I am a complete anglophile. I love all things British and so when I was wanting something a little more light-hearted to take a short break from TCM’s Summer of Darkness, I turned to Sir Alec Guinness, Ealing Studios, and the Warner Archive.
Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) and his crew are being awarded the Lloyd Medal by the British Government, a prestigious award for their heroic actions in saving their ship, the H.M.S. Arabella. After the ceremony Captain Ambrose is besieged by reporters hoping for a story but they are to be disappointed. The good captain has already promised his story exclusively to a reporter named Peters. Peters is waiting for the captain at the pub across the street, where the captain is given a jug of rum with the compliments of the owner all in thanks for his heroic actions. Captain Ambrose begins to regale Peters with the tale of his life, one which starts soberly enough but as the rum flows becomes more and more, shall we say, blustery. It seems that Captain Ambrose comes from a long line of sea-faring men all of which met with varying degrees of success, or lack there of, during their naval careers. Ambrose has a terrible secret of his own and it is that he suffers from terrible and intractable sea sickness.
After the end of the war, the duration of which Ambrose spent in naval labs testing different experimental sea sickness cures, the aging Captain Ambrose reads an advert in a local paper regarding the sale of a vessel docked at Sandcastle called the Arabella. After spending his entire life savings to buy this vessel, Captain Ambrose finds that he has not bought a ship at all but rather a run-down amusement pier. The local population is not particularly impressive either. The pier is currently run by a crew of men who, although wearing naval uniforms, have no military experience save one man named Tom (Percy Herbert). The head man of the pier is a man named Figg (Victor Madern), a local dredger who promptly resigns as soon as it becomes clear that Captain Ambrose is now in charge and has no interest in continuing to allow the men to slack off. Tom is quickly promoted to First Officer, and Captain Ambrose sets about trying to make the pier profitable again.
This does not go particularly well however. The problem is that Captain Ambrose has managed to get on the bad side of two members of the local council. The first is Mayor Crowley (Maurice Denham), a crooked local politician who sold the pier at a vastly inflated price but who doesn’t like that the captain is not willing to play ball with him in matters of pay offs and the like. The second, and more troublesome, is Mrs. Barrington (Irene Browne) who runs the local bath houses, has a penchant for moral decency at all costs, and who already thinks that the captain is a peeping tom. The first sign of trouble comes when Captain Ambrose wakes up to find that the pier’s slot machines have been confiscated by the council because they encourage gambling, according to Mrs. Barrington that is. Heading down to the police station to make his case, Captain Ambrose manages to convince the local officers that the machines do not constitute gambling at all when Mrs. Barrington walks in. Supremely confident in her right to take the machines, she is less than pleased to see the captain walking out with them. This clearly means war.
Captain Ambrose sets about trying new and different ways to improve the pier and create a lucrative tourist attraction. But at each possible juncture he is foiled Mrs. Barrington and the council. He makes a dance hall for the local teens (and yes, Alec Guinness dances and it is fabulous) but the police shut him down because he doesn’t have the proper permits. When Captain Ambrose goes before the council to pay his fines, he is informed that on top of the money he owes he is no forbidden from acquiring a dance hall permit. He tries to make a bar but he is prevented from getting a liquor license. The next day the council meets and Mrs. Barrington immediately launches in to a diatribe about how Captain Ambrose is corrupting the morality of the community. Mayor Crowley dismisses her concerns as he has plans to create a marine drive which will lead to the demolition of the pier. Mrs. Barrington is on board with this plan until she realizes that it means that her beach huts will be destroyed as well. In an indignant rage she resigns from the council and storms out. No one seems to miss her.
Out on the pier Tom and Captain Ambrose spot a figure on the shoreline. It is Mrs. Barrington and she is crying! Ever the gentleman, Captain Ambrose goes ashore to speak with her and see if there is anything he can do to help. Mrs. Barrington brushes him off at first but finally relents and agrees to join the captain for a spot of coffee, with a dash of rum, in his cabin. After a few cups, Mrs. Barrington and Captain Ambrose are feeling much more sympathetic towards each other. Captain Ambrose thinks that it is a travesty that the bath houses are to be demolished! Mrs. Barrington tells him that things are much worse than that, his pier is set to be demolished too! The two former enemies then set about devising a way to keep both the bath houses and the pier from being torn down.
God Bless Warner Archive. I love Ealing films, ever since my Dad first showed me KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. Some might argue that ALL AT SEA (also released as BARNACLE BILL in England) is a lesser Ealing comedy, but I would say that even a weak Ealing comedy is still aces. Yes, I am channeling my inner Brit.
Let’s start with the obvious, Alec Guinness is fabulous. He plays the role of Captain Ambrose totally straight, which makes the situations even funnier. A character who could be very buffoonish comes across as quite human and sympathetic. He brings a dignity to Captain Ambrose, but also a humor which is quite endearing. Also, his voice and diction are wonderful. He is another person I could sit and listen to read the phone book.
This film is really what I love about the Ealing comedies. Clever and witty, funny and charming, ALL AT SEA is just a really lovely way to spend an afternoon. The story is engaging and amusing, and the cast of characters is varied and enjoyable. Even the “bad” guys are easy to take and no one comes across as really annoying or just too evil to tolerate. This is what Ealing did best, a human comedy about people. While the stories and situations might be slightly inflated or seem just a little out there, there is still a very human heart to each story. This might be a little story about little people, but it is really great fun and I certainly recommend it. Thanks to Warner Archive for making ALL AT SEA available and I will be crossing my fingers for more Ealing Studios releases in the future!
If you want to hear more about All At Sea/Barnacle Bill and some other lesser known Ealing comedies check out the Attaboy Clarence Podcast