Barnacle Bill (aka All at Sea in the U.S.) has an undeserved critical reputation as a late failure that is more concerned with the studios' past comedy glories than it is in creating something new and innovative. Two famous accounts of the studio are scathing in their assessments: Charles Barr felt the film didn't "merit a long account", dismissing it as a recreation "of past Ealing successes... the last twitching of the nervous system before death." (Barr 1980, 164) George Perry, meanwhile, saw Barnacle Bill as "Ealing comedy in decline" (Perry 1981, 125), with "eccentricity replaced by silliness" compared to the "sharp, accurate, well-aimed satire" of Passport to Pimlico (1949). (142)
But, based on viewing it for this blog, I can't really agree with them.
Perhaps it is the presence of Alec Guinness, setting the bar so high (based on previous Ealing appearances) that it becomes difficult to judge the film on its own merits; or maybe it is those brief echoes of Pimlico or Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) (a tiny piece of Britain choosing to separate itself from the rest; a small group standing in opposition to a bureaucratic system; Guinness appearing in multiple roles). Yet all those points are small elements in what is actually a solid and enjoyable comic production with a sly sense of humour (often self-deprecatory), confident visual gags, and a strong central character performance from Guinness as Captain William Horatio Ambrose.
Ambrose, despite coming from a long line of sea-faring ancestors (short comic skits introduce us to Ambrose family history from cavemen to the First World War, with Guinness in each role), has always suffered from seasickness and spent the war working in training schools and on sickness remedies. Post-war, and wanting a command of his own, he buys the dilapidated Sandcastle pier and, fighting the (crooked) local council every step of the way, makes a success of it by registering it as a ship (the 'RMS - Really Motionless Ship - Arabella') and taking visitors on fake cruises. Facing seaborne attack, Ambrose is forced to go into battle (in a pedalo) and finds a cure for his seasickness on the way.
As that description likely makes clear, this is one of Ealing's more fantastic stories, and it makes few claims to anything approaching realism. It is a film built around that central figure of Ambrose (and thus, Guinness), and few of the supporting characters make any lasting impression. Guinness remains the powerhouse of the film, a seemingly stern naval figure whose unrealistic dream revitalises the small town, drawing in old and young with a dance hall, cheap drinks, and fun.
Perhaps the film suffers through critical opinion simply by existing so close to the end of the studio, one of the six non-Ealing based films produced for MGM, the context overwhelming the actual content of the film; equally, Barr and Perry seem to criticise it for not having a link to contemporary events but arguments could be made around the 'pier as Britain' (it literally becomes an island, and one that can only be attacked by sea), Ealing's continued 1950s concern about generational difference (Ambrose is hailed by the town's youth for creating a new dance hall and bar), or the changing face of the British seaside (the Victorian pier pulled down to be replaced by something more modern).
The playful and occasionally surreal nature of the film starts with the opening titles, where names float up and down on screen as though tossed around by the (live action) waves; continues through the vignettes of the Ambrose family (one of whom is being cooked in a native tribe's pot that is clearly too small to fit a whole human in); the defence of the pier by three pedalos against a dredging boat also partially takes place on a radar screen that makes it look like a video game; to the ramshackle and cubist nature of some of the buildings on the pier itself (the Crazy Cottage, which Ambrose makes his home, is full of sloped floors, skewed surfaces and oddly angled ceilings, and becomes the centre of comic scenes of him and Mrs Barrington (Irene Browne) getting drunk together, and sliding towards and away from each other). There is also an early scene of Ambrose apparently on deck in a storm but, as the camera pulls back, it is revealed to be a fake deck in a training school with people off to one side throwing water over him - yet the scene also stands as a reminder of the trickery of cinema, pulling back to reveal the 'magic' behind such scenes (which may have particular relevance for director Charles Frend, given he was also behind The Cruel Sea, 1953). Light comic and self-referential touches like this actually lift the film and balance the occasional dip into slapstick (which is found in all Ealing comedies).
A late entry in the Ealing comedy canon, yes, but one that deserves to be considered alongside earlier triumphs.
[Barnacle Bill is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, Ealing on probation in I Believe in You (1952)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston