Monday, December 21, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'The Captain's Paradise'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

“The Captain’s Paradise” (London Film, 1953) is about a guy who is, well, a louse.

But because this is one of those cute British films from the fifties (such as “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Ladykillers”), and because the louse in question is played by Alec Guinness, and because the film comes right out and tells you that it’s a “fairy tale,” the louse, ferryboat captain Henry St. James, comes across as the kind of bad boy you want to wave your finger at instead of socking him one.

Why is Henry a louse? Simply because he has a wife and a mistress. The wife, played by Celia Johnson, is a homebody who keeps the St. James home well-kept while Henry is keeping a mistress, Nita, a dancer played by Yvonne De Carlo, in Tangiers.

The two women seem to exemplify what Henry wants in a woman – domesticity, with a walk on the wild side (or at least a side that’s as tamely wild as things usually get in this kind of movie).

With this kind of plot setup, what usually happens is that the wife finds out about the mistress or vice versa (I had a teacher who pronounced this “vissy versa,” the original Latin pronunciation, I would guess). And in this film, you keep waiting for this to happen, so that the “fun” can begin, Henry can get his comeuppance, and the prop department can earn some overtime by supplying enough pots and pans and other utensils for the women to throw at him.

But this never happens.

Instead something else happens, something a lot more subtle and enjoyable, and I won’t spoil it here.

It’s not a long movie (the filmmakers are smart enough to realize that this kind of plot can’t be stretched as far as two hours’ worth of screen time), and although I don’t like it as much as “The Ladykillers” (I’m of course referring to the Guinness film, not the Tom Hanks remake, which I, with no regrets whatsoever, have never seen), it is a little gem.

Aside from Guinness’ performances – another of his Little Men With a Lot More to Them Than Meets the Eye – Celia Johnson once again proves that it’s almost physically impossible for her to give a bad performance, and Yvonne De Carlo might well surprise those who know her only as Lily Munster.

Charles Goldner has some very good moments as Henry’s chief officer, who finds out about the boss’ double life. And in a small role, you can find Sebastian Cabot of “Family Affair” as a vendor, apparently on his day off from taking care of those three kids and making some extra money. (Geez, you’d think with that fancy-schmancy Manhattan apartment, Uncle Bill could afford to pay the guy more….)

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