From the Boulting Brothers’ PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, a politely lacerating satire on the armed forces. I guess the fact that they waited until 1956 to make this vulgar comedy about wartime corruption does take away somewhat from any sense of “courage,” and by firing the satire scattershot at everything in sight, writers John Boulting and Frank Harvey, adapting a novel by Alan Hackney, protect themselves against offending anybody too deeply.
Still, a portrayal of services life in WWII where everybody is out for what they can get is a surprising thing from the somewhat conservative British cinema of the 50s. By this time, Powell & Pressburger had lost the spark that enabled them to combine artistic excellence and commercial success, David Lean had gone international, and everybody else with any ambition was being stifled by bureaucracy at Rank and gentility elsewhere. With their brashness and no-prisoners commerciality, the Boultings look forward to the cinema of Hammer and Carry On — indeed, the shouty drill sergeant in this movie is played by William Hartnell, who would basically reprise the role a couple years later in CARRY ON SERGEANT, giving rise to that whole series of bawdy romps — and a sinister Nazi officer is played by Christopher Lee, shortly before his rise to lasting fame.
My good friend Mary just passed me a copy of The Financial Times, an organ I don’t usually take, which contains a charming Scorsese profile by historian Simon Schama (he doesn’t know anything about films but he likes Scorsese, apparently). It tickled me to find Scorsese singing the praises of British comedies — we know he likes KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, and its flip, chill voice-over was an unlikely influence on GOODFELLAS — but Schama is rightly surprised to hear Scorsese “summoning the shade of Ian Carmichael.” It IS a surprising juxtaposition, but I guess nobody would be more surprised than Carmichael, who is very much alive.
Carmichael is an unacknowledged giant of British cinema! Apart from being perhaps the best Bertie Wooster ever (although he was too old for the part by the time he played it on TV), he makes the perfect Candide for the Boultings, his gentle quality of intelligent idiocy commending him to our sympathies. Also on great form in PRIVATE’S PROGRESS are Dennis Price as caddish Bertie Tracepurcel, Richard Attenborough as cheeky chappie Archie Cox (is there anything Attenborough can’t do? Apart from direct films, that is) and Terry-Thomas, who is quite remarkably restrained. He’s doing his usual silly-ass thing, but it’s far more controlled, quiet, less manic, and even more effective. T-T recorded in his very entertaining and genuinely eccentric memoirs that one close-up gave him an interesting task: as “Major Hitchcock” he finds himself in a cinema with his men. He’s bunked off work to see the film, and so have they. Can he, in all decency, reprimand them?
Boulting gave T-T the big build-up, explaining note by note all the emotions he wanted to see flickering across the Thomas visage. But the Great Man decided to ignore all that and instead let his mind go perfectly blank, a technique that had served him well on previous occasions. And he was pleased to see that particular close-up cited in a year’s-end round-up of memorable movie moments. Here it is:
The intensity of an image from Dreyer!
While Terry-Thomas must get the credit for his own performance, I do think Boulting had a gift for getting genuine performances from comics like Sellers and T-T who were often content to rely on their usual tricks. His slapstick is pretty clumsy, and it’s a shame there’s so much of it, since the films seem to work best in a different register.