“I suppose you’re wondering about the money in Mr. Lawson’s cello case.”
“It’s only natural that you should.”
“I don’t think we told you that, uh, Mr. Lawson sold his Butcher shop in Hammersmith…”
“He got the cash for it because there wasn’t time to, um, to write a cheque.”
Ealing Studios had a long and generally distinguished history as one of the British film industry’s most well-known components. The company had its origins in 1902 when the pioneering British filmmaker Will Barker bought two houses in Ealing, a suburb of London. He began filming in the area and then in 1907, built a covered stage. Barker built up an Ealing stock company that would help to make viewers identify with the British character of his product as distinct from American films of the time and their increasing emphasis on a star system. The First World War, however, caused problems for many companies in Britain and Ealing was no exception. The company languished in the 1920s and eventually went into receivership in 1929.
Ealing was resurrected when another company, Associated Talking Pictures, bought the site to be its new base. Under the direction of Basil Dean, the new Ealing company limped through the early years of the 1930s before it started to click with films starring the likes of Gracie Fields and later, George Formby. In 1938, Dean resigned as head of production and was replaced by Michael Balcon who had previously headed up production for Gaumont-British and more recently, for a British component of MGM.
It was under Balcon’s tenure (1938-1959) that Ealing developed its flair for compact comedies that were distinctly British in flavour and that tended to glorify the small, the individual, the unusual, and the down-to-earth at the expense of the large, the establishment, the conventional, and the pretentious. In this regard, the company first hit its stride after World War II with Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949), and Whisky Galore! (1949), but it would be a handful of comedies starring Alec Guinness that would give Ealing the reputation that it retains to this day, despite ending production over 40 years ago.
Anchor Bay has now packaged four of Guinness’s Ealing comedies (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Man in the White Suit) along with a comedy that he did for London Films (The Captain’s Paradise) in a box set of DVDs called The Alec Guinness Collection. The four Ealing films can also be purchased separately, but the London Films title is only available as part of the set.
Kind Hearts and Coronets — Louis Mazzini is ninth in line to inherit the Dukedom of Chalfont, as a result of his mother having married against her family’s (the D’Ascoynes) wishes. Finding the route to financial comfort slow in his chosen occupation, Louis decides to improve his situation by murdering, one by one, all those between him and the Dukedom. As the number of people between him and his goal of becoming the Duke diminishes, Louis must also decide on a suitable woman to be his eventual Duchess — either his childhood sweetheart, Sibella, or Edith D’Ascoyne, the wife of one of his victims.
The Lavender Hill Mob — Henry Holland has looked after the movement of gold bullion for the bank where he works for years. Seemingly a mild-mannered innocent, he secretly plots to steal a valuable shipment, but is unable to figure out how to get the gold out of the country once stolen. He meets up with Mr. Pendlebury, who runs a company that manufactures tourist souvenirs. Once he sees Mr. Pendlebury’s operation, Henry realizes that therein lays the solution to his problem. The stolen gold can be melted down, turned into souvenir statues of the Eiffel Tower, and shipped to Paris. Enlisting Pendlebury’s aid along with two other accomplices, the gang successfully carries out its plan and travels to Paris to take delivery of the statues. Once there, however, they discover that some of their statues have accidentally been sold to a group of English schoolgirls as real souvenirs. Holland and Pendlebury head back to England in a desperate attempt to retrieve the statues before someone realizes they’re made of gold and informs the police.
The Man in the White Suit — Sidney Stratton is a young chemist who manages to invent a cloth that will be indestructible and un-soilable. Textile owner Alan Birnley, who has been financing Stratton’s work, is delighted and plans to manufacture clothing made from Stratton’s product. Before he can begin, however, other textile owners corner Birnley and make him realize that what he plans would be the end of the textile industry — that once everyone has a new indestructible suit, they won’t ever need to buy another. The textile workers also see the invention as meaning the end of their jobs. Together, the two groups hold Stratton prisoner as they try to get him to agree to suppress his invention, but Stratton escapes and the chase is on.
The Captain’s Paradise — Captain Henry St. James runs a passenger ferry between Gibraltar and Morocco. For St. James it is his ideal life, for in Gibraltar he has a wife named Maud, and in Morocco a second wife named Nita. Maud is a stay-at-home wife who caters to Henry’s every whim. While in Gibraltar, Henry maintains a strict schedule of early-to-bed and early-to-rise, which keeps him fresh for his job, but more importantly allows him to spend his time in Morocco with the beautiful and tempestuous Nita eating out, dancing ’til all hours, and making love. Henry’s “paradise” begins to show cracks, however, when Nita starts to exhibit some domestic desires and Maud shows signs of enjoying a more bohemian lifestyle.
The Ladykillers — Professor Marcus rents a room in the house of elderly Mrs. Wilberforce and gets her permission to allow four of his friends to come by occasionally for music practice. The reality, however, is that Marcus is a criminal mastermind and his music-playing friends are his gang. The five carry out a daring robbery and then involve Mrs. Wilberforce in moving the stolen goods into her house, unknown to her. When Marcus and his gang divide the money and try to leave, Mrs. Wilberforce realizes what they have done when one of the gang members accidentally drops his musical instrument case, revealing part of the stolen money. The gang then decides it must kill the old woman if they are all to get away safely, but who’s going to do it and how?
The Alec Guinness that we get in these five films conveys a different image to the one that is associated with the big international films of his later years. Yet in these early films, we see the versatility that would make him such a success and such a pleasure to watch. Never what one would call a physical actor, he was able to convey an incredible range of emotions and embody distinctly different characters through a combination of facial expression, body language, and vocal intonation. Hence his success at playing eight different characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets; the meek but sly bank official of The Lavender Hill Mob; the shy scientist in The Man in the White Suit; the superior ship’s captain of The Captain’s Paradise; and the smug, but quite silly-looking gang leader in The Ladykillers. Of all these roles, it is probably the one in The Captain’s Paradise that is closest in nature to the intelligent, strong-willed characters that he played in later films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Tunes of Glory, H.M.S. Defiant, Lawrence Of Arabia, and so on.
In 1949, Guinness was approached to play four different characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets. (He liked the screenplay so much that he asked and was allowed to play all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family.) The film was his first for Ealing Studios and followed two successful outings in David Lean films based on Charles Dickens novels (Great Expectations  in which he played Herbert Pocket, and Oliver Twist  in which he was almost unrecognizable as Fagin). Kind Hearts and Coronets is essentially a black farce of a kind not previously seen in Britain and it impressed most critics of the time. The lead role of Louis Mazzini is actually played with great flair by Dennis Price, but it is Guinness that people most remember. Guinness himself liked the part of the Vicar D’Ascoyne the best, but most of his eight impersonations are memorable, especially Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, who dies when a hot air balloon is downed by an arrow shot by Mazzini. The film also is a good introduction to Ealing’s stock company of British actors, notably the likes of Joan Greenwood (she of the sultry, spooky voice who plays Sibella) and Miles Malleson (a fussy hangman who allows his poetry to delay Mazzini’s hanging). Valerie Hobson adds a touch of class in her portrayal of Edith D’Ascoyne. Recently, Kind Hearts and Coronets was voted #6 on the British Film Institute’s list of the favourite British films of all time.
Guinness followed up this film with another Ealing comedy entitled A Run for Your Money that was less successful. Thereafter he fell into the pattern he would tend to follow for most of his career — alternating film roles with work on the stage in London’s West End. He did not return to Ealing until two years later when he then appeared in two films for the company. The first of these was The Lavender Hill Mob, which opened in June 1951. Guinness had the lead role of the timid bank employee who turns out to be a criminal mastermind. He was equally convincing suggesting either side of the character. The film is a droll caper tale (written by T.E.B. Clarke, who won an Oscar for his efforts) that is quintessentially British in its characterizations of the gang members in the persons of Stanley Holloway, Sidney James (of “Carry On” fame), and Alfie Bass. The story has a nicely built set-up followed by a whirlwind finale, all framed by a neat Rio de Janeiro sequence that provides a satisfying ending. Look for a brief appearance by a young Audrey Hepburn during the film’s opening sequence. The film was named the British Film Academy’s best film of 1951.
Guinness’s second Ealing film in 1951 was The Man in the White Suit. It offered a fine combination of satire and social comment in connection with the textile industry. Guinness is a pleasure to behold as the innocent, blank-faced inventor who blithely blows up a laboratory several times in his patient approach to developing the perfect fibre. Like his previous film, it starts with a gradual build-up and leads to a comparatively frantic conclusion, except that this time, there is a little coda at the end which suggests that the story is not yet over. With this film, Guinness had achieved a reputation for versatility that made it possible to accept him in virtually any role. Once again, he was ably backed up by the Ealing stock company, which was well represented with Joan Greenwood again, the redoubtable Cecil Parker, Miles Malleson, and Patric Doonan. The veteran Ernest Thesiger appears to advantage as the grand old man of the British textile industry.
During the next three years, Guinness would make a variety of both serious and comedic films elsewhere than at Ealing Studios. Probably the best comedy of this period is 1953’s The Captain’s Paradise. The level of amusement seemed a little more forced than in the Ealing comedies, but the results were still above average. Once again, Guinness had the opportunity to play two characters (actually one character with two distinct sides to him) and succeeded admirably. He even attempts a little physical humour when he does the tango with Nita. The film lacks the comfortable Ealing supporting character actors, but does offer us the chance to see the always-reliable Celia Johnson (of Brief Encounter fame) as Maud and Yvonne De Carlo as Nita. On-location shooting in Gibraltar and Morocco is a plus.
In 1955, Guinness returned to Ealing for what would be his second-last appearance there. (His last one was 1957’s Barnacle Bill.) The Ladykillers was another dark comedic effort and a return to the Ealing glory days with a film that was the company’s last really fine comedy. Here, Guinness plays a criminal gang leader who sports some fake teeth and stringy hair that make him seem somewhat ridiculous, but he manages to pull off the part quite successfully. Although he is first billed, the film is an ensemble effort from Guinness and the other gang members (played by Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers in an early role), and especially Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce. Johnson actually has the largest part and she steals the film handily, later winning the 1955 British Film Academy Best Actress award for her efforts. Take note of the railway tracks that appear prominently in the film’s opening shot. They play a rather important role in the last half of the film.
Guinness’s work on all five films is aided immeasurably by the fine British crews of the time. Directors included Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers), Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob), and Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets) — all of whom seemed to have a deft touch with comedy, keeping the tone light, while moving the films along briskly. The writing too was first rate, with one of the scripts winning an Oscar (as noted above) and most of the others receiving nominations for both Oscars and British Film Academy awards.
If you are a fan of comedy films in general and British comedy in particular, you’ll want to have all five of these titles. If you’re an Alec Guinness appreciator, you’ll also want all five of these titles. Is one better than another? That’s strictly a personal judgment. If you look at the literature, the consensus would seem to suggest that Kind Hearts and Coronets is the best while The Captain’s Paradise is the least of the group. Personally, I’m very partial to The Lavender Hill Mob with The Ladykillers not far behind.
Anchor Bay has come up with a set of five discs that is quite pleasing. The source material is very good in each instance, with all discs looking clean and free of significant debris. The Ladykillers is the only title in both colour and widescreen, presented here in a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer. The colour is very fine indeed, not quite as dynamic as the best Technicolor efforts, but bright and fairly vibrant. There is a tendency towards being a little dark at times and flesh tones are overly red on occasion, but the overall effect is very pleasing. The other four titles are black and white and presented full frame as originally made. All four transfers are very crisp with deep blacks and good shadow detail. The intense whites of The Man in the White Suit are well handled. Edge enhancement is not an issue on any of these transfers and all five exhibit a nice film-like appearance.
All five titles are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono that generally provides a good, clear soundtrack in each case. Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob are perhaps slightly below the others in level of clarity. Hiss is noticeable only very briefly. A French mono track is also available on all titles with the exception of The Captain’s Paradise. There are no subtitles on any disc, although each is closed-captioned.
Supplements are the same on each disc. There is a very complete biography of Alec Guinness and the theatrical trailer for the film. The disc insert pamphlet contains a good two-page set of production notes and a lobby-card reproduction.
Anchor Bay comes through again with a marvelous collection of five of Alec Guinness’s early British comedies — most of them made at Ealing Studios. The films are great. The DVD transfers are quite fine. There are hours of repeatable enjoyment to be had. What’s to decide? Go out and buy them. Unreservedly recommended.