For many Sir Alec Guinness will always be Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars franchise. For others, however, he will be better remembered for his roles in the various Ealing Comedies in which he starred. From the late Forties into the Fifties Mr. Guinness starred in such comedies as Kind Hearts and Coronets (in which he played eight different roles), The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and Barnacle Bill. What might well be the best loved of the Ealing Comedies in which Sir Alec Guinness appeared is The Ladykillers. Released in 1955, the film was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and received nominations for the Oscar for Best Writing, Best Screenplay - Original and the BAFTA awards for Best British Film and Best Film from Any Source. It won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress for Katie Johnson in her role as Mrs Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce.
The Ladykillers centres on Mrs. Wilberforce, an elderly Englishwoman with an overactive imagination who is prone to report any and all suspicious activities in her neighbourhood to the local constabulary. She runs a boardinghouse that is situated over the Copenhagen Tunnel in London, the second tunnel on the main railway line leaving Kings Cross station. As fate would have it, she rents rooms to Professor Marcus (played by Alec Guinness) and the men in his string quintet. In reality the "string quartet" are hardened criminals planning a security van robbery. Professor Marcus's crew consists of con man "Major Courtney" (played by Cecil Park), Cockney Teddy boy Harry Robinson (played by Peter Sellers), former boxer "One-Round" Lawson (played by Danny Green), and European gangster and all around psychopath Louis Harvey (played by Herbert Lom). While Mrs. Wilberforce would seem to be at the mercy of the criminals, in time she proves more than a match for them.
Even among films as British as the Ealing Comedies, The Ladykillers is a very British, or more precisely very English, film. It is then curious that the film originated in the mind of an American. William Rose was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but migrated to Canada with the outbreak of World War II so he could serve in the military there. Serving in the Black Watch, he married Englishwoman Tania Price and settled in Britain following the war. Prior to The Ladykillers he had already written several screenplays, including the classics Genevieve (1953) and The Maggie (1954).
The idea for The Ladykillers literally came to William Rose in a dream. William Rose told director Alexander Mackendrick about his dream and the two went to work on what would become The Ladykillers. Mr. Mackendrick had already directed such classic films as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Maggie (1955). Sadly during pre-production William Rose and Alexander Mackendrick often found themselves at odds. William Rose eventually left the project, so that Alexander Mackendrick had to finish The Ladykillers without him. After the movie was released, William Rose actually admitted that they had improved his vision of the film.
Of course, much of the film's success rests not only with William Rose's brilliant screenplay, but also with one of the best casts assembled for any film. Oddly enough, while Professor Marcus would become one of his most famous roles, Sir Alec Guinness was initially unsure about the role, even suggesting to Alexander Mackendrick that he hire someone else prior to the start of filming. Fortunately for film buffs everywhere, Sir Alec Guinness went ahead and took the role. While Harry Robinson would become Peter Sellers's first big role, it was not the role for which he initially auditioned. He read for the part of One-Round Lawson and did not do particularly well in the role. Fortunately associate producer Seth Holt had the idea of casting Peter Sellers as Harry Robinson. As to who was initially considered for the role of Harry Robinson, that was none other than Richard Attenborough.
As to the role of One-Round Lawson, reportedly comedian Tommy Cooper was considered for the role, but could not take the part due to prior commitments. For Herbert Lom the role of Louis Harvey would be his first comic role. He had played Napoleon in Young Mr. Pitt (1942), Dr. Larsen in The Seventh Veil (1945), and Continental heavies in various films over the years. Curiously for an actor who had started out playing dramatic roles, the roles of Louis Havey in The Ladykillers and Chief Inspector Dreyfusin the "Pink Panther" comedies are now probably his most famous roles.
Amazingly enough for a film now considered a classic, The Ladykillers was not universally lauded by critics. Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review said of the film, "Everything is done neatly and well, but the material is simply too thin to allow for many bellylaughs." John McCarten wrote in The New Yorker of the film, "Inevitably The Ladykillers brings up comparisons with The Lavender Hill Mob, in which Mr. Guinness was so effective. Alas, the new enterprise is a long, long way from being as refreshing as that." Fortunately, other movie critics found much to like about The Ladykillers. No less than Bosley Crowther of The New York Times commented, "Still and all, Mr. Rose's nimble writing and Alexander Mackendrick's directing skill have managed to assure The Ladykillers of a distinct and fetching comic quality." The film critic for The Glasgow Herald wrote, "Oh, happiest of auguries for this New Year--British comedy is right back on form, and that means outstandingly good, and you will discover it for yourself if you go and see The Ladykillers at the Odeon."
Regardless of what critics thought of The Ladykillers, audiences loved the film. The Ladykillers proved to be a hit at the box office in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The film industries in both countries appreciated the film as well. As mentioned earlier, The Ladykillers was nominated for both an Oscar and BAFTA awards, while Katie Johnson won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress. Along with Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob, it has become the best loved of the comedies Sir Alec Guinness made at Ealing.
The success of The Ladykillers has guaranteed that it would be adapted to many media over the years. Czech composer Ilja Hurník adapted the film into an opera in 1966. BBC Radio 4 adapted the movie as a radio play in 1996. The Coen Brothers remade The Ladykillers in 2004, moving the action to the 21st Century United States. In 2011 playwright Graham Linehan adapted the film as a stage play that premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse.
Aside from the fact that it is a very funny movie, it is not hard to understand the appeal of The Ladykillers. In many respects at its core it is an bit of an underdog story. Mrs Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce is seemingly nothing more than a sweet, good hearted, and ultimately harmless, old lady. Despite this (or perhaps even because of it) she proves more than a match for Professor Marcus and his band of criminals. As played by Katie Johnson, Mrs. Wilberforce is a remarkable woman, and made of sterner stuff that what she appears to be on the surface.
Beyond its basic premise of a kind old lady getting the better of hardened criminals, the appeal of The Ladykillers may go even deeper, at least for older British viewers. In his book On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, Alexander Mackendrick writes, "The fable of The Ladykillers is a comic and ironic joke about the condition of postwar England." For Mr. Mackendrick Mrs. Wilberforce is "...a diminished Britannia..." and her house is "... is Edwardian England, an anachronism in the contemporary world." Meanwhile Professor Marcus and his gang are "... a composite cartoon of Britain's corruption." Considering Mr. Mackendrick's observations about The Ladykillers, the film could be viewed as one in which traditional Britain (portrayed by Mrs. Wilberforce) is victorious over the forces that seek to destroy it or, at least, change it (Professor Marcus and his crew). For many British audiences in 1955, that may have been a very reassuring message!
Contrary to popular belief, The Ladykillers was not Ealing's last comedy, although it was most certainly their last important one. In the wake of its success director Alexander Mackendrick would move to Hollywood where he would direct such films as Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Don't Make Waves (1967) before retiring to take up teaching. Sir Alec Guinness would continue to be an international star, appearing in such films as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Peter Sellers went onto international stardom, starring in the "Pink Panther" series, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and many other films. Sadly, The Ladykillers would be Katie Johnson's penultimate film. She made only one more (How to Murder a Rich Uncle in 1957). She died on May 4 1957. The Ladykillers continues to be her most popular film.
Almost from the very beginning The Ladykillers has had a rather large and loyal cult following. Today it is regarded as a classic. Indeed, I have to rather suspect that if Obi-Wan Kenobi is the first role played by Sir Alec Guinness that comes to someone's mind, it is only because he or she has never seen The Ladykillers.