Archive for Harry H Corbett

“I was walking in the woods near my home and… I found an ear.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2018 by dcairns

When Jim Dale shows up at the local police station with a stray finger, we felt that maybe CARRY ON SCREAMING! had influenced BLUE VELVET. When Harry H. Corbett discovers an ear in the woods, we were MORALLY CERTAIN. (Lynch always portrays himself as someone not particularly influenced by other moviemakers, but LOOK!)We watched SCREAMING! and CLEO as a double feature with our friend Marvelous Mary to see if we could decide which is best. I don’t think there are any other realistic candidates in the series. CARRY ON UP THE KHYBER is disqualified not so much for racism as for having Roy Castle in it. The early, more solid films (SERGEANT and NURSE) aren’t typical enough to count — they’re still trying to be proper films. But SCREAMING and CLEO are very enjoyable IMproper films.

SCREAMING! might just have the edge. All the main actors are favourites, and they’re all well cast and very good. But maybe a comparison of casts would be productive –Harry H. Corbett VS Sid James. Corbett plays police sergeant Sidney Bung in SCREAMING!, a role clearly intended for series regular Sid James, who plays Marc Antony in CLEO. Both are real actors, more than capable of strong dramatic work, but who got typecast in low comedy. This is Corbett’s only Carry On and he’s magnificent. I couldn’t grab frames of him without cracking up all over again. Maybe it’s the residual tragi-comic aura of Steptoe and Son, but I feel he’s more sympathetic than James would have been. James was no underdog. Corbett is trapped in a hellish marriage with shrew Joan Sims, and though they’re fairly evenly matched at making one another miserable, Corbett has more of a hangdog, loser air, which helps with a character who’s pretty obnoxious in many ways.Double-bill this with DEATH LINE, because both Corbett and Donald Pleasence nail an aspect of the British copper in a really bang-to-rights way: the sarcasm, the one-upmanship, the desire to infuriate and humiliate the suspect/witness/have-a-go-hero. I’m not saying this is what all Brit cops do. But doing a job in which you have to deal with criminal idiots much of the time clearly takes a toll.James in CLEO plays one of his rare out-and-out villains, though the movie regards him warmly and gives him an ahistorical happy ending, splashing into a milk bath with Cleo. It’s also a relatively rare case of him not playing a character called Sid, perhaps a legacy of his Hancock TV fame, where the leads used their own names and cemented their comic personae. So that Sid is always a loveable cockney (from South Africa) even when he’s playing a scheming, murderous traitor. (The funniest thing about that is the way Williams, whenever he hears Marc Antony is coming, cries, “Oh, my friend!”) Plus, Sid in Roman attire is just an amusing sight. I don’t think the real Marc A. would have been much like Sid, but there must have been plenty of Roman soldiers who were.

Joan Sims in CLEO plays a nagging wife to Caesar exactly like the one she plays in SCREAMING!, and for good measure the film has Sheila Hancock playing an identical henpecker to Kenneth Connor.I really like this rodental snarl Joan fleetingly produces, almost like she’s going to make a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS sucking noise. The extremely small, cheap set — we see two walls with oppressive wallpaper, no window, and a corner of stair through the door — adds to the sense of an inescapable domestic hell. Nearly all Joan’s scenes prior to the ending show her in bed, so the claustrophobia becomes part of her characterisation.Jim Dale plays a well-meaning berk in SCREAMING! with some good physical comedy, but is something of a swashbuckling hero in CLEO. At one point he slays four or five Roman assassins in true Errol Flynn manner and manages to make us forget he’s dressed a a vestal virgin. So SCREAMING! is a more rewarding part for his skills, but CLEO shows some more range. He’s the only actor who appears in both films and is still alive, though as he says, “At my age, don’t buy any green bananas.”

In SCREAMING!, both Corbett and Dale get slipped a Mr. Hyde potion mickey, causing them to mutate and rampage. Their performances under the influence are amusingly similar: both go through many weird reactions, as if rendered hyper-alert: they cycle between horny, winsome, confused, ashamed, and they overreact to every stimulus. They basically, in fact, delivered amped-up versions of the typical Carry On performance. My friend Colin describes the essence of the series as being mostly very poor material being performed with wildly inappropriate enthusiasm. These guys can’t cross a room without at least trying to get a laugh.The late Fenella Fielding as Valeria Watt in SCREAMING! is pretty evenly matched with Amanda Barrie as Cleo in CLEO. Each made only one other CARRY ON. Fiona covets Fenella’s red velvet dress, which she had to be sewn into. Barrie is funnier, perhaps, playing Cleo with the manner of a suburban hairdresser, and acting dumb to disguise a brain as functional as any are ever allowed to be in one of these movies. There’s a great bit where she’s reciting dialogue we’ve already heard in a prophetic vision, and she does it kind of by rote, as if she knows she’s already said it. That’s an AMAZING choice.Barrie is also much, much sexier than Liz Taylor.

But Fielding is like a kind of special effect, which is what a true Carry On star needs to be. Vampira figure, sexy skull face, big hair, and THAT VOICE, honeyed smoke.Kenneth Williams is one of the genuinely uncanny elements in SCREAMING! Chalk-white face and nostrils dilated like nacelles, vowels equally dilated. He was never required to exercise his natural ghoulishness elsewhere, except maybe the unpleasant surgical stuff in DOCTOR. In CLEO he’s just his usual twerp, maybe more benign than usual. He does get the greatest line (there aren’t many GOOD ones…) in a CARRY ON, the endlessly quoted “Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got in fa me!” I tell you what’s less funny: his last words in the film are, “Oh what’s the use?” which were also the last words in his diary before he committed suicide.

(There’s been a whole TV subgenre, mainly on BBC4, of plays about beloved British comics who led troubled or miserable lives. The Carry Ons are largely to blame, because almost everyone in them had what seems like an unusually bleak life. But Williams is the sun from which all that misery radiates.)Peter Butterworth as Slobottom, the Watson to Bung’s Holmes, is magnificent. He nearly always played background types, and stole what moments he could (Richard Lester used him similarly: check out his textbook faffing as he struggles to removed an arrow from Richard Harris in ROBIN AND MARIAN). The only similar subordinate in CLEO is Victor Maddern, a believable and useful type, but not someone I ever feel like laughing in the presence of.Kenneth Connor in CLEO gets one of his better roles. Writer Talbot Rothwell appears to have appropriated his story arc not from any telling of the Cleopatra story, but from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, with Connor acquiring a heroic reputation based on another man’s accomplishment. I’m wondering if somebody had the idea that Connor could be a second Dudley Moore. But that job was taken. Connor is never less cute than when he thinks he’s cute, but he is certainly an enthusiastic farceur.Bernard Bresslaw makes a great zombie butler in SCREAMING! but is unaccountably absent from CLEO. Worth mentioning again that he was up for the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Would that have led to him playing Dracula, then Fu Manchu, then Scaramanga, then Saruman?

The burly henchman Sosages in that film, Tom Clegg, is great value as Australopithecine abductor Oddbod in SCREAMING! When I was a kid, the movie was not only hilarious, but also gave me everything I could want from a monster movie.Jon Pertwee gets two showy roles in these films, as a daffy Scottish police scientist and an Egyptian soothsayer. I’ll leave you to decide which film each character turns up in. He does a lot of face-pulling, tongue-protruding and random whistling and is very enjoyable, but somehow never seems quite in the same genre as the other actors.The only actor in the regrettable CARRY ON COLUMBUS who seemed to get it was Rick Mayall, who said that director Gerald Thomas told him to be the most exaggerated version of who he was as a comedian. And that’s exactly what you want from a Carry On performer. Pertwee was a man of many voices from the radio, and he’s in that mode here, but when he had to play a role that was his own persona, it turned out to be in Doctor Who as a Victorian space fop.

Still, the above image is one of many from this film that crack me up even as I edit it into this post.Charles Hawtrey, like Kenneth Williams, is a total special effect, a freak of cinema. He attempts to make Dan Dann, the lavatory man quite a dashing figure. It’s a one-scene cameo with no real jokes except TOILETS. Which is a good half the humour of Carry On. His more substantial part as Caesar’s smutty father-in–law Senecca (!) in CLEO lets him do more and be more strange (the classic Carry On panto of gay men playing dirty-minded straight men while still furiously signalling their queerness).

The stuff with Slobottom trying to, ahem, make contact with Dann in the gents is relatively near-the-knuckle for a Carry On. Because usually the panto fantasia they present is one in which gayness doesn’t really exist, but heterosexuality is lampooned by flamboyantly queer actors. (But this movie also has two dress shop managers who seem like they’re meant to be a couple.)

I keep forgetting how many Carry Ons Angela Douglas was in. She plays Doris Mann in SCREAMING! but spends most of the movie as a mannequin. But she’s able to make more of an impression than Julie Stevens in her underwritten role in CLEO.

Both films include bits for Michael Ward (camp), Norman Mitchell (fat) and Sally Douglas (girl).

Between them they also feature Captain Peacock, Alf Garnett, Vivian Darkbloom and Woodrow Wilson.

And some weird, choppy editing. They’re cut by different hands, but share a pacey style where scenes are chopped off the instant the last line is finished, and in the case of fades and dissolves, these often happen while someone’s still trying to get their last line out. They’re really “stepping on the laugh,” in some cases, as Jerry Lewis would say. My theory is that Gerald Thomas was a bit quick to say “cut.” Or else that he knew the films would collapse if we ever got a moment’s time to reflect on whether any given joke was worth laughing at.

There Will Be Flood

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2010 by dcairns

FLOODS OF FEAR, rather nicely directed by Charles Crichton (THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES, A FISH CALLED WANDA), is a B-thriller with an A budget, and an intriguing mix of good and bad qualities, both of which are equally entertaining at times.

Good qualities — escaped convicts taking charge of a flooded house during a destructive deluge in Canada: it’s a great dramatic situation. The cast is strong and the budget surprisingly fulsome, offering convincing special effects, both life-sized and miniature (and you generally can’t see the join).

Even though the central set-up in the film’s first third — convicts menace cute girl — is a little Victorian in its implications, there’s room for suspense and the film isn’t afraid of being exploitative and vulgar, which is somehow refreshing in a British movie of the 50s. And for a former Ealing director like Crichton to go as racy and pulpy as this is quite surprising.

Bad qualities — restlessly, the movie shifts out of the half-submerged house, dissipating suspense and pursuing a more complicated but less interesting narrative, rooted in a convoluted backstory we never see. But all his forgiven during the violent climax, set in a flooded shipping office.

Also — crummy title.

The most amusing bad quality, however, is the filming of a Canadian adventure story in England with English and Irish actors. In the lead, Howard Keel, in his first non-musical lead, is able to show the way with authentic North American vocalisations. Opposite him, the lovely Anne Heywood just plays it English, which is acceptable in the circumstances. Now the trouble starts. Cyril Cusack, as the psychopathic con, essays a dialect melding his own Irish tones with a rich blend of wildly different American sounds and mannerisms. These were the days before dialect coaching, when accents were largely expected to partake of the same generous suspension of disbelief that applied to rear-projected car journeys, bloodless stabbings, balsa barroom bannisters and people falling from high places who transformed into flailing, disarticulated dummies for the descent.

“Disarticulated” is actually a pretty good word for Cusack’s speech patterns — his voice belongs to a Frankenstein’s monster of American accents, with Tennessee legs supporting a Texas torso from which depend Brooklyn arms, the whole surmounted by an Irish-South African head, the bits strung together with fraying thread, flapping loosely as his performance plummets towards the murky waters below.

As hilarious as Cusack’s performance is, bundling together tics and tropes from a generation of sleazeball gangster characters, it pales next to that of Harry H Corbett, who is much funnier because his character, a stuffy prison guard, is more dignified, and because his accent, if we can even justify the use of the singular, is even worse than Cusack’s. In his very first sentence he manages to segue from Humphrey Bogart to Cary Grant. Grant, of course, had an accent unknown to Henry Higgins (“Nbody tawks like that!” as Jack Lemmon protests in SOME LIKE IT HOT), making it an unsuitable case for impersonation outside of a comedy. I think even if you were playing Cary Grant you might want to tone it down a bit.

“You dirty old man!”

Corbett was a serious stage actor at this point, remarked upon for his proletarian grit and manliness. How he wound up spending twelve years in a single sitcom is mysterious, but his ambition to be a great thespian informed his playing of Harold in Steptoe and Son, a study in frustration, disappointment, pretension, great dreams and lowly surroundings — perfect for a once-hot classical actor.

There’s nothing perfect about most of Corbett’s movie work, although he features in Gilliam’s JABBERWOCKY, Eric Sykes’ much-loved silent comedy THE PLANK, Mackendrick’s SAMMY GOING SOUTH, Joan Littlewood’s SPARROWS CAN’T SING, and of course CARRY ON SCREAMING. The rest tend to be dowdy British sex comedies of the kind clearly intended to put the British working man off sex for life, although COVER GIRL KILLER, made the same year as FLOODS, features an inventive and grotesque turn from Corbett, possibly patterned on Cusack’s pebble-glasses maniac in this movie.

Howard Keel is mainly staunch and shirtless as the stoic con with a tragic past — he has the kind of musculature, coated in soft flesh, that you just don’t see on leading men anymore. He’s holding his gut in all the time, like Mitchum or Shatner. But he cam move! That musical training pays off whenever he has to clamber or jump, suggesting that a deluge-based thriller is not actually the best vehicle for him. He could have played Burt Lancaster type swashbucklers, because he’s beautiful in motion.

Worth a look for the sheer spectacle and the hilarity of the Canadian accent drag acts. A good candidate for remake status, except that HARD RAIN kind of went there.

Carry On Noir

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by dcairns

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!