The Disclaimer

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.

Ian Carmichael, who did not go on to play DRACULA.

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.


23 Responses to “The Disclaimer”

  1. And a great final caption, illustrating perhaps the very un-American culture clash discussed in the previous post. I love these films.

  2. Dennis Price in Kind Hearts is considerably more deadpan than Ray Liotta whose character is obviously in love with the sound of his voice.

  3. Gangsters tend not to be deadpan though. Hmm… Scorsese and deadpan… How on earth did that man ever make King of Comedy, surely the biggest influence on those dry Larry Sanders/Office-like comedies of recentish years? Where did that new gift suddenly come from, and where’d it go?

  4. One of Scorsese’s defining traits, not much remarked on, used to be his ability to evoke skin-crawling embarrassment: it’s there in Taxi Driver too. King of Comedy climaxes that tendency, and it’s so painful Scorsese can’t watch it. Maybe it was a conscious decision to move away from that tone.

    The closest thing in terms of social discomfort is the Hepburn family meal in The Aviator, where the editing brilliantly evokes that familiar sensation of being one step behind in a conversation.

  5. True. Taxi Driver is very funny. And yet After Hours, which should evoke exactly the tone you describe, really isn’t. It’s odd.

  6. Oh, I find After Hours delightful! One of my favourite nightmare comedies.

  7. The King of Comedy is the film about embarassment. It’s a film that failed spectacularly when it first came out (Scorsese wonderfully talks in the DVD extras about a TV special yearly retrospective going, “the flop of the year…The King of Comedy”) because people thought it would be funny. It’s painful and disturbing when you see it the first time but it gets progressively funnier on repeated viewings. The main reason it’s embarassing is that on some level, at some point we’ve all had the same level of attitude that Rupert has to celebrity and that attitude is created by the 20th Century media that promises accessibility through TV or Mass media moving images but denies fulfillment.

    And the thing about Rupert is that he’s unbelievably persistent. What can you do against that guy. He’s just so nice and even when he is nasty he is still nice. It’s quite a dark film. Not suprised Scorsese is still suffering shellshock from making it. Although he’s quite calm when he talks of it in the DVD interviews. Masha Thompson, unforgettable in her role as DeNiro’s accomplice, called it “the last great film about culture”.

    With After Hours the humour is replaced by unbearable tension not unlike Kafka or in this case, Kafka-through-Orson, the latter fully aware of the humour in Kafka’s stories. Scorsese isn’t capable of making a purely funny comedy but all his films have moments of humour. Even Kundun where Mao is shown as this really banal dandy diplomat until he figuratively moves in for the kill when he tells the Dalai Lama what he really thinks about Tibet.

  8. The King of Comedy is a masterpiece and one of my very favorite Marty movies. It’s also the high point of DeNiro’s career. He hasn’t been near its dizzying heights since, alas.

    The best film about military exploitation (aka. “dog-robbing”) is Paddy Chayevsky’s The Americanization of Emil.

  9. I think Casino is also a great performance but that film was his peak. But just as great a performance as DeNiro’s is Jerry Lewis’ work. It’s one of the best in Scorsese’s filmography. The scene where he’s all alone in his hotel room is amazing. It was actually the first time I saw Lewis in film. Then I returned to his films and found the great irony in the fact that Lewis is playing against Pupkin basically a bastard monster running to it’s maker saying, “Father”. The key scene in that film is when that butler at Jerry Lewis’ house says to his boss, “And please come fast, I think I am having a heart attack!”

  10. Caught the sequel I’m Alright Jack recently and was impressed. It, too, took swipes at everyone in sight–except maybe the nudists–so that the movie seemed to be against simply trying at all. But it was also full of crazy energy-especially in the first half hour–and somehow sweet, too. and there’s an awfully good performance by Peter Sellers, whom I don’t always appreciate.

  11. Maybe the first half hour of I’m Alright Jack — waiting for Sellers to appear — is my least favourite bit, but I’m about to watch it again. I remember finding the sweetie factory a bit disturbing! Prefer the one Ken Adam designed for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

    The nudist scene at the end seems to be a fantasy of withdrawal to Eden.

    Just found this:

  12. That’s a great song, “I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you, come rain and shine”. The King of Comedy is close to the Cassavetes-notion of performance art as an act of love and the artist’s relationship with his fans/lovers. Opening Night‘s first scenes with Gena Rowlands and her fan becomes the fulcrum of Scorsese’s film(shot by Fred Schuler who worked on some of Cassavetes films).

  13. I liked I’m All Right, Jack best when it touched on the absurdity of the union-management relations so all the scenes with Peter Sellers are great.

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, So you remember Carmichael as Bertie Wooster in that excellent series with Dennis Price? Admittedly, both actors were rather too old for the roles then (but does anybody ever raise this against Wayne and Stewart in the flashback sequences of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE?). As for the date of PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, remember the Boultings did vacillate from more radical films such as PASTOR HALL, THUNDER ROCK, and FAME IS THE SPUR to Cold War productions such as HIGH TREASON in the early 50s so their work may have been affected by conservative forces in British society less virulent, but still dominant, in this era. There may have been no McCarthy in the UK but pressures of constraint that prevented any interrogative examination of “The Good War” following the 50s War films return of the upper class heroes in THE WOODEN HORSE etc that returned to the old class emphasis of early 40s Ealing films such as CONVOY and SHIPS WITH WINGS.

  15. I just got ahold of High Treason, which interests me. Then there’s Seven Days to Noon, which I still haven’t watched (regrettably and ludicrously, Optimum Releasing’s DVD has been cropped to 16:9).

    Thunder Rock has some remarkable stuff, including that weird fantasy sequence where the lighthouse set has been rebuilt at an angle, and filmed with a dutch tilt, which straightens it out but means that all the actors have a weird lean to their bodies… one of the craziest effects I’ve ever seen, comparable to the red room in Twin Peaks.

  16. High Treason, interesting in itself, becomes a thousand times more interesting when you learn about the man behind it, Pemberton Billing. There’s a fantastic book about him called Salome’s Last Dance. Apparently he was this visionary inventor behind two thousand patents who, if Germany had won the First World War would have had a real shot at becoming the British Hitler. Seriously, there was a lot of military machinery in place to raise him to power if Lloyd George fell, but as it transpired Germany lost and PB found himself dragged literally kicking and screaming out of Parliament. And then got into sci-fi.

    I think you’re going to love the sweet factory,

  17. Wow! It was really bizarre watching it last night, a compelling, taut thriller about a completely imaginary threat — communist cells in Britain, plotting sabotage to bring the country to its knees so a coup can be staged. What you’ve just told me makes this one a prime candidate for The Forgotten! Thanks!

  18. Ah, alas, Billings wasn’t connected to the Boulting film — his High Treason, a Metropolis-inspired sci-fi epic, was released in 1929. But he’d probably have approved of Boulting’s red-baiting scare-mongering.

  19. Oh THAT High Treason. Dang. Sorry. (Try some vaseline under the nose).

  20. kevin mummery Says:

    I’ve never seen Private’s Progress, unfortunately…it’s never been available in the U.S., to my knowledge. Which is a great shame, as I’m All Right Jack is one of my favorites, even including the sweetie factory sequence. Of course the film improves considerably once Fred Kite is introduced, even for those who don’t much care for Mr. Sellers. In his defense I can say that, in 1959, he hadn’t yet had time to develop the comedic “bits” that can make him hard to watch or even enjoy…I find him the very best thing about the film, and John Mesurier and Terry-Thomas were also very watchable.

  21. Yes, Sellers really through himself into the part, and treated it as a proper characterization. Possibly he was aware that he was up against character types like T-T and Le Mes, who only had to be themselves. Playing a character so much older than himself, Sellers could easily have clashed in style, but he comes off if anything slightly more naturalistic.

    Of course PP lacks Sellers, but it has slightly greater consistency, and an unending array of supporting players. Fine work from Attenborough and Price.

    I don’t know if vaseline would do anything for a cold. Vick’s Vap-o-rub is quite good though. I stick it up my nose, which is against instructions but works a treat.

  22. kevin mummery Says:

    Garlic works well for a cold too, although putting it up the nose may be going a bit too far. I’ve heard it repels vampires (and anyone with working olfactory facilities) as well.

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