Film Review: Classic Comedy “Whisky Galore!” (1949)

whisky galore! 1949 film movie poster one sheetIf you’re a true connoisseur of British comedy films, you’ll have a soft spot in your heart for the fabled Ealing Studios. At its heydey in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, this production house churned out sly, witty and hilarious films that remain a delight to watch. Their best are The Man in the White Suit (starring a delightful Alec Guinness and which I reviewed here), Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Titfield Thunderbolt and Passport to Pimlico (which I reviewed here). Collectively, they capture the self-effacing, wry and indomitable spirit of the British working class in the post WWII period.

The beautifully restored 1949 comedy Whisky Galore! offers a rare story for Ealing that’s actually based on a true event. It’s 1943 on the tiny Hebridean island of Todday off the Scottish coast and something horrifying and unimaginable has occurred: They’ve run out of whisky! The locals are listless and depressed, but it’s war time and importing the very water of life is proving impossible with rationing and ships assigned to the Royal Navy.

In the midst of this gloom, a cargo ship founders on the rocks just off the Todday coast, abandoned by its captain and crew. A ship with a hold full of 50,000 cases of whisky! It’s manna from heaven, if they can just get it off the ship and hide it from the priggish Captain Waggett (Basil Redford), local Home Guard commander who’s more worried about looking good to his superiors than helping his fellow Toddayans enjoy a dram or two.

It quickly becomes every inhabitant of this rough fishing village versus the nosy and officious Captain Waggett. But where can you hide 50,000 cases of whisky when the customs and excise officials are on their way to search for bottles that haven’t been taxed by His Majesty’s Government? And what of the remarkable restorative power of whisky to a Scotsman who’s been raised on it as a superior alternative to water?

While it takes a little bit to get started, there’s lots to chuckle at with the small-knit group of villagers, notably the gruff shopkeeper Joseph Macroon (Wylie Watson), his lovely daughter Peggy (Joan Greenwood) and her suitor, the earnest Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton), constantly trying to outwit Waggett and his tax collecting minions. Keep an eye on George Campbell (Gordon Jackson) and his domineering mother (Jean Cadell) for a fun subplot too. The sly and ironic ending is laugh out loud funny too and will leave you smiling. It’s definitely an Ealing Studios comedy.

whisky galore 1949 photo publicity still
Acquiring Whisky by the Case, from “Whisky Galore!”

What’s surprising is that Whisky Galore! is also based on a true story. A cargo ship called the S.S. Politician (really!) sunk off the coast of Eriskay on Feb 5,1941, containing 250,000 bottles of whisky. The locals really did collect as much as they could prior to the authorities showing up and confiscating the rest. To this day, stray bottles of whisky are found in the sand or sea every year or two.

Suffice to say, if your taste in comedies includes sly humor and a strong focus on characters and situations rather than injuries, crass jokes and embarrassing situations, you’ll love the Ealing Studio comedies, and Whisky Galore! is an excellent place to start. Digitally restored by Film Movement and available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Dad At The Movies Note: If you can explain to your children the common man’s love of alcohol and how people can rally to fight injustice even when it might not actually be just, they might enjoy this film. It is a slow pace compared to modern shows, however, so it’s just as likely they’ll get bored and walk away. Which is too bad.

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