Teddy Kiss Atom

Caught a little of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG on the telly over Christmas, and then on Hogmanay we ran my new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Suddenly realized that one of the Six Tumbling Piccolos, the acrobatic midgets who turn up (minus two of their number, unfortunately gassed) in an Inverness graveyard in TPLOSH, is also seen in Gert Frobe’s Vulgarian court in CCBB.

And in fact those seem to be the guy’s only credits. And his name was Teddy Kiss Atom. His brother, Charlie Young Atom, is also a Piccolo. Or I assume they’re brothers. Pretty wild coincidence if two midgets called Atom wound up in the same film by sheer chance.

And I know “midgets” is not the preferred term, but it’s what they call them in the film. I think it used to be sort of useful to distinguish people who are small all over, like these Atom chaps, from people with short arms and legs, like the TIME BANDITS, who were called dwarfs.

Other observations, since this is proving so illuminating —

“That little wizard Mr. Trauner”, Billy Wilder’s favourite production designer, provides a Swan Lake fake swan with a built-in fake reflection, complete with sculpted ripples. But my DVD isn’t working and I can’t framegrab from the Blu-Ray (a technical issue that may be fixed in 2021) so you’ll have to check it out yourselves.

I always assumed the Diogenes Club was some suitably grand location hired for the day, but the maniacs built it, for ONE SHOT. Wilder really burned up his studio clout with this one. A producer friend has told me that his job entails assessing “the appetite” of a film — this one, from the production notes by Trevor Willsmer supplied in the disc booklet, was apparently insaciable.

I love this out-of-time film. But when Fiona asked why it flopped so badly, the answer seemed simple: “It was old-fashioned, it had no stars, and it promised to be naughty but wasn’t.” Some slightly smuttier stuff hit the cutting room floor (whole storylines), but the stars thing is strange. Apart from Christopher Lee, cast in a role that wouldn’t particularly appeal to his fanbase (Mycroft, not Moriarty) although he’s fab here, we have Robert Stephens, a Wildean Holmes, who has picked up a lot of his then-wife (but not for long) wife Maggie Smith’s cadences (well, she got them from Kenneth Williams) and Colin Blakeley (I guess A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is what got him the part), neither of them a box-office draw, but magically correct. Wilder had offered it to Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers… Sellers hadn’t forgiven him for the heart attack on KISS ME STUPID… The female lead being described as German made me wonder if Audrey Hepburn was ever considered. Instead, Genevieve Page was cast and is great. Like everyone else, she didn’t have the most terrific time (Stephens attempted suicide)… there was a plan for more nudity, a test was prepared, and Page being a redhead it was decided she was too pale and her nipples needed circling with lipstick, “which gave me the feeling that my nipples had failed, somehow.”

I rented this several times on VHS back in the day and showed it to two friends, BOTH of whom insisted on stopping and rewinding to watch the comedy constable react to the street sweeper… he’s so wonderfully crap. He’s doing all the appropriate silent comedy moves, but just somehow off. And it turns out that shooting went on so long (that appetite) that the appointed actor, Bob Todd, became unavailable, and Stephens’ chauffeur took the part. (Had Sellers been playing Watson, they’d have been covered, since his driver did visual comedy quite ably in THE RUNNING JUMPING STANDING STILL FILM.

Another thing TPLOSH perhaps has against is an unhappy ending… but then, it’s a tragedy from which Holmes & Watson will recover and we last see Watson… writing. Which can’t be an unhappy ending, from Wilder’s viewpoint.

7 Responses to “Teddy Kiss Atom”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Considering Sellers’ temperament it’s a wonder HE didn’t give BILLY a heart attack on “Kiss Me stupid”– which as a masterpiece anyway.

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Dug out the novelization paperback of TPLOSH (a nice comic book sound effect that) by Michael and Mollie Hardwick, authors of various Sherlockian volumes include a series of dramatizations for school kids.

    It has the original prologue of Watson’s descendent arriving at the bank and not sharing the elderly bankers’ obsession with the Great Detective, and closes with Lestrade seeking help with the Ripper murders, but otherwise hews to the film as released. No college flashback (instead the dialogue about the murderous lab assistant), no upside-down room and no drunk honeymooners. The major liberty is reworking it so Watson could plausibly narrate it all.

    Also: I seem to recall reading that the bobby being splashed was used as stock footage in one of the Ian Richardson turns as Holmes.

    I’ve grown fond of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” over the years. The James Bond team decides to do Disney (was the title tossed in with the Bond rights?) and Roald Dahl has a hand in the script. The gigantic practical sets, the grotesquerie of the Vulgarian court (love the guys with their one-hole pool table), the underused Emmet gadgetry, and the last burst of old school excess with dashes of Bondian grandeur and perversity. As a kid, I thought Anna Quayle as the Baroness was hotter than the heroine and worried about it.

    TPLOSH came at the tail end of the era of those musical gargantuas, and as a massive period spectacle is almost one of them. Imagine a production number shot in the Diogenes Club: Fifty mute, soft-shoeing servants accompanied only by a loud clock. Or the Piccolos involuntarily going into a song when they hear the intro.

  3. Wilder had various musical ideas but always ended up avoiding them after The Emperor Waltz didn’t work. He considered doing Cabaret. Was Sherlock going to be a musical at one point, or am I imagining things?

    I think Sellers respected Wilder so he wasn’t acting up on Kiss Me Stupid, but he didn’t like Wilder keeping an open set that friends could just drift onto. (TPLOSH was visited by George Lazenvy and Adrian Conan Doyle.) The stress of that, and the role of an insanely jealous husband, which was quite close to home for PS, may have brought on his attack, but then he had a dicky heart anyway.

  4. theredshoes1 Says:

    Fiona here – Sellers had a dicky heart and he was using poppers to enhance sex with Britt Ekland. Wilder had a completely different approach to Kubrick, who gave Sellers so much room you can see Peter Bull laughing in the background in Strangelove. What’s strange is that after the Kiss Me Stupid debacle, Wilder seriously contemplated working with him again.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Here’s Joan Didion’s rave review of “Kiss Me Stupid”.

    TPLOSH is indeed one of those late 60’s extravaganzas that came a cropper despite their overall geniality : “Darling Lilli,” “Star” and “Hello Dolly!” are part of this crew. All sport very specific mistakes that led to their failure. Fiona’s quite right about TPLOSH’s lack of star power and unfulfilled promise of “naughtiness” The failure of “Kiss Me Stupid” undoubtedly let Billy gun-shy on that score.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Final thoughts: On reflection, the ending of TPLOSH could be taken as Wilder, having played games with the icon, charitably giving back Sherlock Holmes as we knew him before. A magician handing back your pocket watch undamaged.

    The great detective’s protective shell of cold reason is perhaps hardened a little, and when he reaches for the needle it won’t be from ennui alone. But we know that Wilder’s Holmes will recover and continue as the Holmes everybody knows (we know from the prologue this was not his last case).

    A bittersweet ending, but not tragic in that the hero will remain the hero we know. Fictions that fill in early life for famous folk, real or imaginary, like to invent a defining Big Event, often romantic and doomed, that will shape the hero’s destiny. What Wilder does is trickier: Throwing the tragedy into the MIDDLE of Sherlock’s career, in such a way that life will go on at Baker Street as before, perhaps fortified in some aspects but not disrupted on the surface.

  7. Had the story of the prostitute at the boat race remained in the movie as a flashback, Wilder would indeed have set up a Holmes “origin story.”

    I love trying to figure out the exact moment Holmes realizes he’s in love with “Gabrielle.” It seems to come during the scene where he has her arrested, a spectacular piece of romantic bad timing.

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