Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The Captain’s Paradise (1953)

The Captain’s Paradise is a 1953 Alec Guinness comedy which leads some people to assume that it’s an Ealing picture, but it isn’t. It is however somewhat in the Ealing style.

Captain Henry St. James (Guinness) is the captain of a ferry boat which sails back and forth between Gibraltar and Spanish Morocco. Henry St. James has spent his life searching for the secret of happiness. Now he has found that secret. The secret is not to find the perfect woman. The perfect woman does not exist. In order to achieve perfect connubial bliss you just need to find two women. He has found two women who, between them, provide everything a man could want. In Gibraltar he has Maud (Celia Johnson). She is the model of English middle-class domesticity. His life with Maud is safe, secure, comfortable and utterly respectable. On his return from his latest voyage he brings her a present. It’s the kind of romantic gift that is sure to delight any decent middle-class Englishwoman -a new vacuum cleaner. Maud is beside herself with excitement.

In Spanish Morocco he has Nita (Yvonne de Carlo). Nita is Spanish. She is fiery, tempestuous, passionate and very very sexy. Nita is the sort of woman who would appreciate a vacuum cleaner as a gift. She wouldn’t know what to do with such a contraption. She’s the kind of girl who’d prefer to be given naughty lingerie. Nita was born to love, not to cook and clean.

It’s a marvellous arrangement and everybody is happy. The captain is happy, and both women are genuinely happy. Of course it can only work as long as his two lives and his two women are kept completely separate. Since they live in different countries that should be easy but you cannot afford to be careless. You cannot, for example, get gifts for the two ladies mixed up and give the ultra-respectable Maud a naughty sexy gift and give the sexpot Nita a sensible practical gift. Unfortunately that’s just what Captain St. James does. And it sets disturbing thoughts going in the minds of both Maud and Nita - Maud starts to think there might be more to married life than domesticity and Nita starts to wonder if there’s more to life than fun and sex.

And of course the evil day comes when Maud decides to fly over to Spanish Morocco to surprise her husband and the two women are inevitably going to meet.

You’re probably expecting a standard bedroom farce but this movie has a bit more subtlety. There’s actually quite a bit of focus on the two women who start out being pretty much stereotypes but gradually develop some complexity. They both start to want to break out of their assigned roles.

The opening scene with the firing squad is definitely not what you expect in a comedy.

Guinness is good, as he always is in such roles. Celia Johnson has the obviously less glamorous role but she does well with it, especially when Maud starts to develop a sense of adventure. Yvonne de Carlo has immense fun as Nita - she really is outrageous, and outrageously good. I had no idea Miss de Carlo was so adept at comedy. Incidentally much of her dialogue is in Spanish. The two lead actresses dominate the movie.

There are solid supporting turns by the likes of Sebastian Cabot and Charles Goldner as the captain’s loyal First Officer Ricco.

An amusing sidelight is that in the original script St. James was married to both women. In the movie itself his relationship to Nita is rather vague. Clearly they’re living together as man and wife but sometimes it’s implied that they’re married and sometimes it’s implied that she’s his mistress. In 1953 film-makers had to be ridiculously careful about such subject matter if they wanted their movie released in the US and oddly enough it appears that a man having a mistress was considered less shocking than bigamy.

Kino Lorber have paired this movie with another nautical-themed Alec Guinness comedy, Barnacle Bill (which actually is an Ealing picture). It’s a good pairing since the two movie are similar but slightly different in tone. The Captain’s Paradise is more sophisticated but Barnacle Bill is much funnier.

I have no problems in principle with sophisticated comedies that try to have a bit of emotional nuance but a comedy has to be, first and foremost, funny. The Captain’s Paradise is gently amusing but doesn’t quite have enough comic spark. It’s worth a look but it’s a lesser Alec Guinness comedy.


  1. "I had no idea Miss de Carlo was so adept at comedy"

    Really? I mostly know her from The Munsters. I've seen some of her films, but that's what I primarily know her from.

    I have seen this, a long time ago. I probably wouldn't get it on its own, but if it's part of a double-bill, I'll seek it out some time.

  2. Yes, the same for me - I knew Yvonne de Carlo for playing Lily Munster for years on television before seeing her as anything else. I like The Captain's Paradise - in part because I like Celia Johnson so much - from the time I first saw her in Brief Encounter, that great classic drama - and then later in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

    1. It's a shocking admission to have to make but I have never seen BRIEF ENCOUNTER. I will have to make an effort to see it.