The journey across the Ealing comedies continues today with Whisky Galore!, a 1949 film that introduced two critical figures to these films: director Alexander Mackendrick and actress Joan Greenwood. By the way, I just discovered that Alexander Mackendrick also directed Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Interestingly, this director, who was mainly connected to the Ealing comedies at some point, directed a very dark American film! Written by Compton Mackenzie and Angus MacPhail, it was based on the book of the same name by Mackenzie, a Scottish author (a relevant mention). Despite being considered a significant film of the Ealing series and despite some worth-mentioning elements, I must admit it didn’t reach me as it should have. We’ll come back to that later.
Whisky Galore! takes place on the small isolated island of Todday in Scotland and its intrigue revolves around, well, you’ve guessed it: whisky. Due to rationing caused by the war, the whisky supplies have run out, which leaves the inhabitants in despair as whisky takes a vital place in their life and culture. But, despite being less uplifting than before the disappearance of whisky, life has to continue. The local shopkeeper, Joseph Macroon (Wylie Watson), has two daughters: Peggy (Joan Greenwood) and Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt). They each eventually get engaged to their respective men: Peggy, to Sergent Odd (Bruce Seton), who has just arrived in Todday in the middle of the crisis, and Catriona, to young teacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), despite his mother’s (Jean Cadell) opposition. One night, a severe fog challenges life on the island when the ship SS Cabinet Minister hits some rocks near Todday and sinks. The crew manages to get out with their safety boat and are guided to Todday, where they mention to two locals that their boat contains no less than 50 000 cases of whisky. The word is quickly spread, and obviously, the inhabitants want to find a way to get their hands on these whisky cases that are still in the half-sunken boat. However, Captain Waggett (Basil Radford) is not ready to let the inhabitant have their whisky so easily.
Despite the high ratings this film gets, it disappointed me. Well, you know, like when you’re really excepting something memorable but it just doesn’t get there for you. Objectively, it’s not a bad film and has its qualities, but it didn’t really do it for me. It’s mostly because I had difficulty identifying with any of the characters or their way of life. I have nothing against a glass of whisky (!), but all the craze and their endearing festive spirit were displayed in a manner that makes you say, “Ah, I guess you had to be there”. I don’t know if it makes sense. The community spirit so central to some Ealing comedies is there, and the fact that it takes place on a small island probably enforces that idea. But in other words, I felt very distant from the film and had difficulty feeling like I was part of something. Ok, I know you can not enter your screen, but watching a film should be an experience. Let’s say that the emotions weren’t exactly there. However, there were some complications in the post-production. Producer Michael Balcon wasn’t too happy with what was happening; Charles Crichton eventually got mixed into the whole thing. In the end, Mackendrick wasn’t satisfied with the final result. Let’s remember that this was his first film. And, well, it’s undoubtedly not Sweet Smell of Success.
On the comedy level, aside from a few smiles and laughs at precise moments, it didn’t really do it for me, either. As I said before, Ealing comedies are more thoughtful, subtle, and not necessarily thrown at your face like the Carry Ons. It’s films that remain amusing without necessarily making you burst into waves of laughter. Their comedy resides in the cleverness of their narrative, first and foremost. But in this case, such situations felt very isolated. The character I found the most amusing was Doctor Maclaren, played by James Robertson Justice, who, interestingly, later became a key figure in the Doctor series. He takes no-nonsense from Captain Waggett when this one blocks the road. Then, when he finally gets to his patient, he doesn’t hesitate to encourage him to smoke. This man probably doesn’t have much longer to live, and, at this point, the doctor wants to let him enjoy the pleasures of life. Still, the fact that it’s a doctor makes the situation quite absurd. In my opinion, it wasn’t just because “people didn’t know it was bad to smoke back then.” No, I believe there was some thinking behind it to make the situation amusing. Basil Radford is also funny as this man who has no control and thinks he has authority but does not really. However, I must admit that he is always better in the company of his faithful Naunton Wayne.
Another quite amusing situation is how Mrs Campbell forgets her son is a grown-up man. Waggett wants to see him, but he’s grounded to his bedroom like a child, to the great disbelief of the captain. We literally, a few minutes before, see Mrs Campbell tell him to go to his room, to which he doesn’t protest. In a drama, that could be seen as psychological manipulation. It’s probably what it is a little bit, but, in this case, it’s just ridiculous, and yes, we laugh at it.
So, the film is not a catastrophe in his quest of being a comedy. There’s much more comedy to it than Hue and Cry but it remains limited.
However, one of the true qualities was the casting. Not necessarily because of the actor’s talents (overall, they were fine, but primarily for their background. As a fan of British cinema, this film contains many fascinating figures that have made their mark in the film industry in one way or another but not necessarily with this film. Of course, Joan Greenwood is always an appreciated presence. Born in Chelsea, her impeccable diction has always made her an idealistic figure of high society in films. Here, she doesn’t really lose her London accent despite playing a Scottish. However, she still manages to mould herself to her community. It’s more her fiancee, played by Bruce Seton, who feels like the foreigner of the gang. Of course, there is the always-appreciated Basil Radford. Despite not playing alongside Naunton Wayne, he’s back with another co-actress from The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938): Catherine Lacey (who played the role of the nun). There, she is his devoted wife, the only person who seems to support him. While we’re mentioning Hitchcock films, I hadn’t realised at all while watching the film because he looks so different, but Wylie Watson, who plays Joseph Macroon, was also Mr Memory in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935)! Gordon Jackson, who plays young George Campbell, made more Ealing Comedies, but some films to his name are probably better-remembered today: The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969). As I watched the film, I KNEW I had seen his face somewhere before. Well, there you have it. And I’ve mentioned James Robertson Justice before. So, overall, it’s a cast that regroups actors with an exciting background or a promising career ahead of them.
On a visual level, the film presents beautifully composed images. I can think, for example, of that low-angle shot where the men are discovering the cases of whisky. There’s also beautiful visual poetry to the way the landscape of the island is filmed, especially during that scene at the beach with Joan Greenwood and Bruce Seton. And let’s not forget the remarkable ability to make contrasts, which is so essential in a black and white film, especially in the night scenes. The cinematography was by Gerald Gibbs.
Despite not being too enthusiastic about the film, I will recognize that it was a critical and commercial success on its release. However, the alcohol theme was not well-received in some countries, such as Denmark, which judged it inappropriate for children. Of course, the connection between whisky and Scotland is very cultural, so maybe seen differently from an external point of view.
The legacy of the film is worth mentioning as well. A musical adaptation was produced in 2009, and a remake directed by Gillies MacKinnon was released in 2016. Today, it also figures in the top 100 of the best British films by the British Film Institute, more precisely at the 24th position, which is relatively high.
So, although the film didn’t 100% work for me, it was popular among many. Before concluding your reading, I invite you to check the trailer here.
I won’t be publishing any more reviews for this series before Christmas. We’ll be back in force with nothing else than Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949). Meanwhile, I wish you all very happy holidays!
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