The Sunday Intertitle: What Ho!

From Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse ~

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely more simple and pleasant.

If this narrative, for instance, were a film-drama, the operator at this point would flash on the screen the words:


and for a brief moment the audience would see an interior set, in which a little angry man with a sharp face and staring eyes would register first, Discovery, next Dismay. The whole thing would be over in an instant.

The printed word demands a greater elaboration.

Love that “operator”. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and is surprisingly realistic and convincing — very GOSFORD PARK in its below-stairs detail, and shows a Wodehouse who is quite modern and up-to-the-minute, even referring to that latest craze,  the movies, several times.

(My reconstructed intertitle makes use of one from Lubitsch’s DAS WEIB DES PHARAO.)

Considering PG Wodehouse seems to be so hard to film, it’s interesting that so many film critics of my acquaintance are fans. It was a critic friend who got me into Wodehouse, observing that since I seemed to like this kind of thing, it was strange that I wasn’t already a fan, since Wodehouse was the apogee of this kind of thing. I’m still not sure what “this kind of thing” is — either verbal wit or intricate plotting, I guess — but he was certainly right.

Farran Smith Nehme (the Self-Styled Siren) and Glenn Kenny and I got together over a plate of fried chicken, we talked about Wodehouse almost as much as we talked about movies. My collaborator on NATAN, Paul Duane, is a fellow enthusiast. And Kristin Thompson is archivist of the PG Wodehouse Archive, which beats anything I can come up with. No doubt more bloggers and critics will be happy to declare themselves devotees of Plum.

As noted before, there are few good Wodehouse adaptations. The TV stuff I’ve seen all seems forced (Wodehouse Playhouse), miscast (World of Wooster) or violently wrong in every particular (Blandings). Even the fondly remembered Jeeves and Wooster, which boasted a fine comedy double-act in the title roles (I imagine House fans find the earlier incarnation of Hugh Laurie rather puzzling) but struggles to get the overall timing right. It was mostly directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who has the advantage of sounding like a member of the Drones Club himself, but for a special treat you can see episodes helmed by Robert Young, director of VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Does he adapt well to this new genre and tone? He does not.


At the cinema, things have been, if anything, worse. The first version of PICCADILLY JIM (1919) appears to be lost, while the second (1937) throws out the plot and the third is set in a BRAZIL-meets-Baz Luhrmann mixture of modern and period. While I understand the director’s point that Wodehouse stories take place in an ahistoric fantasy world — this particular novel, written and published during the Great War, has the characters steaming across the Atlantic several times, unhindered by U-boats, and the conflict that thinned out the numbers of the real-life Jim Crocketts and Bertie Woosters is nowhere mentioned — the device seems to strained and heavy to work. Anything which draws attention away from the language and zippy narrative developments seems like it would be a hindrance.

The Hollywood films of Wodehouse’s era were ideally equipped to capture his tone, since they employed a battery of stylised approaches so widely used that the audience could digest them without the slightest trouble. The studio sets, elegant lighting, impossible gowns, caricatured bit-players, rapid-fire delivery, all suited Wodehouse to a tee — it’s just tragic that the delicate Wodehouse touch never survived passage through the studio machine, except in the case of A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, when the lighter-than-air dancing of Fred Astaire proved a neat match for the nimble narrative footwork.


An interesting case in point is THOSE FOUR FRENCH GIRLS, which has dialogue credited to Plum. There’s a lot of “What ho!” going on in it, and Reginald Denny plays a jolly top-hatted twit with a blustering uncle, so one can see that there was a genuine effort being made to supply the visiting literary titan with conducive material. This being a pre-code about three French girls, there’s a relentless sexiness to the tone which is quite un-Wodehousian, but that needn’t have been an insurmountable problem. Vulgaririzing Wodehouse is fatal — as in the regular manure jokes in the recent BBC Blandings catastrophe — but pepping him up with some girls in camiknickers might be acceptable, especially if the girls are Yola D’Avril, Fifi D’Orsay and Sandra Ravel. Interestingly, I just read an early Wodehouse story, The Man Who Disliked Cats, narrated mainly in a thick French accent, and it’s a voice Wodehouse does well. I always find his American characters amusingly bizarre — there’s an inescapable Englishness to the Wodehouse sentence structure which sits oddly with the yank slang, but that just makes the whole effect funnier. While the British characters seem completely real in their own unreal way, the Americans are filtered through the mind of an upper-middle-class Brit. Here, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and Edward Brophy are the ugly Americans in Paris, perhaps a bit too harsh at times, but sort of fun.

The whole film is too harsh, though. Wodehouse manages to make the odd outburst of violence — policemen getting punched in the eye, dignified gentlemen being bitten by small dogs, children being bitten by pigs — seem like part of the fun. Here, right at the start, Denny encourages the girls to drop flower pots on their landlord, which might have been OK if he hadn’t looked so much like Georges Melies. The actual sight of an elderly man cowering on the pavement in a growing mound of dirt as hard, heavy objects rain down upon his venerable head, is horribly brutal and degrading. It’s a bum note from which the movie never recovers — if we don’t like the characters, the mechanics of engineering a happy romantic conclusion can’t compel our interest.


There is one very nice and very Wodehousian line though, as Denny describes the family estate: “The River Ipple lies at the bottom of the garden, except in winter, when the garden lies at the bottom of the River Ipple.”

The two British JEEVES movies seem to get everything wrong, or speaking very generously, they choose to go after entirely different effects from Wodehouse. Jeeves is not really a comic character, and making him a buffoon is a strange choice. Dispensing with Bertie altogether in the second film is even stranger. David Niven would be quite nice casting for Wooster, if he were allowed to play the part as written. Interestingly, he’s the only actor to have played Uncle Fred, my favourite Plum character, in a TV adaptation of Uncle Fred Flits By. I’ve been unable to obtain a copy.


Casting is a delicate business. Take the Blandings books. I always imagine Robert greig as Beach the butler, as Beach is portly and he’s described as an archetypal speciment of the butler species, and that’s exactly what Greig was. Always buttling or valeting, from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. It’s a shock to see him do anything else. Miles Malleson played the part in a 1933 film which he also adapted. I have Claude Rains assigned mentally to the role of the Honorable Galahad, since he’s small, dapper, clearly cunning and whimsical, and with just enough iron.

I’m fascinated by the existence of various Swedish Wodehouse adaptations. Maybe that’s the tone Bergman was aiming for with ABOUT THESE WOMEN…

Although Timothy Spall, looking like a deflated balloon, was a better Emsworth than I expected, especially considering his unsuitable surroundings, in the BBC Blandings, Peter O’Toole, a better physical fit, was all wrong in an earlier TV film of Heavy Weather. Yes, he can do dreamy — he always does dreamy — but there’s a pointed quality to his every utterance as if he were scoring points. It seems to be inherent in him, from LAURENCE to MY FAVORITE YEAR: his vagueness is calculated to defeat his foes, rather being a fog through which he blunders, which is the character Wodehouse created.


I was excited to learn that Ralph Richardson took the role in a 1967 series (Stanley Holloway was Beach and Jimmy Edwards was Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe). That just seems perfect. Even more perfect, the series was erased, so it can now stand in our minds as a Platonic ideal of Wodehouse adaptation, along with the 1919 PICCADILLY JIM — we can say with confidence that the perfect Wodehouse adaptation does not exist.

17 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: What Ho!”

  1. Hm, all these luminaries you name and I’m not on the list! I started reading Wodehouse on my own while ill a number years ago, and James Wolcott encouraged me to read more of Plum. He later blocked my email address, which is neither here nor there. Who knows, I may have been a pest. I bean birds with a slingshot in compensation for the snub.

    I can’t say that vulgarizing Wodehouse would ever occur to me. When Bertie’s horrible nephew Thomas unloads a bucket of wet manure aimed at Sebastian Moon (it lands on someone else entirely, a Mr. Anstruther) , it would have been deadly to have to made the scene vulgar.

  2. All These Women is my very favorite Bergman.

    A Damsel in Distress is more George and Gracie than P.G., and Fred Astaire is required to cover fo the fact that his leading lady can neither sing nor dance. He’s exceptionally gallant about it.

  3. There’s quite a bit of mild violence and cruelty in Wodehouse, handled very lightly: the way one presents it on screen is very important if it’s to play as harmless fun. It’s odd in that the villains are often from a lower social class, but they’re generally officious authority figures. But somebody experiencing Wodehouse via adaptations would see his snobbery in an exaggerated light, and would have the impression that his stuff is rather arch and strained, which is the opposite of the case.

  4. Wodehouse’s Psmith stories are like that. In that series of books, toward the end he leaves Oxford and not long after he suddenly descends the social ladder down to being a fish slinger at Billingsgate before bouncing back up again (as secretary to Lord Emsworth), but at heart he’s always a public school man. He does give chaff (or as he terms it, persiflage) to both upper and lower classes, so he’s not entirely a snob.

    Wodehouse does seem to give the lower classes some rough intelligence, but not much more.

  5. In Cocktail Time, Uncle Fred arranges a romance between a butler and a grande dame, so there was some loosening of the social structure. That’s an extreme case, but a huge number of the stories involve couples divided by class being happily united in opposition to snobbish aunts. In most cases, though, the social divisions are not that extreme: Wodehouse’s chorus girls are always very well-spoken.

  6. Welcome back, WS!

  7. Except the chorus girl who lisps!

  8. Oh, is there one? I’d forgotten. In the later Blandings books, there’s Vee, a posh idiot, one of his few stupid female characters, who says things like “Dad-dee?” So it cuts both ways.

  9. Marion Davies had a lisp.

  10. If Mark can remind us when the lisping showgirl appeared, we can ascertain whether she might be a reference to Davies, the Susan Alexander Kane of her day…

  11. Damian Keenan Says:

    I’m working on a book about the Golden Age of Hollywood’s character actors in which Edward Brophy features prominently and have been trying to get a copy of Those Three French Girls. How did you manage to see it? By the way, as a fellow Plum fan, I think your site is excellent.

  12. My copy was recorded off TCM some time ago. Glad you like the site! Your project sounds interesting — I’d be glad to help if I can.

  13. Damian Keenan Says:

    Thanks for that. I’ll look out for it the next time it’s on, and I’ll certainly take you up on your kind offer as the project progresses. Having a blast researching all those great films and superb character actors from the 30s and 40s, and digging up the odd forgotten gem.Have you seen any of the Arthur Treacher Jeeves movies: “Thank You, Jeeves” and “Step Lively, Jeeves”?

  14. I haven’t gotten around to those — I understand they’re travesties though. Apart from Damsel in Distress I am unable to find any Wodehouse-related movies which approach the right lightness and humour.

  15. Damian Keenan Says:

    I haven’t seen them either. As much as I like Treacher I would consider him to be too acerbic for the Jeeves part. Looking forward, though, to seeing how Brophy fits into the Wodehouse universe!

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