Tuesday 15 March 2011

Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959)

Directors: Jeffrey Dell and Roy Boulting
Stars: Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers and Luciana Paoluzzi

An early collaboration between Peter Sellers and the Boulting brothers, this one's a treat for fans of Terry-Thomas instead, of which I am emphatically one. Sellers was undeniably a comic genius and he does a fine job here, but I've often found his work inconsistent, some of his performances being sheer bliss but others less memorable. Comparatively, Terry-Thomas managed to shine in everything he did, at least everything I've seen thus far which is quite a lot. He's not tasked with playing the unmitigated cad he was so frequently typecast as, instead portraying a well meaning bungler who runs an obscure department of Her Majesty's Foreign Office, the FO of the title. He breezes along as if occupying a different reality to the rest of us, only partly as it was the ruling classes' turn for being speared with wit by the Boultings, as they speared the Church of England, the army and the trades unions in Heavens Above!, Private's Progress and I'm All Right, Jack.

This one is less successful than most of them, at least as a complete film, but it's packed with moments of genius that make it shine nonetheless. Terry-Thomas is much of the reason for that, showing how versatile an actor he was, epitomising the inept but likeable hero usually played by Ian Carmichael in Boulting brothers pictures. Terry-Thomas was great at Dick Dastardly roles, such as those in School for Scoundrels, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Jungle Book, but it's good to see him play the hero occasionally. Another actor who epitomised inept heroes was John Le Mesurier, well known for playing one on TV's Dad's Army, but here he's dynamic as the Grand Duke of Gaillardia, who can't seem to stand still. Sellers is energetic too but in a totally different way, as the insatiably corrupt Prime Minister Amphibulos, characterised as a swaggering mafioso. Unfortunately both Sellers and Le Mesurier are sadly underused.

Gaillardia is the setting for much of our story, a small island which Britain colonised after a cargo ship ran into it in the dark, only to grant it independence in 1916 for being a burden. When Her Britannic Majesty's Advisor to the island sends a secret missive home about Russians digging holes, the Foreign Office has to scour the archives and the maps to find out what and where it is, especially as they had forgotten he was still there. It falls to the title character, Cadogan de Vere Carlton-Browne, the Permanent Assistant Political Secretary for the Miscellaneous Territories, to do something about it, which he does with glorious ineptitude, building unintended consequence upon unintended consequence and even sparking a revolution. There is a happy ending but it's the journey that matters rather than the final stop, one that surely inspired Water, a particular favourite of mine. The Whitehall scenes were reminiscent of Yes, Minister, but decades earlier.
The Boulting brothers fostered a stable of comedic talent, many of whom are given lesser parts to flesh out. Raymond Huntley is underwhelming as Tufton-Slade, the British Foreign Secretary, Terry-Thomas stealing the scenes they share by simply looking lost, but he does get two magic moments, both provided through speeches to the United Nations that are mixed metaphor riots. Thorley Walters, who I somehow never recognise when he's young, is Col Bellingham, a military attaché who accompanies Carlton-Browne to Gaillardia and has a few inept moments himself. The goverment's resident advisor on the island is played by Miles Malleson, who was so natural as a bishop that it always seems somehow surprising to see him play something else. There's even a glorious but unfortunately brief appearance for Irene Handl as a housewife interviewed on the news. I blinked and missed Nicholas Parsons.

Surprisingly for an institutional comedy, the romance that trumps everyone's efforts turns out to be a success. Young King Loris, who has been studying at Oxford, is blissfully down to earth in the form of Ian Bannen, a versatile actor whose first credit was in Private's Progress. The object of his attentions is a young lady he meets while incognito on the plane home to take his throne. She turns out to be his cousin, the Princess Ilyena, who her uncle, the Grand Duke, sees as the rightful heir. Sorry, but if that's a spoiler, then you just haven't watched enough films like this: it was transparent from the moment we saw her! Italian beauty Luciana Paluzzi appeared in many English language films alongside Italian ones, as varied as Muscle Beach Party, Thunderball and Return to Peyton Place. She was even the leading lady in The Green Slime, but she reminds of nobody less than Audrey Hepburn here, a delightful pixie. No wonder the king falls for her.
The script was by co-directors Jeffrey Dell and Roy Boulting, and is surprisingly inconsistent, constantly veering between comedy gold and uninspiring lead. Lesser pictures may be designed to be set pieces linked by filler, but that's not the impression I got here. It seems like they aimed at a consistency in tone but simply failed to find one. It kept lapsing into a coma of dialogue, dry and ignorable, but then kept getting resuscitated with some truly great comedic scenes that made me laugh out loud. Pomp and circumstance is speared skilfully as Bellingham and Carlton-Browne arrive in Gaillardia. The calamitous 'show of strength' is even better: an attempt to copy what the Russians used to do on May Day, but on a Gaillardian budget that mostly ended up in the pocket of Prime Minister Amphibulos. It's a joy to watch and I'm smirking in admiration again just thinking about it. Even better than the visuals is the commentary that accompanies it.

The dialogue is just as inconsistent as the rest of the script. A number of dialogue heavy scenes should have been cut because they do nothing but make us wonder why they're there, yet other scenes are textbook examples of what good dialogue can do. The British Foreign Secretary is a waste of a character for most of the film but he comes magnificently to life at the United Nations and he does so twice. Sellers gets some great dialogue too, usually delivered in broken English that is unintentionally truthful. When a stand collapses to embarrassing effect because of rotten timber, he explains he 'was promised by the contractor they would use it only for the public.' My favourite faux pas was when he invited Carlton-Browne to dinner, 'everything very friendly, with all our cards under the table.' When interpreting the young king's honest concern for his people as particularly subtle manipulation, he reminded me of David Bowie's character in Into the Night.

Carlton-Browne of the FO is obviously a very English title, so it was promptly retitled abroad, not least in the United States where FO tends to suggest something a little different from 'Foreign Office'. There it was released as Man in a Cocked Hat, which would seem strange if not detailed next to the German title, Ausgerechnet Charlie Brown, which inspires something different again. Regardless of the title, this is a film any fan of classic British comedy should seek out, albeit with a number of caveats. Yes, Peter Sellers is here and he's well worth watching, but he doesn't get much more time here than he did in The Ladykillers. Sellers fans would be better off with any of his other 1959 films: I'm All Right, Jack, The Battle of the Sexes and especially The Mouse That Roared. Fans of the Boulting brothers will find this one of the least of their comedies, albeit with many great moments. It's the Terry-Thomas fans who will appreciate it most.

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