Carry On Noir
Had a great time showing NIGHT AND THE CITY to my class a couple weeks ago, a movie I always enjoy, for all kinds of things, from the London noir atmosphere, Francis Sullivan’s eloquently tortured fat man bad guy, and Richard Widmark’s sweaty desperation (ALL the characters in the film are studies in desperation of one kind or another). Despite the seedy atmosphere, the film seems to have had an oddly healthy effect on its participants, with Widmark and director Jules Dassin surviving well into their nineties, and co-star Googie Withers still being with us today. But this time I was taken with a minor player who was not so lucky.
The thug in the car is an actor names Peter Butterworth. Not somebody one associates with thug parts, actually: Butterworth is chiefly known for his roles in the CARRY ON series, often as an incompetent underling to stars like Harry H Corbett (CARRY ON SCREAMING) or Kenneth Williams (DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD). He’s also in three Richard Lester films, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, THE RITZ and ROBIN AND MARIAN, where he plays a barber-surgeon failing to extract an arrow from Richard Harris’s neck.
Melancholy and an end-of-the-pier seediness seem to coalesce around the private lives of the CARRY ON team, few of who reached particularly ripe ages (so it’s pleasing to have Barbara Windsor as an uncharacteristically perky Dormouse in Tim Burton’s mess of an ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Butterworth’s death, aged sixty, from a heart attack while waiting in the wings to go onstage at a pantomime show (I’d previously read “while entertaining at a children’s party” but I’ll go with the IMDb), has a sad sound to it, although you can configure a Hollywood Version easily enough: the sound of laughter/applause ringing in his ears. And it probably beats being bashed with a brick, which is what happens to his co-thug in NIGHT AND THE CITY.
Butterworth was a splendid comic, who could quietly hold his own amid the chaos of a CARRY ON farce — it was actually good from to upstage your fellow players in these things, since the only way to make the experience lively for the audience, with the inert staging, corny gags and clunking editing, was to have a few faces emoting at once, each trying to outdo the other in enthusiasm. Situate Butterworth in the background and he’d add a whole mini-drama just by being endearingly daft. He spends the whole climactic exposition of FORUM struggling to get his sword from its sheath, and faffs around behind Richard Harris in R&M, taking the curse off the script’s poetic musings with a welcome infusion of bumbling.
Here’s a bit of SCREAMING which illustrates a number of the painful pleasures of that series. Fenella Fielding is a great underused resource of British cinema, best known internationally for revoicing Anita Pallenberg in BARBARELLA. Kenneth Williams, always alarming, is especially so as the reanimated Dr. Watt, his voice a-quiver with vibrato suggestiveness. Then, about three minutes or so in, we get Butterworth, who hardly says a word but stands behind the other players and mugs genially. Jim Dale tries to match him twitch for twitch, and you get a sort of doubling of affect as they do a kind of facial dance-off behind Harry H Corbett (once praised as British theatre’s answer to Brando, now a magnificently resourceful farceur with TV’s Steptoe and Son as, essentially, his entire career) and Williams.
You can also appreciate Gerald Thomas’s bad filmmaking. He serves up passable angles in which we can enjoy the mugging, but they don’t cut together at all well — there’s no reason for the angle changes except to serve up a spurious variety to the coverage, and break the scene into manageable-sized segments. Kevin Smith must have been taking notes.
Oh, and the big guy at the start is Bernard Bresslaw, who nearly got the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, just losing out to Christopher Lee. Imagine what a fun alternative universe that would be!