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To love and to laugh at Britain

Ealing Studios created postwar movies that elevated the eccentric while venerating all things English.

April 05, 2004|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

There's a throwaway gag early on in the 1955 Ealing Studios classic "The Ladykillers" -- about a gang of thieves thwarted by a little old lady's little-old-lady-ness -- that nicely sums up the humor for which the venerated British film house was known.

A clammily obsequious, evil-toothed Alec Guinness, hoping to rent a room, notices in the foyer of Katie Johnson's tumbledown Victorian a framed portrait that's a tad lopsided. He attempts to right it, but it reverts to its original unevenness. The hospitable landlady then sweetly informs her confused boarder-to-be that, as a result of structure-rattling bombing during the war, no picture will ever hang properly.

So it's the house that is skewed -- still standing, just a bit off -- and later when Guinness' unflappable criminal mastermind tries yet again to straighten the picture to no avail, he forces a smile and deems the house "charming." In a moment of delicious portent, the crook has found something even more crooked.

In an Ealing comedy, eccentricity is triumphant. The comedies of that fertile time are buoyed by a vision of Britain that was self-deprecating about its follies but steadfast in its love of all things English, in much the way America's Depression-fueled screwball era let us laugh at the wacky rich while secretly aspiring to their moneyed status.

But Ealing films could be political and lighthearted, outlandish yet rooted in truth. "Passport to Pimlico" (1949), directed by Henry Cornelius, has as far-out a plot as a high-concept Hollywood movie: When a distressed London district discovers from an ancient document that it's actually a territory of Burgundy, France, its inhabitants gleefully declare themselves free of Britain's then-severe rationing laws.

Yet famed Ealing screenwriter T.E.B. "Tibby" Clarke was merely riffing off a real wartime news item: Canada had declared one of its hospital rooms Netherlands soil so an exiled Dutch royal could legally give birth to a national successor.

Mostly, an Ealing comedy hoists a pint for the little guy, for the cheeky and forgotten over the pompous and ruthless, and especially for community teamwork over a strong-arming institution. From the early '30s and through World War II, the studio was a bastion of creative if modestly budgeted means, per the wishes of its beloved production head, Sir Michael Balcon. Bigger, flashier pictures were left to behemoths such as Britain's J. Arthur Rank Organisation, but Balcon wanted Ealing -- named for the leafy middle-class suburb where it was located -- to extol the virtues of finely wrought, character-rich filmmaking.

Personal style was everything, as the quirkily heroic qualities of its best films attest, and in Ealing's heyday some extraordinary talent blossomed: writers Clarke and William Rose; Guinness and fellow actors Stanley Holloway, Jack Warner and Joan Greenwood; cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; and directors Alexander Mackendrick, Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer.

For years, a variety of genres held Ealing in good stead, but events in Britain after 1945 -- a slow-to-recover economy, the malaise of a stooping empire -- helped foster the moviegoing mood that gave rise to the comedies. A restless British youth, for instance, inevitably saw a film like 1947's "Hue and Cry" -- considered the first Ealing comedy, written by kid-at-heart Clarke and energetically directed by Crichton -- as a schoolyard fantasy made thrillingly palpable.

That's because the boisterous implausibility of the story, which pits a group of kids against a criminal gang, unfolds against the startling backdrop of real bombed-out London buildings: the adventurous lad's only true playground.

The year Ealing comedy really exploded was 1949, when a trio of gems chronicled spirited revenge against coldhearted oppressors. There's the aforementioned civil disobedience romp, "Passport to Pimlico," featuring this great logic-twister of a line, spoken by a grocer's wife when somebody besmirches her neighborhood's "foreign" intentions: "It's just because we're English we're sticking out for our right to be Burgundians!"

In the giddily enjoyable "Whisky Galore!," a remote Scottish island's soul-killing alcohol drought seems mercifully ended when a cargo ship wrecks offshore with hundreds of cases of scotch. This sets up a battle between the islanders who stand on rocky crags eyeing the sinking treasure like larcenous shepherds, and a rules-obsessed Home Guard captain (Basil Radford) determined to prevent a major theft at all costs.

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