It seems that people discover Alec Guinness in stages. Most, especially nowadays, find him first in Star Wars, then maybe the David Lean epics or the Ealing comedies. However there are many more out there much deserving of attention that always get discovered last. This is a great example: an excellent film, an excellent Guinness performance and yet one that I'd never even previously heard of.
It's a comedy that opens with Guinness's execution by firing squad in some exotic country, so you know you're in for a dry treat. He's Captain Henry St James and he has spent his life in search of the perfect happiness, that paradise on earth, and he's found it. You wouldn't expect him to have found it captaining the Golden Fleece, a ferry that hops the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Kalik in northern Africa and back, but that's exactly where he found it. What it is is where the dryness of the humour comes in.
The part is a gift for Guinness's chameleon like powers. He speaks whatever language seems appropriate at any given moment and his character shifts with the language. On board ship, he's a decent yet solid captain, discussing esoteric subjects with men at dinner. He's interesting yet without much excitement. In north Africa he comes alive, changing suit, demeanour and even stance, living it up with an exotic young lady played by the powerfully sultry Yvonne de Carlo who looks more like Ava Gardner here. He's equally adept slapping her rear in her hotel room or dancing the mambo with her in public, as indeed he should be, being her husband.
Yet moments after we see their undying love for each other, he's back on the Rock where his Spanish crew can't follow him. This time he's just as happy but firmly uniformed and official and very much married to devoted housewife Celia Johnson. Here's his paradise: married to two halves of the perfect woman. He buys the one flowers and the other a vacuum cleaner; the one gives herself in return, the other gives him handmade socks; for the one it's exotic food, music and dancing, for the other it's a pipe, the paper and home cooking; for the one it's late nights and living it up, for the other it's early to bed, asleep by ten on military time.
Of course, nothing stays as planned. Through a mixup in presents, his wild untamed girl gets an apron and his domesticated wife gets a bikini. Soon the one wants to cook and be homely and the other wants to live it up, flying over to Kalik at the drop of a hat and naturally to meet the one. These changes are handled very well indeed, as you can expect from two actresses as talented as Yvonne de Carlo, later Lily Munster, and Celia Johnson, from Brief Encounter. They manage to believably change into each other, while losing the need for the one person who had moulded them in the first place. The best scene though has to be the almost discovery scene, when the two ladies meet in Kalik, which is masterfully constructed, hovering continually on the brink of disaster yet somehow never quite falling over.
As you can imagine, the Hays Office didn't take too kindly to the hero of the film being a bigamist, let alone an unrepentant one, so with typical heavyhandedness they required the entire point of the film to be changed. The ending is subverted into something completely meaningless, there's a disclaimer beforehand to hammer home that this is fantasy not reality, and exotic Nita goes from being wife to merely girlfriend. Apparently cheating on one's wife is not deemed as unacceptable as bigamy. No wonder the sitcom became such an American staple and no wonder modern American comedies are a competition in dumbness: they missed out entirely on an entire generation of clever dry humour, because clever dry humour under the code is somehow offensive. Go figure.
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