The Magic of Ealing and Guinness

How I envy those who get to attend what sounds like a treat for British film buffs, or for that matter anyone who enjoys a good laugh.

British film was at its zenith of quality and influence in the 1940s and 1950s, and the Ealing Studio comedies were a big part of that. The writing was pure comic joy. The murderer of balloon-riding suffragette Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne’s voices my favorite Ealing line: “I shot an arrow into the air, she fell to earth in Berkeley Square”.

But even those scripts have to take a back seat to the perfect star for the Ealing style, who hilariously played Lady Agatha and 7 other members of the D’Ascoyne family in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and reduced proper British audiences to fits of delightfully undignified laughter in films such as The Lavender Hill Mob, the Man in the White Suit, and the Ladykillers: Sir Alec Guinness. There seemed to be no one of any social class, sex, or background that Guinness didn’t know how to play for laughs.

He was a master of self-deprecating wit in life as well as in film, and this is my favorite of his stories (apologies, I can’t remember the source). After finishing a meal at a restaurant, he went to the cloakroom and began to describe the outer garments he had checked there, but was waved off with a knowing smile by the staff member manning the room. The staff member went into the back and retrieved the correct clothes. Feeling delighted that he was now so famous that even his clothes were instantly burned into human memory, he left the restaurant and started to walk home. He reached into his coat pocket and felt a piece of crumpled paper, which surprised him so he pulled it out and read it: “Bald. Glasses. Middle-aged. Hat is black too”.

A little of Sir Alec and Ealing Studios to brighten your Saturday:

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “The Magic of Ealing and Guinness”

  1. My favorite scene is in the Lavender Hill Mob when the cop hitches a ride on the getaway car’s running board and Old MacDonald is on the radio, prompting the cop to start singing along.

  2. Don’t know if it was an Ealing film, but don’t miss “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958). My favorite Guinness film by far, and on my all-time Top 10 list of movies.

  3. Swift Loris: Strictly speaking no, not Ealing, but there was a lot of overlap in style and people involved, not least that Guinness wrote the brilliant script himself. You have taste in your top 10 choices (tell us the rest!), it’s really a wonderful movie.

  4. You may change your mind about my taste after seeing this; Horse’s Mouth is probably the highest-brow among them. These are my 10 favorites–not necessarily the films I’d nominate as the 10 greatest–in date order: Gone With the Wind, Christmas Carol, African Queen, Horse’s Mouth, Some Like It Hot, The Godfather, Dances with Wolves, Thelma and Louise, Unforgiven, and Groundhog Day.

    On any given day, I might want to switch out one of these for another from the list of my 11th to 25th top favorite films. Also, I’ve seen very few films from the 2000s; there may be some I’d put on one or the other list if I ever get around to seeing them.

  5. Swift Loris: I enjoyed watching most of the films on your list, so if you have bad taste I suffer from it as well.

  6. My own ten in no particular order:

    1.) Man of Marble 2.) The Human Condition 3.) The Saragossa Manuscript 4.) Hara Kiri 5.) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning 6.) The Miracle of Morgans Creek 7.) Sunset Boulevard 8.) Christ Stopped at Eboli 9.) The Best of Youth 10.) Confidence (Istvan Szabo)

  7. Sadly enough, the film appears to be only shown in London; here in Scotland, I haven’t been able to find any showings.

    Incidentally, my favorite Ealing movie has always been “The Ladykillers” (don’t judge it by the horrible 2004 remake). I’m not even sure why I like the movie so much. Maybe it’s the wonderfully black humor, maybe the superb cast and acting, maybe the script; probably a combination of all these.

  8. I love Alec Guiness’ Ealing movies. The Lavender Hill Mob with had Audrey Hepburn in a brief appearance When I fist saw the Man in the White Suit,I was inspired by its amazing ending where Sidney Stratton looks in his notebook and says “I see.” Captain’s Paradise where he dances with Yvonne DeCarlo and later says “In the words of a famous English statesman, “We cultivate the faculty of patient expectancy.” We wait and see.” Kind Hearts and Coronets is a movie I never tire of seeing, even though Dennis Price and Joan Greenwood steal major portions of the films. I hope you forgive my long post. Thank you for the delightful post and for making my Monday morning brighter.


  9. “The Man in the White Suit” is a fun movie. There is a scene in a car where it is quite obvious where The Simpson’s Mr Burns comes from.

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