During the early 1950s, Scotland was something of a mecca for movie-makers eager to take advantage of the scenery and soak up the history. In 1953 alone, Gene Kelly and MGM producer Arthur Freed came to seek inspiration for Brigadoon by visiting Ayrshire and the Trossachs, Walt Disney Studios filmed Roy Roy in Perthshire, and Twentieth Century Fox shot much of Prince Valiant in Kyle of Lochalsh.

But easily the most fondly remembered – and undeservedly underrated – of all the movies filmed in Scotland during this period is The Maggie, which was given its premiere on the final weekend of March, 65 years ago, and which captured the public imagination as soon as its production was announced – thanks largely to the affection west of Scotland folk had for its eponymous heroine, a Clyde puffer.

Made by Ealing Studios, The Maggie followed its tradition of being a David and Goliath style tale of how the wily captain of a decrepit Clyde puffer outwits an American captain of industry trying to get his valuable cargo to the Outer Hebrides against a deadline. It was an idea that director Alexander Mackendrick had been kicking around for a while – and was not entirely dissimilar to the plot of his earlier Ealing success, the classic 1949 comedy Whisky Galore.

But The Maggie had a charm all of its own – due in part to its range of authentic locations, from Glasgow to Islay, and also to its carefully chosen cast of colourful, mostly local characters, especially the key role of the “Wee Boy”, played by a Govan teenager in his first (and only) acting job. It also boasted some serious Hollywood clout in the burly shape of Paul Douglas, the star of a run of successful American movies which included A Letter To Three Wives and Clash By Night.

Director Mackendrick – who would go on to make Ealing’s The Ladykillers (1955) – was born in Boston to Scots parents but, aged just seven, was taken to Glasgow by his grandfather, following his father’s death from influenza. He attended the Glasgow School of Art before heading to London, but Scotland drew him back time and time again, and his affinity for the country is very evident in The Maggie, which is a love letter to a simple way of life.

Like Mackendrick, who dreamt up the story, American scriptwriter Bill Rose was well-versed in the landscape and traditions depicted in the film. Rose had served in the Canadian Black Watch during the Second World War and had done much of his training in Scotland. After demobilisation, he lived for a year on Loch Fyne, writing and immersing himself in the way of life.

Filming began in early May 1953, and was announced in the local papers – not that they could agree on the movie’s title. In some papers, it was billed as All In the Same Boat while the Evening News referred to it as The Puffers. By the start of the following week, the Evening News had refined the title to The Puffer Story – which was probably the correct working title at that point; the News, you see, had an inside track on what was happening with the film.

It was that tabloid’s one-time editor Neil Munro and his much-loved Para Handy stories which had inspired The Maggie, and the News even had a part to play in the film, as it is the paper which gleefully reports on the puffer’s progress – much to the chagrin of the tough guy tycoon Calvin B Marshall.

In real life, as the film was being made, the paper’s cinema correspondent Mamie Crichton provided regular updates, and in so doing ramped up the anticipation for the scenes which would be shot in Glasgow.

Filming began in May, near the Crinan Canal. A convoy of cars had driven the 30-strong crew from Glasgow and dropped them off at nine hotels scattered across the area. Locals were treated to two Hollywood stars for the price of one, as Douglas was accompanied by his actress wife Jan Sterling, famous for playing hard-boiled femmes fatales. Sterling and Douglas were enchanted by Crinan in the sunshine and the blonde actress pronounced that she was treating her visit as “a health holiday”.

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The first scene to be shot was the pheasant poaching escapade involving the puffer mate, played by Citizens Theatre actor Jimmy Copeland, and the Wee Boy – played by Tommy Kearins. This slightly baw-faced, scene-stealing adolescent had been spotted while helping backstage at a Gang Show at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre. He reported for work just 10 days after his London screen test – though there was some concern over whether his permit from the education authorities would come through in time.

His biggest concern, however, was having his hair shaped into a bowl cut. “If my daddy could only see me now,” he said as the clippers loomed. Mother-of-six Mrs Kearins explained to the reporter: “His daddy cuts all the boys’ hair. He’s at home looking after the rest of the family. I hardly like leaving them, but I had to come here with Tommy. It’s wonderful! This is the first holiday I have had for more than 25 years.”

By the time the crew moved over to Islay a week later, Ealing had announced that the film would be entitled Highland Fling, amid concern that to cinema-goers beyond the west of Scotland, The Puffer might conjure up images of a train.

Two issues bothered Mackendrick during the first week of the shoot on Islay – the weather and the fact that he wanted to find a centenarian for the pivotal birthday party scene. By the second week, however, the weather had improved 100% and a 94-year-old local man, Gilbert Stevenson, had been cast as the centenarian.

The birthday party and subsequent ceilidh were filmed in a Highland cottage set ingeniously built within the village hall at Port Ellen which was doubling as a sort of satellite Ealing Studio. What’s striking is how natural and un-self-conscious the Islay folk who were cast for these scenes were in front of the camera. There is almost a documentary feel to these lyrical sequences which were peopled by locals rather than actors, and they capture the spirit of camaraderie which was by then well-established.

There certainly didn’t seem to be any sort of “them-and-us” attitude as far as the big name in the cast was concerned. Douglas was very much at home with everyone, eating with the crew, cracking jokes with the technicians and joining in the singing of songs parodying the location experiences. Among those were Wonderful Wonderful Crinan, Crinan to the tune of Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen from the then-current film musical Hans Christian Andersen.

It was late in the first (wet) week of the Glasgow Fair Fortnight that the opening scenes were shot in the city. Autograph hunters gathered outside the Central Hotel, ready to move in on Paul Douglas when he filmed his only exterior Glasgow shot, but scores more people gathered on the Suspension Bridge, Kingston Dock and Clyde Street a few days later to see the Maggie.

Towards the end of the shoot, Mamie Crichton reported: “Not so many collected at Queen’s Dock yesterday, where much of the filming was longshot stuff from a high platform overlooking the river. This included the very first scene in the film where the puffer Maggie is seen chugging upstream ….

“No sooner had she got into position in mid-stream than great ships one after the other came steaming down the river hooting loudly with irritation at having to steer round the cocky little craft holding the middle of the channel. The camera kept on rolling. ‘Good,’ said director Sandy Mackendrick. ‘We’ll be able to use all that.’

“Then in came the Maggie to the lock by Queen’s Dock, steered by the film skipper Alex Mackenzie while the real crew kept themselves out of sight.” Like the rest of the Maggie’s crew, Mackenzie – a retired schoolmaster and well-known broadcaster – had picked up a great deal about sailing a puffer since the shoot began.

The film – finally christened The Maggie, in honour of its leading lady – was premiered at Glasgow’s Odeon cinema a few months later, with Ealing Studios’ chief, Sir Michael Balcon in attendance. The audience howled with laughter at the exploits of the crafty Captain MacTaggart and his sidekicks, and the critics were charmed by the whole production, from the quirky Maggie theme music – written by John Addison – to the exquisitely photographed locations.

Over the decades that followed, The Maggie was mentioned only as an afterthought in the final chapters of the story of the great Ealing Studios, but it is so much more: not least, a poetic, whimsical and authentic homage to the old Clyde puffers and all who sailed on her.

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