The Lolly Gag

Our free series of Alexander Mackendrick matinee screenings starts today with Whisky Galore (1949). Coming up on October 9, we screen The Ladykillers, which Entertainment Weekly has called “one of the greatest comedies ever made.”

In the mid 1970s, PBS in New York City ran a retrospective of Alec Guinness movies filmed at London’s famed Ealing Studios. It was my accidental introduction to a series of amazing British comedies, including not only The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) andKind Hearts and Coronets (1951) but also the work of American/Scottish filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick. He directed Guinness in both The Man in The White Suit (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), both of which are frequently cited as the pinnacle of Ealing films.

The Ladykillers, which we will screen on October 9, is an achingly funny tale of robbers who are almost able to pull off the perfect crime. As they scheme to rob an armored car, the gang pretends to be a string quintet, “rehearsing” (by playing record albums) in order to allay the suspicions of the little old lady from whom they are renting a room. When the landlady, Mrs. Wilberforce, accidentally uncovers their crimes, the miscreants decide they must kill her!

Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness are the most widely recognized members of the cast, but it is filled with faces like Jack Warner and Cecil Parker whom you will undoubtedly recognize from other British movies.

The Ladykillers is perhaps one of the most intricately plotted crime comedies ever made. By the way, it’s widely recognized as an artistic father of A Fish Called Wanda (1988), which also features an elaborate plot to murder an old lady.

A Fish Called Wanda: This is another movie that still makes me laugh.

The Ladykillers became a bit of an obsession for me and my friends. We frequently imitated the voices of not only the hapless bandits but also their comic foil, the bewilderingly innocent Mrs. Wilberforce, as they tried to secure the “lolly” (British slang for loot.) Of course a great comedy is dependent upon timing, and few directors exhibit the mastery of it the way Alexander Mackendrick does, cutting from scene to scene to allow the cunning of the robbers to play against the simple humanity of the old lady.

In celebration of Mackendrick’s centennial, the Skirball will be screening four of his films. Today’s selection, Whisky Galore (1949), is a comedy, too, but Mackendrick is equally well known for his social commentary in dramatic films. Both A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), which we screen next week on September 11, and A Crash of Silence, a.k.a. Mandy (1952), screening October 2, look at the strength and resilience of children in difficult situations—aboard a pirate ship in the former and trying to overcome deafness in the latter. Be sure to check out these free Tuesday afternoon matinees at the Skirball, and also check out the American Cinematheque website in October to learn about its own Mackendrick tribute.

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