NOT-QUITE-BRITFILM: “The Old Dark House” (1932)

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It’s the stuff of Gothic fiction:  travelers get caught in a torrential rainstorm in the middle of nowhere; they seek shelter in an isolated house; they soon come to realize that the inhabitants of the house are slightly mad if not downright homicidal.  The story line has been used for centuries.  Rocky Horror Picture Show uses it.  But The Old Dark House is the first to use it in a talking picture, and it certainly competes with Rocky Horror Picture Show as the most over-the-top bizarre horror film of all time.

Here, we begin with three people – a married couple named Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) – driving through a remote section of Wales in the midst of a howling storm.  They’re reluctantly allowed into the old dark house of the spectacularly neurotic Femm family: Gladys, a squat, unsmiling religious fanatic (Eva Moore); her gaunt, effeminate brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger); and their mute, alcoholic servant Morgan (Boris Karloff).  As we learn later in the film, there are two other members of the family living there:  Sir Roderick, the bedridden 102-year-old patriarch of the family (John Dudgeon, theoretically); and Saul, the third brother (Brember Wills), who is padlocked and bolted into his bedroom.

In the middle of supper, another stranded couple enter the house:  Sir William Porterhouse, a brash, boastful millionaire with an enormous chip on his shoulder (Charles Laughton) and his female companion, an earthy chorus girl named Gladys (Lillian Bond).

In the course of the night, it’s clear that all is not well in the Femm household.  The storm blows down the power lines; there’s a large lamp on the landing of the first set of stairs, but Horace is terrified of going up there.  The Wavertons discover Sir Roderick in his room at the top of the stairs, where he giggles a lot and warns them about his family.  By the climax of the film, Penderel and Gladys have fallen in love, Morgan has attempted sexual assault on the two younger women, and Saul has been released from his room and is trying to set fire to the house.  And in the last couple of minutes, it’s pretty clear from Horace’s attitude that it was just another night with the Femms.

The amazing thing, apart from the sheer style and speed of the film (it runs about 70 minutes), is how intentionally funny much of it is.  The Femm family is so outrageously odd that it’s impossible really to be frightened by them, although Karloff’s portrayal of Morgan is pretty convincingly bestial.  Mr. and Mrs. Waverton are pretty dull; Penderel is a typically superficial leading man of the time, always ready with a joke; Sir William and Gladys are an incompatible couple, but there’s nothing particularly outstanding about either of them.  Apart from a couple of creepy moments (such as when Mrs. Waverton is standing at an open door and a hand comes slowly from behind her to drag her back into the house) and an action-packed finale, this is basically a comedy of manners, in which a group of civilized strangers are thrown in with a family of lunatics who all loathe one another.

James Whale’s previous film, Frankenstein, was an enormous success and had made a star of Boris Karloff (who, there and in this film, is listed in the credits simply as KARLOFF).  Three years later, he would direct Bride of Frankenstein, which has the same kind of wit and unashamedly gay sensibility as The Old Dark House.  The two films also share three cast members: Karloff, Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, and Elspeth Dudgeon as a gypsy’s mother.

And therein lies a mystery, because John Dudgeon, who was credited as playing Sir Roderick Femm, was, in reality, Elspeth Dudgeon, a London-born actress who appeared, usually uncredited, in many films after settling in Hollywood.  No one seems quite certain why Whale and Universal listed her as “John” in the credits, but, since they showed the credits at the beginning and at the end of the film, it was clearly intentional.

It’s not technically a British film – it was filmed in Hollywood by Universal Pictures, and two of its stars (Douglas and Stuart) are American-born – but that’s only a technicality.  The Old Dark House is based on a novel, Benighted, by the English author J. B. Priestley.  Its screenplay is by the English writer and director Benn Levy.  Most of its actors are British.  And its director, James Whale, was born in England and worked there exclusively until coming to America in 1929, when he was forty years old.  What’s more, although the film was received tepidly in America, it was a major success in Britain.

One of the interesting things about this film is that its cast consisted of an unusually large percentage of actors near the outsets of their film careers who would go on to become major stars.  There’s Boris Karloff, of course, who was already a star thanks to Frankenstein, and whose role is relatively small in The Old Dark House.

Melvyn Douglas started out as a Shakespearean actor, became a busy leading man during the 1930s and 1940s, returned to the stage in the 1950s, and then became a star again in the 1960s and 1970s as a character actor, winning an Oscar as Gene Hackman’s crotchety father in I Never Sang for My Father.

Gloria Stuart (who, I have to admit, is attractive but boring in The Old Dark House) starred in films between 1932 and 1946.  She was brought out of retirement in 1997 to play Old Rose in Titanic, which got her an Oscar nomination, and died in 2010 at the age of 100.

Charles Laughton’s career as a film star began in 1932, the same year as The Old Dark House, when he appeared as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Sign of the Cross.  The following year he won an Oscar starring in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and his reputation as a star and a brilliant actor never really faded until his death in 1962 at the age of 63.  (His wife, Elsa Lanchester, played the title role in Bride of Frankenstein.)

Then there’s Raymond Massey, who was a Canadian by birth but whose early film and stage career was primarily based in England.  He specialized in historical figures, such as Cardinal Richelieu in Under the Red Robe and King Philip II of Spain in Fire Over England, and become renowned in the U.S. for playing (and becoming somewhat typecast as) Abraham Lincoln on stage and in films.  The playwright George S. Kaufman once said, “Massey won’t be satisfied until he’s assassinated.”  Massey’s children, Daniel and Anna, both became highly respected actors in England.

But my favorite of the cast might be Ernest Thesiger.  Born in London in 1879, he had intended to be a painter but ended up in the theater (although he remained friends with many of his fellow artists, and there’s a drawing of him by John Singer Sargent below).  He fought and was wounded in World War I – apparently he originally hoped to join a Scottish regiment so that he could wear a kilt – and, when asked about the war, he said, “My dear, the noise!  And the people!”  He was an internationally renowned expert in embroidery, about which he published a book entitled Adventures in Embroidery.  His cousin Frederic was Viceroy of England from 1916-21.

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Like his friend James Whale, Thesiger was openly gay at a time when that was illegal in England, although he was also married (apparently happily) to a woman for over forty years.  (The same was true of Charles Laughton, who was more discreet about his sexual orientation.)  Thesiger appeared in over sixty films.  Most of them were made in England, but he’s most famous for his remarkable performance as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.  That role is not a million miles from Horace Femm: both characters are haughty, prim, fussy, sarcastic, malicious – the epitome of what the English would call “camp”.

I liked him as a child, although I knew nothing about him, because he was in two of my favorite films:  Bride of Frankenstein and the 1951 Alastair Sim version of Scrooge, in which he played the undertaker.  By that stage of his life, he was modeling his appearance and mannerisms on those of his good friend Queen Mary of England.

As for director James Whale, he directed some of the most famous films of the 1930s:  Journey’s End, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, The Man in the Iron Mask.  He retired from directing in 1941 after a couple of major flops and committed suicide in 1957.  His life became the subject of a very good film starring Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters.

After its first showing in 1932, The Old Dark House was considered lost until the horror-film director Curtis Harrington rediscovered it in 1968.  There’s another film called The Old Dark House, filmed in 1963 in England with a mostly English cast.  It’s a spoof, and it’s awful.

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BRITFILM – “The Wrong Box” (1966)

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I won’t even pretend to be objective about The Wrong Box.  I saw it (on television, with numerous commercials) a few years after its theatrical release and fell instantly in love with everything about it: its cast (which is a pretty spectacular one), its plot, its dialogue, its style.  To an American teenager it seemed the epitome of British black comedy, and I’m still not certain whether it formed my sense of humor or simply reflected it.

What I probably didn’t realize about it at the time was that, despite almost everything else about the film being very British, the brilliant screenplay was written by two Americans: Larry Gelbart, from Chicago, and Burt Shevelove, from Newark.  The two of them had collaborated a few years earlier on Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Both of them had come from early television, Shevelove mostly as a producer and director, Gelbart as a writer.  Gelbart is the more famous of the two: he went on to write Tootsie, Oh, God! and the television series M*A*S*H.

Their script for Forum, set in ancient Rome, is stuffed with sight gags and one-liners and has a very contemporary feel (well, for 1962).  The Wrong Box has just as many sight gags and one-liners, but the setting is Victorian England, and their use of language captures the formality of the era while still aiming right at the funnybone.  The humor is also – and this is what I find it very difficult to explain – very British, filled with non sequiturs and absurdity that aren’t often found in American comedy.  (One character explains that she’s an orphan: “My father was a missionary. He was eaten by his Bible class.”  Queen Victoria, in the process of knighting someone, lets the sword drop too quickly; as we hear a body part drop to the ground, she mutters, “Oh. . . . We are frightfully sorry, Sir Robert.”  And a romantic scene is prefaced with a subtitle: “Alone with her at last . . . in a room full of eggs.”  If none of these makes you smile, you probably won’t understand the appeal of much of this film.)

The plot, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, centers on a tontine, which one of the characters describes as a “lottery.”  The parents of a number of boys, all classmates at the same school, have chipped in and invested one thousand pounds in the tontine.  Whichever of the boys is the last to die will inherit the money, including the accumulated interest.

As it happens, the last two classmates left alive are two brothers, Masterman and Joseph Finbury, played by John Mills and Ralph Richardson.  Masterman, who detests his brother, summons Joseph to his townhouse in London under the pretence that he’s dying, but with the secret intention of killing Joseph and getting the money.  Masterman also lives with his grandson Michael (played by Michael Caine), a not-terribly-bright medical student; in the house next door, along with Joseph’s grandsons Morris and John (played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) lives Joseph’s ward Julia (Nanette Newman), whom Michael has worshiped from afar.

Joseph and his grandsons head to London on a train which, unknown to anyone, also contains the Bournemouth Strangler, who is killed when the train collides with another one heading in the opposite direction.  Morris and John mistakenly believe that the Strangler’s mutilated body is that of Joseph and ship the body in a barrel to their home in London, but the barrel is mistakenly sent to Masterman’s house instead.  (I hope you’re following this, because it doesn’t get any simpler as it goes on.)

Masterman and Joseph have a quarrel during which Joseph is oblivious to the fact that Masterman is trying, albeit ineffectually, to kill him.  Michael finds the Strangler’s body and, hearing of the argument from Masterman’s butler (Wilfrid Lawson), assumes that his grandfather has murdered Joseph.

And it goes on from there.  There are two brilliant little scenes with Peter Sellers as an unscrupulous and hopelessly drunken doctor in a roomful of cats who agrees to provide Morris with a dubious death certificate.  The scenes with Sellers, lasting maybe five minutes in total, are worth the price of admission, and he has some of the best lines in the film.  My favorite comes in response to Morris telling him that he collects eggs. “Oh, I enjoy an egg myself, yes.  They don’t make good pets, though.  You can never get them in at night.”

In addition to the stars, there are dozens of little character roles played by expert British character actors, most of whose names are unknown except to fans of British films: Leonard Rossiter, Graham Stark, John Le Mesurier, Cicely Courtneidge, Gerald Sim, Irene Handl, and many others.  Even John Mills’ daughter Juliet (sister to Hayley) has a small role.

The director is Bryan Forbes, who began his film career as an actor and moved into directing in the early 1960s, when he directed some of the best films of the British film renaissance: Whistle Down the Wind, The L-Shaped Room, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Whisperers.  His wife, Nanette Newman, appeared in a number of his later films – she’s probably the least interesting member of the cast of The Wrong Box, although she’s perfectly competent and quite beautiful.

When Michael Caine made this film, he was just on the verge of becoming a major star.  The Ipcress File had been released the previous year, and Alfie was just about to come out, earning him the first of his six Oscar nominations.  The three roles are very different from one another, offering an early example of his range and versatility.  And nowhere in The Wrong Box is his Cockney accent detectable.

The opening and closing theme music of The Wrong Box has stuck in my head ever since I first saw the film.  It’s by John Barry, one of the great film composers (Dr. No, Goldfinger, The Lion in Winter, Born Free, Out of Africa), and it’s a lovely, wistful little waltz that seems to have nothing to do with the murderous farce it embraces and yet, somehow, sets the mood perfectly.  Similarly, the opening credits, all paisley in every color combination imaginable, seems somehow very Victorian and very 60s Carnaby Street.

BRITFILM – “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016)

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There was a lot of singing at my friends’ wedding reception a couple of weeks ago.  The older of the grooms sings with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, of which at least half of the guests were members.  Some of them, as well as a few of the rest of us, he had asked to sing solos.  I chose “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern – it’s a beautiful song, it sits well in my voice and I’ve sung it a few times before.

It came off well.  Many people told me that it was one of their favorite songs, and I received compliments for the way I sang it.  After a performance, I usually have a good sense of how it went, and particularly where it didn’t go as I would have preferred.  But comments from other singers, whether good or bad, are always useful.  These days especially, when (apart from the wedding) I haven’t sung publicly for a year, I’m very aware of the qualities I can bring to a performance and those that I can’t (and all too often don’t).  Mine is a medium-sized voice, clear, fairly well controlled, suitable for vocal recitals, musicals and operettas, too small for opera.  I don’t think I have any serious delusions about my own singing.

Which brings me to Florence Foster Jenkins, the new film about a real-life socialite and patron of the arts in the early half of the twentieth century.  (By the way, although Florence and most of the other characters in the film are American and the entire film is set in or about New York City, Florence Foster Jenkins is a British film.  The screenwriter, the director and the majority of the cast, apart from Meryl Streep, Simon Helberg and Nina Arianda, are all British, and the role of New York City is played by Liverpool and Glasgow, with a little assistance from CGI.)

When we first see Florence in the film, it’s at a performance at the Verdi Club, an arts appreciation organization of which she is the founder.  She’s being lowered into a tableau vivant (which consists of a group of people standing motionless while representing a scene from mythology or history) dressed as an angel and introduced to an appreciative audience by her “husband” St. Clair Bayfield, the second-rate English actor with whom she’s been living for many years.

Illness ended her youthful hopes for a career as a concert pianist, but her love of music has led her to take singing lessons and inevitably she decides to give a solo recital at her Verdi Club.  She hires an ambitious young pianist named Cosmé McMoon to be her accompanist and, with the assistance of her money and St. Clair’s determination never to let Florence realize just how terribly she sings, the recital is enough of a success that she proceeds to make some recordings, which become surprisingly popular.

This success convinces Florence to book Carnegie Hall for a one-night performance and to give away a thousand tickets to soldiers (it’s 1944) who she feels need something uplifting to cheer them up.

All this is based more or less loosely on fact.  Classical singers have known and laughed at her recordings for decades – I discovered them at chorus parties during the 1970’s.  What most of us didn’t know until fairly recently was her backstory.  Florence Foster had been something of a childhood prodigy at the piano, giving a recital at the White House before she was a teenager.  She also eloped with a man from whom she contracted syphilis on their wedding night; less than a year later, she left him but kept his last name.  Because of her illness, her relationship with St. Clair Bayfield, depicted in the film as loving, was also sexless; he kept a mistress in another apartment.

A few reviews have criticized the film for ridiculing mental illness, which seems to me to miss the point in a number of ways.  Some syphilitics do lose their sanity; others become Keats and Schubert.  The film never claims that she was mentally ill, just eccentric, which is a very different thing.  She was also wealthy, which allowed her to cocoon herself (or at least to be cocooned) from the reality of her aspirations.  In the early part of the film, her voice teacher showers Florence with words of encouragement even as it’s obvious that she’s a hopeless case and he’s simply taking the money.

In addition – and this is one of the things that makes Florence Foster Jenkins such a wonderful film – where it could simply have spent two hours ridiculing a rich woman with an exceptionally awful voice, the film chooses to celebrate her.  It’s not unlike Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, another wonderful film based on a real-life character, this one a movie director with no talent but boundless optimism and a determined belief in himself.  Florence may be delusional about her abilities, but thousands of people are (some find their fifteen minutes of infamy on television shows like America’s Got Talent, others run for President).  She wants to bring pleasure into other people’s lives, and she believes she can, and somehow the film makes us see her point.  If she hadn’t been rich enough to deflect contradiction, if St. Clair hadn’t bribed vocal coaches and newspaper reviewers to praise her, she might have been less delusional.  And more unhappy.

It has to be admitted that newspaper critics are not treated well in this film.  Most of them are easily and cheerily bribable, and the closest there is to a villain is the self-important music critic of the New York Post, who insists on reviewing Florence as if she represented an assault upon the virtue of Art.

Meryl Streep portrays Florence Foster Jenkins, and it’s become almost impossible to say anything new or, for that matter, anything sufficient about Streep’s acting.  Her impersonation of Florence’s singing is perfect, and the moment at the end of the film where she sings in her own voice lets us hear how Florence heard herself.

Streep’s performance is no surprise; Hugh Grant’s is.  He began as a pretty young actor with a certain amount of talent and a lot of promise, and then for much of his career, while he stayed pretty, the talent was dribbled away in terrible films where he sank into his charmingly bumbling Hugh Grant persona and gained nothing but contempt and bad reviews.  He was brought out of semi-retirement by the opportunity to play with Meryl Streep, and suddenly all his youthful promise seems to have been fulfilled.  His portrayal of St. Clair Bayfield is easily the best thing he’s ever done – complex, deep, thoroughly convincing.  Streep will probably, and rightly, get her annual Oscar nomination; there’s no question in my mind that Grant deserves one.

There are two other superb performances here: one is by Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon.  Helberg is very good as one of the stars of The Big Bang Theory, one of the few television series I make it a point to watch, but his performance in Florence Foster Jenkins is on another level.  The scene after his first rehearsal with Florence, where he’s in a crowded elevator trying desperately not to burst out laughing, is brilliantly handled.  More importantly, his character grows to love Florence as we in the audience do.

The other standout performance is by Nina Arianda, a Broadway actress who won a Tony Award a few years ago but hasn’t made many films.  Here she’s a loudmouth blonde who starts out laughing so hard at Florence’s performance that she falls out of her seat and has to crawl out of the auditorium.  Her big moment during Florence’s Carnegie Hall debut provides one of those scenes that can make your eyes water with happiness.

BRITFILM – “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” (1961)

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Most of the United States is enduring record high temperatures this summer, and even England in the last couple of weeks has seen the thermometer rise above 90°F.  What better time, then, to watch a great old British science fiction film in which the earth is sent hurtling towards the sun?

I’m pretty sure my Dad took me to see The Day the Earth Caught Fire when it came to the Lincoln Theatre.  He loved science fiction, and I had inherited that love from him, along with a number of books he had bought when he was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club in the mid-1950s.  It’s an impressive film, and it certainly impressed me, but I probably didn’t see it again until watching it on DVD a few nights ago.

If you missed the first couple of minutes of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, it might take you quite a while, maybe a half hour, before you realized what kind of film it actually is.  Most of the characters work at the London Daily Express newspaper.  The principal character, Peter Stenning, is a reporter whose career is on a downward slide, helped along by alcoholism and a nasty divorce.  News that the United States has been carrying out nuclear bomb tests at one of the earth’s poles sends Stenning to the British national weather service to get some statistics; there he meets and eventually falls in love with an attractive young woman named Jeannie.

For a while we follow Stenning and the others at the Express, including his best friend Bill Maguire, going about their daily duties, gathering data and writing articles and putting out a newspaper every day.  And dealing with the heat – England is going through an unexpected heat spell, with temperatures up around 90 degrees.  (Sound familiar?)

Then another bit of information comes in: the Russians exploded some nuclear bombs at the same time as the USA, at the opposite pole.  Maguire realizes that these explosions have altered the earth’s rotation by 11 degrees, causing drastic climate changes around the world.

And then things get worse.  In one quietly terrifying scene, the editor of the newspaper calls the staff into his office and explains to them what he has learned from a governmental scientist: it’s not just the earth’s rotation that has been affected.  Our planet is heading towards the sun.

All of this is done with the minimum of special effects, although those are generally extremely well done (especially a sudden, shocking view of a dried-up River Thames).  The script, by Wolf Mankowitz and director Val Guest, is first-rate, with intelligent, sophisticated dialogue and three-dimensional characters.  It won a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of both the Oscar and the Emmy).

The opening and closing minutes of the film are set after the world’s governments have decided, as a last-ditch effort, to detonate thermonuclear bombs in Siberia in hopes of rocking the earth back into its proper orbit.  The rest of the film is in black-and-white; these sequences are tinted orange, partly to encourage the illusion that the temperature in London is well over 100 degrees.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a prime example of British, as opposed to American, science fiction.   British sf, for me, is exemplified by H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in 1898.  Earth is invaded by creatures from Mars, and neither scientific know-how nor superior firepower can conquer them (as they would in typical American sf).  The story is told from the point of view, not of those trying to defeat the threat, but of those simply trying to survive it – another difference from American sf.  In the end, the aliens are destroyed by a passive weapon: the common cold.  There are no heroes.

The acting is uniformly excellent.  This was the first starring role for Edward Judd, who plays Peter Stenning; he’s good enough to make one wonder why his subsequent career was limited mostly to second-rate horror films.  He quit the business in 1990 and became a credit officer at a bank; he died in 2009.  Janet Munro, who plays Jeannie, starred in a few Disney films (including one of my favorites, Darby O’Gill and the Little People) before this.  She died of a heart attack at the age of 38 in 1972.

The role of the editor of the Daily Express was played by Arthur Christiansen, who was not a professional actor.  Until shortly before making the film, he had been the real editor of the real Daily Express, and some of the film was shot in the newspaper’s building on Fleet Street.

Almost the only reasonably well-known actor in The Day the Earth Caught Fire is Leo McKern, a short, stout actor with a deep, loud speaking voice who found television fame as Horace Rumpole in the British series Rumpole of the Bailey.  He also played the chief villain in the Beatles’s second film, Help!, and Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons, and he was Patrick McGoohan’s antagonist in the legendary final two episodes of The Prisoner.  (I saw him about 20 years ago on the London stage as the lead in Hobson’s Choice.)

About ten minutes before the film ends, Peter Stenning has a short conversation with a lanky blonde policeman.  The policeman has a very distinctive Cockney voice, and it takes only a few seconds to realize that we’re watching one of the early film roles of Michael Caine.

The film has no musical score; the only music we hear is casual background music, usually coming from someone’s radio.  It is, however, the only film I can think of which has a separate credit for “Beatnik Music”.

 

BRITFILM – “Hot Millions” (1968)

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This is the plot:  A con man is released from prison and, posing as a computer programmer named Caesar Smith, manages to finagle his way into the British branch of an American corporation named Ta-Can-Co.  Once he’s figured out (by accident, as it happens) how to hack into the computer system running the corporation’s finances, Smith proceeds to send checks to a number of small companies located throughout Europe, all of which are fronts for himself.  Eventually, the scheme has to fall apart, and Smith’s downfall – and his redemption – come in the shape of Patty Terwilliger, his neighbor in the apartment building where he lives and, for a while, his incompetent secretary.

Hot Millions was apparently one of the sleeper hits of 1968, although I didn’t see it for the first time until it appeared on television three or four years later.  It’s been largely forgotten since then, and it’s not prominent on the resumes of anyone involved in its making.  I’ve only seen it three times, at most.  And yet, if anyone over the last 45 years had asked me for the name of one of my favorite little-known comedy films, Hot Millions would be high on the list.

The cast has a lot to do with it.  The two Americans in the film, Karl Malden (as the ambitious Vice President who hires Caesar Smith in the first place) and Bob Newhart (as his right-hand man, whose suspicion and jealousy of Smith are evident from the beginning) are superb.  Both characters have motivations that are endangered by Smith’s presence: Malden’s wants to slide into the seat of the company’s President when the latter has shuffled off this mortal coil, and Newhart’s is trying to get somewhere with Patty Terwilliger, who is obviously more attracted to Smith.  They both give strong performances.

Two actors have cameo roles: Robert Morley is the real Caesar Smith, a gentleman looking for the slightest excuse to chuck his high-stress computer job and cultivate moths; and Cesar Romero has a frankly meaningless little role as a customs agent in Brazil.

It was this film that introduced me to Maggie Smith.  As Patty Terwilliger, the 34-year-old Smith is a walking disaster area.  She speaks in a nasal whine, she can’t keep a job for more than a few days, she’s completely devoid of self-confidence; the one thing she can do pretty well is play the flute.  She can invite one man to dinner in order to avoid another man’s attentions and then forget entirely about the invitation when the first man comes knocking on her door.  One scene lodged in my mind for years afterward: she’s been assigned to Caesar Smith as his secretary, and one day he opens the door to his office to find her standing in her underwear, festooned with typewriter ribbon.  (She took off her dress because she didn’t want to get ink on it.)  From that moment, I was in love with Maggie Smith, an unrequited love that has lasted to this day.  And for her next film, The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie, she would receive the first of her two Academy Awards.

Most importantly, though, there is Peter Ustinov.  I have no idea how well he’s remembered these days (he died in 2004 at the age of 82), but in the 1960’s he was a huge (in every possible way) international star, and one of my idols.  This was a man whose first appearance on the professional stage, when he was 17, captivated most of the London critics; whose first two plays appeared simultaneously in London’s West End theaters shortly after he turned 21; who wrote a screenplay (The Way Ahead) for David Niven while both of them were in the British Army during World War II and Private Ustinov was serving as personal assistant to Lieutenant-Colonel Niven.  He was a prolific writer: well over a dozen plays, a handful of novels, two volumes of short stories, a wonderfully entertaining autobiography.  He was a brilliant character actor, winner of two Academy Awards (for Spartacus and Topkapi) and a gifted director.  He spoke five or six languages fluently, he was an effortless mimic of people and things, and one of his tours de force consisted of his impersonating all the instruments of the orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Ustinov was also considered the greatest raconteur in (at least) the English language, and it was in this capacity that I first came to admire him when I was a kid.  He appeared on a lot of television talk shows, he spoke in perfect sentences and he was always highly intelligent and reliably funny.  The English television host David Frost had a nightly prime-time talk show in New York, and one night his only guest, for ninety minutes, was Peter Ustinov.  It was a virtuoso performance, and an easy paycheck for Frost, who really only had to say, “Good evening, Peter, how are you?” and then sit back and keep his mouth shut.

Peter Ustinov was one of the few celebrities I ever really wanted to meet for dinner, partly because he was so consistently entertaining, and partly (although I wouldn’t have said so at the time) because he seemed like a perfect role model for me: multi-talented, urbane, witty, literary.  In fact, we probably had more in common than I thought.  I was always talented at a number of things – writing, singing, performing – but never good enough, or at least assiduous enough, at any one thing to concentrate on it.  Especially as a teenager and young man, I was intellectually arrogant but emotionally inarticulate.  And, as it happens, and as I learned much later, Ustinov had all these qualities as well.

He never did write the one great play or novel or give the one great performance that everyone (particularly himself) had expected from him.  Something held him back.  One of his obituaries noted that he was always uncomfortable expressing passion.  As an actor, he could do witty, he could do angry, he could do self-deprecating, but, perhaps because his bulk and lack of physical attractiveness limited him so much to character roles, he really couldn’t do love.  (For what it’s worth, he was married three times.)

Which is why Hot Millions is such an oddity in his career, and why it means so much to me.  It’s the only film of his, as far as I know, in which he’s the romantic leading man, although in this case I used the word “romantic” in a highly specific way.  He’s still large and baggy-looking, he uses a droning “suburban” voice, I don’t recall that he ever uses the word “love” in the film, but Caesar Smith’s almost accidental wooing and winning of Patty Terwilliger constitutes one of the great low-key romances in film history.

There’s another scene in the film, about halfway through, that I’ve always remembered.  Smith tells Patty that if she draws the queen of hearts from a pack of cards, he’ll marry her.  What follows, in a scene that probably runs less than a minute, I won’t describe, but it manages to be sad, frustrating and, by its end, incredibly exhilarating.  It’s beautifully done, because it brings two lonely people together in a most original and moving way.

Ustinov and Smith give flawless performances, both individually and together.  They appeared together in a couple of other films later on, in both of which Ustinov played the detective Hercule Poirot, and both were knighted in 1990.

Hot Millions was directed by Eric Till, an English director who worked mostly in television.  If the anonymity of his other films is any indication of his talent, this is by far his best work.

The screenplay, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is attributed to Ira Wallach and Peter Ustinov.  I can’t find out much about Wallach; he was an American writer with about four screenplays to his name, none of them particularly memorable.  This is only a hunch, but I suspect that Wallach created the skeleton of the script and Ustinov fleshed it out.  The characters are all slightly off-kilter, the humor is sly and understated – this is a very English film.

And I think it’s the film in which, before pulling back to do what he was most comfortable doing, Peter Ustinov showed us what he might have done.

BRITFILM – “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963)

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My father took me to see Jason and the Argonauts when it came to the movie theaters.  I asked my younger brother recently if he had gone with us (I couldn’t remember), and he said yes – in fact, he seemed to think it was the first movie he’d ever seen in a theater (he would have been five years old when it appeared).  It seems likely that Tom Hanks saw it around the same time as well.  I’ll tell you later how I know.

Jason and the Argonauts is set in the world of Greek mythology.  Jason, the only surviving member of the family of King Aristo, is encouraged to seek the legendary Golden Fleece at the other end of the world by the man whose life he has saved from drowning, not knowing that the latter is King Pelias, who is responsible for killing Jason’s family.  With the aid of the goddess Hera, Jason commissions a ship (the Argo) and assembles a crew of the bravest men in Greece (the Argonauts), among whom are Hercules and Pelias’s devious son Acastus.  They encounter many dangerous creatures on their voyage, including a gigantic statue that comes to life in order to destroy them, the Clashing Rocks, which destroy all the ships that try to pass between them, the seven-headed Hydra guarding the Golden Fleece, and, most spectacularly, a small army of animated skeletons.

In many ways, the movie looks and feels like a comic book – the characters are larger than life and their motivations are uncomplicated, the sets are large and brightly colored, the action is swift and violent without ever being explicit.  And best of all, it has Ray Harryhausen’s special effects.

Ray Harryhausen may be the only special effects designer whose name has become a kind of brand name that defines a genre.  This sort of thing is common with iconic directors: phrases like “a Hitchcock film” or “a Steven Spielberg movie” indicate a certain style, a specific quality – they give the audience a good idea about what to expect.  No one (as far as I know) refers to “Willis O’Brien’s King Kong” or even “George Pal’s The War of the Worlds”.  But talk about “a Ray Harryhausen film”, and people who love films will probably know what you’re talking about.

Harryhausen was the grand master of stop-motion animation.  Basically, he was creating cartoons, except with flexible models rather than flat drawings.  The work was extremely painstaking: he would move the model slightly, expose a frame of film, then move it again, expose another frame, and on and on until he had finished a scene.  (The scene with the animated skeletons lasts about three minutes in the film; it took him four months to complete.)  Then the bits of the film that he shot were integrated into the live action being shot on a set somewhere.

Jason and the Argonauts has plenty of amazing effects (he considered it his masterpiece, and he was right).  The moment when the enormous statue of Talos turns his head can still send a shiver down your spine, and Jason’s fight with the seven-headed Hydra is a minor masterpiece of stop-motion artistry.  But the one scene that makes this film a classic is the short, climactic battle between Jason and his men and a dozen or so warrior skeletons who sprout up from the ground armed with swords and shields.  For me, it’s up there with King Kong climbing the Empire State Building or Cary Grant being chased through a cornfield by a crop duster – it’s one of those scenes that every film lover has to know.  All by its surrealistic self, it’s worth the price of admission.

The movie ends abruptly.  The last few lines of dialogue, between Zeus and Hera, do everything but come out and say that there would be a sequel in which Jason would return and deal with the evil king who murdered his family.  But Harryhausen decided to devote his efforts to a series of films featuring Sinbad the Sailor, and the promised sequel never materialized.  Or rather, there was a sequel, in 1981, but it had nothing to do with Jason.  It was called Clash of the Titans, and it had a bigger budget, a much more stellar cast (Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Clair Bloom, Harry Hamlin, Ursula Andress) the same director, one of the same writers (Beverley Cross) and some terrific Ray Harryhausen effects.  Unfortunately, in the intervening years, Star Wars had appeared, ushering in a new world of computer-generated special effects, and Harryhausen’s animated models seemed comparatively arthritic.  It was his last film; he died in 2013 at the age of 92.

Don Chaffey’s direction is efficient; although he’s not working with a cast of thousands, he creates an epic look, helped by a lot of location shooting off the Italian coast.  Chaffey became an extremely prolific director for television, first in England and later in America, and his name is on many episodes of some of my favorite shows of the 1960s: Secret Agent, The Avengers, The Prisoner.  The screenplay, with dialogue that is formal but never stilted, and frequently witty, is by Beverley Cross and Jan Read, both of whom, despite their first names, were men.  (In fact, Cross was Maggie Smith’s second husband.)

The score is by Bernard Herrmann, whose name ranks at least as highly among film-lovers as Ray Harryhausen’s.  He began his career with Citizen Kane, he finished it with Taxi Driver, and in between he wrote the music for many of Hitchcock’s greatest films – including Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.  Herrmann limits his orchestra to winds and percussion, giving the film a suitably “barbaric”, slightly primitive feel.

The actors, none of them major stars, are all more than adequate for their roles:  the good guys attractively stolid, the villains over-the-top, the gods amusedly aloof.  Todd Armstrong began his career in 1961 as a co-star on a television series called Manhunt.  Two years later he was cast in the title role of Jason and the Argonauts.  Apart from a handful of film and television appearances, his career was essentially over in 1983, and he committed suicide nine years later after learning that he had contracted AIDS.  Apparently, he was also embittered by the fact that all his dialogue in Jason was dubbed by an English actor because his own accent sounded too American in a predominantly British cast.

Although she’s listed second in the credits, Nancy Kovack (Medea) doesn’t actually come into the film until it’s almost two-thirds over, and she really doesn’t make much impression (apart from being glassily beautiful).  Her American voice was also dubbed by an English actress.  A few years after making the film, she married conductor Zubin Mehta and settled into life as a socialite after he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s-80s.

The other cast member worth a mention is Honor Blackman (Hera), who starred in The Avengers for a couple of years before becoming Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger.

Before presenting Ray Harryhausen with a Lifetime Achievement award at the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony, Tom Hanks (who was born about a year after me and about a year before my brother) said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.”  Well, no, it’s not, really.  But for people of a certain age who were kids when it first came out, it provided a vision of what films could offer – stranger worlds, weirder creatures, bolder adventures.  For what it is, and for what it set out to be, it’s pretty near perfect.

BRITFILM – “The Holly and the Ivy” (1952)

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In one of my other lives, I’m the administrator of a playwriting competition.  Every year, anywhere between 200 and 300 scripts are submitted.  Of these, I would estimate (since I don’t actually read all the plays myself – I parcel them out among a dozen or so readers) that at least 30% have the same basic plot line: A group of people, frequently members of the same family, are brought together for some occasion – a wedding, a funeral, a holiday, something plausible – and, in the course of their gathering, long-held secrets and grievances are finally aired and brought to some sort of conclusion.

The Holly and the Ivy by Wynyard Browne was such a play.  It was produced in London’s West End in 1950 and proved to be successful enough that two years later it was turned into a film with some fairly big-name British stars in the leading roles.  It’s not a particularly imaginative film, cinematically speaking; aside from a handful of short scenes inserted at the beginning to provide a little background to the characters, this is a fairly straightforward filming of the play, set entirely on the ground floor of a Norfolk parsonage.  It could have been made for television.  As it happens, this places all the focus on the script (which is a good one) and the performances (which are excellent).

The occasion here is Christmas.  The head of the family is an amiable, disorganized parson, the Rev. Martin Gregory (played by Ralph Richardson), and it’s the first Christmas since the death of his wife the previous spring.  His slightly dowdy daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) has put off her engagement to a young Scotsman (John Gregson) in order to take care of her father and the parsonage.  Another daughter, glamorous Margaret (Margaret Leighton), has been working in London as a fashion journalist; she has a couple of secrets, including a drinking problem and a wartime love affair that produced a child.  There’s also a son, Michael (Denholm Elliott), a high-spirited and slightly bitter young man serving (not very competently) in the British Army.  They’re all at the parsonage for the holiday, along with two elderly aunts and a middle-aged cousin.

Margaret and Michael announce that they’re abandoning the family on Christmas Eve to go to the movies but actually head to the pub for some heavy drinking.  Upon his return, Michael drunkenly informs his father that nobody can tell him the truth because he’s a parson (and presumably too unworldly to understand the problems of his family); and soon thereafter, all the grievances begin to spill out.

The Holly and the Ivy is superbly acted in the stiff-upper-lip style that was prevalent in British films at the time and that would seem hopelessly outdated about ten years later.  Ralph Richardson was fairly unique as a leading man – pudgy, homely, with a gift for playing apparently ordinary people who live at a slight angle to the rest of the world.  Here he offers a kind, unintellectual man who loves to serve his parishioners while doubting that they even pay much attention to him.  Every performance I’ve ever seen by Celia Johnson (including Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, The Captain’s Paradise and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) has been extraordinarily impressive – she could do more with her eyes than most actors could do with their whole bodies – and here, although she’s about 15 years too old for her role (and looks it), she conveys the pain of a woman who is sacrificing her future happiness for the sake of her father.  Along with the rest of an extremely fine cast, they make what could have been a soggy, cliché-ridden soap opera into a gripping piece of entertainment.

BRITFILM – “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)

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Apparently, the Lincoln Theater in Kearny, New Jersey has closed for good. This was one of those places that you don’t really miss until they’re gone, and I can’t honestly say its loss will leave a large empty space in my heart. It’s been almost 35 years since I saw a movie there (although I doubt that’s the reason it closed). When I was a boy, it had the one big screen that had been there since its opening in 1934. When my brother and I went there to see “E.T.” in the early 1980s, it had at least two screens, maybe three. When it closed a month or so ago, it had six.

It was always a second-run theater; if we wanted to see a movie as soon as it came out, we would go into New York or Newark. Even with the lights on before the movie started, it was cavernous and gloomy, and the floors were always sticky, and the seats weren’t the latest styles. But if you were willing to wait a few weeks to see a new movie, and you didn’t feel like driving into the city, it was there and it was convenient.

On Saturdays they had children’s matinees. We didn’t go every week, but once a month or so my mother would give my brother and me some money – probably twenty-five cents for admission and a dime for popcorn or candy – and he and I would walk over to the Lincoln (eight blocks – nowadays our parents would probably have been arrested for allowing a nine-year-old and a six-year-old to walk so far unescorted) to see whatever was playing. Sometimes it was whatever was playing at the regular showings – The Great Race, say, or My Fair Lady – but more often it was a “children’s” movie, the kind that appealed largely to children’s parents (because they were bland and inoffensive) and hardly at all to most kids. Frequently, about halfway through the feature, at least half the audience would be out of our seats, chasing one another around the theater, throwing popcorn all over the place and making more noise than whatever was coming from the screen.

I was nine years old in 1964. 1964 was not a bad year for movies, especially for a budding anglophile like myself. Goldfinger, Dr. Strangelove and Becket were all big hits, all of them made in England. Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were both released that year – two big-budget Hollywood musicals, each one made entirely on Hollywood soundstages, each one set in a highly stylized version of Edwardian London. My dad took my younger brother and me (my mother didn’t go the movies) to the city to see Mary Poppins – it’s still one of my favorite films. My brother and I saw My Fair Lady at a children’s matinee at the Lincoln. Our parents had seen the original cast production on Broadway and subsequently bought the album, so he and I went into the theater knowing all the songs by heart. I remember keeping count of the number of times anyone in the film (usually Rex Harrison) said the word “damn.” (No one in my family swore – I was probably a teenager when I first heard my mother utter the word “damn”; she had just fallen down a flight of stairs – and even the mildest of curse words were rarely if ever heard on television in those days.) I think it came to about twenty.

1964 was also the year in which A Hard Day’s Night was released. The Beatles were already a part of our lives: we’d seen them on the Ed Sullivan show and we’d bought the 45rpm records of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”. My dad, whose musical tastes were very eclectic, liked them; my mom, whose tolerance for pop music went no further than Perry Como, disliked them, although largely for the length of their hair.   A Hard Day’s Night came to the Lincoln Theatre; what’s more, it was being shown at a children’s matinee, and they’d added another showing afterwards to handle the crowds.

I had to go. For some reason, my brother didn’t go with me. I went with my friend Bobby Colaneri, whose family lived down the street from us, a couple of dozen yards away from the Passaic River. He and I spent a lot of after-school time hanging out in his basement, which was set up as a kind of recreation room and had a color television set (his family was the only one we knew that owned one). We would start out watching something – a baseball game, say – and quickly move on to playing games and making noise. His mother, upstairs, was very tolerant.

The line to get into the theater that day was unusually long, and unusually full of adolescent and teenage girls. This worried us a little: we were still at the age when boys find girls to be strange and irritating creatures and want as little to do with them as possible. It was probably the only time I’d ever been to a children’s matinee when all the seats were filled.

At the Lincoln, whenever a Beatles song appeared on the soundtrack (which was very often), all the girls in the audience began screaming, making it impossible for them or anyone else actually to hear the songs that they had supposedly come to hear. Bobby and I ended up staying in the theater after the first showing and sitting through the film a second time with the hope of hearing the songs. It was a false hope. The house was full of girls for that showing too. Clearly, the boys in that theater were there for the songs; the girls were there for their hormones.

A Hard Day’s Night begins with the famous, dissonant chord that opens the song (according to one story, George thought the song was in the key of D, Paul thought it was in F, they inadvertently played the chords together, producer George Martin liked the sound it made and the rest was history) and, with the song playing on the soundtrack, we see the Beatles running down a street being chased by a crowd of screaming teenagers. There are quite a few scenes like this in the film, and the Fab Four always seem to be enjoying the chase immensely.

A Hard Day’s Night was intended by its producers to be an exploitation film to help sell the soundtrack album (it was originally going to be called Beatlemania). The idea was to show a “day in the life” of the Beatles, throw in a little frenetic humor to attract the teenagers, and make as much money as possible before the mania died down. They never planned to make a classic.

They hired Richard Lester to direct.  Born in Philadelphia, Lester moved to England when he was 21 and became a prolific director of television commercials and low-budget series. In 1959, he directed Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan in a short film called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, an exercise in controlled silliness which was one of the Beatles’ favorite movies. Five years later, they chose Lester to direct their first (and, for all they knew, only) film. Lester worked with screenwriter Alun Owen, a Welsh-born native of Liverpool whose work also appealed to the Beatles, to create a movie with more than mercenary ambitions.

Earlier films starring pop superstars of their day had gone astray by asking the superstars to portray characters other than themselves. (Elvis Presley was at least as big a star as the Beatles in his day, but none of the many films is particularly watchable today because they all asked him to play someone who looked and sounded like Elvis Presley but did something else for a living and got into adventures that Elvis never did, and Elvis wasn’t enough of an actor to do anything but read his lines and, as the films got increasingly worse, look increasingly uncomfortable.) The Beatles weren’t actors, and Lester and Owen wanted to capitalize on that fact. Owen spent a little over a week with the band, getting to know their personalities and their speech patterns, and wrote a script that required them to be lightly stylized versions of themselves. The life they led was fairly unreal in many respects – four young working-class men who became world-famous almost overnight – so the script could be fairly wacky, even absurd, without being too far from their reality.

What’s slightly unexpected about the film is the fact that Ringo ends up being the star. John is anarchically funny, especially in one scene in a bathtub and another in a conversation with a woman (Anna Quayle) who thinks she recognizes him but isn’t quite sure. George has a wonderfully satiric scene with an advertising executive (Kenneth Haigh) and a couple of funny lines. Paul is handsome and assured, but he doesn’t really have any scenes to himself – in fact, he’s almost a secondary character, having for no good reason brought along his grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), whose malice and deviousness provide the impetus for whatever plot the film has. Brambell, a thin, middle-aged man with bad teeth, shifty eyes and a thick Irish accent, is magnificent in the role. He was well-known in the UK for starring in a TV series called Steptoe and Son (an American version starring Redd Foxx was called Sanford and Son), in which he was constantly being called a “dirty old man”, which led to the recurring joke (partially inexplicable to American audiences) of practically everyone in the film describing the grandfather as “very clean”.

But, as far as the film is concerned, John, Paul and George have no depth, no dimensions other than how they look and how they speak. Ringo is the outsider, the short, homely, insecure drummer who’s easy prey to the grandfather’s malicious temptations and who runs away from the television studio in London an hour before they’re supposed to broadcast their concert.

Much of the slapstick of the last third of the film is straight out of Buster Keaton, particularly the sequence in which the Beatles are chased up and down a London street by an ever-growing number of policemen. Ringo in particular had a wonderful downtrodden deadpan that could have been directly copied from Keaton – watch his reaction as he tries to take an early selfie and accidentally knocks the camera into the water. (A couple of years later, incidentally, Buster Keaton made his last film appearance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The director was Richard Lester.)

The visual style of the film was something of a revelation at the time. Most of its techniques – handheld cameras, rapid cutting – had been used often before, but usually in documentaries and solemn films from Italy, never in a popular film meant primarily for teenagers. A Hard Day’s Night is also credited with having invented the MTV-style music video twenty years early, by filming performances from many multiple angles and by including segments (like their frolic in a field) in which the song is played on the soundtrack while the performers are doing something completely different in front of the camera.

Mostly, though, the film’s great achievement is that it manages to be both of its era, a glimpse at a particular time in our culture, a film that couldn’t have been made the way it was made at any other time before or since – and timeless. You probably don’t even have to know who the Beatles were to enjoy the film. (One of the amazing things about the Beatles is that today, 45 years after they broke up, millions of young people are still discovering and loving their music, something that really can’t be said about any other band of the time.) The film’s energy and cheerfully rebellious spirit make it one of the most joyful experiences imaginable.

Last year, to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, the Coolidge Corner Theatre here in Brookline, Massachusetts showed a newly restored print of A Hard Day’s Night for one night only. About half of the audience had seen, or at least were old enough to have seen, the film when it came out. The other half probably weren’t even alive when the Beatles broke up in 1970. It was a hit again and received a huge ovation at the end. The humor was intact, the songs were still brilliant, everyone left the theater smiling. Unlike the rest of us, the film hadn’t aged a day.

BRITFILM – “Lilacs in the Spring” (aka “Let’s Make Up”) (1954)

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“Lilacs in the Spring” (or “Let’s Make Up” as it was released in the USA) is a very strange film. I should admit that I saw this in a truly awful print, with terrible color and some chunks, small or otherwise, apparently missing, so the film may actually be marginally less strange than I think. Still, it’s very badly constructed. The first half hour or so, some of it in black-and-white, offers us Anna Neagle as a young woman during World War II trying to decide between two suitors. I suspect Anna Neagle is an acquired taste, especially for an American like myself, and I haven’t acquired it. Her acting is acceptable, her dancing is fine, her singing is well-trained, but she isn’t particularly appealing. There’s something brittle and artificial about her that obviously excited British audiences during and just after the war (she was an enormous star in her native country, thanks at least in part to the exertions of her husband, director Herbert Wilcox).

It doesn’t help that her two suitors are no more appealing than she is. Peter Graves (not the American actor) makes literally no impression as a shy, mild-mannered soldier with a German accent (his character’s father is supposed to have been German), and is only marginally more interesting as Prince Albert (Neagle’s character has a dream sequence in which she’s Queen Victoria). David Farrar is, if anything, even less attractive as an overbearing stage director.

This tedious story line is then pushed aside for another flashback which takes up the bulk of the film, and it’s here that “Lilacs in the Spring” becomes watchable, because it’s here that Errol Flynn takes over. He was in his mid-forties by now (and looking at least ten years older), but he’s the only one in the film with star quality, and he has it in spades. He’s also an extremely convincing actor in this role – a self-confident song-and-dance man who woos and weds Anna Neagle’s character’s mother (also played by Anna Neagle) and propels her to stardom, while his own career heads downhill. In a showcase for Anna Neagle, the introduction of Flynn is something of a tactical error – he has extraordinary charm and energy and he makes every other actor in the vicinity look unnecessary, with the exception of Kathleen Harrison, who’s always fun to watch.

And that’s the problem – unlike Flynn, and despite all the lavish musical numbers designed to show off her talents, Neagle isn’t particularly interesting to watch on screen. The flashback story engulfs the rest of the film to the point where we just couldn’t care less – if we had cared at all – whom the “younger” Neagle character decides to marry.

It’s worth watching to see Errol Flynn at his best – not as a swashbuckler, but as a performer.

BRITFILM – “The Dock Brief” (aka “Trial and Error”) (1962)

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This neglected little film is based on a one-act play by John Mortimer, the creator of “Rumpole of the Bailey,” and it extends some scenes (particularly the flashbacks to the lives of both the barrister and the accused) in ways that add little but running time. Beryl Reid, a very distinguished British stage actress, is given a role that requires her to do almost nothing but laugh hysterically. Oddly enough, the expansion of the script makes it feel even more theatrical than cinematic.

The real reasons to see this “Trial and Error” (aka “The Dock Brief”) are the performances of Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough. The latter was one of England’s great character actors before he became a director and a Lord. Here, hidden behind a putty nose, he delivers an impeccable performance as a mediocre little man who kills his wife for a bit of quiet. And this was the period – just before head-turning international fame struck – when Sellers was offering one miraculous performance after another. His barrister is a subtle blend of self-delusional bluster and frightened awareness of his own inadequacy; the delicacy of this performance, especially the love he seems to feel for this little man who might prove his salvation, is a joy to behold. And the very last shot of the film, just before the final credits, made me laugh out loud – very silly, yet absolutely right.