Kind hearts, ladykillers and whisky galore: Ealing comedies – ranked!

<span>Stealing the spotlight … Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers.</span><span>Photograph: Studio Canal</span>
Stealing the spotlight … Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers.Photograph: Studio Canal

19. Another Shore (1948)

Anyone wanting a look at Dublin in the late 1940s might like this, but there’s not much else especially compelling about this weird Walter Mitty-ish comedy about a park loafer hoping to finance a one-way trip to the South Seas by helping rich people who have fallen over. Inspired by the anywhere-but-here mood of postwar privations, this is pretty charmless, and almost completely tone-deaf to the class/ethnic sensitivities of a crew of posh Brits rolling around the Irish capital. Not director Charles Crichton’s finest hour.

18. Meet Mr Lucifer (1953)

A not especially subtle anti-TV screed, structured like La Ronde with a television set passed from household to household sowing unexpected crises in its wake. Stanley Holloway, by then second to Alec Guinness as Ealing’s star performer, had the showy linking role of music-hall devil, but the whole struggles to transcend its theatrical (and pro-theatre) origins, adapted as it is from a play by Arnold Ridley (later to achieve immortality as Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army).

17. His Excellency (1952)

Another play adaptation that doesn’t quite overcome its stage roots, but it has an interesting slant on the tail-end of empire. A bluff union man (played by Eric Portman in professional Yorkshireman mode) is sent out by the Labour government to oversee a restive Mediterranean colony (a fictional cross between Cyprus and Gibraltar) and tries to get the local people on side by supporting a dockworkers strike. But its small-c conservative ending, in which the Labourite agrees to cooperate with the wily Colonial Office chappie already in place, really doesn’t get to the heart of why Britain was divesting itself of its overseas possessions in the first place.

16. Hue & Cry (1947)

Ealing’s first big comedy success has more than a whiff of the Children’s Film Foundation about it, with its scrappy gang of comic-book reading teens unmasking a gang of crooks after enlisting the cooperation of creepy author Alastair Sim. (Title of their favourite comic: The Trump.) It’s mainly remarkable now for the evidence of the pounding London took during the Blitz: the city’s war wounds were still fresh and raw.

15. A Run for Your Money (1949)

Ealing liked its crews to get out and about, and this one travels (briefly) to the fictional Welsh village of Hafoduwchbenceubwllymarchogcoch for a cheery comedy about brothers heading to London to collect a £200 prize and tickets for the big rugby match, and getting into various scrapes along the way. Although it deals in the broadest possible ethnic stereotypes, it’s entirely affectionate and a pretty amiable watch, as well as benefiting from Guinness showing up as an ineffectual nature correspondent assigned to escort the brothers around town.

14. The Magnet (1950)

Another excursion to the regions, this child-focused comedy which takes place largely in Liverpool’s seaside satellite New Brighton, is about an 11-year-old who tricks a little kid out of a giant magnet but then becomes guilt-ridden and gets rid of it, and thereby learns life lessons. With his drama-school vowels, child star James Fox doesn’t exactly sound like a local – in contrast, and to the film’s credit, to the gang of slum kids who hide him from the cops at one point – but even in shorts and cap he has a naturalness and screen presence that marked him out for bigger things.

13. Barnacle Bill (1957)

A curiously low-energy riff on the Passport to Pimlico idea of outflanking petty rules and regulations by a declaration of independence, in the last knockings of Ealing’s 50s comedy output. Guinness is a retired naval officer of almost zero career achievement who buys a pier and claims it’s a ship to evade the local council’s strictures. Even though he got to appear in his trademark multiple roles, Guinness clearly wasn’t interested in being there (he was doing the film as a favour to director Charles Frend) but he still glides through it like a Rolls-Royce, albeit one permanently in third gear.

12. Who Done It? (1956)

Gather round, kids; there was a time when Benny Hill represented cutting-edge comedy and this debut film appearance, with his marked resemblance to a young Bob Hope, is Exhibit A. The similarities stop there, though: festooned with sideways caps and soundtrack honks, this has Hill as a useless ice-rink sweeper who sets up as a private detective after getting fired; it’s not completely unamusing even if Hill is a mostly bland presence, stuffed into a regulation capers-and-chase storyline. It’s particularly implausible that he should inspire the googly-eyed adoration of a glowing Belinda Lee, on hand as strongwoman act, who has the hots for him.

11. Touch and Go (1955)

There’s quite a bit of zip to this comedy of discontent, with Jack Hawkins taking a break from the parade of military types he was famous for to play a paterfamilias furniture designer who, frustrated at work, decides on a whim to shift his entire family to Australia. Of course, one thing after another foils their plans, including his daughter falling for dashing John Fraser after he helps her retrieve the family’s escaped cat on Albert Bridge. Loses points for its bellicose enforcement of male entitlement, with a well-acted but near-unwatchable final scene in which Hawkins bellows “I take the decisions!” at his hapless wife, before changing his mind.

10. Davy (1958)

Ealing’s final roll of the comedy dice until the modern era was a tonally odd but impressively mounted Harry Secombe vehicle which, like Meet Mr Lucifer, operates as a lament for traditional forms of entertainment. Secombe is the lead member of a family musical hall troupe who is tempted by the prospect of a more lucrative solo career. Secombe, a big name courtesy of the Goons, is great as a stage performer, but much less convincing when it comes to effectively portraying an actual human being. Not a surprise that a straight acting career never really took off.

9. The Love Lottery (1954)

A bit of an outlier in the Ealing comedy canon, in that it contains some proper Hollywood star power. David Niven is on raffish form as the matinee idol who allows his love life to become the subject of a fan competition; it’s a fun start, but the film overcomplicates things with a plot strand involving a gambling syndicate (headed by Herbert Lom) that muscles in on the action. The opening dream sequence, in which Niven is dismembered and decapitated by multiple Peggy Cumminses, is quite something, and why Cummins never became a bigger star is still a mystery.

8. The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

Ealing at its cosiest, protecting branch-line village life from the vandalisation of modernised central planning a decade before the first Beeching report massacred the railways. John Gregson is the local squire leading attempts to keep a little steam engine running after the village’s train service is cut, with the wartime spirit of initiative, spit-and-polish, and a bit of improvisation with the rules. In classic Ealing style, the unions and big business, supposedly natural enemies, are equally obstructive, but no one foresaw the commercial golden egg that restored railways would become.

7. The Maggie (1954)

Another hymn to the virtues of the old-school “puffer”, though this time it’s a Clyde cargo boat rather than a steam loco. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, leader of Ealing’s Scottish division, this has Alex Mackenzie (in his first ever film role, in his 60s) as the crafty skipper who weasels his way into a big-money delivery job for loudmouth American businessman Paul Douglas, even though his boat – the “Maggie” of the title – has been declared unsound. More than most Ealing comedies, this manages to capture authentic local flavour, with the actors allowed to use their natural accents; and in its confrontation between canny Scots and hapless outsiders, The Maggie is a clear influence on Local Hero.

6. Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Related: Passport to Pimlico: a behind the scenes tour – in pictures

Most Ealing films crystallise a yearning to throw off the sacrifices of the war years while retaining the home front spirit of solidarity, and this one really hit the nail on the head. The detonation of a wartime unexploded bomb reveals an underground treasure chamber (although anyone concerned with safe handling of explosives had better look away during this scene) and the subsequent creation of a Burgundian microstate in the middle of London. With rationing no longer in force, this new Burgundy is briefly a paradise, before being overrun with black marketeers and then blockaded by the British authorities. It doesn’t take all that long for Ealing’s preferred small-c conservatism to assert itself in this pointed be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale.

5. Whisky Galore! (1949)

Another response to the irritations of rationing, Mackendrick’s directing debut was perhaps more of a shortbread-biscuit-tin of a movie than The Maggie, but there’s no doubting its continuing appeal to the popular imagination. Based on a Compton Mackenzie novel, itself based on a real-life incident, this has a whisky-laden cargo boat going down off the fictional island of Todday in the Western Isles, and a portion of its bottles liberated by the islanders. A substantial hit in the US, this implanted the idea of wily Scots quietly running rings round the overbearing English – a theme that’s never stopped being popular.

4. The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Arguably the most progressive Ealing comedy, and one which benefits from Guinness’ straightforwardly charming performance. He plays idealistic research chemist Sidney Stratton, inventor of a superstrong artificial fibre, which earns him the enmity of his bosses and fellow workers, who find common cause after realising an always-perfect cloth would do them both in. Though by the end Guinness is in his underpants and out of a job (again), it’s not quite a return to the status quo; Stratton’s ingenuity is undaunted and, calling forth memories of the backroom boffins who won the war only a few years earlier, we see inspiration strike again as the credits roll.

3. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

The heist movie was in its infancy in the early 1950s and yet this brilliantly funny, almost perfect, example arrived even as the subgenre was getting up to speed. It’s led by another brilliant turn from Guinness as a purse-lipped, strait-laced inspector in charge of ferrying bullion to the bank who, in fact, is plotting to rip the lot off. Guinness is matched toe-to-toe by Stanley Holloway, on almost Zero Mostel-esque form as the artist whose foundry is key to the whole scheme. Every detail is beautifully observed, and there’s the benefit of exceptional down-the-bill casting: Sid James, Alfie Bass and, in one of her first screen appearances, a radiant Audrey Hepburn.

2. The Ladykillers (1955)

Related: My favourite film: The Ladykillers

You can hardly get a cigarette paper between this and The Lavender Hill Mob; The Ladykillers gets the nod because of the basic wackiness of its setup, grafting an elderly boarding-house-lady stock character (Katie Johnson) on to a nicely funny heist comedy. Guinness is brilliant yet again as the crooks’ leader, in a performance modelled on Alistair Sim; the rest of the gang, including Peter Sellers and Lom, are great, too. But the final section, where each of the villains get theirs in turn, and sweet little Mrs Wilberforce ends up with a giant pile of cash, is just terrific. Director Mackendrick would go on to arguably bigger things with Sweet Smell of Success and A High Wind in Jamaica, but this is near-perfect. Its lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance was only reinforced by the Coen brothers’ dreadful remake.

1. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Related: My favourite film: Kind Hearts and Coronets

There’s no real contest: this is the Ealing comedy’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest British films of any kind. Released in the same year as Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore!, it was part of an amazing new wave of comedy, but at the same time towered over it. It offered a tour de force for Guinness, playing all eight members of the noble D’Ascoyne family who are made to die, one way or the other, through the course of the film. Amazingly, though, he’s only the supporting turn: the actual star is Dennis Price, as the draper’s assistant who works his way through the D’Ascoynes to ensure he inherits the dukedom. What stands out now is the nakedly cynical tone – utterly unlike the rest of British cinema, previous Ealing comedies included – which successfully got its audience to root for a cold-hearted, nakedly ambitious serial killer who kept both his trophy wife (Valerie Hobson) and adolescent crush (Joan Greenwood) in play. It’s also a brutal counterpunch to the countless films that have idolised the British upper classes; here is a film that shows them exhausted, distracted and utterly ineffectual, a message that many in the postwar era were ready to hear.