The most newsworthy event in October for me was the death of Norman Wisdom aged 95. Though he stopped making regular film appearances in the 60s (and stopped making decent films in the 50s!) he became a bit of a national treasure in Britain due to his ability to seemingly never age (he was still falling off ladders well into his 80s) and his regular television appearances. He was someone that I grew up with and who, for a brief period in my teens was my favourite film star. I do mourn his passing but have mixed feelings, as I haven’t watched one of his films in years and I’m not entirely sure that I’ll still find his mawkish form of slapstick particularly funny. I really meant to watch The Bulldog Breed, Man of the Moment or Up in the World in tribute to him but I never got round to it. I still have good memories of him and though at times he fell in to the Chaplinesque trap of being overly sentimental, he was an excellent physical comedian with tons of charm and a real survivor, entertaining audiences for over 60 years. Despite his flaws and patchy filmography, he’s a uniquely British comedian (though inexplicably a national hero in Albania) and it’s sad that another part of my childhood has disappeared into the ether. For a rather nice tribute to Sir Norman, please click here.
Film highlight of the month was a rare big screen showing of the 1945 British thriller Murder in Reverse? Starring William Hartnell. Though essentially a B picture this was a tautly directed tale of a man innocently sent down for murder and who, upon his release sets out to clear his name. It went by at a cracking pace and Hartnell, as ever was excellent. He really is a most under rated actor and I would really like to see more of his work. Whilst best know today for Doctor Who, he was a juvenile lead in British films of the 30s (as Billy Hartnell) eventually graduating to character parts in films such as The Bells Go Down, The Way Ahead and Odd Man Out.
Murder in Reverse? was one of several attempts to establish him as a leading man in thrillers and crime films, in the mould of Bogart, Robinson or Cagney. It didn’t quite work out but at least he got the chance to show his skill as an actor in films such as this. In Murder in Reverse? his character emerges from prison half way through the narrative after fifteen years inside and Hartnell excels at subtly showing the effects of what he has endured. He’s a broken man but a man with a pent up rage to even the score, despite being physically spent. In many ways, Hartnell is almost a method actor in his use of mannerisms and body language to emphasize details about his characters, both major and minor. Perhaps his greatest and most accomplished attempt at this approach is his portrayal of Dallow in Brighton Rock where it’s the details such as chewing on a matchstick or cleaning his nails that help to establish depth to the character. It’s a testament to his ability as an actor that Hartnell never lets his performance be swamped by Richard Attenborough’s blisteringly intense star turn.
For me another Hartnell highlight is to see him tussle with Patrick McGoohan in the climatic moments of Hell Drivers. To see these two icons of 60s television share screen time (and try to kill each other) is a real treat. Though it seems that a DVD release of Murder in Reverse? is not on the horizon, I’d implore anyone with an interest in British movies of the 40s and 50s to search out a film featuring William Hartnell. I just wish there were more of them available, including the elusive and awesomely titled comedy I’m An Explosive. If anyone has a copy, well my right arm is yours….
Other Movie highlights in October –
The Grass is Greener (1960) – One of my favourite Cary Grant films from back in the day still held up, much to my relief. It’s a lovely, underplayed film (sometimes too underplayed though) with a great cast, especially the demure and elegant Deborah Kerr.
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) – I Finally made it through all 12 chapters of possibly my all time favourite movie serial. I know a lot of people prefer the first two but this one, with its stirring music and impressively epic scale gets my vote. If only all serials were so consistently exciting. Next up is The Mystery Squadron, my first Mascot serial, hooray!
It’s a Boy (1933) – British farce starring Leslie Henson and Edward Everett Horton about a man finding out he has an illegitimate child on the eve of his wedding. It’s suprisingly racy for it’s time with several innuendo-laden lines and a scene where Horton and Henson have to explain what sex is!
Old Mother Riley’s Circus (1941) – This is one of the better Arthur Lucan films featuring the character that practically wrote the book on lowbrow humour. I’m going to write a profile on the Old Mother Riley films once I’ve watched a few more but the character is certainly…an acquired taste. It’s very difficult to explain in a few sentences so I’d encourage anyone reading to get hold of one of the films. You may be confused at first, but trust me they grow on you.
Old Time Radio highlight of the Month -
I listened to an excellent edition of the Lux Radio Theater from September 26th 1938 where Jack Benny and Mary Livingston appear in a production of Seven Keys to Baldpate. What makes this one so good aside from having Jack and Mary playing themselves is that the usual host, Cecil B. DeMille also appears as himself. In the story, Jack Benny is constantly pestering DeMille to let him appear in and write one his films, so C. B lets him stay in one of his (haunted) properties in order to write the script. The whole thing is ridiculous but you can tell that the cast are having a great deal of fun, and DeMille, who really can’t act to save himself is pretty amusing. I know that there are about three million episodes of the Lux Radio Theater but this one is definitely worth digging up.
And there you have it - that was October. All this and no mention of time traveling Chaplin extras! Not from me, no sir. Next month…November!