Rob Harmon’s Picks 03/11/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’S PICKS 3/11/14

Join us as we search this week for… Buried Treasure at Best Video!

The Wrong Box (dir. Bryan Forbes, 1966)

Imagine for a moment a mid-1960’s all-star British, Victorian-period-set black comedy (when the trend in film comedy was bigger and zanier = better) made at the height of Mod, Swinging London and utilizing the talents of established stars Ralph Richardson and John Mills and the young upstart Michael Caine, along with accomplished comedians Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Tony Hancock, and Peter Sellers, with a script written by Larry Gelbart (later, a creator and producer of the TV series M*A*S*H and co-writer of TOOTSIE) and Burt Shevelove (the team responsible for the book to the long-running Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) – adapted from a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne – and directed by Bryan Forbes (THE L-SHAPED ROOM, SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON): it sounds like a can’t miss, right? Yet, with all that going for it, THE WRONG BOX does not seem to get the respect that it deserves.


Growing up in my house my family enjoyed a healthy cult obsession with The Wrong Box: it was one of the first films that we acquired on videotape and it would be dutifully produced at just about any sizable family gathering as a kind of unifying force, a film that could be relied upon for genuine belly laughs for young and old alike. I had probably seen the movie a dozen times by the time I turned 18 and so it was not uncommon that, amongst family members, we would quote from the film ad nauseam, freely bandying about terms like “tontine” whilst mimicking the veddy British accents of the film’s various daft characters.

The film opens sometime in the nineteenth century, at a moment roughly around the dawn of Britain’s “imperial century,” on a chamber where a dusty old lawyer-type addresses a body of twenty or so bewildered, snot-nosed youths in jackets, trousers, and spats, informing them that their parents and guardians have entered them into a tontine. Don’t know what a tontine is? Don’t worry; it’s not your average SAT word: a tontine is a form of lottery, one where participants contribute an equal and agreed upon amount of money which is put into a trust that accrues interest, and which is ultimately awarded to the lone and final survivor. A quick montage of hilariously unlikely deaths (death at a ship-launching, death while being knighted, death by falconry, death by charging rhino, etc.) highlight various aspects of Queen Victoria’s sprawling empire and the Industrial Revolution until, at last—years having gone by—only two remain: the incessant chatterbox and fountain of useless trivia Joseph Finsbury (Richardson) and his demented brother Masterman (a heavily made-up Mills).

The blundering and blithely unaware Joseph has been kept alive partly due to the slavish attentions of his two bumbling adult wards, Morris (Cook)—a stuffy ornithologist who collects eggs—and John (Moore)—an irrepressible philanderer—who have greedily kept their eyes on the ever-growing tontine since the moment of their adoption. Meanwhile, Masterman’s grandson Michael (Caine) is a shy and retiring medical student who dreamily moons over his beautiful and equally-timid cousin Julia (Forbes’ wife Nanette Newman) from afar. Though the families live next door to one another they have not interacted in over 40 years! A molderingly ancient butler named Peacock, a railroad crash, a mistakenly-identified corpse, a dipsomaniac doctor named Pratt (Sellers) with an office overflowing with cats and kittens, a killer on the loose named “The Bournemouth Strangler,” two undertakers, a solicitor, a befuddled detective (Hancock), and two large boxes which are accidentally switched and delivered to the wrong addresses—one containing said body—are the only premises remaining to send this madcap farce hurtling to its gleeful conclusion. With so much at stake, who will be the last one standing?

(NOTE: The trailer is black and white but the film is in Technicolor.)

The Wrong Box is an immaculate satire, one which takes square—but loving—aim at the stodginess, long-winded sense of ceremony, and sexual mores at the heart of British society, not just in Victorian times but in its contemporary moment, as well. The film was made at a uniquely ripe moment in British comedy and satire—post-Golden Age of Ealing Studios, but pre-Monty Python—and takes full advantage of the ample pool of talent available. The Wrong Box also belongs to the bustling, cluttered era of mid-1960’s movie comedy when filmmakers responded to the ever-expanding parameters of the screen and the inroads made by television by filling every possible square-inch of the cinematic frame with rollicking action and color, oftentimes centered in or around the classic “chase sequence,” which itself was usually a critique of human greed and the rat race mentality of the day (think of THE PINK PANTHER; IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD; THE GREAT RACE, etc.).

The film benefits mightily from its agreeably lilting, breezy score by John Barry (numerous James Bond films, DANCES WITH WOLVES) which keeps the proceedings moving along at a smooth and jaunty pace and which helps to underscore many of the sillier moments. The film additionally takes numerous potshots at the stylistics of Victorian-era melodrama and silent-film clichés through occasionally-inserted title cards (example: “Alone with her at last—in a room full of eggs!”).

The Wrong Box is a treat for fans of great British comedy, a film which takes the historical and renders it hysterical. Fittingly, the film opens on animated imagery of wagon wheels spinning while the final chase involves various carriages, horse-drawn rigs, and hearses careening towards the cemetery. In truth, the wagon wheel—indicative both of the gentility of Britain’s upper-crust, as well as the workhorse of the Industrial Revolution—could not have been better selected as a symbol for this full-tilt, well-oiled, pull-out-all-the-stops laugh riot of a movie.

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