#217. Whisky Galore! (1949)

Pavel went to see a low-budget English period piece at the Coral Gables Art Cinema a couple years ago, i don’t remember the name, but he described going to the early-afternoon screening with his mom, seeing it was a much older crowd, and he said that, once the movie got going, you wouldn’t have guessed it was a comedy if you hadn’t known it going in. The jokes were subtle to the point of almost not being jokes. More pithy than funny. He said there’d be like some faintly mirthy moment, a droll subversive remark from the butler, and a chunk of the audience, in response, would chuckle more than the joke really warranted — and his impression of the forced chuckle, he said, is that it’s less a laugh than a statement; it’s a statement to everyone around them that this person got the joke. Or maybe it’s just a confirmation to themselves that they’re here at some cultural event and they’re picking up the nuances and enjoying themselves.

I was definitely doing this for the first few minutes of Whisky Galore!. Probably cuz, coming offa Kind Hearts and Coronets just a few minutes prior (where I’d missed a lot of the jokes in the first act) I was tryna be savvy to the subtler (and presumably more refined) British humor. Tryna prove to myself that I don’t need a banana peel in order to laugh. That I’m educated or something. Who knows.

Movie’s about an apparently non-existent island in Ireland where, due to wartime rationing, the whisky’s run out.

It was retitled Tight Little Island for the American release.

A pallor falls over the community. People shuffle about, staring off, speechless. Grieving.

When a big ship stalls just off the coast, some locals row out to help the crew ashore.

The big ship stays stuck out there.

The locals ask the rescued crew about their cargo. Grudgingly, the crew answers: 50,000 cases of whisky.

So begins a covert effort by a buncha men of the community to creep out to the ship, under veil of night, to loot that booze. In this respect, there’s a brief (and very lighthearted) heist-y vibe to some of the movie. An early example of genrebending.

Then, unfolding as a good story should, we shift our focus to life on the island in the wake of their heist’s success. Everyone’s shitfaced and jolly, singing songs, frolicking. The sick, the elderly — everyone. It’s a heartwarming celebration of booze as a unifying thing in the world — which, arguable, isn’t needed.

But it does feel refreshing.

We’ve had plenty of movies on the List illustrating the horrors to be wrought by an abuse of the stuff (Phantom CarriageLost WeekendLittle Caesar — plus, if you wanna count the prohibition-era excoriation of bootleggers who thrive on our insatiable thirst, then Scarface: Shame of a Nation and The Public Enemy), and of course there’s plenty of legitimacy, and maybe even a touch of public service, in pointing that out. A person who falls under the spell of booze is likely to die there.

But the portrayal does suddenly seem a little lopsided. It hadn’t occurred to me that a movie showing the other side of booze might be missing. I wouldn’t have bothered to stop and think that there was another side of booze, that it can be relaxing and tasty and bring people together.

Anyway. So these people on the island are all having fun with the booze and so now, suddenly, the story is about a policeman’s effort to catch these locals with the tens of thousands of dollars in stolen cargo. It isn’t a small or victimless crime, and surely if this movie’d been made in the States in 1932 it would have ended with all of our quirky protagonists being rounded up and shot by the mayor on the steps of the church, but we never get the vibe that this movie wants to punish its characters for what they’ve done. There is a feeling of stakes, though, a feeling that they could all get in serious trouble, and lose the whisky that they worked so hard to steal. That life will go back to its wartime gloom and drudgery. There’s also a subplot about troubled romances and family dynamics that might be aggravated if the whisky disappears again. The movie does actually handle that stuff in a pretty earnest way.

But the whole picture feels like a lark. Nobody’s gonna die or spend a decade in prison. We’re here to have a good time.

It’s a hangout movie. Something light you can watch while wrapping presents or preparing dinner.

Sounds weird, but I feel like this is the kinda movie to grow old with. It’s so warm.

Also, we were talking yesterday on the blog about how the British had an upperhand with black humor, as displayed in Kind Hearts and Coronets. We were wondering if maybe black humor was their cinematic response to the War int he way that film noir was the American response. But I’m thinking too now about the fact that, while Whisky Galore! isn’t quite black humor, it is joking about wartime rations. Suggests an ability, already, to hav ea laugh at the wartime situation.

And then, looking back at stuff like Mrs. Miniver and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, we can see that the British had a decidedly lighter hand when it came to wartime propaganda than Americans did. Look toward the States and you’ll see that shit like Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandee and (God help us) The Mortal Storm took itself way more seriously than I think a British film of the time would ever’ve cared to. The attitude in movies from across the pond (such as they’re featured on the List) is kinda like, Quite a mess, this war. Eh? American cinema was much more about a rallying cry of virtue against the spiritual bankruptcy of our enemy. York is decidedly Christian, with the Holy Bible being held in literal comparison to a volume of American history, and, without any outright sermonizing, both Yankee Doodle Dandee and Mortal Storm feel pretty…not-secular. (Wondering now if the beatification of FDR mighta been a factor in all this.)

Anyway. Whisky Galore! is a good time.

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