Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Wrong Box

The Wrong Box

Directed by
Bryan Forbes
Written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, from a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne
Starring John Mills, Michael Caine, Ralph Richardson, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Peter Sellers
IMDB Entry

Robert Louis Stevenson is most widely known these days for dark stories like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Monkee’s Paw,” but he did have a lighter side. In 1889, he co-wrote "The Wrong Box with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne and the farcical novel was turned into a black comedy film in 1966.

The movie is centered on a tontine.* There are only two  people left  from the original group, brothers Masternan (John Mills) and Joseph Finsbury (Ralph Richardson). Masterman’s grandson Michael (Michael Caine) takes care of him while studying to be a physician, while Joseph is attended by his conniving grandsons Morris (Peter Cook) and John Finsbury (Dudley Moore) and his granddaughter Julia (Nanette Newman).

There is a lot of money at stake, and that brings out the greed in several of the participants. Masterman tries to kill his brother, though Joseph is oblivious. At the same time Morris and John want to make sure that Joseph is the one who survives to get the money. The kindly and awkward Michael doesn’t care about the money, but is infatuated with Julia, who reciprocates his feelings.** When a letter comes to Joseph implying Masterman is on his deathbed, Morris pushes Joseph to go to his brother so they take  the train. Which crashes. Morris thinks that Joseph is dead and concocts a plan to ensure the news doesn’t get out until Masterman is dead. But Joseph has actually survived the crash.

Then it gets complicated.

Ralph Richardson is great at Joseph, the most boring man on the planet, who regales everyone nonstop with trivial facts and is oblivious to people’s reactions to him. Caine’s Michael is played as a pure innocent, slowly romancing Julia without and idea of how to approach it. Mills’s Masterman is the more desperate of the brothers.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are always delightful. Moore is a womanizer, while Cook is the schemer, whose schemes never work out well for him.  By now, they had experience working together and make the most of it.

Special kudos have to go to Peter Sellers as Dr. Pratt, a physician of dubious morals and forgetful manner. The scenes with him and Cook are a highlight,as two comic geniuses play off each other.

Peter Cook and Peter Sellers

The script was written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, who had hit it big with the book of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway. Their adaptation of the novel quite faithful to the book, though they added the romance elements, but clearly made fun of the convention when it comes out that Julia and Michael aren’t really cousins, after all.

Director Bryan Forbes continued directing major films for a few more years and was also involved in writing screenplays and acting.

A very funny adaptation of a very funny novel.

*A financial instrument where a group of people put money into a pot and get interest from it each year. As each of the member dies, the interest is divided up by one fewer person until the last person alive gets the entire pot.

**Turns out they were both adopted, so they aren’t actually cousins.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

tom thumb

tom thumb

Directed by
George Pal
Written by Lasdislas Fodor, based on a story by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm*
Starring Russ Tamblyn, Alan Young, June Thorburn, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Bernard Miles, Jesse Mathews
IMDB Entry

George Pal was one of the big names in science fiction in the 1950s. He produced and directed a series of big-budget films like The Great Rupert, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, and The War of the Worlds. In 1958, he decided to start directing and chose the fairy tale, tom thumb.

The lumberjack Jonathan (Bernard Miles) lives in the forest with his wife, Anne (Jessie Matthews). One day, he meets up with the Forest Queen (June Thorburn) who grants him wishes. The final wish is by Anne – who is childless – asking for a child, “even if he’s no bigger than my thumb.” And the next morning tom (Russ Temblyn) appears.

tom has several adventures and gets mixed up with two crooks, Anthony (Peter Sellers) and Ivan (Terry-Thomas). Meanwhile, tom’s friend Woody (Alan Young) romances the Forest Queen.

The movie does utilize some good effects to emphasize tom’s size, winning an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The movie also has songs, but nothing that really became memorable.

Russ Tamblyn is great as tom. He was an excellent acrobat, which allows him to do some impressive physical stunts. He also is peppy and upbeat in just the right degree to make the movie fun.

Russ Tamblyn

Peter Sellers had done some TV and UK movies, but this was his first US film. Terry-Thomas became a fixture in films for  years, usually playing a sill-ass Englishman.Of course, Alan Young is familiar as Wilbur Post in Mr. Ed, though before that he was well regarded as an up-and-coming Canadian comic actor.

Jessie Mathews is not well known these days, but she was a major stage star in the 20s and 30s in the UK. Her producers refused to let her film in the US and her career hit the doldrums after World War II as her character – usually a wealthy woman – did not fit into the times.  The movie was an attempt at a comeback as more serious actress.

The movie was  a major success, so big that MGM allowed Pal to chose his next project, which turned out to be The Time Machine.

I thought about this film recently when there was an Internet meme about naming the first movie you saw in a theater. My imperfect memory came up with Sleeping Beauty, but when I was searching around, I discovered tom thumb came out a year earlier.

*The Grimm brothers didn’t write any of the stories in their books (and never claimed to). They merely collected existing folklore. Jacob Grimm also developed Grimm’s law of phonological change, an important principle in etymology.

**Another film I remembered from about that time – though I only saw the ads for it – was Plan 9 From Outer Space, mostly because I knew who Bela Lagosi was – and that he was dead – and thought that this was his last film.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Amazing Mr. Williams


The Amazing Mr. Williams

Directed by
Alexander Hill
Written by Dwight Taylor, Sy Bartlett, Richard Malbaum
Starring Melvyn Douglas, Joan Blondell, Clarence Kolb, Ruth Donnelly, Edward Brophy, Donald MacBride, Don Beddoe
IMDB Entry

Sometimes an actor sticks in your memory and you don’t see him again (or even know they name) for a long time. For me, one of them was Clarence Kolb, the gravel-voiced Mr. Honeywell of My Little Margie. His lanky figure and deep, rough voice stayed with me for years until I saw him again in His Girl Friday. And when I heard about The Amazing Mr. Williams, I wanted to check him out. What I discovered was a badly overlooked movie, a combination of romantic comedy and serious detective film.

Kenny Williams (Melvyn Douglas) is the city’s best detective, solving crimes no one else can figure out. He’s engaged to Maxine Carroll (Joan Blondell), who is frustrated that he constantly have to break dates with her  because his boss, Captain McGovern (Clarence Kolb) needs him to solve a murder.

Williams honestly tries to make time for Maxine, but something always comes up. At one point,McGovern asks him to take a criminal Buck Moseby (Edward Brophy) to the upstate prison. The trip would require him to break  another date, so he introduces Moseby as an old friend and they go out on a double date with Maxine’s roommate Effie (Ruth Donnelly). Of course,complications ensue.

The movie strikes a clever balance between the two elements, switching from romance to detective. Williams clearly shows his value as a detective, coming on the scene and finding things that the other cops have missed.

Melvyn Douglas is efficient in the role and shows a character who is married to his work, even though he loves his fiancée. Joan Blondell is excellent as Maxine, and effortless pulls off the twist at the end. Kolb is always fun to watch, as was Edward Brophy, a busy character actor who played slightly dumb criminals.

Alexander Hill was a busy director in the 30s, but few of his movies were all that memorable. The best known seems to be My Sister Eileen,” which formed the basis for Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town” but the movie was just an adaptation of a Broadway play.

Overall, The Amazing Mr. Williams is a light romantic comedy that holds up fairly well.