Films: Comedy/Musicals



THERE WAS A YOUNG LADY. Nettlefold Films, 1953. Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Sydney Tafler, Bill Owen, Charles Farrell, Robert Adair, Geraldine McEwen, Kenneth Connor, Bill Shire. Screenplay: Lawrence Huntington. Story by Vernon Harris & John Jowett. Director: Lawrence Huntington. Currently available on YouTube.

   David Walsh (Michael Denison) is one of those rather hapless English public school types common to British comedy in the Post-War era, a nice chap, but not really suited to anything practical like the jewelry business he has inherited from his uncle and knows nothing about. Luckily for David his fiancee Elizabeth (Dulcie Gray) not only knows jewelry, but business.

   In fact she has a bright idea to buy the family jewels of a titled old school chum (Bill Shire) of David’s who is in a money bind, and sell them at a tidy profit if she can get past David’s stubborn refusal to use his old chum for business.

   Pushed to the brink by David’s recalcitrance and more than a little annoyed by the obvious crush the sexy receptionist (Geraldine McEwan — yes, Miss Marple) has on him Elizabeth walks out …

   And right into a smash and grab hold up at a nearby jewelry store. When the frightened criminal (Bill Owen) grabs her and drags her to the getaway car she finds herself in the company of a hopeless crew of wanna be mastermind Sydney Tafler, muscle man Charles Farrell who would rather garden, Owen, and none to bright Robert Adair who wants to be a chef.

   Truth is, these boys are so poorly organized Elizabeth takes pity on them and masterminds their escape just to get her ordeal over more quickly, but now they are holding her hostage at a manor house outside London that Farrell’s uncle watches for the owners.

   Luckily Elizabeth is able to slip a note to David on a tip she gives a local (Kenneth Connor) who gives them a lift on his hay cart after they dump the getaway car. Unluckily he doesn’t notice.

   While Elizabeth gradually takes over the gang because she is so much smarter than the rest in the way of this kind of comic crime caper David decides her plan isn’t so bad after all and arranges to buy the collection from his friend putting it in their office safe — the old one because he refused delivery on the new one Elizabeth bought while he was still mad at her — and forgets to call the insurance company when Connor shows up with Elizabeth’s note.

   Meanwhile the efficient Elizabeth, having befriended one of crooks, convinces them to make a killing by holding up the jewelry exchange where she and David have their offices with a promise to free her if the plan works. And wouldn’t you know it they hit the wrong office — hers.

   Other than a really annoying theme song this is a cute minor British comedy of the era, hardly a rival to Ealing Studios or any classics of the form from that time, but enjoyable on a British Damon Runyon note with comic crooks, a hapless hero, and a heroine frustrated by not being taken seriously despite being smarter than everyone around her.

   It’s clever, the characters well developed, and the actors fine. Denison was successful minor lead, Gray a competent actress, and the faces like Tafler, Owen (Compo on the long running British comedy Last of the Summer Wine), Adair, McEwen, and Connor — all familiar faces even if you don’t know the names.

   There is a particularly nice bit as a snide Gray reads a cheap thriller in bed out loud while outside, unknown to her, Denison is doing the exact same things she is narrating. There’s also a nice attempted hold up by the boys in the city that goes awry in exactly the way Elizabeth predicted ironically because of Denison and his titled friend who keep getting in the way while shopping for an engagement ring for the friend.

   There are no big laughs here and only the most minor of physical comedy bits, but it is an entertaining time killer that performs well above its class, and has a nice ironic and charming ending, charm being the operative word for the entire film.




ONE EXCITING NIGHT. Columbia Pictures, UK, 1944; US, 1945. Also released as You Can’t Do Without Love (with slightly altered credits, according to IMDb. Vera Lynn, Donald Stewart, Mary Clare, Frederick Leister, Phyllis Stanley. Director: Walter Forde.

   During wartime, a singer becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to steal a priceless painting…

   Young singer Vera Baker (Vera Lynn) comes to London to entertain a group of RAF personnel on leave. At Waterloo Station, a pick-pocket (Cyril Smith), on the verge of getting caught, sneaks a stolen wallet into her bag. The wallet contains a cloakroom ticket to a mysterious package belonging to Michael Thorne (Donald Stewart), a former theatrical producer, which the nefarious Mr Hampton (Frederick Leister) hopes to claim as his own.

   Vera, meanwhile, has been sacked after an impromptu performance at the United Nations Welfare Service. Discovering the wallet, she tries to return it – and impress its owner with her singing abilities – yet both get set upon by Hampton’s men.

   The package, she learns, is a Rembrandt painting which has been sent to Thorne for safe keeping. Hampton then hires Vera to perform at a cabaret. On the night of the show, he captures Thorne and tries to kill him with the help of a doppelgänger. Vera’s efforts to rescue the imperilled producer leave her standing on a window ledge and in danger of dying herself…

   An amiable romp with six musical numbers (most of which are performed with a band in view), One Exciting Night is a comedy-adventure without enough laughs or thrills to justify its place in either genre. The last of three wartime vehicles for popular British singer Vera Lynn, known as ‘the Nation’s Sweetheart’ for the achingly poignant ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and patriotic ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’, it’s light on action and focuses mainly on farce.

   The plot is mildly engaging but much too convoluted, a sub-Wodehousian blend of light romance and criminal machinations which too often takes a back-seat to the songs. Lynn, here a wholesome, toothily attractive twenty-something, is charming and personable in a role which, perhaps unfortunately, requires her to be oblivious of the surrounding danger for much of the film.

   A far better version could have been made with her as an enterprising amateur sleuth in accord with the mystery, yet as it is she does no detective work whatsoever.

   Even the last-reel jeopardy is half-hearted, lacking any concerted effort to excite or surprise, while the late introduction of one of those miraculous face-masks, so often seen in the Mission Impossible films, makes things all the more outrageous. The film ends, too, on a slightly anticlimactic note as the villains aren’t arrested and – most distastefully – the male lead seems to settle on Vera because his true love is already married.

   Nonetheless, if one doesn’t ask too much of it, One Exciting Night makes for a warm, whimsical, occasionally even fleet-footed film, with at least a couple of enjoyable songs: ‘It’s Like Old Times’ is a wistful, pop-ballad sing-along while ‘You Can’t Do Without Love’, a call for household recycling in aid of the war effort, is a fun little ditty despite playing more like a public information announcement.

   Of course, it’s all somewhat unlikely, and only in the 1940s could the plot of a feature film depend on somebody returning a lost wallet. If that happened to any of us today, it really would be one exciting night.

Rating: ***




HOW DOooo YOU DO!!! PRC, 1945.  Bert (The Mad Russian) Gordon, Harry Von Zell, Cheryl Walker, Ella Mae Morse, Keye Luke, and Claire Windsor (as themselves.) Also Frank Albertson, Charles Middleton, Leslie Denison, and Sidney Marion (as fictional characters.)

   A surprisingly lavish effort from little PRC, with, the overall look of slick professionalism one seldom associates with that hard-scrabble outfit, and a surrealist bent rarely seen from any studio, major or minor.

   The frenetic plot involves Radio Stars Gordon and Von Zell slipping off to vacation incognito to get away from amorous young ladies at the studio. The notion of predatory females in relentless pursuit of these two beggars the imagination, but that’s part of the charm here. Anyway, they ensconce themselves at a luxury resort, only to find the ladies checking in right behind them.

   We pause for a bit of rom-com — comedy is never easy, especially on a low budget, but these two pros very nearly make a go of it — before the lads prepare to skip out… only to find the place under lockdown!

   At which point the perennial PRC penury starts to show. Sheriff Charles Middleton announces that a guest has been found murdered in his room, but we aren’t shown the departed guest or the room, throwing a hue of unreality onto the palette. As the story lurches on, the body disappears, then reappears at the most inopportune times, only to vanish with distressing predictability, but again, Gordon and Von Zell do what they can with the material.

   In fact, there’s a pleasantly off-the-wall sidebar to the story when The Mad Russian calls on his movie-detective friends to solve the murder, and one of them is Keye Luke, who indulges in Chanish aphorisms till someone sighs, “What a ham!”

   To discuss the plot any further would be a pointless disservice to the first-time viewer and to the film itself, which ends in a burst of surprising self-awareness. I’ll just say it showed a creative daring I hadn’t seen since Hellzapoppin.

   There was one element here that nettled my mind: Frank Albertson, playing basically the same callow reporter he essayed in Man-Made Monster   (Universal, 1941) romances Claire Windsor (playing herself) who responds enthusiastically. I kept wondering what would happen if a real person married a fictional character? Would the marriage be legal in all fifty states? And which religion would the children be raised in?

   Well, How DOooo You Do!!!   doesn’t answer these questions, nor many others, but fans of old-time radio, and movie-lovers who can let their critical belt out a notch, will find a lot to like here.

LOVE LAUGHS AT ANDY HARDY. MGM, 1946. Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Fay Holden, Bonita Granville, Lina Romay, Sara Haden, Dorothy Ford. Director: Willis Goldbeck.

   This was the last of the Andy Hardy films before the 1958 reunion film, Andy Hardy Comes Home, and you certainly can tell the series had seen better days. Andy comes home from the war in this one, just before heading off for college as a 20 year old freshman.

   But since Mickey Rooney was something like 26 years old at the time, he looks absolutely ludicrous in a beanie, to say the least. And he’s also far too old to continue his usual juvenile approach to love and romance any longer, even though he’s serious enough about it now to be ready to pop the question to Bonita Granville. But as you can tell from the title,  it doesn’t work out, in a twist of the plot even more ridiculous then the sight of grown men wearing stupid little caps.

   Lina Romay may not set Andy’s heart on fire, but she does add a little spice to the proceedings. And while I haven’t been able to locate Dorothy Ford in any of my standard  references, in this movie she plays a coed who is about 6 foot 6 inches tall, and when she dances with Andy (who comes only about breast high), it is really something to behold:

   Overall, while I didn’t care that much for the picture, Judge Hardy’s patented father-to-son talk with Andy at the end of the movie is as good as ever (but ruined by the local station that interrupted it in mid-sentence for yet another commercial).

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File 26, December 1990.




36 HOURS TO KILL. 20th Century Fox, 1936. Brian Donlevy, Gloria Stuart, Douglas Fowley, Isabel Jewell, Warren Hymer, Stepin Fetchit, James Burke. Based on a story by W. R. Burnett. Directed by Eugene Forde. Released commercially on DVD.

Anne Marvis (Gloria Stuart): So this is Albuquerque?

Frank Evers (Brian Donlevy) There’s no Indians.

Anne: They’re all working for the WPA.

Frank: What a relief.

   Get it?

   That’s the wise cracking speed of the humor in this not quite a mystery comedy, that still manages to pack quite a bit of screwball into the tale of a Public Enemy on the run and a blooming romance on a train from Los Angeles to Topeka that accompanies his journey.

   Alvin Karpis has just met his rendezvous with J. Edgar Hoover, the headlines proclaim, while Duke Benson (Douglas Fowley) sweats out hiding in the suburbs of LA with his moll/wife Jeanie (Isabel Jewell) while flunky Hazy (Warren Hymer) makes house calls to deliver the news.

   This time he brings a newspaper from home, Topeka, with him and Duke spies in the paper that a mysterious lottery winner who signed himself Little Boy Blue has won $150,000, and Duke is Little Boy Blue, the winning ticket in his wallet. Just one problem: How will he ever cash it in with the Feds everywhere looking for him?

   Duke comes up with a plan. Jeanie will fly to Topeka since it is dangerous for them to travel with each other, and after arranging with his old gang for a place to hide out once there, Duke will book tickets on the train, Hazy getting on board first, and Duke making a daring transfer from a moving car in the dark as the train is still moving slow. Then Duke will hideout in his compartment for the rest of the trip.

   Complicating things at the train station is reporter Frank Evers, who is hounding a man he claims is a famous scientist he has to get a story on so desperately he buys a ticket to come along, a little girl traveling by herself who takes a shine to Hazy, and boarding at the first stop, Anne Mavis, an attractive blonde fleeing process server James Burke until she can cross over into Arizona.

   When Duke has to leave his compartment for annoying porter Stepin Fetchit to make his bed Anne, hiding from the process server, climbs in Duke’s unoccupied bed, and in true screwball style mistaken for Duke’s wife by the process server, but not by Evers who has already cozied up to Duke.

   Later still Jeanie, when her plane is forced down by a storm, will join the train finding Anne’s gloves in Duke’s compartment and jumping to conclusions so Anne has to pretend to be Frank’s wife to appease Jeannie’s insane jealousy, not really all that insane considering Duke’s proclivities and designs on Anne and how handy Jeanie is with a knife.

   And when they reach Topeka and Duke realizes the Feds are hot on his trail when the porter finds a microphone in his compartment (“Dat one of them new telephones, Mr.?”) things get really complex when he kidnaps Anne and takes her to the phony sanitarium run by his former gang and Frank has to rescue her by posing as the agent from the Insurance Agent paying the lottery ticket off to Duke’s lawyer (Charles Lane).

   Mostly the movie crackles, It speeds along, pauses for laughs, develops just enough character to keep you interested, and relies on the considerable skills of Donlevy, Stuart, Fowley, Hymer, and Jewell to keep things sparking as nothing and no one is exactly who they seem to be and complications arise. Almost every main character has a revelation to make that isn’t exactly what you expect, though one of them is pretty obvious no mater how hard I try to avoid giving it away.

   It might not seem Black Mask material, but you can imagine it i5n Dime Detective or Detective Fiction Weekly. It’s the kind of story you can imagine Richard Sale, Robert Reeves, John K. Butler, or Dwight Babcock might have written.

   Admittedly there is the always nagging problem in films of this era of the role Stepin Fetchit plays, mostly comedic relief as he infuriates Duke, but also fairly important to the plot in that his clumsiness is set up so he finds the microphone that tips Duke off he is being followed.

   Hymer’s Hazy is an odd character too, very much as if a Damon Runyon character had wandered into a Warner’s Gangster flick, his scenes with the little girl quite effecting, and his pride in having made a prune whip for the captive Anne even sweet.

   The ending as you might expect is slam bang, with guns blazing, but who gets shot by whom and why may surprise you.

   Plus I am a sucker for stories like this on a train, and if the finale isn’t on the train, the trip itself is a delight, and the cast fine companions for any journey. This is little gem I only saw for the first time recently, and never heard about, but will no doubt watch again.




THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER. 1942. Franchot Tone, Joan Bennett, Allyn Joslyn, Lloyd Corrigan, Cecil Cunningham, Hans Conreid. Screenplay by Gina Kaus (her story) & Jay Dratler, with additional dialogue by Harry Segall. Directed by Richard Wallace. Available for viewing online on several sites, including this one.

   With World War II coming at the end of the heyday of the screwball comedy of the Thirties, it was only natural that the new war movies would cross genres with the popular romantic comedies of only a year or so before, and perhaps natural too that the fit and the public reaction would be mixed.

   While Lubitch’s To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny was the hallmark of absolute genius for the genre not everything worked quite so well, and even that classic met mixed reactions when it came out.

   Even before the war there had been some uncomfortable if admirable attempts at mixing the two like Mitchell Leisen and Billy Wilder’s Arise My Love, a romantic comedy that turns quite dark and serious as the war intrudes or Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon with American stripper Ginger Rogers married to Nazi provocateur Walter Slezak encountering American radio journalist Cary Grant (who at one point comes close to being sterilized in a Concentration Camp) and ending with a jolly turn as Slezak falls overboard on a passenger liner on the way to practice his provocations in the States giving Grant, Rogers, and the ship’s Captain pause to debate whether they should rescue him … they don’t.

   These films are a slightly different genre than out right comedies like All Through the Night or various versions of comedic stars battling comic opera Nazi’s (Cairo even does it to music as bumbling Robert Young sinks a German sub while American spy Jeanette MacDonald warbles), and as the genre goes none are stranger than 1942’s The Wife Takes a Flyer.

   Allyn Joslyn is Major Zellfritz, a total Hitlerian idiot replete with a Sergeant whose only job is to massage his arm as he tires of Heil Hitler-ing. Along with every other Nazi in Occupied Holland he is out to find a flier shot down the night before who saw secret Nazi installations. His search leads him to the home of the Woverman’s whose daughter in law, the beautiful Anita (Joan Bennett) is divorcing their son who is due back from the sanitarium that evening.

   Zellfritz is instantly smitten and moves himself in, which would be bad enough save that the missing flier, Christopher Reynolds (Franchot Tone), has just shown up hiding in the cistern, and in desperation gets passed off as the returning husband the insane Hendrik (Hans Conreid), and Reynolds is instantly smitten with Anita too.

   Reynolds is playing madman and flirting, Zellfritz is blocking him and madly jealous, the Woverman’s (Lloyd Corrigan and Barbara Brown) only want to keep the Nazis from realizing they are hiding an Allied flyer, and Anita only wants her divorce the next day and to get out of the madhouse.

   Meanwhile rather than be released Hendrik has broken out.

   Oh, and of course Reynolds needs to make a clandestine meeting and arrange to get out of Holland so he can report on the secret installations he saw. But first the has to sabotage Anita’s divorce because he is so smitten with her he doesn’t want her to go away.

   Before it’s over there is divorce proceeding where Reynolds goes completely nuts, Anita moves in with a home full of man crazy older ladies who get enlisted in Reynold’s mission, a public trial (for an assault the real Hendrick perpetrated) where Reynolds joins the Nazi Party, and all the time he and Anita are falling in love.

   At no point does anyone address how American flier Reynolds and the other flier he meets up with happen to speak Dutch well enough to pass as natives among the Dutch or the Germans.

   Granted screwball comedy operates on a different level than the mundane reality we all live in, but this film is almost surreal in its disregard for any kind of linear storytelling or human behavior. In most screwball comedy there are at least a handful of normal people to react against and poke fun at. Here everyone but Bennett is completely nuts, and even her character seems totally indifferent to WW II.

   And that doesn’t even address Allyn Joslyn’s performance as Zellfritz, a broad even cartoonish interpretation that makes Sig Ruman look restrained. His face screwed up as if he had been sucking on alum, his walk strangely stiff, and his behavior better suited to a Daffy Duck cartoon than a human it is the ultimate comic opera Nazi in a genre where comic opera Nazi’s were the standard.

   The problem is that at no point are any of the Nazis in the film even vaguely threatening. Granted To Be Or Not To Be was broad, but this never quite rises to that level of genius and instead is just strange, an odd relic of two genres that weren’t really compatible colliding head on and ultimately not making a lick of sense. It is fun, with that cast of actors it would almost have to be, but if you engage your brain at all you may find it slightly bruised by the effort to make sense of the goings on.

   It’s hard to believe that no one at any point during the filming of this did anyone speak up and ask what the hell was going on.

   Maybe they were afraid someone would tell them.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS. MGM, 1934. Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Charles Butterworth, Billie Burke, Rosalind Russell. Director: W.S. Van Dyke.

   I taped this by mistake. It was supposed to be some other Joan Crawford movie, but I watched it anyway. I’m not really a Joan Crawford fan, but this early in her career, I find her on-screen image much more pleasing than the hard-boiled one I picture her as in many of her later films. (In the early 30s she’s also lovelier to look at, if I might be permitted a small sexist remark.)

   I’m not usually a Clark Gable fan, either. He always seems a little slick for me. I wonder how women today feel about him, watching his old movies now. Ladies, tell me: Is he still the “dreamboat” he was back then?

   At any rate, this moderately entertaining love triangle amongst members of the champagne set – and note that Robert Montgomery makes up the third party in this regard – must have been the height of sophistication in its day. It still has its moments, but when it comes down to it, the immorality that’s briefly suggested stays firmly under the leash.

   Did I mention that this was a comedy? And as such, Charles Butterworth – totally forgotten today – seems to have gotten all of the funniest lines.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #32, July 1991.


MURDER AT THE WINDMILL. Grand National Pictures, UK, 1949. Released in the US as Murder at the Burlesque by Monogram Pictures (1950). Garry Marsh (Detective Inspector), Jon Pertwee (Detective Sergeant), Jack Livesey, Eliot Makeham, Jimmy Edwards, Diana Decker, Donald Clive. Screenwriter/director: Val Guest.

   The Windmill Theater, that is, a real life performance hall in London, known at one time for a nude girls revue, permitted by the authorities as long as the girls did not move. This being a movie, the closest it comes to anything as risque as that is the inclusion of a fan dancer as one of the acts, with very large feathery fans.

   The movie begins as the theater is closing down for the night, and the cleanup crew finds a dead man sitting in the front row, killed by a bullet shot by someone on the stage, or so the inspector from the Yard quickly deduces.

   His method of finding the killer? Have all of the acts from that night’s program recreated onstage, even if it takes all night.

   And as an immediate result, most of the movie’s 65 odd minutes are taken up by singers, dancers, one lone comedian, complete with trombone, and the aforementioned fan dancer. This is not a bad thing, mind you, as many of the performers on stage are members of the actual singers and dancers at the Windmill at the time of the movie’s making. Finding the killer – for of course this really is a mystery movie – doesn’t happen until the end of the very last repeated number.

   Of some note, perhaps, is seeing Jon Pertwee, a future Doctor Who, as the rather diffident police sergeant on the case, or at least he is in comparison to Garry Marsh as the blustery inspector in charge. It all makes for very light family entertainment, especially resonant to those who still remember the era, now long gone by. You needn’t go out of your way for this one, but on the other hand, it’s easily found on YouTube.




DUFFY. (Columbia Pictures, 1968. James Coburn, James Mason, James Fox, Susannah York, John Alderton. Screenplay: Donald Cammell and Harry Joe Brown Jr., both of whom are credited with the story along with Pierre La Salle. Directed by Robert Parrish.

   Nothing ages worse than old hipster unless it is old hipster comedy, dripping with pretension as only hipsters could drip pretension, and imagining mostly overage pre-hippy/Eurotrash types planning a big caper.

   Luckily for everyone involved this one has James Coburn and Susannah York (“I may be a hooker, but I am absolutely not a slut.”) to deliver actual cool and real sensuality to what would be without them as painful to watch as John Alderton’s rather thick English twit performance here.

   Coburn is Duffy, a former con man and smuggler recruited by half brothers Stefane and Antony (James Fox and John Alderton) and Stefane’s girl Segolene’s (York) plot to play pirate robbing the ship the Osiris out of Tangiers carrying a fortune belonging to their cynical and cruel father J. C. Calvert (James Mason).

   It would help if Mason’s character was at least nasty. As is his greatest sin seems to be rightly thinking his sons are useless and a dunce, and he isn’t far off.

   And I would point out that since this is an English film with English characters it would help if the characters weren’t given silly names like Stefane, Antony, and Segolene with no explanation.

   The boys remember Duffy who was a mate on their father’s yacht when Stefane and Segolene come up with the idea and convince the retired crook to go into the caper with them despite his reservations. While they stay in Tangier at Duffy’s place (decorated in porn chic for lack of any other description to fit the absolutely tasteless decor), York and Duffy become involved as the time for the shipment grows closer and their plans go into effect.

   Among the better things about this are the location shooting and gorgeous cinematography, if only someone had told Cammell and Brown (whose career is as spotty as Cammell’s) they weren’t actually the least bit hip, and Parrish had not let himself be convinced they were this might have been a pretty good caper film, but as it is the heist itself is anti-climactic and boring.

   As it stands everyone is too old and stuck with terrible dialogue:

      â€œI hope Stefane is okay. I hope Stephane hopes I’m okay.”

      â€œIt has occurred to me I’m getting used to you finally, and I probably love you in the worst possible way, I guess.”

   It’s no “We’ll always have Paris.”

   Cammell did somewhat better with his own film Performance (still pretentious, but interesting) and Demon Seed (which he hated and tried to make into a comedy), but basically this film is as problematic as his career. Even Coburn stumbles over some of the dialogue that sounds as if it was written as a Mad Magazine parody of Jack Kerouac.

   But Coburn can’t help but be Coburn and even here is ultra cool, while York is incredibly sexy despite it all, those icy eyes fascinating, though she and Coburn both scored better in the altogether more satisfying Sky Riders.

   James Mason is James Mason no matter what he is in, and that is always a bonus.

   There is a twist if you make it that long, but it really isn’t enough to lift this above the level of interesting. And honestly, if you didn’t guess the twist from the start, you weren’t paying attention.

   But I will give it that the end and Coburn being Coburn plus Lou Rawls singing “I’m Satisfied” end it better than the rest of the movie deserves.

   Arguably this might have been better seen in a theater in 1968 when I was 18, but I don’t think so. I didn’t take drugs then either, and only that could help this.

   What a huge waste of talent and beautiful scenery.




THE HIPPOPOTAMUS. Lightyear Entertainment, 2017. Roger Allam, Mathew Modine, Fiona Shaw, Tim McInnerny, Emily Berrington, Geraldine Sommerville, John Standing, Tommy Knight, Dean Ridge. Screenplay by Blanche McIntyre, Tom Hodgson, John Finnemore, & Robin Hill, based on the novel by Stephen Fry. Directed by John Jencks. Available on DVD, as well as streaming on Amazon Prime.

   To begin with, Ted Wallace (Roger Allam) has committed original sin, he’s a poet, worse still he’s a successful published poet even though it has been five years since the wrote a line. These days he makes his living at an even worse crime: he “commits journalism.” He is a theatrical critic.

   At least he is until he blows up during a particularly odious production and is escorted out by the police after having sucker punched the director.

   Ted is miserable and self destructive, and now he is broke as well, but Ted is about to be thrown a lifeline by an unlikely source, his goddaughter Jane (Emily Berrington) who is dying of cancer and recently in remission.

   Jane is convinced she has been saved by a miracle, the nature of which she will not reveal, but wishes Ted to investigate, at her Uncle, Lord John Logan (Mathew Modine)’s estate (“he did something unspeakable for Margaret Thatcher” to earn his knighthood, we are told).

   Ted is more than willing for the 25,000 Sterling offered, but things are a bit strained between him and his old school chum John, but then things are a bit constrained between him and Jane’s Mother, John’s sister (Geraldine Sommevile) too. In fact things are a bit strained between Ted and the world, but if he is just careful he can get by claiming to be concerned about his nephew young David (Tommy Knight) who is sensitive, awkward, and wants to be a poet.

   Those are just some of the odd things about David, as Ted will soon learn, because though there isn’t a corpse or a murder in sight, The Hippopotamus (Ted) is a manor house mystery in the mode of Agatha Christie replete with eccentric characters, carefully hidden family secrets, and a reluctant but acerbic and quite able sleuth in Ted himself.

   John Logan once saw his father save a man’s life, and he has believed his father had a gift all his life. Now he thinks it skipped a generation and is in his son David, who it seems has performed three actual miracles, starting my saving his mother’s life. John wants to protect David from being exploited, but is also a bit too in awe of that supposed gift.

   Just how David performed most of those miracles though is among the more hilarious and scandalous things about this tale.

   Most of the laughs here are of the quiet variety, but real enough. Despite the constant flow of acid and obscenity from Ted, the film is gentle as very nearly as everyone involved, but Ted has a desperate need to believe in a miracle that ultimately will do more harm than good. He is an unlikely hero, but before it is over he and several others will be saved, though not without cost.

   There is even a delightful great detective moment when kicking the bucket puts all the pieces of the puzzle together.

   Suspects include Tim McInnerny as a flamboyant homosexual who lives on the estate; Fiona Shaw as David’s protective, and sane, Mother; a house guest and her plain daughter who pose another threat to David; Jane’s mother who still loathes Ted after their breakup; and Simon (Dean Ridge) David’s sane nice brother.

   John Standing has a nice bit as Podmore, the aging and rather bored butler.

   All in all, it builds up to a satisfying conclusion with Ted even getting to play at Hercule Poirot at a gathering of the suspects when he puts the pieces of the puzzle in the right order that everyone else has jumbled up in their own needs and hopes. As in a Christie novel everyone sees the same things, but only Ted sees them as they are and not as everyone would like them to be.

   The novel is by Stephen Fry, himself an acerbic actor, comic, and commentator who has appeared in numerous movies, television shows (a semi regular role on Bones), was teamed with actor Hugh Laurie as Jeeves to Laurie’s Wooster and in a variety series, and who has written several novels, one a modern version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Fry is one of those jack of all literary and artistic trades that seem to appear when needed in British entertainment and enrich us all.

   It is almost impossible to describe anything from Fry without the words, wicked, delicious, delightful, playful, sinful, arch, amusing, intelligent, or barbed, and that perfectly sums up this bright tale where the laying on of hands becomes a different kind of miracle in the mind of an oversexed teen than you would ever expect.

   Feel the need to escape, but to do so without sacrificing brain cells, then this is perfect for you. Literate, well played, vicious and kind at the same time, arch and human, nasty and heartfelt, it is a delight as novel or film. There is a definite Ealing comedy feel to it, with a touch of Oscar Wilde, the zing of Monty Python, and just enough black humor (or at least dark gray) to leaven the whole thing.

   We are in those delightful British waters where dwelt Oscar Wilde, John Mortimer, P. G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Simon Raven, Iris Murdoch, George Orwell, Timothy Findlay, and in a comic mood Graham Greene, and it is refreshing indeed.


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