Named after the West London studio where they were produced, Britain’s post-WWII Ealing comedies have been traditionally regarded as classics: witty laffers with wry social commentary. The march of time, however, has not been kind, eroding the charm of the once beloved genre leaving little more than quaint, sentimental and only vaguely amusing pictures.
Anchor Bay is to be commended for bringing some of these films to DVD for the first time anywhere. But as a showcase of the genre, the box set lacks the Ealing pics that have weathered best (“Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Ladykillers,” “The Lavender Hill Mob”) leaving the contemporary viewer a rather mixed bag. It doesn’t help that these discs feature absolutely no extras.
It does showcase two of the genre’s most significant creative talents, writer T.E.B. “Tibby” Clarke (“Passport to Pimlico,” 1949, “The Titfield Thunderbolt,” 1953) and helmer Alexander Mackendrick (“The Maggie,” “Whisky Galore!”). Clarke was a prolific scribe who penned light-hearted comedies centering on a good-natured fantasy of rebellion. Mackendrick’s pics rep a darker, more subversive social commentary highlighted by a more fatalistic humor. Both infuse their pics with a definite streak of nostalgia, looking back on a more idyllic and innocent (i.e., pre-war) Britain.
“Pimlico” most obviously represents the Ealing spirit: a shedding of wartime restrictions and social oppression in favor of a celebratory freedom. The local and provincial is always valued above the national and government; modernity and especially technological progress is presented as something to triumph against.
Thus, “Titfield” villagers rally around their steam railway, threatened with closure by the government in favor of a bus company, while the salty sea dogs of “The Maggie” try to pull the wool over the eyes of their American employer and the shipping authority.
Of the box’s five films, “Pimlico” has the strongest rep, but it’s “Titfield” that stands up best today. Ealing’s first foray into Technicolor has the strongest narrative, which provides a well-developed if simplistic plot and a satisfying conclusion.
The box is accompanied only by a thin booklet that provides some nice tidbits of information. The fact that “Titfield’s” production crew didn’t feature a single railway enthusiast is ironic, given the film’s enduring cult following among Britain’s steam train aficionados.