All At Sea (1957)
aka Barnacle Bill.
Long before Alec Guinness would become eternally famous in the world of pop culture as Obi-Wan Kenobi he was on one hell of a roll in the 1950’s world of motion pictures. While he’d command the building of the Bridge On the River Kwai and win an Oscar for his role in 1957, he’d also continue his winning association for one last time with Ealing Studios in this lesser known effort compared to his other comical outings for the studio. Among them The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit.
Under the direction of Charles Frend, Alec, finds himself portraying a naval officer with a peculiar sickness. As a matter of fact it’s seasickness. Yes he finds the waves don’t exactly agree with him. But what’s a man to do when he comes from a long line of seamen which we’ll see in a flashback of multiple Alec’s portraying naval men over the course of history including the Napoleonic Wars and WW1. All killed in action.
We’ll next see the current Alec during WW2 where he’s kept ashore so the navy can conduct tests using him onboard phony decks that rock and sway to his detriment. Catching up to the present, Alec, is a retired naval officer who has purchased a seaside carnival that is positioned on a long boardwalk jutting out into the English Channel. It’s a rundown eyesore that he intends to run like a tight military operation, conveying these wishes to the current employees that include Percy Herbert and Victor Maddern. Herbert buys into it while Maddern takes a walk.
Though Alec may have good intentions he’s about to find himself “fighting city hall.” He’s been set up to fail by a mayor and town counsel who have a money making scheme of their own in place which involves taking his money for the carnival’s purchase before condemning it and buying him out at a lesser figure. In turn they plan on developing the land along the shoreline. Everything seems to be moving along until one of the counsel members, Irene Browne, learns that her huts along the shore for swimmers are to bought out as well.
Alec is to soon have a fellow combatant against Maurice Denham’s Mayor and Lionel Jeffries town treasurer. While the counsel schemes to condemn Alec’s carnival, he has slowly been turning the boardwalk into a money maker catering to youngsters and even taking to this dancefloor in an amusing bit. The best is yet to come when he and Miss Browne, who was initially his sworn enemy, get into the rum as she drowns her troubles and he discloses to her his fear of the water in one of the film’s best scenes.
What follows is going to be war of one upmanship. Each time the town council come up with a new city ordinance they’ll find that Alec’s Captain is not one to take things as they are. He’ll come up with an amusing idea of separating the boardwalk from shore thus making his pier a seagoing vessel. One that he’ll sell tickets to as if the passengers were embarking on a voyage. Among them we’ll see fisherman and scene stealer extraordinaire Miles Malleson. With our town council the clear villains, Alec, will have to face them down while at the same time overcome his fear of the water. Who knows maybe there’ll even be a romance for the retired navy man with Miss Browne.
All at Sea is an amusing bit of fun that sees Ealing Studios once again effectively casting Alec in a harmless comedy that still plays well today. Love the fact that everything from the opening credits to the buildings on the boardwalk are all roving and meant to cause seasickness. It’s also hard to argue with the supporting cast of players they’ve hired on to flesh out the plot. Along with the familiar faces of Denham, Jeffries, Herbert and Malleson you’ll also spot Eric Pohlmann and a keen eye will know that bank teller as the one and only Donald Pleasence who was pretty much just getting started here on his prolific career that would see him appear memorably in films ranging from The Great Escape to Halloween. Eventual Miss Marple Joan Hickson also appears as does Joan’s younger sister Jackie Collins (though I never realized it while watching).
Director, Charles Frend, only helmed a handful of movies. Among them some notable titles including Scott of the Antarctic, The Long Arm and The Cruel Sea. Before moving into directing, he was actually a one time Oscar nominee for editing 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
According to the IMDB, All at Sea was released in the UK under the Barnacle Bill title which in turn doesn’t surprise me that the site also points out it was released here in Canada under the same title. The All At Sea title comes with the U.S. release. I guess that’s where this lobby card comes from that I’ve had here for a number of years. Can’t recall where it came from but probably in some package deal of cards I picked up years ago at some side of the road flea market.
Nowhere near the perfect black comedy that Ealing and Alec presented to the movie going world when The Ladykillers went into release, All At Sea or Barnacle Bill if you prefer is an engaging effort. One that reminds me of just versatile and enjoyable Alec Guinness was on screen. Catching up to this for the first time thanks to a Warner Archive release also allowed me to place the seventieth checkmark on my Donald Pleasence scorecard. How’s that compared to yours?