We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.


12 Responses to “Spats”

  1. Speaking of “Damsel in Distress” here’s the climactic scene from Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress” 9note plural, starring Woman of the Year Greta Gerwig

  2. Thanks for this excellent piece. I share your bewilderment at how seldom Wodehouse has been filmed properly. His writing is beyond
    imitation, too: I have yet to see a pastiche which didn’t ring false within the first sentence. McKay’s film sounds memorably bizarre, but I’m not surprised that one can only find it in charity shops.

  3. I wonder if Stillman would be a suitable adaptor. I get the feeling he wouldn’t strain himself, which would be a start.

  4. A decade ago Fox put out a DVD of its two Arthur Treacher Jeeves pictures. The first, “Thank You Jeeves”, has David Niven as Bertie. Broad slapstick farce; even Jeeves takes pratfalls. The second, “Step Lively, Jeeves”, has Jeeves unhappily employed by unpleasant strangers, who he leaves when swindlers convince him he has an inheritance in America. He spends the rest of the film as a generic proper Brit reacting to Yankees.

    These are short 1930s programmers one might like more if the characters had different names. The disc is somewhat redeemed by talking-head pieces that focus on Wodehouse himself. I recall one talking head asserting that the real Bertie Woosters were all but rendered extinct by WWI, so even in the 20s Wodehouse was writing fantasy.

  5. “I recall one talking head asserting that the real Bertie Woosters were all but rendered extinct by WWI”
    George Orwell said the same thing in his famous defence of Wodehouse in WWII.
    Wodehouse himself worked in the theatre and wrote quite a few musicals, yet he didn’t actually do much film work. I think that he knew better than his adapters that his stories depend on their prose for their effect. The dialogue on its own isn’t enough. Like Chandler and Scott Fitzgerald, the important thing about him is unfilmable. Not that that stops people trying and they sometimes produce something worthwhile in itself. It just isn’t Wodehouse, though.
    The Wodehouse adaptation I’d like to see is “Blixt och dunder” – a 1938 Swedish version of “Summer Lghtning”.

  6. Wodehouse caused a scandal in Hollywood when he casually gave an interview in which he said he was being paid a fortune and not given anything to do. This was at a time when the studios were supposedly trying to be less profligate, so it looked bad.

    He supposedly contributed dialogue to Three French Girls (1930), but it’s a pretty charmless affair. I don’t think it makes sense to have an individual voice like his engaged in piecemeal screenwriting with other, lesser talents (including the not untalented Arthur Freed).

    Via Facebook I am informed of several silent shorts based on Plum’s golfing stories, made in Britain and, if not wholly faithful, well-performed and appealing. So we could perhaps add those to Damsel in Distress (which follows its source pretty closely) as adding weight to my theory that filming Wodehouse was easier then than now.

  7. I’ll be the one to speak up in defense of the Fry/Laurie J&W series… It’s certainly uneven in pace and casting (Aunt Dahlia is never Aunt Dahlia enough, for one thing) but I do think that Fry and Laurie were an inspired bit of essentially celebrity casting. I’ll agree that the series overall doesn’t have the lightness of Wodehouse, but I think that its two leads do… they just aren’t always set off to advantage by often staid surroundings.

    I don’t really remember What’s His Name as Tuppy Glossop or What’s Her Name as Florence when I go back to the books, which is much more often than I revisit the series, but I still find myself hearing Stephen Fry’s voice in my head as Jeeves, and I don’t mind that a bit!

  8. Yeah, the main guys were fine, though the whole things was slow and that affected them. Laurie had already played a variant on Bertie in Blackadder III, with more energy. I think they were afraid of being vulgar.

    There were explanations at the time that a gentleman’s gentleman would usually be a contemporary of his master, so that Fry’s relative youth was quite appropriate. Fair enough, except there’s a ton of textual evidence in the stories that Jeeves is the older man. But that never mattered much, if at all: the opposite problem is HUGE: in the earlier BBC series, Ian Carmichael was a middle-aged Bertie, which seems a tragic case of arrested development. Bertie is only funny when young. (The very late J&W novels, though still fun, have a slight sense of discomfort, just from our sense that this is all impossible, that he CAN’T still be in his twenties in 1970. Even Wodehouse is feeling the strain of period, though he wears it lightly.)

  9. Well I just LOVE This —

  10. Yes, that’s nice. Music seems to help get things airborne.

  11. It’s too bad about the Ian Carmichael ones, because I think if he’d been younger he could have been a good Bertie. He read of some of the J&W books for audiobook recordings and did a great job, he has the voice for it…

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