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Excitement over "Whisky Galore"

Posted at 10:40 AM on October 19, 2005 by Euan Kerr

Another frisson I experienced during the trip to Scotland was the excitement over the release of "Whisky Galore" on DVD in Britain. (Please note the proper Scots spelling of the drink.) This was one of the first of the Ealing Comedies which cornered the market on wry observational humor in Britain after WWII. It was also the first film directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who was later to make "The Man in the White Suit" and the original of "The Ladykillers."

"Whisky Galore" tells the story of a remote Hebridean island suffering horribly under the war-time shortage of whisky. Such is the social importance of the amber dew in the islands that many important events such as weddings (and a couple of funerals) have been postponed until a proper supply can be found. The fun starts when a freighter fully loaded with whisky bound for the US under the lend-lease agreement runs aground on the rocks. The islanders spot their chance and empty the holds, much to the annoyance of the local military. The chase scenes are great.

I didn't get a chance to see the film again this time round, but my brother scooped out his collection of other Ealing Comedies, and we had a mini-film festival in the Kerr front room. We watched "The Titfield Thunderbolt" and "Passport to Pimlico." Like many of the Ealing comedies the plots present a group of people, (in one case a village and the other a London neighborhood,) with a sudden strange problem. In "Thunderbolt" a village suddenly has to run its own railway line. In "Pimlico" a bombed out working class area finds out it's actually part of France under a centuries old royal decree.

The stories tend to pile complication upon complication on a large cast of character actors. Things get worse and worse until there is a sudden dramatically simple resolution to the issue and the credits roll.

I grew up on movies like these, and it's very interesting to return to the delights of sudden tidy endings. It's also fascinating to me how much subtle social satire they slide into the story. "Pimlico" is cast as a memorial to war-time rationing. "Thunderbolt" is a clear dig at the huge cutbacks experienced by the railway system in Britain as it moved to a nationalized system. The movies are also an attempt to look at British people as they really were, which was a radical concept at the time.

I think I'm going to continue the mini-fest now I am back in the States. It may take a while to see "Whiskey Galore" because I haven't found a source yet (except for Netflix and I'm too cheap to join up.) But I'm looking out for Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and "The Ladykillers." If you are seeking something a little different the next time you are at the video store, you might want to check them out.

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