A Double Shot Of Alec Guinness: ‘The Captain’s Paradise’ And ‘Barnacle Bill’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Two British comedies starring Alec Guinness at sea, but are they both funny?

If Big Love showed that you could tell stories about polygamy without moralizing, Anthony KimminsThe Captain’s Paradise (1953) takes it too far. That’s because the problem isn’t that Captain St. James (Alec Guinness) is married to other people. It’s that he keeps that information from his wives.
The Captain’s Paradise calls this “paradise” — that’s because the film is told from the point of view of the Captain’s second in command, Ricco (Charles Goldner). He is convinced that St. James is a genius for maintaining two marriages at once; one in Gibraltar – his wife, Maud (Celia Johnson)) – and one in Kalik – his wife/lover(?), Nia (Yvonne de Carlo). His ship, The Golden Fleece, travels back and forth, so he has no trouble splitting his time between them. In the beginning, his crew aren’t allowed to step foot in Gibraltar, either, so they don’t know about his secret.
Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist came out the same year, but in that film (a drama, while The Captain’s Paradise contends to be a comedy) the husband has qualms about his actions. Whether you sympathize or not, he seems to be honestly torn. St. James doesn’t love his wives for who they are. He loves them for who he wants them to be, and when they “rebel” (in Maude’s case, she dares to dance in public, while Nia has the audacity to make him a home cooked meal) he insists that they never do it again. Maude is the homemaker, Nia is the “fun” wife, and never the two shall meet. This is unsurprisingly cringey, especially since the film never comes to an epiphany. Ricco thinks the Captain’s a role model. The Captain never sees the error in his ways (however realistic that would’ve been). At least the wives stand up for themselves, and de Carlo (best known for The Munsters) and Johnson (Brief Encounter) do their best, but as for turning to this film for laughs, Guinness’ St. James is too much of an irredeemable jerk to be amusing and the film never knocks him down to size.
Charles FrendsBarnacle Bill (1957) is the film to watch for a funny Alec Guinness sea captain. Like The Captain’s Paradise, the film uses a framing device (if ultimately a forgettable one) where Captain Ambrose (Guinness) is regaling an audience with the story of how he earned a Lloyd’s medal. Immediately Barnacle Bill asserts itself as the funnier of the two pictures with a dig at Guinness’ height. Even the opening credits are funny by having the names of the cast bob up and down with the waves.
Ambrose suffers from seasickness; not an ailment you want when you descend from a long line of navy men. As it turns out, though, Ambrose has left some things out. The visuals tell a different story from his voiceover and Ambrose’s ancestors (all played by Guinness) aren’t the sailors Ambrose made them out to be … so Ambrose takes command of a pier instead. Getting it in ship shape isn’t easy. The locals are ‘no dancing on Sundays’ types, but thanks to some shaky loopholes he pulls it off. Irene Browne is great as the council member who starts out as Ambrose’s starch opponent but softens to his charms, and there are some great sets, including a crooked house that is the perfect spot for a drunk scene.
The Captain’s Paradise/Barnacle Bill is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

%d bloggers like this: