This is a great, small movie which until now had passed me by despite my affection for British Ealing Studios’ 1950’s black and white comedies.
The plot involves the captain of a small, steam transport ship outsmarting a wealthy American businessman. The ship is of a class that was rapidly going out of use at that time, called “Puffers” by an affectionate public. As you may have gathered by now, I love both the David versus Goliath and tradition versus progress themes in literature and movies, but only if, unlike real life, David and tradition win. In general, these black and white comedies seem to share that vision.
The puffer’s captain has finagled a contract to carry the businessman’s goods for £300, the amount he needs to keep the puffer afloat. The businessman, discovering this, is appalled and is desperately trying to get the goods off of the puffer and on to a reliable ship.
Captain MacTaggart is hardly admirable, he is an alcoholic who, despite his love for his ship, has never properly maintained it and is more than happy enough to have others pay his way, both figuratively and literally. He definitely fits the loveable scoundrel type. Besides being a scoundrel, the captain is a person who loves his job no matter how badly he does it. Are there any of those folks left? We cheer on his subterfuges in his attempt to deliver the shipment as he and his crew cause great mayhem aboard the puffer and in the little ports where they stop. These towns as well evoke the feel of a sadly vanishing way of life.
As in another of my favorites, I Know Where I’m Going, there is a party in which the character representing wealth and progress, the American, gains insight into the proper care of the soul from the traditional community. Sheena, a village girl becomes attached to Marshall, the American for that evening, as he represents something different for her than the village men she has grown up with. Marshall and Sheena discuss the marriage choice she needs to make between an ambitious shopkeeper and a lackadaisical fisherman. She knows the shopkeeper can supply her with fine things and take her exciting places, but she thinks she will marry the fisherman as he’ll have more time for her and when they are old they will just have what they have earned together and that is enough for her. Marshall is seen to reflect that his own marriage doesn’t measure up to that standard and in a wider sense the message is the need to be present for others rather than chasing after things.
The ship’s cabin boy, “the boy”, or “Dougie” is almost the real star of the movie. He unabashedly loves the Maggie and will do anything he has to to save her. He acts more like an adult than the adults around him, unfortunately a situation found too often in real life.
It takes a literal whack on his head to bring Mr. Marshall to his senses, but to say more would be to give the thing away.
As I said, it is a small movie, but worth seeing.