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Sunday 7 May 2017

Helter Skelter (1949)

Director: Ralph Thomas
Writer: Patrick Campbell, with additional dialogue by Jan Read and Gerard Bryant
Stars: Carol Marsh and David Tomlinson

Index: 2017 Centennials.

It’s amazing what the passage of time can do to simple words. Nowadays, we might think of 'Helter Skelter' as a Beatles song or as the racial war prophesied by Charles Manson after obsessing over it. Some might think of the manga by Kyoko Okazaki or the live action film it spawned. Some may look much further backwards: Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market, published in 1862, over a century before The White Album, includes the phrase, ‘helter skelter, hurry skurry’; Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a poem called Helter Skelter in 1731; and Thomas Nashe beat him by a century and a half by employing the phrase in his Four Letters Confuted, back in 1592. Apparently, it’s an Old English phrase dating back to the middle of the twelfth century, so we should feel no qualms about reappropriating it from the likes of Charles Manson. Sadly, however, when confronted with the phrase, few will think of this surreal comedy, produced by Gainsborough Pictures in 1949.

Of course, words are not the only things to change over time. They change much slower than fame and that’s never more obvious than when looking at comedians. I was born in England and lived there until I was 33, but this film, only a couple of decades older than I am, is like a glimpse into a different century, rather appropriate given that some of these comedians do exactly that at one point in the movie. It’s a Who’s Who of British comedy of the time, with names that I recognise, such as Terry-Thomas and Jimmy Edwards, prominent in the opening credits and a whole slew of others popping in briefly. Reading through the film’s IMDb page, I realise that I even missed a couple, presumably because I blinked, and others never appear on screen. For instance, the script was by Patrick Campbell, the third Baron Glenavy, an Irish humorist who later served as a long-running team captain on Call My Bluff, opposite Frank Muir, one of the few comedians of his day who apparently didn’t appear in this movie.

There is a story, though it’s little more than a theme on which the many guests are ready, willing and mostly able to riff. In other words, this is really a variety show featuring a variety of performances, vaguely strung together to provide a semblance of a plot. Nominally, it’s about poor Susan Graham, a rich and beautiful heiress who’s celebrating her 19th birthday in such a way that we’ll buy into her life not being as remotely enjoyable as that description suggested. She has two guardians until she inherits at 21 but they’re mostly interested in setting her up with their respective nephews, whom she despises with a passion. What’s more, a trip to the Magnolia Club (with both nephews in tow as unwanted dates) results in her laughing so hard at a featured performance by Lamouret and his famous duck, that she contracts the hiccoughs. The rest of the film involves a set of wild and wacky attempts to cure her of this ailment, none of which work, resulting in a rather unusual leading role for actress Carol Marsh.

Lamouret is surely the odd man out in this line-up, as he was French rather than English, but he’s a fascinating artist to kick off the featured performances. He’s Robert Lamouret and his ventriloquist dummy duck, wearing a sailor suit, was named Dudule, even if he’s so close to the duck we’re imagining that the opening credits include ‘with acknowledgements to Donald Duck’ after his name. Presumably, Lamouret came to some sort of arrangement with Walt Disney because, seven years later, the act even showed up for an appearance on The Mickey Mouse Club. What’s also odd is that this is maybe the only ventriloquist act I’ve ever seen that includes no real ventriloquism. Certainly Dudule doesn’t speak, but he doesn’t even make a lot of quacking noises, mostly interacting with his master through comedy gags rather than ventriloquism. Whatever this act should really be described as, it is funny and more so than a good proportion of the others which follow. Comedy has changed over time, but so have our senses of humour.
It’s surprising to me that Ralph Thomas, making his second film in the director’s chair after a romantic comedy called Once Upon a Dream, didn’t want to direct comedy, given that he would go on to prove that he was so good at it. His biggest hit was Doctor in the House, which topped the box office in 1954 and became the most profitable film in the history of the Rank Organisation. It started a trend, whereby Rank would greenlight the sorts of movies Thomas wanted to make in return for another instalment in that series, which eventually ran to seven features, along with television and radio shows. What doesn’t surprise me in the slightest is that the film Thomas cited as an inspiration was Hellzapoppin!, which Thomas ‘enormously admired’. This is more restrained in its boundary breaking but it’s just as madcap and the comparison is a fair one. Incidentally, Ralph’s brother, Gerald, directed the Carry On series, whose producer, Peter Rogers, was married to Betty Box, Ralph’s most frequent and important collaborator.

In keeping with that Hellzapoppin! inspiration, the filmmakers throw everything they have at the wall to see what would stick. The results are wildly varied in both style and quality, but the overall effect is to introduce us to so many talents that we can’t keep up, while displaying comedic ideas old and new. When Susan acquires the hiccoughs, she goes to the bar to get a glass of water, which only briefly works before prompting a worse bout, which briefly pulls the film reel off its sprockets. That sort of manipulation was new with Hellzapoppin!, though this scene leads into an actual pie fight, something that dates back to the early days of slapstick, the film also sped up in homage to that over-ratcheted silent era. It’s worth mentioning here that Richard Hearne, the film’s narrator and the story’s instigator, plays a variation here on his regular character, Mr. Pastry, called Prof. Pastry. His origins are in a stage show, Big Boy, from 1936 but he was sourced very much from silent era slapstick comedy.
Unless I blinked, Prof. Pastry is only named in the end credits, because the 1949 audience was fully expected to recognise him. His shenanigans are presumably, therefore, entirely in character, including his gatecrashing of the pie fight in a suit of armour and an action that changes the whole course of the movie. You see, Susan’s love interest is someone I haven’t mentioned yet. He’s a radio star called Nick Martin, whose daily adventures in Nick Martin, Special Investigator, a nod to Dick Barton, Special Agent, are a hit with a wide audience, including Susan’s French maid, Giselle. Susan hates the character and soon comes to hate the man behind it too, as he hinders her path into the Magnolia Club, by having the temerity to sign autographs for a bevy of beauties lying in wait for him, then wants his usual table, at which she and her unwanted beaux have been seated. But when he pops up at the same country pub, Prof. Pastry, in the guise of a supernatural cupid in Bacchanalian garb, shoots them both with love’s arrows for instant romance!

And, for all that Richard Hearne may or may not have been the first ‘television star’, I’m watching Helter Skelter for Nick Martin, or at least for the actor who portrays him, David Tomlinson, as he would have been a hundred years old today, 7th May. Tomlinson’s career began on the stage and grew through a set of ripping yarns shot during the early years of the Second World War and again immediately after, films like ‘Pimpernel’ Smith, School for Secrets and I See a Dark Stranger. In between, he served as a flight instructor in the R.A.F. Helter Skelter came as his roles were diversifying; a fantasy romance in which he featured in 1948, Miranda, is reprised here with a cameo by its leading lady, Glynis Johns, as a mermaid called Miranda Trewella. This was easily the busiest time of his career, with seven films released in 1948 and six in 1949; many were romantic comedies, although he’d also play one of the three P.O.W.s escaping from Stalag Luft III in 1950 in The Wooden Horse, a fictionalised version of a true wartime story.
Of course, while he continued on in films as varied as Calling Bulldog Drummond, Tom Jones and The Liquidator, he’s easily best known today for the major roles he played in a trio of live action Disney features, each made late in his career. Mary Poppins came first in 1964, released when he was 47 years old. He plays George Banks, the disciplinarian banker who hires the magical nanny to handle his children; it can be argued that he’s the real lead character as the film happens to him and he gets the real story arc. Four years later, he’d play the villain in The Love Bug, Peter Thorndyke, perhaps the only actor in the cast to hold his own against Herbie, the lovable Volkswagen Beetle. Finally, in 1971, he’d play Emelius Browne, the con man who is shocked to discover that the nonsense he’s hawking through his Correspondence College of Witchcraft actually works in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Beyond being some of the most enjoyable Disney movies ever made, these are particularly great roles for an actor of his calibre.

Tomlinson retired in 1979, after shooting The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, also the last role of his friend, Peter Sellers, but many actors here in Helter Skelter continued on, often to much greater things. For instance, one of Hearne’s television collaborators has two roles here that showcase his mastery of comic voices. He plays the head waiter at the Magnolia Club and, in a flashback scene, King Charles II. He’s Jon Pertwee, whose comedy career peaked with his eighteen years on The Navy Lark on radio, but who’s best known today for playing the third Doctor in Doctor Who. Some of the best comedy in the film comes in this flashback, as a maid sits back in a haunted house and dreams that she was Amber, a lady sought after by both King Charles and Oliver Cromwell, as well as a lord named Bruce Carlton. The latter asks what she’s wearing. ‘Just a little thing I threw on,’ she replies. ‘You almost missed,’ he quips. Charles II comments, after climbing in through her window, ‘I wined her. I dined her. Now I can’t find her!’
How did we get to a haunted house, you might ask? Well, after a variety of other solutions fail, a doctor suggests Susan visit one to shock the hiccoughs away. He’s Dr. Jekyll, which leads to a brief and pointless shot of Jekyll turning into Hyde, except that we find it funny to see Wilfrid Hyde-White as Mr. Hyde, not just because of his name but as he’s always so utterly composed whatever the circumstances. Of course, the prescription is just a way to shift the action on from one scenario to the next so a new comedian can strut his stuff. Next up is the office of a mad psychiatrist, Dr. James Edwards, yet another character named for its actor, comedian Jimmy Edwards; the most famous example is Prof. James Edwards, M.A., the headmaster in the sitcom, Whack-O! These scenes are perhaps the least funny in the picture, partly because Edwards falls flat but mostly because Harry Secombe of The Goons has never been more annoying than as Alf, his lunatic assistant. At least they prompt the screening of a silent film, which is much better.

This is Would You Believe It?, a 1929 film by Walter Forde, which was made silent but was later released with music and sounds that are apparent here. We see about five minutes of this film, which was originally much longer: IMDb says 56 minutes, Wikipedia 57 and other sources as high as 71. On the basis of these five minutes, it’s a frenetic battle between a young inventor, who has made designs for a new and improved tank, and the foreign agents who want to steal it, and I’m eager to see the rest. Of all things, what really grabbed me was the way the suitcase containing his designs falls down a spiral staircase! I have to add that the inclusion of this brief silent short mangles what little consistency Helter Skelter had managed to find, but does continue the showcasing of wild and diverse comedic talent in the film. While I laughed out loud at points, it’s a true variety performance in that there are others when we can safely take a bathroom break or adjourn to the bar for another pint without missing anything worthy.
Perhaps the funniest section comes courtesy of Terry-Thomas, a favourite of mine from films as varied as Carlton-Browne of the F.O., The Abominable Dr. Phibes and The Naked Truth, not to mention Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Seeking Nick Martin at the BBC, Susan accidentally follows Terry-Thomas, who performs a version of his famous Technical Hitch sketch, as a DJ who has to cover for broken records on live radio by singing them himself. What’s amazing is that this works as well for viewers as listeners, as his facial contortions while attempting Paul Robeson are hilarious. Sadly, we don’t get his version of Yma Sumac, normally part of his routine, as that must really have stretched his vocal range! He had done this sketch for six years, but the rest of this section may well have influenced his TV show, How Do You View?, which soon became the first comedy series on British TV. Broadcast live, it often saw him wandering through control rooms and other places at the BBC Studios, just as Susan finds herself doing here.

It’s here at the BBC that the ‘rest of cast’ section of the IMDb credits start to shine, with a host of uncredited names and faces who ring memorable, many of them captured performing their acts or presenting their shows. There’s Richard Wattis, Valentine Dyall, Michael Medwin... each of them highly recognisable at the time. There’s even Carry On regular Kenneth Griffith working with Nick Martin on his show. Even a fourteen year old BBC page boy turns out to be Johnny Briggs, whose three decades on Coronation Street as Mike Baldwin would cement his fame much later in life. Some names only show up during a brief montage of stock footage clips, such as Dennis Price, playing Lord Byron, presumably taken from The Bad Lord Byron, made earlier in 1949. I must have blinked and missed Maj. Bright and Capt. Early, another pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne spawned from their similar double act in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. They continued in similar, usually cricket-loving roles, in otherwise unrelated films.
As you can imagine from this review, which leaves a whole heck of a lot out, there’s a vast amount going on in this movie, which is, amazingly, only 81 minutes long. And I haven’t even delved into David Tomlinson’s character yet. Well, just like with Mary Poppins, it’s his character who gets a story arc. Carol Marsh is fair as Susan Graham, in at least two meanings of the word, but she’s hardly a leading character, more a walking hiccough. It’s Nick Martin who grows throughout the film, not only from the brash radio star to the modest lover but in many other ways too. While he’s the eponymous star of Nick Martin, Special Investigator, it’s his mother who writes the scripts and he’s totally under her hilarious thumb until he decides to buck her orders for once. What’s more, the biggest drama of the film comes from him refusing to go on air one day until the missing Susan can be found. This sparks nationwide panic and that romp through the BBC’s vaults for footage to deliberately misinterpret for comedic value.

Tomlinson died peacefully in 2000 at the age of 83, but he’s the best reason to watch this as a story. Of course, if you do watch it for its story, you’re going to be sadly disappointed because there really isn’t much of one. The real value in watching this film is for its time capsule glance at the world of British humour in 1949. Where else are you going to see so many famous comedians in a single feature, many of them exhibiting their best material in capably edited scenes? It’s worth mentioning that the talent on show here were household names at the time, but their material is often lost. For instance, Jimmy Edwards is best known for Whack-O!, which ran for sixty episodes over eight seasons, the last of which was first broadcast during my lifetime. Yet almost the entire run is lost, with only six episodes known to remain today. As problematic as Helter Skelter is as a feature film, it’s a gold mine of material which does a fantastic job of showcasing a true variety of British stage and screen comedians, often otherwise gone for good.

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