Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Wrong Box

I thought I had done a full-length post on The Wrong Box before, but it turns out I've only mentioned it briefly when it aired a couple of years back as part of a salute to its director, Bryan Forbes, when TCM ran a programming tribute in response to his death. It's on this evening at 6:00 PM as part of Ralph Richardson's day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars. Thankfully, it seems to be available on DVD, so even if you miss today's airing, you can still catch it on DVD.

Ralph Richardson plays Joseph Finsbury, the elderly brother of Masterman (John Mills), in 1880s England. Back when they were kids, the two of them were entered into a tontine with about 20 other young boys. A tontine is an old form of insurance in which each person puts a sum of money into an account, that money is invested, and when only one of the people is surviving, that person gets the money plus whatever profits it's made due to prudent investments. Now, you'd think this would lead at least one greedy member of the tontine to want to off the others to get the money. And to an extent, that does happen, but only after most of the members die in various Victorian-era accidents, all humorously shown in a montage that takes up the opening reel or so of the movie.

Joseph and Masterman are the only two surviving members, and Masterman doesn't seem to be doing very well. Not only does he seem to be ill, his finances are in a rather parlous state. He's living with his grandson Michael (Michael Caine) and his perpetually drunk and befuddled butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson). Masterman would like the money from the tontine so that he can bequeath it to Michael and Peacock. To then end, he has Michael inform Joseph of his health, so that Joseph can come and visit one last time. That "one last time" is of course supposed to result in Joseph's dying before Masterman.

Joseph, for his part, doesn't seem to care about the money from the tontine. Instead, he's developed into an idle rich old man, as well as a sort of 19th century version of Cliff Clavin 100 years before the TV show Cheers, endlessly boring people with his knowledge of minutiae that nobody else cares about. However, he's living with a niece Julia (Nanette Newman) and two nephews Morris and John (the comedy pair of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore respectively). Nanette is at home in London a few doors down from Masterman and Michael; the rest are on a rest holiday in Bournemouth on the coast. When they hear the news of Masterman's health, they take the first train back to London, Morris and John desperately wanting to get the money. But Joseph escapes and the train derails, leaving them to believe Joseph has died. Of course, they can't let that information become public.

And so things develop. Joseph gets to London before his nephews, so Masterman knows he's still alive. The nephews try to get a post-dated death certificate, so they can "prove" that Joseph died after Masterman. Michael goes to Joseph's house, finds only Julia there, and those two fall in love. And a wrong box with what Morris and John thought was Joseph's dead body winds up at Masterman's house. It all leads to a bunch of zany comedy....

There's a lot to like about The Wrong Box. And yet, I found myself not liking it quite as much as a lot of other people seem to. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that as I've stated on a bunch of occasions, I'm not a huge fan of the genre of a comedy of lies where somebody (in this case Morris and John) tells a lie and then has to keep expanding on it lest the truth comes out. There's also the presentation that uses intertitles in a way I didn't think was necessary, sometimes slightly slowing things down. The biggest problem I had, however, was with the character of Dr. Pratt (Peter Sellers), the disreputable doctor from whom Morris and John try to get that post-dated death certificate. His character is irritating and unfunny, and his two scenes bring the movie to a screeching halt that made me want to fast forward through them.

Having said that, Michael Caine shows he can do light comedy even when up against people like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Nanette Newman is lovely to look at and holds up her end of the bargain OK. But perhaps the highlights are the two old guys, John Mills and Ralph Richardson, both of whom look as though they're having an absolute blast. Mills has the more obvious comedy, but Richardson gets top honors, I think, for playing the ultimately nice guy who is at the same time intensely irritating with that small talk. And of course his character is utterly oblivious to how he's irritating everybody around him.

Overall, I think most people will like The Wrong Box. And if you like Peter Sellers, you'll probably like it even more than I do.

No comments: