THERE is not much in British cinema to stand up to the best of the other leading movie industries, but for a few years in the Forties it produced David Lean's films of Coward and Dickens, Carol Reed's of Greene, Laurence Olivier's of Shakespeare and, gloriously, Ealing comedy.
Michael Balcon, who ran Ealing Studios, was a canny veteran of 20 years of aping and rivalling Hollywood, often with great success. Afer years heading Gaumont-British, he was poached by MGM but the alliance was uneasy, and when fired by them he went to Ealing, whose principal asset had been the comedian George Formby. Formby left not long after the start of the Second World War, and to suit the wartime climate Balcon concentrated on extolling the British way of life. In 1949 he decided that that could best be done with films in the Formby tradition - or at least with the same writers.
Balcon had encouraged the careers of several youngsters, and among the most talented of the directors were Robert Hamer and Alexander Mackendrick, the latter a screenwriter who had made a number of documentary shorts. They began brilliantly in 1949 with Hamer's period comedy of manners Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Mackendrick's Whisky Galore] The latter was taken from a novel by Compton Mackenzie which envisaged the inhabitants of a small Scottish island salvaging a shipwrecked cargo of the gold liquid despite the red-tape restrictions of the militia. It was precise, non-patronising and beautifully played by such Ealing stalwarts as the enchanting, fey Joan Greenwood and Basil Radford, the witty embodiment of stiff-upper-lip.
Mackendrick, Ealing and all the Ealing personnel were on a roll, uniting whimsy and satire of Preston Sturgian quality which is still being imitated to this day. Mackendrick directed and wrote - with John Dighton and Roger Macdougall - the best of all boardroom comedies, The Man in the White Suit (1951), which imagined the consequences of a material which never got dirty or wore out. Alec Guinness played its single-minded inventor, with Greenwood responding to his scientific jargon with a 'What did you say?', embodying wonder and disbelief at the same time.
Mackendrick's next assignment was one of Ealing's serious films, which were reasonably improved from the dire standard of the war years but remained well-meant rather than inspired. Mandy (1952), concerning the efforts to teach a deaf-mute child, was no exception, though it had exceptionally likeable performances by Phyllis Calvert and Jack Hawkins.
Mackendrick returned to comedy with two screenplays penned by William Rose, the American who had written the masterpiece which Ealing had let get away - Genevieve. The Maggie (1954) was about an American businessman (Paul Douglas) who, moving equipment for his new home, is baffled and outwitted in equal measures by the seemingly guileless Scots. The old theme of city acumen versus peasant cunning has seldom been more confidently handled, but Mackendrick and Rose were to have an even greater triumph with The Ladykillers (1955), in which a group of incompetent crooks posed as a string quartet to plan a robbery in the home of a dear little old lady, memorably played by Katie Johnson. The gang included Guinness, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers (in his first considerable screen role) and Herbert Lom. With Kind Hearts . . . it is the supreme British black comedy, as broad as the latter is subtle but also imperishably funny.
'It's sad that Sandy Mackendrick gave up and went to Hollywood,' Guinness said later. 'He was always intelligent, always had something to say . . . (he) was an enthusiast, who took a strong political line.' It was sad, but inevitable, for the critical and popular acclaim for The Ladykillers did not prevent the collapse of Ealing. There would be some marginal successes for its writers and directors, but none of them started a post-Ealing career so startlingly as Mackendrick. Sweet Smell of Success (1956) is a biting, cynical view of a famous, influential gossip columnist, based on Walter Winchell - who would have been apoplectic to have seen himself thus portrayed. Ernest Lehman wrote it from a story by Clifford Odets, with both Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis doing their best screen work as, respectively, the journalist and his number one hanger-on. Mackendrick's portrait of Manhattan was his own: chilly and unsettling, and one that movies had never shown before.
He seemed to be on the verge of a brilliant Hollywood career, and Lancaster, co-producing and starring with Kirk Douglas, re-engaged him for an excursion into quality, a film of Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple (1959) - which, in the event, was stolen from them by the third-billed Laurence Olivier's bravura General Burgoyne. But the commercial failure - despite wonderful notices - of Sweet Smell of Success worried Lancaster and Douglas, who decided to dispense with Mackendrick's services after three weeks. Guy Hamilton took over and the result, to quote Douglas's memoir, 'could have been much better'.
Mackendrick barely recovered from this setback. He directed three more films, and there is little to say of Sammy Going South (1963), an African adventure made for Balcon, with Edward G. Robinson, or of Don't Make Waves (1967), a marital comedy with Tony Curtis. Mackendrick was content to work in television in Los Angeles, later teaching at the California Institute of Fine Arts. His reputation was secure, and he might have returned to Britain as Hollywood invested in Britain in the Sixties.
But Mackendrick had showed a failure of nerve in his only other film, the Anglo-American A High Wind in Jamaica (1965). Richard Hughes's novel was unusual as a source for a movie, but that should not have worried the man who made The Ladykillers and Sweet Smell of Success. In the book the children remain too self-centred to bother about the evil of the pirates who have kidnapped them. In the film - played by Martin Amis and Deborah Baxter - they are always ready to succumb to the charm of Anthony Quinn's Zorba-like captain.
No matter, perhaps, since five of Mackendrick's films will always be shown, as critics implied in reviewing this year's revival of The Man in the White Suit in the Ealing season at the Barbican Cinema, in London.