aka High and Dry
Less celebrated than Alexander Mackendrick’s other Ealing comedies – Whisky Galore!, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers – The Maggie is just as shrewd and layered as the pick of those. Which makes it a little surprising that, per Charles Barr on the Blu-ray release extras, earlier takes had it characterised as a sentimental and patronising picture, in which the sympathies were with those on the boat of the title. As he notes, there’s much more to it than that, but it’s curious – if he’s correct – that previous commentators could miss the obvious.
Of course, it’s evidently possible to go to the opposite extreme (Colin McArthur is cited on the Wiki page for his “trenchant criticism of its representation of Scotland and its relationship with American capital…” which by the sound of it amounts to a wearying Marxist interrogation). Like Whisky Galore! then, The Maggie depicts a Scotland of otherworldly charm and attitudes, but the charm and attitudes presented aren’t necessarily ones the viewer feels obliged to get behind.
Marshall: Just make sure it’s a sound boat. That’s all that matters.
It’s clear from the off that, character that he is, Captain MacTaggart (Alex Mackenzie) is something of a rapscallion and scally, as well as having debateable maritime skills (“He’s not fit to manage a rowing boat”); unless he comes up with £300 to repair plates, the licence for his old puffer cargo vessel won’t be renewed, so he omits some salient information – such as representative Pusey (Hubert Gregg) mistaking his vessel for competent, and the complete lack of insurance for the shipment – in securing a job from American Calvin B Marshall (Paul Douglas), ferrying furniture to his new summer home on Scottish island Kitarra. When Marshall discovers the truth of the situation, he attempts to curtail the expedition and transfer the goods to a more reliable boat but reckons without the wily locals’ ruses and indifference to his demands.
Dougie: He chucked the laird in the canal!
There’s Caledonian culture clash here that would later be drawn on by Bill Forsyth in Local Hero, although the differences of perspective there are much more amiable and conciliatory. Marshall is increasingly exasperated, livid even, by the boat-bound quartet – including “wee boy” Douggie (Tommy Kearins), Mate James Copeland and engineer Abe Barker – and confounded in his attempts to set Pusey aboard the vessel (the bowler-wearing toff ends up incarcerated for dunking the laird, having been pursued for stealing pheasants). He even very nearly in intercepts them; a degree of expert third guessing on the part of MacTaggart sees him decide to set course for the most obvious destination, rather than the one Marshall would think they would think he would think they were heading for.
Marshall is clearly no angel. He’s rich, profligate and unyielding, and used to getting his way. When told how generous Marshall is, his secretary Mrs Peters (Dorothy Alison) responds “Yes, when he has a reason. When I threatened to walk out on him last year, he doubled my salary”. One might infer Marshall has it coming, and that anyone assuming the kind of self-importance he does needs cutting down a peg or two (Pusey may be the out-of-his-depth, stereotypical English twit, but as he points out, to Marshall’s deaf ears, it was Marshall, not him, who made the deal with MacTaggart).
But it’s also readily evident, even when Marshall is aboard, that the crew are up to no good; a wooden jetty is partially dismantled due to wilful negligence, meaning Marshall has no choice but to use the puffer for the rest of the journey. MacTaggart then compounds the American’s woes by loading the boat with livestock, passengers and coal, before stopping off for a centennial party; it’s as if he’s intentionally driving his employer to blow a gasket, so the latter’s attempt to buy the Maggie from under him (eventually nixed by the captain’s sister) may be excessive, but it’s also pertinent as the only thing that will make him sit up and take notice.
MacTaggart: Aye, but he’s not a man that’s at peace with himself.
For his part, MacTaggart is identified as holding a much more laissez-faire, relaxed view of life (he opines that he’s “never seen a man for the telephoning” like Marshall. It’s “the American way. Everything in a rush”) Yet Mackendrick both confirms and rejects our assumptions of him. Early on, he’s stuck on a subway, ignoring Dougie’s warnings, so suggesting an incompetent sailor, but his later prediction of fog, which Marshall assumes is just another delaying tactic, proves correct. And when Marshall, clearly considering MacTaggart indolent, suggests a walk across the empty beach into town, it’s the latter who has to wait for the tiring American (“You were quite right. The exercise has done me good”).
Marshall: Don’t worry. It was bound to happen. It’s the only thing left that could happen.
One might take Marshall’s retreat at the end, sacrificing his cargo to save the vessel, as a digression into unearned sentimentality, but the playing is much less defined. Undoubtedly, Dougie has got to him, even as his actions have been both sympathetic (he’s the only crewmember who develops an amiable relationship with the American) and antagonistic (it’s he who suggests damaging the pier, and he also knocks Marshall out in an attempt to forestall the loss of the boat). As Paul Taylor noted in Time Out, the wee boy’s “the most ambivalent character”.
More than that, though, there’s a cumulative resignation to fate in a land that escapes Marshall, that refuses to submit to his rules. He doesn’t leave the crew best of pals (albeit, they are grateful enough at still getting paid to rename their vessel the Calvin B Marshall), and it’s unclear that anyone has taken a lesson away from the proceedings. After all, the Maggie crew came out quids-in for thoroughly scuppering someone’s best laid plans.
Marshall’s most meaningful interaction meanwhile, comes at the party, the one point in the picture where he relaxes, and his own practicality rubs up against the realisation that such an outlook isn’t everything in the world. Nineteen-year-old Sheena (Fiona Clyne) informs him of her limited choice of suitors; “One is going paces, the other just a fisherman and always will be. The question is, which one should I marry?” The answer is clear to Marshall, but Sheena finds a different solution. The poor fisherman, because “He’ll have time for me. when he comes home from the fishing, there’ll just be me” and later in life, when they’re old, they’ll “have only what we’ve made for ourselves”. It may be simplistic, but it’s emotionally resonant – indeed, it’s a lovely little rumination – rather than based on how she will “profit” from the arrangement.
If there’s a sentimental key to Marshall backing down with the Maggie, it feels like it’s probably this; Marshall’s entire endeavour, which his wife doesn’t know about, is based on some degree of rapprochement, yet it’s exactly this that Sheena points to as unimportant in the final analysis. Whether he will act in this regard is left to the imagination (Local Hero, which also reduces its hero to the state of an unshaven, pullover-wearing native, also leaves open the long-term effect on its American protagonist, but it’s very evident there that local colour has weaved a spell on him).
Taylor also suggested “the contradictions of the Old World and the New. Tradition and continuity become questionable values, the battlelines are blurred in comparison with Whisky Galore…” while Pauline Kael saw it from a home-turf perspective, whereby “A piece of American folklore – the innocent American vanquishing the wicked, experienced Europeans – is set bottomside up”. In her rather excessive mischaracterisation, “the desperate desire of the American to do the right thing in a world of traditions he cannot comprehend is given its most humane, satirical treatment. The materialistic American, it turns out, is the sentimental sucker, full of empathy for everybody”. Mind you, she also pronounced it “poky in places”.
It’s notable that neither Rose – an American who came to work as a screenwriter in Britain – nor Mackendrick achieved the consistency of their Ealing work when they moved (or moved back) across the Pond. Rose penned several high-profile movies and won an Oscar for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, while Mackendrick was rightly acclaimed for The Sweet Smell of Success, but not financially, and his career subsequently floundered. Who knows how the following decade would have served them had they remained in Britain. The Maggie – working title Highland Fling – has both charm and caustic coal in its load, not unlike the puffer itself.