Alec Guinness On (And Off) The High Seas



Kino Lorber releases two 1950’s British comedies as a double feature Blu-ray, both starring Alec Guinness as a ship’s captain pursuing nautical glory on (and off) the high seas. Captain’s Paradise, produced by London Films in 1953, explores the comic potential of the age-old girl in every port scenario, with Guinness’s steamer captain ferrying between wife and mistress in the North African ports of Kalik and Gibraltar. Barnacle Bill, produced by Ealing Studios in 1957, dry-docks on an English seaside amusement pier, Guinness’s naval captain attempting to honor his family’s lengthy history “at sea” despite the notable handicap of seasickness.

Seemingly inspired by an unforgettable sequence from Guinness’s classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which the protean actor, in one of a total nine roles, plays a Royal Navy admiral who accidentally sinks his own ship, and then pointlessly salutes his own watery grave, the last saltwater gurgle of Britain’s dominance of the sea and ocean routes of the world thematically coincides with star Alec Guinness’s subsequently frequent aquatic screen journeys. The sun may have finally set on the Atlantic and Pacific of Britannia’s once mighty oceanic empire, but the always versatile Guinness extended that drowning sea-hail across two later, nautically themed features.

Captain’s Paradise locates its title per Guinness’s Captain Henry St. James in the carefree Mediterranean between a dutiful, sedate Gibraltar housewife, played by the reserved Celia Johnson, and a fiery, sensual Kalik mistress, played by the passionate Yvonne De Carlo. The womanly best of each world, or ports, rather, ultimately reject Captain St. James’s misogynistic ingenuity when both of his deceived lovers individually discover their attraction to their initially opposing natures — the Gibraltar housewife becoming an unlikely sexpot and the Kalik mistress finding unexpected joy in domesticity — which leaves the Captain’s romantic “paradise” a sudden wasteland.

Amusing as co-writer Alec Coppel’s premise develops, and as involving as director Anthony Kimmins portrays St. James’s floundering sexual wiles, Captain’s Paradise might offer little beyond its vaguely distasteful premise were it not for the enthusiasm and commitment of its three leads. Playing off a restrained image developed in such notable British wartime features as In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944), Brief Encounter (1945) co-star Celia Johnson rather hilariously embraces comparative hedonism past her domestic and motherly chores mercilessly depicted in the film’s first half. Similarly, De Carlo’s femme fatale persona showcased in film noir fare like 1949’s Criss Cross receives a playful tweak when her at first merely decorative exotic suddenly demonstrates a hitherto unacknowledged enthusiasm for sewing and cooking.

But even if an entirely humorless latterday viewer proves sternly resistant to any such innocently intended sex role play, the Madonna becoming the Whore, and vice versa, the perpetually wry expression of Guinness’s wily St. James nevertheless registers the simultaneously hilarious and awful reality behind any such inherently limiting roles. As the comedy’s execution framing device may or may not make clear, sometimes the truest expression of our best natures is when all are loosely at sea.

Barnacle Bill actually premiered in the United States as All At Sea, the alternative title of 1957’s almost-nautical comedy better expressing the irony of its title character failing to live up to a formidable multiple millennia of family marine legacy. From Britain’s primordial swamps to its Spanish Armadan defenses, through its ages of colonial exploration, Napoleonic sea battles, and world war submarine chases, a sea-heroic Ambrose has generationally arisen at each moment of maritime need to uphold the national tradition of “Britannia Rules The Waves”.

With the exception, possibly, of the postwar decade’s Captain William Horatio Ambrose, for whom any suggestion of watery travel inspires keeling waves of incapacitating nausea. Settling for and on the “captaincy” of a dilapidated seaside pier, Ambrose’s vaguely nautical mission instead inspires an entirely novel naval craze in a sleepy resort town inherently resistant to anything remotely adventurous.

Barnacle Bill was in many respects a belated production for both the studio that made it and the British film industry as it then existed; an understated tradition of ingenious eccentricity that began with 1947’s Hue and Cry, continued with 1949’s Whiskey Galore and Passport to Pimlico, and further inspired some of the finest film comedies ever produced — including The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and the incomparable The Ladykillers (1955). A final film production at Ealing Studios for producer Michael Balcon, writer T.E.B. Clarke, and star Alec Guiness, Barnacle Bill on an initial viewing may appear, like its title character, to fall similarly short of its illustrious predecessors, but may gain in appreciation due to its own considerable charms.

Alighting on a rundown pier in a sleepy village in the midst of postwar British austerity — an atmosphere ripe for recalcitrant reactionaries of all dully unimaginative and resistant stripes — star Guinness’s uncanny enthusiasm for everything classically and adventurously romantic, despite his character’s insuperable handicap, succeeds in transforming the potentially stultifying into the near-sublime. Further overcoming possible viewer resistance to a somewhat choppy framing device, a sometimes soggy midsection, and a needlessly wavy story-climax, the quietly effortless characterizations throughout nevertheless carry viewers keenly afloat a non-vessel un-sailing on a boundless sea of gently humorous tranquility.

This Kino Lorber Blu-ray double feature arrives to port with no more special cargo than the features themselves, but if simple availability in the highest visual quality attainable for home viewing is desirable enough, their release of Captain’s Paradise and Barnacle Bill in attractively symmetrical sailing design-packaging is undoubtedly special enough. Recommended for fans of British comedy in general and Alec Guinness in particular — both films oddly and perhaps only coincidentally featuring Guinness’s previously unsuspected dancing prowess — England’s historically lauded High Waves may have long since crested, but their Great Comedies still inspire mirth and enjoyment in their rolling wake.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy.