Thursday, April 23, 2009

High and Dry

Of the many Ealing comedies I have been lucky enough to have seen over the years, my favorites have not always been the best. While I could plainly see the merits of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), I preferred the out of the way wonders of films like Another Shore (1948), about the funny but futile efforts of some young Irishmen to get out of Ireland (to Tahiti). Or A Run For Your Money (1949), about two Welsh brothers in London to collect their winnings from a London newspaper contest, with Alec Guinness along for the ride to cover the story for the newspaper. Or The Maggie, aka High and Dry (1954).

The "Maggie" is the name of an old "puffer," a near broken-down cargo ship that sails the seas, the firths and the lochs in and around Scotland, skippered by Mactaggart (Alex Mackenzie), with a crew complement of a mate (James Copeland), an engineer (Abe Barker) and a "wee boy" (Tommy Kearins). When a wealthy American businessman named Calvin Marshall (Paul Douglas) needs some valuable household items transported to a house he has just bought for his wife, his agent hires the Maggie sight unseen to take on the job. The agent and Marshall spend the rest of the film trying to wrest the household goods from Mactaggart as the Maggie staggers its way across Scotland. Along the way, Marshall finds he must also assure his enraged wife that her precious goods will arrive soon.

By the end of the film, Mactaggart and the Maggie have won and Marshall has lost. But when I first saw the film more than thirty years ago, I thought that the American was somehow changed in his acquisitive ways by his contact with the salt of the earth Scots folk. After recently seeing the film again, I found it less moving than I remembered but more subtle and believable. The American is not changed. He is defeated, nearly broken. Faced with the tenacity of the deceptively simple Scotsmen. not to mention a termagant wife threatening divorce, the American simply gives up.

It was probably the director of the film, Alexander Mackendrick, who contributed these subtleties to the script he co-wrote with William Rose.(1) Mackendrick directed some of Ealing's best films, Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). Whereupon he was enticed away to Hollywood and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).(2)

Mackendrick had a populist streak a kilometer wide, and enjoyed depicting how a big cheese is outwitted by his assumed underlings. One of the central scenes of The Maggie has Marshall left speechless by the wisdom of a teen-aged village girl:

Marshall: What I can't understand is why you want to spend the whole evening with me when all those young fellows...
Sheena: Oh, I can always dance with them. It's exciting to meet a stranger. Not many strange men come to Bare Maguinee. Besides, it'll do the two of them good.
Marshall: They've been watching you every minute. Who?
Sheena: The one in the window is Donal MacDougall, he's a fisherman. And the one in the door in Ian McConnaghey, he owns the store by the pier. The question is, which should I marry?
Marshall: Oh?
Sheena: It's very difficult when you're only nineteen to...to make such a decision. It would be easier if I were older. I would know so much more. I mean about men.
Marshall: Well, how're you going to choose?
Sheena: Oh, everyone says that Ian should be the one because he owns the store and already he's planning to buy another on Collinsey. And people say that Ian McConnaghey will be a great man one day.
Marshall: And the other one? Donal MacDougall?
Sheena: He's the...he's just a fisherman who sails with his brothers. When they're not all drinking or fighting or running after girls. He hasn't much money. He's not so handsome as Ian McConnaghey. Everyone agrees to that.
Marshall: Well, I don't want to influence you, Sheena. But it doesn't seem a very difficult choice.
Sheena: You mean I should marry Ian?
Marshall: If he really wants to be somebody. If he really wants to make something of himself. You want a man you know can take care of you ands can give you the things you need.
Sheena: Yes. Yes, it would be exciting to be married to a man who will do big things. A man who is going so far in the world. T'would be exciting to be taken to places, to be given fine clothes and expensive presents. Yes, I would like all those things. But I . . . I think it will be the other one I'll be taking.
Marshall: Why?
Sheena: Oh, it's simply that even although he's away with his brothers so much, he'd have more time for me. He'd not be so interested in what he's trying to do or where he's going to. Because he'll just be fishing. And when he's come home from the fishing there'll just be me. And when we are very old we'll have only what we've been able to make together, for ourselves. And I . . . I think perhaps that that is all we'll need.

When Marshall finally arrives at his destination, his wife's things gone and all his pride with them, the best that Ealing could come up with for a big house in the last shot was a painted backdrop. (You can see the bottom of the tarp clearly.) Marshall turns his back on the Maggie and walks stoically down the pier, ready to face his wife and whatever else fate has in store for him. That, as it turns out, is the best lesson he could have learned.


(1) Rose was later guilty of such horrors as The Flim-Flam Man (1967) and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)
(2) Mackendrick ended his career in Hollywood with Don't Make Waves (1967), a paean to Southern California sensuality that left a lasting impression on me when I first saw it in my early teens.

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