Friday, 14 February 2014

What Maggie May Tell

‘The Maggie’ (1954) is a well loved Ealing film, a gentle comedy set on the waterways around the west coast of Scotland.  The Maggie of the film title is a battered old puffer boat, whose wily captain returns to Glasgow in search of a cargo.  By being in the right place at the right time, and with a little stretching of the truth, Captain MacTaggart makes a scoop.  He secures the cargo of a wealthy American transport tycoon called Calvin D Marshall.  His job is to take several household items to an island.  The job is given to Captain MacTaggart by Marshall’s assistant, the very English beaurocrat Mr Pusey who is too busy to make the proper checks.  The Captain being a law unto himself, the journey is punctuated by booze ups and poaching, and the journey promises to be a long one.  Marshall, finding out about his cargo, firstly tries to send his assistant to sort things out, but then ends up joining the crew to supervise matters.  All sorts of little adventures ensue which are delightfully entertaining – perfect feelgood stuff for a wet weekend afternoon.

As I have mentioned before, most recently in my post about ‘The Man in the White Suit’, I often detect a hint of political commentary in the Ealing comedies.  In ‘The Maggie’ I think that the key to the commentary lies in the name of the wealthy American – Marshall. At this point in the mid 1950s, Marshall Aid would still have been a relevant topic. This pumping of United States wealth into Europe aimed to put us back on our feet economically – the ultimate capitalist plan to prevent communist revolution or further war.  Britain received a hefty share of Marshall Aid, but as we can still easily imagine today, people must have had their own ideas on how it should have been spent.  I think that the naming of a rich American character as Marshall is too much of a coincidence for it not to have been deliberate.

The big mistake that Donovan Marshall makes is to leave the arrangements for the transportation of his goods to an Englishman in a bowler hat.  It is he that messes up what should be a simple task of distributing the goods to their intended destination. He fails to make the proper checks and is panicked into giving the shipping contract to the wrong sort of people.  Does this translate into dissatisfaction with how the Westminster government spent the Marshall Aid? There has certainly been discussion amongst history commentators on this issue.  Germany invested their aid into manufacturing and soon outstripped the UK in this respect.  Meanwhile, it seems that the UK chose to spend much of its aid money on the welfare state and clinging to the wreckage of colonialism.  Is this the reason why we have bowler-hatted and suited Mr Pusey misdirecting Mr Marshall’s riches?  I do believe that someone involved with the making of ‘The Maggie’ was bemoaning a perceived condemnation to a second rate future because of mishandled aid money.

One scene in the film which really caught my eye was close to the end, when Mr Marshall’s cargo is jettisoned in order to save The Maggie from sinking. There is a lingering shot of a crate sinking to the sea bed. A drop in the ocean is the phrase that came to mind.  An opinion that we just didn’t receive enough?

At the close of the film, Marshall lets MacTaggart get away with it all and keep his puffer, sacrificing his expensive cargo in the process.  I wondered if this was a criticism of the US too, in being too soft with Britain.  Is this a suggestion that they let sentimentality get in the way of making us treat capitalism with the due reverence?

None of this proves anything; it is all my own conjecture.  But I find the possibility that such a gentle film as The Maggie could be making such a political comment fascinating.  This is a subtlety which is definitely lacking in modern media.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Difficult Truth Girl

‘Good Time Girl’ (1948) is quite the hidden gem.  I unearthed it on You Tube, and I’m sure that I have neither seen nor heard of it previously.  This is odd, because it has a stellar cast.  Jean Kent has the starring role and she is supported by Herbert Lom, Dennis Price, Flora Robson, Diana Dors and Jill Balcon.  As you would imagine with a cast with this kind of quality, the film is no turkey – it is compelling and atmospheric.  So why is it not a household name?

I wonder if this is because the film was too radical in its outlook for the times.  Did it have a subdued reception in 1948 because, in general, people found its message difficult to deal with?  This in turn might have led to it becoming quickly buried and forgotten.

The story focuses on Kent’s character, a girl of sixteen called Gwen.  We are invited to watch her spiral down into a life of crime and eventual imprisonment by the haughty and moralising magistrate (Robson).  We first find her living at home with her parents and five siblings, where the father drinks away what little he earns and regularly beats his entire family.  After losing her job in a pawnbrokers, Gwen is on the receiving end of what she decides will be her final belting and leaves home.  She then becomes prey to a series of ne’er do well men and she slides down towards alcoholism, manslaughter and theft. Her crimes are undoubtedly heinous.  There is no tiptoeing around the fact that she is in the wrong.  Yet we sympathise because we are shown that she was born to be a victim.  The fault is not all hers, society has a role to play – society turns a blind eye when fathers beat their children senseless; society allows adult men to take advantage of teenage girls with a nudge and a wink.  And whatsmore, society allows people to sit in judgement of girls like Gwen when they have absolutely no insight into poverty and abuse.  They only see the crime and seem to have no concept that the criminal can also be a victim.  All it would have taken to prevent Gwen’s crimes would have been a safe home and a job.  But she was condemned the minute that she tried to fight back against her lot in life.  She didn’t know her place.  Uncomfortable, isn’t it?  Because this isn’t history.  At least in the modern world systematic abuse makes newspaper headlines and launches official enquiries.  It’s one baby step in the right direction but look how long even that has taken us. 

The modern audience of ‘Good Time Girl’ are not unfamiliar with the concept of criminal as victim.  Most of us have now at least learned that there is more than one aspect to any story.  We can watch this film and accept what it tells us about our faults.  But its burial over time perhaps shows that post-war society was still inclined to accept what was dictated to them by a rigid hierarchy.  People were not expected to question, and in fact may have viewed this film very differently to me or to any of us now.  Perhaps it should be re-released or re-made because this story is still, unfortunately, very relevant.