricted to the UK but also in the USA where a number of their films won or were nominated for a number of Academy Awards.

Hue And Cry (1947) is generally regarded as the first of the classic Ealing comedies as it tells the story of a group of schoolboys who confront a criminal gang. Directed by Charles Crichton from a script by T.E.B. Clarke, both of whom would become stalwarts of Ealing along with directors Alexander Mackendrick, Robert Hamer and Henry Cornelius; and actors the magnificent Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway and Raymond Huntley etc.

Then came Passport To Pimlico (1949) a delightfully quirky film where a suburb of London is declared a legal part of the House of Burgundy and therefore exempt from post-war rationing and other petty bureaucratic restrictions active at the time in Britain.

Next there was Whisky Galore ! (1949) which concerned a shipwreck off a Scottish island where the inhabitants have run out of whisky due to wartime rationing but they find out the ship is carrying 50,000 cases of whisky. This film became the first to achieve box office success in America.

1949 was rounded up with the release of my favourite Ealing film – Kind Hearts And Coronets (it’s in my top 100 films of all-time). This gloriously witty black comedy concerns Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, the son of a woman disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying out of her social class. After her death, Louis decides to take revenge on the family and take the dukedom by murdering the eight people (all played by the incomparable Alec Guinness) ahead of him in the line of succession to the title.

The film is told in flashback as Louis is awaiting execution as he writes his memoirs, where the irony is, he is to be executed for a murder he didn’t commit.

1951 saw the release of 2 more great but quite different comedies in The Man In The White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob both starring Alec Guinness.

The Man In The White Suit is a superb satire on business and trade unions as a scientist invents an incredibly strong fibre which repels dirt and never wears out. From this fabric, a suit is made, which is a brilliant white. The ramifications of which causes great consternation amongst both labour and the capitalists.

Whereas The Lavender Hill Mob is a highly inventive comedy caper as Guinness superbly plays a mild-mannered London clerk who devises a plan to steal a consignment of gold bullion from his bank.

Later notable comedies included The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953), Touch And Go (1955), The Ladykillers (1955) and lastly Barnacle Bill (1957). I have to admit, despite its high reputation, I have never overly cared for The Ladykillers but I will say it is a masterpiece compared to the awful 2004 Coen Brothers remake.

So what made the Ealing comedies so special and enduring, 70 years after they were first released ?

Well they tended to reflect Britain’s post-war spirit after WWII but they also depicted the peculiar, and varied, nature of the English sense of humour which has proved to be so popular over time.

They were also blessed to have some of the finest talents in British cinema at the time, of which Alec Guinness, one of the greatest actors of the 2oth century, featured prominently. Guinness was hugely popular with the British public and he had a chameleon ability to absorb himself into his roles, whether it be comedy or drama, which made him a truly great film actor.

The Ealing comedies were also made economically i.e. the films generally ran for only 80-90 minutes so they never wore out their welcome but at their heart was a warmth and affection for their characters written with humour and a mischievous wit such we don’t see much anymore.


and as a tease for next weeks post . . . Man is the warmest place to hide.