Here's a lightweight comedy from the Ealing Studios collection. It's oh so Gaelic and good for a barrel of laughs, without so much as a single serious intent anywhere in sight. Contrary to the entry in the Epinions database, the film's British title is spelled Whisky Galore!, according to IMDB and several other sources.
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Historical Background: As the forties were drawing to a close, Ealing Studios, under the leadership of Michael Balcon, had drawn together a talented mix of artists and began inventing the new form of comedy from which emerged what we now call the "British sense of humor." The series of gems, from writers such as William Rose, Compton MacKEnzie, and T.E.B. Clarke, and from directors such as Henry Cornelius, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, and Alexander Mackendrick, included Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in a White Suit (1951), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), and The Ladykillers (1955).
Whisky Galore! (1949) was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who was born in Boston in 1912 to Scottish parents. After graduating from the School of Art in Glasgow, Mackendrick began working as a commercial artist. After doing some work as an animator for an advertising film, Mackendrick transferred to the film industry in 1937. He directed a few shorts before the war and documentaries during the war, before getting his first shot at a fictional feature film, Whisky Galore (1949). The film was later released in America under the title Tight Little Island. The success of this debut effort soon led to additional opportunities for Mackendrick, which he parlayed into such stellar enterprises as The Man in a White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers (1955), and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The last was made in Hollywood.
The Story: On the fictional island of Todday in the Outer Hebrides, the folks lead a simple life, without cinema or dancehalls. There's just one tavern, where whisky counts as the "water of life." It's 1943, however, and whisky is being rationed. When the week's ration fails to arrive on the ferryboat, the town folk sink into a sullen state of miserable sobriety. Their anxious prayers are answered with a miracle, however, when the S.S. Cabinet Minister, loaded with 50,000 cases of the golden liquor, runs aground on the rocks off Todday. The townspeople immediately lay plans for looting the ship before it sinks, but two obstacles stand in the way. First, the clock strikes midnight, marking the dawn of the Sabbath and even whisky can't entice the stalwarts of Todday to dishonor the Sabbath with work. Second, the community's only Brit, the priggish Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), commander of the local homeguard, is determined to secure the cargo from looters, even thwarting the sensible objections of his own wife (Catherine Lacey). She asks, "Would it be so terrible if the people here did get a few bottles? I mean, if it's all going down to the bottom of the sea?" Waggett, however, can't see past his bureaucratic obsessions, replying, "That's a very dangerous argument darling. Once people take the law into their own hands, it's anarchy!"
A potential windfall of free whisky has a way of bringing out the ingenuity of these islanders, however, and they've soon won the cooperation of Captain Waggett's two closest allies, Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton) and George Campbell (Gordon Jackson). Campbell wants to marry Catriona Macroon (Gabrielle Blunt) and Sergeant Old has his heart set on Catriona's sister, Peggy (Joan Greenwood). The father of the two sisters, Joseph Macroon (Wylie Watson), the postmaster, points out that there can't be weddings without a ceilidh (Scottish dance) and there can't be a ceilidh without whisky. In the wee hours of Monday morning, the townspeople manage to transfer a hundred or so cases from the sinking ship into a remote seaside cave. They've still got Waggett to deal with, along with the Customs and Excise men, including the Gestapo-like Farquharson (Henry Mollison), who Waggett invites into town to conduct a search for the fluid contraband. Luckily, the old crofter Hector (James Anderson) spots the arrival of the excise launch and dials up the island's central exchange from his seaside kiosk: "Look out," he yells over the phone line, "the whisky's in danger. The excise launch is coming into the bay." Soon the creative minds of the townspeople are inventing remarkable hiding places for their liquid gold.
Themes: The theme, I suppose, is the absurdly excessive insistence of upper class Brits on respect for bureaucratic authority. Captain Waggett would rather see the whisky sink to the ocean floor than have a single bottle of the liquor ingested without the excise tax having been duly levied and paid. By contrast, the levelheaded locals, representing the Scottish working class and peasants, take a much more practical view of things. Better to be a sot than a pompous fool!
Production Values: The screenplay was co-written by Compton MacKenzie and Angus MacPhail, based on MacKenzie's novel Whisky Galore!. The novel was in turn based on a real life incident in which the S.S. Politician, enroute to Jamaica, sank during bad weather off the coast of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides, on February 5th, 1941. The locals gleefully raided most of the 250,000 bottles of whisky that the ship was carrying in its hull. Bottles of whisky still occasionally surface from the sunken ship to this day, making the beauty of the lovely beaches of Eriskay intoxicating indeed. The scriptwriters could be fairly accused of partaking of some patronizing Celtic stereotyping, but the droll humor of the story is nevertheless hilarious and even downright subversive. There's a rich assortment of local characters, from George Campbell's domineering Calvinist mother to the silk-throated, gossipy telephone operator, played by Greenwood.
The film was shot entirely on location in the Hebrides, in the village of Castlebay on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. Ealing Studios was full with other productions, at the time, so the decision to shoot on location was made by necessity. The glorious black-and-white photography features gorgeous, remote locations, including some atmospheric fog-laden beaches. Cinematographer Gerald Gibbs makes bold use of the rough, rocky shoreline. The mise-en-scene for the interior scenes is outstanding. One standout segment is when the whisky first returns to Todday and the townspeople merrily gather together at the Macroon residence. Another is the montage composed from the efforts of the locals to hide the contraband whisky before the excise inspector arrives. Also delightful are two scenes featuring traditional Scottish ceilidh dancing.
The film's two most recognizable performers are Basil Radford, as Captain Paul Waggett, and Joan Greenwood, as Peggy Macroon. Radford was best known for his work in Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), The Winslow Boy (1948), and Passport to Pimlico (1949), and Quartet (1949). Joan Greenwood has an almost ridiculously sexy, throaty voice, which works well in this part as a telephone operator. She had later appearances in The Man in a White Suit (1951), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Detective (1954), Tom Jones (1963), and Little Dorrit (1988). The shoot was no picnic for Greenwood because the little village of Castlebay had no accommodations suitable for a glamorous movie star. Instead of getting her hair done each day at a salon, Greenwood had to get down on her hands and knees on a hard wooden floor and shampoo her hair in a basin.
MacKendrick filled some of the supporting roles with natives of Barra. A local man named James Anderson played the old geezer who placed the critical warning call over the phone. The crew forgot to warn the local operator about the phone call required by the script and the poor lass dropped her headphones in shock when she heard a man shout, "Look out, the whisky's in danger." Then there was Mary Macneil, a quaint Gaelic-speaking local woman who couldn't speak a word of English. At the end of a long take, the old woman collapsed into the director's chair to rest. When one of the assistant directors asked if she was exhausted, the interpreter translated her response: "She said it's the best week she's had since her honeymoon!" Even the writer who wrote the source novel got a bit part in the film.
Bottom-Line: The Anchor Bay DVD offers no extras, but the transfer quality is very good. The film is in black and white and has a running time of 84 minutes. It's not a great film, but it's certainly good for some chuckles as well as charming atmosphere in the remote Scottish Hebrides. I give it four stars.
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