Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Buried Treasures: Follow That Camel (1967)

With the release of a British film entitled Carry On Sergeant in 1958, one of the cinema’s longest running “film series” got off to a rousing start.  The “Carry On” movies were comedy features, with running times of generally ninety minutes or less, that echoed the English music hall tradition of entertainment by spotlighting farcical humor and slapstick—much of it risqué and ribald, bawdy and choc-a-bloc with double entendres.  (Imagine sitting down to an extended episode of the Britcom Are You Being Served? and you’ll kind of get an understanding as to what they’re like.)

The films—thirty-one in all, plus a compilation release entitled That’s Carry On! in 1978—also featured a rotating cast of male and female comics.  Kenneth Williams, the nostril-flaring second banana who plied his acidic humor on such radio hits as Hancock’s Half Hour and Round the Horne, was probably the Carry On champ, appearing in twenty-six of the releases (and “hosting” That’s Carry On!), but other regulars included Sid James, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth, Hattie Jacques, Bernard Bresslaw, Jim Dale, Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Terry Scott.  The Carry On films were low-budget affairs produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas; Norman Hudis scripted the first six films, with Talbot Rothwell taking over the series from 1962 on.

With Rothwell at the helm, the series became a little more ambitious in that many of the movies were parodies of recognizable film genres; Carry On Cleo (1964) was a take-off on the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton epic Cleopatra (and not only was it cheaper to make it was also funnier), and Carry On Screaming! (1966; one of my favorites in the series) an affectionate spoof of Hammer horror films.  The movies were hardly subtle—critics lambasted the content but they were very popular with moviegoers.  In 1966, the distributor of the Carry On films switched from Anglo-Amalgamated to the Rank Organization…and because of the uncertainty as to whether Anglo could copyright the “Carry On” prefix, the first Rank release was titled Don’t Lose Your Head (1966).  (Other accounts report that Rank released the film without the “Carry On” designation because they were squeamish about the series’ lowbrow reputation.)  Later, Head was re-released as Carry On Pimpernel, owing to the film’s Scarlet Pimpernel spoofing.

The second Carry On film released by Rank was Follow That Camel in 1967—it too, would be re-released later with a title change (Carry On In the Legion) but what makes this entry a particular standout is that the film was an attempt by Peter Rogers to crack the American film market…and to accomplish this, he added comedian Phil Silvers to the usual lineup.  The presence of Silvers was certainly unprecedented; most Carry On fans don’t care for Camel because they argue that it’s essentially “Bilko in the Foreign Legion” (I would submit that this is not necessarily a bad thing) and that Silvers throws the series slightly out-of-sync (it is true that the supporting players seem to be performing in deference to the TV sitcom legend).  If you’re a Silvers devotee, however, you need to check this movie out.

Most of the Carry On film plots are merely pegs on which to hang the comedy, and Camel is certainly no exception.  Bertram Oliphant West (Dale), or “Bo” West (sort of a preview of things to come) is dishonored during a cricket game at the home of Sir Cyril Ponsonby (William Mervyn) and to erase the stain of that dishonor he decides to join the French Foreign Legion, accompanied by his trusty manservant Simpson (Butterworth).  On their first day in the Legion (at Fort Zuassantneuf), Bo and Simpson are put through their paces by Sergeant Nocker (Silvers), a distant relation of that famous Army motor pool sergeant here in the States, who’s just as conniving and constantly pulling the wool over the eyes of the none-too-bright fort commandant, Maximilian Burger (Williams).  But the new recruits know that Nocker—who told the commandant that his six days away from the fort was due to his fighting off a swarm of Arab cutthroats—was actually consorting with café owner Zig-Zig (Sims), and blackmail the sergeant into waiting on them hand and foot while serving their hitch.

Meanwhile, the individual (Peter Gilmore) responsible for besmirching Bo’s good name has confessed to the deed in his dying words after committing suicide…and Ponsonby’s daughter, Lady Jane (Angela Douglas), undertakes the arduous journey to the fort and persuade West to return home to Old Blighty.  Nocker, Bo and Simpson are enjoying a night out at Zig-Zig’s when they are mesmerized by the voluptuous dancer Corktip (Anita Harris), the favorite concubine of the dreaded Sheikh Abdul Abulbul (Bresslaw).  Corktip lures the three men into capture (with Bo discovering that Abdul has put the grab on Jane as well), where they learn that Abulbul has plans to take the fort.  Nocker manages to escape in time to warn Burger and the Legion soldiers of the Sheikh’s plans, and through a series of comic misadventures Abulbul’s foul scheme is foiled.

I’ve got to be forthright here and say that my affinity for Silvers is probably going to color my perception of this film, but I thought it was a great deal of fun.  You don’t look for sophistication in any kind of Carry On romp (I’ve only seen a handful, like Screaming and Carry On Cruising) but I think having Phil on board kind of classes things up a bit.  Phil is Bilko in this, there’s no getting around it (it was even advertised as such in the posters)—which is pretty much what he was hired to do.  Writer Rothwell had a Bilko-like persona in mind for Nocker when he wrote the film, though there are a number of sources that report that the role was going to go to regular Sid James (James’ heart attack two weeks into filming would have been a problem) and one account has it that Rogers had wanted Woody Allen.  Casting Silvers in the film certainly upped the laugh content but there was friction at his presence among the Carry On regulars: Silvers was paid considerably more for his participation, and his dependence on cue card boards did not set well with some of the cast members, notably Kenneth Williams.

A note about Williams.  The man could read a phone book in front of a camera and I’d be on the floor in hysterics.  He is simply one of the funniest men to ever walk the planet, and he’s uproarious in this film as the Prussian Burger, ably assisted in his comedy by Carry On regular Charles Hawtrey (as Captain La Pice—groan)…the two men seem to be having a contest throughout the movie as to who can be the campiest.  Dale and Butterworth made a great comedy duo (I’ve read that the two men experienced a rift during the making of the film, but you’d never know it watching them work), and there are also choice moments from Sims, Bresslaw, Harris and John Bluthal (as “Corporal Clotski”).  This was actress Angela Douglas’ third Carry On film (she would make one more, the similar-in-theme Carry On Up the Khyber in 1968) and she’s a real delight, figuring in an amusing running gag in which she receives sexual gratification from several men on her journey to the fort (in her train compartment, a conductor offers to “punch her ticket”; the lights go down and you hear her say “That’s a funny way to punch one’s ticket…”).

In 2002, Anchor Bay released a DVD box set containing the Carry On films issued by Anglo-Amalgamated (and the 1977 compilation That’s Carry On!) but that collection is now OOP, so my good friends at VCI Entertainment brought more of these classic farces to disc with the release of two volumes in March (the first has Camel and Head, the second Khyber and Carry On Doctor) and a third volume forthcoming in April (Carry On Camping and Carry On Again Doctor).  I’m proud to have been able to get a gander at Camel via a promotional freebie because it’s one that I have wanted to see for some time and it most certainly didn’t disappoint.  The films continued to be cranked out for eager audiences until 1978 (concluding with Carry On Emmanuelle); an attempt to revive the series in 1992 with Carry On Columbus met with modest b.o. and more critical scorn, and though several other projects were planned throughout the aughts it would appear that with the passing of producer Rogers in 2009 there is no longer anyone to “carry on.”  A friend of mine who was complaining about how terrible the Laugh-In film The Maltese Bippy was once asked me if there was anything in film that came close to duplicating the anarchic quality of the TV show’s humor.  I told him that the Carry On movies were a damn good start.

1 comment:

Brent McKee said...

I think I've seen most of the "Carry On" movies - they were far more popular here in Canada than in the USA, and after their theatrical runs would end up on TV where they had an enthusiastic audience. Unfortunately they haven't been on TV for a few years, the last time being on one of the cable networks.

William Hartnell (Dr. Who #1) had the title role in the first Carry On movie, "Carry On Sergeant" while Jon Pertwee (Dr. Who #3) was in both "Carry On Cowboy" and "Carry On Screaming."