Titfield Thunderbolt [1953]

Ealing Studios was the birthplace of the most delectable crop of movies to decorate postwar cinemas, a group of veddy British comedies that nevertheless spoke the international language. By necessity, the Ealing Studios Comedy Collection takes second place to the Alec Guinness Collection, the latter being the crème de la crème of Ealing's signature actor. But the Comedy Collection is nevertheless a stem-to-stern delight. Three films from Ealing's zenith year, 1949, anchor the collection. Passport to Pimlico captures the mood of postwar London via an absurdist plot: the detonation of an unexploded bomb in Pimlico reveals a 400-year-old decree proclaiming the neighborhood an independent royal territory of Burgundy. Their independence thus established, the locals (led by Stanley Holloway) celebrate their freedom from rationing and taxation. A Run for Your Money follows two Welsh coalmining brothers after they win a newspaper contest for tickets to a London rugby match; in this modest comedy, Alec Guinness sketches one of his eccentric little supporting gems. Whisky Galore! is one of the best Ealing films--funny but also rather lovely. During the war, the remote Scottish island of Todday is starved for scarce whisky, until a shipwreck strands thousands of cases of "the water of life" tantalizingly within reach. Basil Radford is hilariously misguided as the island's chief of Defense, and Joan Greenwood lends her fetching presence--but every member of the large ensemble is terrific. The gifted Alexander Mackendrick debuted as director, and his sense of timing and tone is impeccable. (It was retitled Tight Little Island in the U.S., where it scored a big hit.) Mackendrick also directed the marvelous 1954 comedy The Maggie, with Paul Douglas as a go-go American businessman whose cargo (and life) is slowed by a broken-down scow chugging from Glasgow to the islands. Traces of melancholy underlie the humor, and one wonders if this film might have been a model for the thematically similar Local Hero. Finally, The Titfield Thunderbolt, from 1953, is a Charles Crichton-directed farce about a small town going into the railroad business (and the first Ealing comedy in color). Its anarchy borders on the abrasive at times, although Stanley Holloway is in fine form as a benefactor who demands his own drinking car on the train. --Robert Horton

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