Director Bryan Forbes tries his hand at comedy. His nostalgic Victorian farce features an eclectic choice of Brit stars — established greats John Mills & Ralph Richardson, the freshly-minted Michael Caine, reigning jester Peter Sellers and even a debut for the collegiate pranksters Peter Cook & Dudley Moore. It’s a beaut of a production with a charming John Barry music score… but the result yields more indulgent smiles than out-and-out laughs.
The Wrong Box
Region A+B Blu-ray
1966 / Color / 1:75 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date November 23, 2018 / available from Amazon UK / £14.99
Starring: John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Nanette Newman, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Wilfrid Lawson, Thorley Walters, Gerald Sim, Irene Handl, Norman Bird, John Le Mesurier, Norman Rossington, Diane Clare, Tutte Lemkow, Charles Bird, Vanda Godsell, Jeremy Lloyd, James Villiers, Graham Stark, Dick Gregory, Valentine Dyall, Leonard Rossiter, André Morell, Temperance Seven, Andrea Allan, Juliet Mills.
Cinematography: Gerry Turpin
Film Editor: Alan Osbiston
Original Music: John Barry
Written by Larry Gelbart, Burt Shevelove suggested by a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, Lloyd Osbourne
Produced and Directed by Bryan Forbes
The Wrong Box takes an all-star stab at a period farce, that’s meant to yield several levels of comedy — to be sweet charm, droll wit, antic slapstick. This basic music hall parody (with a heart) pokes fun with the popular image of Victorians as pompous, prudish and eccentric. The all-star cast makes it more than watchable, and essential viewing for fans that love to spot favorite faces clowning in glorified cameos. The format was proving profitable with ‘sixties audiences. The unambitious but visually spectacular epic Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines succeeded, but not copycat pictures like Those Fantastic Flying Fools. Made a couple of years later, The Assassination Bureau also tries to affect the arcane spirit of an espionage serial, with stalwart heroes and scurrilous arch-villains. Received in a casual manner, The Wrong Box certainly doesn’t offend, as it has attractive actors, pretty music and two or three highly amusing moments. But in terms of style or outright laughs, nobody’s going to confuse it with the uproariously droll Ealing Studio comedies from a decade earlier.
The story source are vintage books written by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, The Finsbury Tontine and A Game of Bluff. The basic joke is a game of musical chairs, but with corpses instead of furniture. Bodies are hidden and mixed up, while still-living patriarchs are mistakenly thought to be dead.
Screenwriters Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove knew their way around madcap farce, having concocted the original book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As directed by Bryan Forbes, The Wrong Box works the same kinds of plot machinations in slow motion. The idea is to savor the ‘preciousness’ of the confected situations, and perhaps share in the somewhat campy ribbing of an earlier, more innocent era of entertainment: what was once corny is now nostalgic and endearing.
The movie wants to be a sweet variant on the acidic Kind Hearts and Coronets. Sometime in the late 19th century, two elderly brothers of the Finsbury family, Masterman and Joseph (John Mills & Ralph Richardson) live in side-by-side row houses on an elegant circle. As children, they were both enrolled in a ‘dead pool-‘ like lottery called a Tontine: the fathers of a group of boys each contributed a large sum, which was invested in the lottery account, with the idea that the last boy living would get it all. After sixty years and several wars only two Finsburys are left. The cranky old hypochondriac Masterman lives with Peacock, his dotty butler (Wilfrid Lawson) and a son, Michael (Michael Caine). Michael is somewhat dense but very innocent and sweet. Just next door, Joseph Finsbury is hale and hearty. His greedy sons are desperate to win the Tontine. Carefree playboy John (Dudley Moore) has an uncanny knack for picking up willing women. The frustrated Morris (Peter Cook) fusses over his egg collection and thinks up evil plots. Also in the house is Joseph’s ward Julia (Nanette Newman), a virtuous maiden living in a dream of romantic innocence. She and Michael fall in rapturous but ridiculously chaste Love with a capital L.
The farce mechanism animating the story is silly but memorable Thinking that their father has been killed in a train wreck, Morris and John hide Joseph’s body in the hope that Masterman’s death will be discovered first. But the corpse they think is their father, isn’t. Crates and coffins become confused. Both fathers take turns being presumed dead by morticians, crooks, the police and the Salvation Army. Michael and Peacock each consider confessing to murder to protect others, while Morris and John jump the gun on collecting the Tontine, securing a fake death certificate from the old soak Dr. Pratt (Peter Sellers) and prematurely collecting the cash from the family solicitor (Thorley Walters). For a finale, three hearses, three confused heirs, the police, an unrelated funeral gathering and the notorious Bornemouth Strangler (Tutte Lemkow) convene a breach of the peace at an unsuspecting cemetery.
The Wrong Box has a lot going for it, but I only laughed out loud once, at a perfectly-timed retort (“Arrest him!”) by Tony Hancock’s tough but clueless detective. I smiled at much of the picture, and not in an indulgent way — much of it is amusing. Articulated with a dazzling montage of close-ups of lips and eyes, the innocent lust of the lovestruck Michael and the swooning Julia is delightful: a glimpse of muscle, a flash of ankle! Also near perfection is the stumbling & bumbling of Wilfrid Lawson’s butler Peacock. We’re told that the actor was seriously crocked through the entire production, and he looks it. Sir Ralph Richardson’s maddeningly garrulous old poop, lecturing and mansplaining arcane topics and never shutting up, is also amusingly spot-on.
None of the actors ‘let the side down.’ Peter Sellers’ two-scene cameo as the near-catatonic Dr. Pratt is one of his better characterizations. Interrupted from a sodden snooze in a room filled with house cats, Pratt doesn’t know whether he should be protesting his innocence or offering up arsenic for sale. He claims that “I wasn’t always like this,” while using a kitten to blot the ink on a forged Death Certificate.
Not much else shows the same level of inspiration. The movie begins with a flurry of sidebar shots of stuffy Tontine ‘competitors’ being killed, in wars, accidents, etc.. It comes off as a weak attempt to recapture the fun of a similar sequence in the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. John Mills being cantankerous (in good old age makeup) isn’t that amusing, unfortunately — Masterman Finsbury is fussy and stubborn and not much else. On the other hand, Ralph Richardson has a field day. He often comes off as plummy-crazy even in his straight roles. After playing the ultra-cool Harry Palmer, Michael Caine works overtime on his charming simpleton. Ignoring the prevailing mod attitude, Michael Finsbury wears pants with suspenders, and seems to take extra time to process the simplest information. Caine is good, but it’s an uphill struggle.
The big question mark are the beloved comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Shoehorned into playing two-dimensional baddies, it’s as if someone clipped the wings of the impetuous, unpredictable duo. Moore is an ingratiating airhead and Cook a disagreeable jerk; although there’s nothing wrong with what they do, they seem ill-used — in the old days there were specialized supporting actors that excelled at spinning amusement from what are really thankless roles. Moore gets across an impish moment now and then, but Cook is just a disagreeable, venal fussbudget. One of the film’s fresher yocks happens when Nanette Newman’s ward finally stops being so strait-laced and makes an exasperated face at him.
What surprises are the scenes that don’t work very well, that just ‘lie there.’ In this sort of film the older gags are often the best, but too many here wilt before our eyes. A band concert is interrupted by a succession of runaway hearses, and for each one the bandleader cues up a bar or two of a funeral dirge before switching back to something light and bouncy. When a mixup occurs between a crate with a statue and a barrel with a body, we lose track of what corpse is where. Not enough is made of parallel ironies: Morris and John get set to fake their ‘dead’ father falling down some stairs, just as Michael’s father actually does fall down some stairs, right next door.
All one can do is wonder if there’s something wrong with the direction. Saying that it’s all too slowly paced isn’t right, as the old Ealing comedies sometimes took their times as well. Is the direction a bit lax, or is the editing not tight enough? Or are the characters less interesting and the joke lines just not all that funny? Or is it just me? Would an accelerated editing pace help, or would that destroy the old-fashioned flavor?
Forbes and Gelbart employ a few silent-style inter-titles, but otherwise play everything straight, style-wise. Set next to current comedies by Richard Lester, Bryan Forbes’ work looks definitely old-school. Forbes was never known for comedy, but that doesn’t mean that the director of the somber The L-Shaped Room, Séance on a Wet Afternoon and King Rat should be disqualified from giving it a try.
The film’s charm is given a major boost by John Barry’s music, especially the lush love theme that launches the show on a perfect note of nostalgia and good intentions. The sets are elaborate and detailed, even if some of the interiors seem a little dark. We’re told that it didn’t do well in England; some critics opined that Brit audiences had little patience for the old-fashioned, stereotyped characterizations. I think it’s possible that this particular nostalgic fantasy wasn’t in demand in the year that the youth culture took over nearly everything.
For this viewer the film’s finish is eerily familiar. Using a ‘zany chase’ to goose up the end of a comedy mostly died with Abbott & Costello and W.C. Fields. A really dumb chase had just recently laid an egg at the end of the fitfully sparkling What’s New Pussycat. Forbes and Gelbart’s graveside finale crumbles into a lot of yelling and mugging. The usurping cousins fight over a box of money, and the other main actors stand around with nothing to do, not even witty send-off dialogue. The concluding donnybrook in a graveyard is almost exactly like the final scene in 1941. Both movies end with the entire cast fighting and doing silly things, seen from a helicopter/crane viewpoint that retreats into the sky. It’s as if both Forbes and Spielberg couldn’t think of a better way to wrap things up.
Thankfully, director Forbes ducks behind a reprise of John Barry’s charming title theme, so we’re let down easy. My memories of The Wrong Box tend to be positive — entire scenes with Michael Caine and Nanette Newman, and frequent bits with Ralph Richardson, Wilfrid Lawson and Peter Sellers are terrific. Luckily Peter Cook and Dudley Moore would bounce back in the next year’s delightful Bedazzled, which is due very soon from the Twilight Time label.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Region A+B Blu-ray of The Wrong Box is a lush and rich rendition of this candy-colored picture, that seems to have been filmed in a month when Somerset was enjoying beautiful weather. Although I’ve seen similar buildings recreated as sets in English movies, Box uses as its main setting the noted Royal Crescent in Bath, built in the late 1700s.
Three disc producers assembled the extras. The audio commentary by Vic Pratt and the BFI’s Josephine Botting begins by remarking on the mixed reaction to the film’s animated titles. Three new interviews are present. Star Nanette Newman was married to Bryan Forbes for a whopping 57 years; she’s delighted that the film has been remastered and offers spirited memories. The assistant editor Willy Kemplen and the second assistant director Hugh Harlow need little prompting to spill their stories. Harlow says that the shoot had a relaxed pace compared to his work at Hammer — I looked and he’s the third and second assistant on many of the big Hammer titles starting in 1956! Harlow was an associate producer on the elusive Full Circle aka The Haunting of Julia; maybe Powerhouse Indicator should start with him to track down that creepy Mia Farrow picture.
Director Bryan Forbes is heard on an audio interview that covers his entire career. The insert booklet (only in the first limited edition) offers a great deal of interesting content including excerpts from the autobiographies of Bryan Forbes and Michael Caine, and a critical overview of the source novel(s).
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Wrong Box
Region A+B Blu-ray rates:
Supplements (from PH): The British Entertainment History Project Interview with Bryan Forbes (1994): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Roy Fowler; New audio commentary with film historians Josephine Botting and Vic Pratt; New interviews with Nanette Newman, assistant editor Willy Kemplen and Assistant Director Hugh Harlow; Trailer; Image gallery. Illustrated 19-page booklet with a new essay by Vic Pratt.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 12, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson