Thursday, January 17, 2013

Don’t laugh at me (‘cos I’m a fool)

One of my favorite movies is the 1968 production The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a film (directed by William Friedkin) that tells the fictional story of how the legendary burlesque theater “invented” the striptease in 1925.  Adapted from the 1960 novel by Rowland Barber by Sidney Michaels, Arnold Schulman and future TV wunderkind Norman Lear (who also produced the film), Minsky’s convincingly captures the feel of that lively period of the “Roaring 20’s” when the name “Minsky” meant entertainment for the entire family…though to keep the customers steadily coming in, they occasionally got a bit risqué.  Minsky’s is best known for the last movie appearance of burlesque veteran/Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr (as “Professor Spats”), but also features a superb cast: Jason Robards, Britt Ekland, Forrest Tucker, Harry Andrews, Joseph Wiseman, Denholm Elliott, Elliott Gould and Jack Burns.

Robards plays the top straight man at Minsky’s, jaded cocksman Raymond Paine.  Featured in the role of Paine’s comic partner, Chick Williams, is a man Charlie Chaplin once declared was his “favourite clown”—a performer whose string of movie hits from 1953 to 1966 were incredibly popular with British audiences despite a lack of critical acclaim.  This performer got sensational notices with his American film debut (Minsky’s) as well, with Time magazine observing that he recalled “Keaton in his split-second spills and deadpan pantomime.”

Pretty heady praise—so take a bow, Norman Wisdom!  Oh—I need to amend that to say Sir Norman Wisdom.

Norman Joseph Wisdom was born on February 4, 1915 in the Marylebone district of London and grew up in a life of hardscrabble poverty.  (He would later joke “I was born in very sorry circumstances.  Both of my parents were very sorry.”)  His family life literally fell apart when he reached the age of nine—his father was an abusive man, and so when his mother finally left when Norman was 11, Wisdom soon found himself thrown out of his home and left to fend on his own.  He pursued a variety of jobs that included mine work, waiting tables and even as a cabin boy—fortunately, the military offered a form the security and salvation to teach him a trade.  That trade, which was sparked by a performance in a boxing skit in the service (whereupon the recruit discovered he could make people laugh), blossomed into that of yearning for a show business career: Wisdom learned to play several instruments, as well as dance and do physical comedy; when he left the service in 1946 at the age of 31 he was committed to becoming a professional entertainer…and did so by playing a number of variety shows in music halls throughout Britain.

On stage and early television, Wisdom created a character that many lovingly called “The Gump,” an everyman distinguished by an outfit consisting of a tweed cap with a turned-up peak and an ill-fitting suit.  Wisdom’s character was a well-meaning screw-up who was nevertheless endearing, and because of the Gump’s popularity the Rank Organization signed him to a seven-year film contract, which began in 1953 with the release of Trouble in Store (1953).  (It would be the comedian’s first starring film, though he had appeared earlier in a 1948 feature, A Date with a Dream.)  This comedy is one of two features on a new DVD from VCI Entertainment (Norman Wisdom Double Feature Vol. 1) that is the first of a series of soon-to-follow releases showcasing Wisdom’s subsequent cinematic output for the studio.  (Many of these movies have already been released to disc in Norm’s native country, notably in the box set The Norman Wisdom Collection, which came out in 2005.)

Trouble in Store finds Norman’s “Gump” employed as a stock clerk in a prestigious department store known as Burridges.  A new manager in Augustus Freeman (Jerry Desmonde) has just taken charge, and one of his first duties is to give Norman the sack when our hero, oblivious to Freeman’s position with the company, commits a series of embarrassing (but funny) faux pas upon being invited to his office.  Norman is devastated at his firing; he has big dreams of becoming a window dresser and is very much in love with another employee, Sally Wilson (Lana Morris).  Fortunately, he is reinstated after Freeman witnesses his professionalism with elderly customer Miss Bacon (Margaret Rutherford)…though “customer” might be stretching things a tad—the old dame is really a skilled shoplifter, and walks off with a good deal of Burridges’ merchandise (in addition to all the scenes she’s in) during the course of the film.

Hey! I Know That Guy!  The sales clerk (at the left) caught up the department store melee is Stringer Davis, husband to Dame Margaret Rutherford.  He also appeared as her male sidekick (Mr. Stringer) in the "Miss Marple" movies she did for M-G-M in the 1960s.
Norman finds himself fired and re-hired a number of times until he reaches the end of his nine lives and Freeman banishes him from the store for good.  It’s then that Norman learns that Freeman’s personnel manager, Peggy Drew (Moira Lister), is in cahoots with her boyfriend Gerald (Derek Bond) to rob the store during a huge sale—and though he tries to inform Sally of what’s going to go down she’s not completely convinced.  But she eventually comes around to believing him and when she tells Drew of the robbery plans (unaware of Drew’s involvement); she’s trussed up for safekeeping in the stockroom.  Norman manages to rescue her and the two of them go after the would-be thieves while the sale is in progress—this involves a slapstick climax set against the background of a “Wild West” display for the benefit of Burridges’ customers.  Restored to Freeman’s good graces by foiling the robbery, Norman is back on the payroll…for as long as that will last, that is.

Trouble in Store is a breezy bit of entertainment from a beloved clown at the cusp of his long movie career—it plays a bit mawkish sometimes, and much of it is undeniably old-fashioned (a document of what Britain was like in the 1950s) but there are some extremely funny moments courtesy of its star.  Setting the comedy against the backdrop of a department store is a time-honored funster tradition—Chaplin did it in The Floorwalker (1917) (and again in Modern Times [1936]), Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) and the Marx Brothers in The Big Store (1941).  I couldn’t keep from laughing at Wisdom at several points in the movie (though I have to confess I laughed harder at Rutherford, who’s just priceless as the sticky-fingered Miss Bacon); he’s a likable fellow, and his romance with co-star Morris is disarmingly sweet.  There’s a great of emphasis on physical comedy in Store though there are occasional funny verbal bits as well—one that made me laugh-out-loud (it’s an old joke, but a good one) is this exchange between Norman and klepto Rutherford:

RUTHERFORD: Were you born in London?
NORMAN: Yes...I was born in London and went to school in Scotland...
RUTHERFORD: Oh!  Poor must have been awfully tired when you got home...

Hey! I Know That Gal! The sad tea lady is Esma Cannon, an Australian character actress who turns up in a few of the Carry On films but I know her best as the effervescent Lily from the 1960's Britcom The Rag Trade.

Last night marked my second time watching Trouble in Store; I had seen the film earlier a year or so ago when it played on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ as part of a daytime tribute to Dame Margaret.  Rank’s inclusion of Maggie seems to me to have been more of a bet-hedging move on the part of the filmmakers—unsure as to whether or not Wisdom had the star wattage to carry a vehicle by his lonesome.  But they needn’t have worried: audiences who couldn’t get enough of the clown on stage and television ran to see him in theaters—Trouble in Store broke all box-office records in 51 of the 67 London cinemas it played (and was the second most popular film release in the country that year).  The movie also ended up nabbing Wisdom a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1954.

Trouble in Store got a U.S. release in 1955 (by Republic Pictures) but for the most part Norman Wisdom was pretty much an unknown on this side of the pond until his triumph in Minsky’s (which came about as a result of his stage success in 1966 as the star of the musical comedy Walking Happy, for which he was nominated for a Tony).  I think a lot of that has to do with the class-based humor of his films—the comic came to represent “the little man” fighting the forces of officialdom and capitalism, something that would probably have been akin to “Communism” in the red-baiting atmosphere of the U.S. at the time of their initial release (hey—we kicked Chaplin out, remember?).  But the proletarian subtext of Wisdom’s movies made him quite popular in Albania, where he was one of the few Western actors whose vehicles were allowed access by that country’s dictator, Enver Hoxsha.  (Hoxsha allegedly once shot a cabinet minister, so you can see where he’d be a tough audience.)

On his own turf, Norman Wisdom’s feature films were huge hits with British moviegoers, though not everybody was in his camp—a commenter over at the IMDb compares him to Jerry Lewis…and even though there are a few Lewis-like elements in Trouble in Store (a department store even figures in one of Lewis’ vehicles, Who’s Minding the Store? [1963]), overall I don’t think the comparison is completely appropriate; Wisdom’s humor is of a much gentler nature than that of the manic Lewis—Norman reminds me more of Eddie Cantor (particularly since there are moments of music mixed into his films), with just a splash of Danny Kaye.  (One of the musical numbers from Store, which I’ve used as the title of this post, became Wisdom’s trademark ditty—reaching the Top Twenty of the British pop charts.)  There’s a great deal of silent comedy influence in Wisdom’s work as well—the opening gag where it looks as if Norman is riding in the same car as the new store manager…

…but is revealed to be pedaling a bike beside it instead is a crib from Lloyd Hamilton’s Move Along (1926); Harold Lloyd also borrowed it for Movie Crazy (1932).  There’s another gag in Store where Wisdom’s character has difficulty swallowing a pill that has had a good workout in other films, notably the 1951 Three Stooges short Scrambled Brains (though I prefer the Stooges’ take on it, particularly since the pill-swallower in that one is Shemp).  Speaking of the Stooges, there’s also a Columbia comedy short-like sequence in the movie in which Norman manages to set himself on fire while attending a soiree being put on by the store—something with which Jules White himself would have been proud.

Trouble in Store is considered by many Wisdom fans to be his best film; I’m not so sure I want to make a ruling on that until I’ve seen more of his movies (after all—where else is there to go but down?) and I made an initial step towards doing that by also watching the second feature, One Good Turn (1954).  In this romp, Norman acts as caretaker for the orphanage in which he himself was raised; he works for room and board but is beloved by the children there, not to mention his fellow co-worker Mary (Shirley Abicair) and “Cook” (Thora Hird).  Norman is carrying a torch for a young schoolteacher named Iris Gibson (Joan Rice), who is girlfriend to young Alec Bigley (William Russell), son of the movie’s heavy (Richard Caldicot).  The elder Bigley has plans to raze the orphanage so that one of his associates may build a factory on the property—but don’t worry about the kids…they’ll all be put in private homes.

This plot of tearing down the orphanage shares screen time with Norman’s attempts to raise money to buy one of the kids (Keith Gilman) a toy automobile the little mook desperately wants; our hero works a number of jobs (including advertising a restaurant wearing a sandwich board and entering an amateur boxing match to raise the dough) and finally manages to scrape up enough to make good on his promise.  When he returns with the car, the kids—assisted by Mary and Cook—are in the middle of driving off the would-be buyers of the property by pelting them with flour bombs and dousing them with water.  (What do you think this is—St. Trinian’s?) The visitors decide to take a pass on the property…and though Norman doesn’t win the girl of his dreams (Miss Gibson) in this one, there’s a subtle implication that he and Mary will start a romance as she has been pining for him for quite some time.

Hey! I Know That Guy! Part Deux.  The gent on the left is Graham Stark, a crony of Peter Sellers who appeared in many of the comedian's regular and Pink Panther films (he's "Hercule" in A Shot in the Dark).

What I found interesting about One Good Turn is that while its plot isn’t as strong as the one in Trouble in Store—and I’ll freely admit I could be biased because I just don’t have a tolerance for cutesy kids; if I were in these movies I’d probably be the one closing down the orphanage—its comedy set-pieces are much stronger than the earlier film, showing a definitely maturity after just a second start out the gate.  In Turn, there’s a great sequence where Norman, riding a train to Brighton with the orphans and his co-workers (he’s never “seen the sea,” and so has been allowed to go along), crashes the first class compartment on the train and annoys the passengers with his manners and his discovery of a wasp in his trousers.

Removing the wasp from his pants results in his losing them when they snag on a passing train (he was shaking them out the window to free himself of the little pest)…and so he finds himself sans pants arriving at the train station.  Luck is with him, however; a walking race is underway and he quickly becomes one of its participants (finding an ingenious way to put a number on the front and back of his shirt)…to his surprise, he ends up winning first place in the event.  (His attempt to pawn the trophy in order to raise the money for the toy purchase goes awry when he becomes frightened while overhearing the pawnbroker’s call to the police to see if the prize was stolen.)

Later, as he attempts to make money as a walking advertisement wearing evening clothes to promote a swanky restaurant, a purchase of some candy floss (cotton candy) figures in his being mistaken for a concert conductor…and he makes a complete shambles of the musical performance.  But the funniest moment in the film finds him volunteering to go three rounds in a boxing ring in order to earn a prize of £10—like Huntz Hall in the Bowery Boys film Mr. Hex (1946), Norman has been hypnotized into thinking he’s a great prizefighter by a hypnotist (David Hurst) who’s astounded that his mesmerism worked.  (It turns out the “Professor” is actually in cahoots with the promoters, and when Norman ends up kicking the ass of the champ after two rounds he’s called upon to pull our hero out of his trance to make certain he doesn’t last the third round.)

Despite these wonderful moments I’d still rank Trouble in Store as the more entertaining of the two Wisdom films on the VCI disc; the supporting cast is much stronger in that it’s the first film to feature Norman’s resident foil Jerry Desmonde as the autocratic Mr. Freeman—Desmonde, who often played Del Moore to Wisdom’s Jerry Lewis, turns up in several of the comedian’s features, including Man of the Moment (1955) and Up in the World (1956).  Store also features appearances from Megs Jenkins (as Norman’s confidante), whom I always remember as the mother of the titular inept handyman in the Britcom Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt!, and baby-voiced Joan Sims, featured in tons of the Carry On films (“The First Lady of Carry On,” she’s called) and Britcoms like Till Death Us Do Part and As Time Goes By.  To its credit, One Good Turn does feature the grand Dame Thora Hird—many years before I grew to love her as Edie “Drink your coffee” Pegden on Last of the Summer Wine.

Last of the Summer Wine was the other Norman Wisdom vehicle with which I was familiar before watching these two films last night; he had a recurring role on that series as Billy Ingleton.  Norman was no stranger to TV comedy; when his film career had reached its peak he headlined such Britcoms as Nobody is Norman Wisdom and A Little Bit of Wisdom.  My Facebook mate and blogger-across-the-pond Matthew Coniam has been encouraging me to sample the Wisdom feature films (Mr. C’s favorite, Up in the World, will be released by VCI on February 5, paired with Man of the Moment) as well as the oeuvre of the legendary Will Hay (but that’s a post for another day).  I think VCI has a winner in these releases; the Double Feature Vol. 1 also features a photo gallery from the two films and some DVD commentary on Trouble in Store from Sir Norman himself (he chats with British film comedy expert Robert Ross).  (Don’t expect any revelatory insights, though—it seems everyone Wisdom ever worked with was “lovely.”)

1 comment:

Matthew Coniam said...

Nicely done, and glad you liked them. I agree that Store is the better of the two overall; in fact OGT is one of my least favourites on account of its odd, all-pervading gloominess, though as you say it has some fine individual set pieces, and the scene in the railway carriage in particular is an all-time great. ("Right on my jam!")
Some great stuff to come in Man of the Moment and Up in the World, and while his later films suffer a little from elephantiasis, they were all box-office smashes over here.
My obit ( goes a little more deeply into the exact nature of the strange love-hate relationship we have had with the man and his films.
On a side-note, I love the cover design - more striking and effective than any of the ones released over here.