George Melly’s Trip to the Moon

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Vicious-but-fair title art by actor-writer-cartoonist Willie Rushton — not that those actresses look like that, you understand, but they both make those faces in this film.

For reasons to be divulged later, I felt like seeing some sixties nonsense, and Fiona suggested SMASHING TIME — she’d seen it first as a teenager, on TV one afternoon, and had been seduced by the whole idea of the 1960s. I’d seen bits of it and been sceptical — I like the ’60s and I like nonsense but there are certain combinations of the two that can be nausea-inducing (cf JOANNA, HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE) — but I was game and so we tried it.

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It’s not the best-directed film in the world, former cameraman Desmond Davis can be oddly maladroit at framing a shot, even when there’s a heap of mod clobber and pop design on display, and he’s equally gauche at staging slapstick, which is a shame because the script does set up some good gags. Said script is by the late George Melly, an bulbous jazz eccentric who saw THE KNACK, loved it, and set out to up the ante with cartoonishness, character names out of Lewis Carroll (Bobby Mome-Rath, Charlotte Brillig, Tom Wabe), a gaudy palette and bawdy slapstick that’s nearly bodily — a joke involving Ian Carmichael being fed laxatives and forced to defecate in a bathroom in which every cubic inch is packed with foaming bubbles hints at the hidden meaning behind the pie fights, paint fights, food fights and general muck-throwing elsewhere in the film. A bit of a surrealist, Melly had obviously glommed onto the Freudian underpinnings of all that goop, and wanted to snort about it.

NEVER MIND, I say, because there’s more to enjoy. Rita Tushingham plays a hyperbolic caricature of her KNACK role, northern rube in the big smoke, dragged into the action by best mate Lynn Redgrave, who’s inanely set on becoming a star by going to Carnaby Street and waiting to be discovered. Of course that takes less than half an hour.

The song is listed as “I’m So Young” but Lynn/Yvonne refers to it elsewhere by its brilliant alternative title, “I Can’t Sing.” Fiona and I can’t get the damn thing out of our heads now.

Fiona pointed out that female picaresques are very rare, do not, in fact exist outside of this movie and I suppose things like CANDY — has there even BEEN a picaresque movie in the last thirty years? Female clowns are likewise rare, but maybe producer Carlo Ponti saw GEORGY GIRL and THE KNACK, considered NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, couldn’t get Richard Lester, and concocted this concept? The Italians do love clowns. Lynn R. is a natural at it, to the point of maybe indulging in it a tiny bit in films where it didn’t belong, but she leads here and The Tushingham gamely follows, proving able at mugging — those beautiful eyes go ping-pong at a moment’s notice.

Kurt Vonnegut called slapstick “grotesque situational poetry,” and that’s a good description of these antics — occasionally a little too grotesque, as with an ECU of a bare foot stepping on a drawing pin — an involuntary hiss of pain from the audience isn’t really the emotion you want, is it? — and as with the paint fight where Rita is turned an unfashionable streaky brown and looks, with her screwed-up expression, like some kind of filthy witch. I like it better when it’s just on the cusp of awful — later, lovely Rita takes a cream pie to the side of the head and a great mass hangs in her hair… horrible, but hilarious. Kudos to Melly for actually coming up with sixties-specific fresh gags for a pie fight — most big custard battles just vary a few basic tropes (and are none the worse for it) but this one is seriously inventive.

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If Davis is visually a touch uneven, he does assemble a veritable Who’s-Bloomin’-Who of fab gear talent, with Bruce Lacey and his kinetic sculpture assemblage automatons (one kissing machine threatens to go full DEMON SEED on poor Rita but settles for pounding Michael York with a giant boxing glove); Anna Quayle and Jeremy Lloyd and David Lodge (all from Lester’s films) and more comedy homosexuals than you can waggle a stick at (oops, careful, you’ll have someone’s eye out with that!)

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It shouldn’t really hang together at all, but it does because Melly has put together a genuinely nice comic dynamic, with Tushingham trying vainly to keep her idiot friend out of trouble, and Redgrave oblivious to all this and clodhoppingly insensitive and unappreciative of her best mate. It’s a different dynamic from Laurel & Hardy altogether, but equally touching because you feel these two lady-schmucks really need each other, and that their friendship is worth more than anything Swinging London or Michael York with his Action Man hair and moustache can offer.

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12 Responses to “George Melly’s Trip to the Moon”

  1. 12 Years a Slave is unfortunately picaresque. By the end I felt I’d watched one of those Christmas specials where the doll falls off the back of a truck. Not that those aren’t moving. Inside Lewin Davis is also a little picaresque. Johnny Suede?

  2. I suppose so. But ILD only pretends to be a bunch of unrelated adventures — it’s rigorously predetermined and plotted with absolutely nothing there by chance.

    STILL haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave. I guess when your protagonist is robbed of freedom what you end up with is, by default, more like Au Hasard Balthasar or Tales of Manhattan than the average structured narrative about a goal-driven hero.

  3. There is of course a genuine goal in 12 Years A Slave: He wants to get the hell out of there. And he does. The trouble is it’s a very hard film for white people to watch.

    Steve McQueen says his next will be about what it’s like to be black and British — ie. himself. Doubt there’s a role for Michael York in it but you never know.

  4. Speaking of British insanity, have you ever come across Getting It Right, Randal Kleiser’s very own Smashing Time? Here’s a scene with Mrs. Tim Burton

  5. HBC showing some early bonkers promise there. I loathed her at first. My opinion of her did a complete 360 after Fight Club but a friend assures me she’s brilliant in The Wings Of A Dove.

  6. Loved her in A Room with a View of Julian Sands’ Hair and Rupert Graves Stark Naked but she’s periodically problematic elsewhere.

  7. She worked in RwaV but then carried that look on a bit too long, but she’s been fun in some of the Burton flicks and good elsewhere too — she needed to branch out from being pre-Raphaelite and decorative. Now I think she needs to stop running about with David Cameron. Jean Cocteau could attend cocktail parties with Goebbels but there ARE limits when you’re not Cocteau.

  8. One more thing about Smashing Time: Don’t Forget Its model!

  9. I guess that makes sense as the earlier visual comedy with female double act. What I like about the glamour of Lynn and Rita is that they aren’t conventionally stylish, but Lynn’s Yvonne becomes fabulous due to her undefeatable delusional self-belief and Rita’s Brenda just doesn’t care.

  10. Saw the BBC video of “Pygmalion” starring Lynn Redgrave. The movie & musical presented Eliza as a cute street urchin. Wendy Hiller and Audrey Hepburn were clearly charmers even before being cleaned up.

    Redgrave’s flower girl — looking more like a slattern than an urchin — was seemingly devoid of any potential, either as a beauty or a proper lady. In the end she wasn’t pretty Cinderella but a genuine Edwardian lady, certainly handsome but more importantly the “consort battleship” who walked out on Higgins.

    It wasn’t a perfect production by any means, but Redgrave moved it from a fairy tale to a surprisingly persuasive drama. Extra points for the closing credits, set over still photos dramatizing Shaw’s published epilogue of Eliza marrying Freddy (with Higgins as an unhappy member of the wedding party) and setting up as a greengrocer.

  11. Also, thinking of a Laurel & Hardy book that noted “Smashing Time’s” presumed attempts at L&H slapstick. It singled out one gag as worthy of the boys. During a pie fight a volley of pies fall from above onto a street preacher, who registers indignation at a seeming insult by an ungrateful God.

  12. …and shakes his fist at the heavens. Cue rumble of thunder…

    Pymalion sounds good — I’ll watch out for it. It’s always interesting to see familiar roles taken into fresh terrain.

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