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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Ealing Comedies (originally published 3/04)

The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, are clearly fans of classic movies in addition to being exceptionally talented filmmakers. They have drawn inspiration for many of their films from popular genres of the past, and even borrowed the title of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) from the script of a Preston Sturges comedy called “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). Their next release, however, a comedy called “The Ladykillers,” is their first out and out remake.

The film they have chosen to remake is one of a series of beloved British comedies from the Ealing studio, each of which starred Alec Guinness. If you only know Guinness from “Star Wars,” you really owe it to yourself to see these remarkable showcases of his talents. For a sampling of the work that inspired the Coens, look for these classic Ealing comedies on home video.

“The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951). Guinness plays a bank employee, a mousey little clerk who rides along with the armored cars that carry the shipments of gold bullion. He is fussy and persnickety, insisting that security procedures be followed to the letter each and every time. In reality, he has been quietly plotting for years to steal the gold. The film is full of wonderful British character actors, including Stanley Holloway, whom you may remember as Alfred Doolittle from the film adaptation of “My Fair Lady” (1964). The film’s final chase scene is especially hysterical.

“Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949). This is the story of a family black sheep who calculates that in the improbable event that eight of his snobby relatives should pass away in rapid succession, he would inherit a dukedom. Seeing that it would be risky to leave such a sequence of events to chance, he resolves to murder all eight of them. He is motivated partly by personal gain, but also by the fact that the family treated his mother shabbily. I know, it doesn’t sound much like a comedy, but it is. Guinness, you see, doesn’t play the young murderer. Instead, he is cast in the roles of all eight of the victims, one of whom is a woman.

“The Man in the White Suit” (1951). Guinness plays a chemist working for a British textile plant. Working on his own time and without company authorization, he develops a formula for a fabric that cannot be soiled or stained, and which will never wear out. He is elated about his discovery, but, to his surprise, his employers receive the news with dismay rather than appreciation. They realize what he hadn’t – that this formula would in short order make their entire industry obsolete. Suddenly this inoffensive little chemist who only wanted to contribute to humanity finds himself at the center of a political firestorm. The satire is biting and very funny. Even the noises made by Guinness’s infernal machine are funny.

“The Ladykillers” (1955). In the film that provides direct inspiration to the Coens, Guinness is again on the wrong side of the law. He and his gang rent rooms from a dotty little old lady, where they plan their robberies. When she accidentally sees a cello case full of money, the gangsters decide that she knows too much and must be killed. But God, apparently, is on her side. As each one in turn tries to do her in, something goes wrong and it is the would-be killer who meets an untimely end. The outstanding cast includes Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, who would later play off each other so hilariously in the “Pink Panther” series with Sellers as Clouseau and Lom as Chief Inspector Dreyfuss.

I should probably pause here to point out the obvious. Ealing Studios in England made pictures for the home market. If the Yanks overseas liked them too, well and good, but if not, that was okay too. To really thoroughly enjoy these films, then, you need to have an appreciation for the eccentricities of British humor. Most especially, an appreciation for black humor is required.

Still, if the success of “Raising Arizona” (1987) and “Fargo” (1996) are any indication, the Coens have very effectively zeroed in on a segment of the American audience that does appreciate eccentric filmmaking. If you like their work, trust me, you’ll love the Ealing comedies.

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