Sunday, April 1, 2018

Carlton-Browne of the F.O.

One of the films in the Peter Sellers box set I picked up a year ago that was completely new to me is Carlton-Browne of the F.O., also known as Man in a Cocked Hat.

Gaillardia is a fictional island which, in the movie, was discovered in 1720 by a crew of British sailors who ran aground there. The place became a British colony, although it was ultimately granted self-government around 1920. But it's such a minor place that the British representative there never left, and everybody back in London basically forgot about the place. Until now, that is, as the old representative Davidson (Miles Malleson) sends a report back to London that some people in a Soviet cultural exchange are clearly not the dancers they claim to be. But why are they there?

That's what the Foreign Office wants to find out. Eventually they discover that Gaillardia comes under the auspices of the Department of Miscellaneous territories, which has been the purview of the Carlton-Brownes. Second-generation man Cadogan de Vere Carlton-Browne (Terry-Thomas) gets sent to Gaillardia to get at the truth which, as it turns, out, it very complicated. The country has been split in two with the king of the south having recently been killed and replaced by his twentysomething son Loris (Ian Bannen), while Grand Duke Alexis (John Le Mesurier), Loris' uncle has been running the north, hoping to install Princess Ilyena (Luciana Paoluzzi), presumably a cousin of Loris'.

Carlton-Brown being played by Terry-Thomas should be a sign that Britain has an incompetent representative. And what he doesn't realize is that the new King is actually a pretty savvy cookie despite having been brought up away from Gaillardia and having studied at Oxford. It turns out that those Soviet impostors were mining engineers, and where the British simply want to make certain they keep anybody else from getting at whatever the mining engineers want, Loris is intent on getting a good deal for his impoverished people. Matters get thoroughly complicated when it turns out that what everybody is mining is a cobalt isotope that's important in nuclear weapons.

And then there are the domestic affairs of Gaillardia. Loris and Ilyena met on the plane from London to Gaillardia, although both of them were flying under an assumed name so neither knows that the other is a royal, and they fall in love each thinking the other is a commoner, although Ilyena learns about Loris' true identity early on. It seems like the obvious solution would be for Loris and Ilyena to get married and rule together. But it'll take time for the movie to get there, if that's even the outcome.

Interestingly, even though this movie appears on a Peter Sellers box set, you'll notice I haven't mentioned his character yet. He plays the Prime Minister, a thoroughly corrupt man who is only out to get as much as he can for him and his extended familiy. He gets second billing, but it's not the biggest role.

I've said before that I find Peter Sellers' later work (from about Strangelove on) to go over the top to the point of obnoxious tedium. As with The Painted Veil yesterday, however, while Carlton-Browne of the F.O. disappoints, it's not because of Sellers. Instead, it's because the movie is all over the place and doesn't really do any one thing memorably well. The comedy is strained and the whole premise about nobody knowing about Gaillardia is nonsense. Carlton-Browne would have been drummed out of his job during World War II, too, most likely. The movie only runs 90 minutes, but it felt like more of a slog than that.

Carlton-Browne of the F.O. is in a boxed set with some other really good films. Although Amazon implies you can only get it through resellers now which would imply it's out of print, you can still get it at the TCM Shop. The other films make it worth the while, and some people will probably like Carlton-Browne of the F.O. more than I did.

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