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Is That Your Box, Sir?
by Jon Schuller

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There are always a certain number of silly movies that come out each year with predictable plots and familiar characters. We all know this genre with the same actors and situations. Most of them have been made before in one form or another, yet a portion of the movie-going public keeps returning to see and enjoy them. At the risk of sounding snobby, I believe that a stupid film should never be confused with a funny one. I won't reprise my past criticisms of these films or the actors who are featured in them. I am old-school when it comes to spending money and time to go see a movie in the theatre. Certain stars play comedy well and, along with great writing and directing, they are actually funny. Maybe it's just human nature to look for the comfortable, familiar things that we've grown accustomed to. Or, we feel better about ourselves or our own situations when we see someone else get into trouble on-screen and root for them to recover and succeed. Yes, movies can have that effect on us and even though we know they're actors, they become real to us rather quickly.

The familiar plot device of many, different people suddenly getting involved in each other's lives and causing great confusion is as old as story-telling itself. Sometimes one person stands out from the crowd and straightens everything out. They become the hero, the life-saver, the main character. The stories may be serious dramas, like the effects of war on individuals or families. They may be legends from mythology, where humans and gods mix together in a test of strength and wills. Or, the plot is extraordinarily complicated and silly
things happen; people trip and fall, physically and mentally, but in the end, all's well that ends well. The ancient Greeks and Romans loved to laugh at the amazing follies of their fellow citizens as much as anyone else in their day. Then, as much as now, people needed laughter to relieve the stresses of daily living. William Shakespeare is possibly the world's most famous author of funny, complicated plots and foolish people. His Comedy of Errors created the model for many later books and plays, with a host of characters all apparently doing different things simultaneously, speaking at once and confusing themselves and the audience as much as possible. Following these antics is a test of mental strength but in the end, we breathe a sigh of relief, the hero and heroine fall in love, the comedians keep laughing and the villains are dispatched to some unmentionable place. That great English story-telling tradition followed Shakespeare to other writers down through the centuries as authors, like Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, created stories with double meanings and awkward situations, designed to make people laugh and see silly situations in everyday life. Great Britain logically took these traditions and put them into the newest medium, movies. Some of the world's most treasured actors starred in these comedy films that have come to us from the land that created English. One of them is The Wrong Box, released in 1966.

Here is a film, based on an 1889 story by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne, that brought together two generations of famous actors like John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael
Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers, Irene Handl and Tony Hancock. It also included director Bryan Forbes' beautiful and talented wife, Nanette Newman. An intricate plot centers on two aging brothers, Masterman (Mills) and Joseph Finsbury (Richardson), who are the original surviving members of a family "tontine", an ancient investment scheme that rewards the last family member who outlives everyone else. Both brothers have been scheming to do away with the other, while Masterman's grandson Michael (Caine) and Joseph's nephews, Morris (Cook) and John (Moore) are all doing their best to keep their elders alive. Through several complicated plot devices, the entire family schemes and maneuvers to outdo themselves, including the death of the Bournemouth Strangler, who becomes mistaken as one of the old men. Shipments of statues and corpses in boxes and barrels, chases and mistaken identities, move the plot as it runs along classic Victorian London streets and famous avenues.

At the same time the young medical student, Michael, has encountered the alluring, innocent beauty, Julia Finsbury (Newman) and fallen in love with her. We see a classic Romeo & Juliet-style romance where two families are fighting with each other as the youngest members cross the divide to share love. The families continue to quarrel, scheme and plot over the enormous sum of money waiting for the final resolution. The conspiratorial cousins, Morris and John, do everything in their power to collect the money, even going to the tontine's solicitor to convince him they're the rightful heirs. A final chase through the streets
of London includes wagons and hearses, finally ending at a funeral in progress as one of the bodies, thought to be dead, rises from inside a coffin. I don't think that we actually see a true ending to the movie while everyone is fighting and quarreling at the cemetery.

But what's so wonderful about this period piece is the actors. We have amazing performances from the supporting players and a rich cameo role for one of my favorites, Peter Sellers, as the mindless Doctor Pratt. We see him in his cramped flat surrounded by dozens of his cats ("moggies") as the evil cousins attempt to get his signature on a blank death certificate. He sleepwalks through the scene and the audience loves him anyway. Other actors include Tony Hancock as the classic, befuddled Scotland Yard Detective, Wilfrid Lawson as the aging, loyal family butler, Peacock, Thorley Walters as the Lawyer, Patience and Cicely Courtneidge as the staid Salvation Army Major Martha. This is a true comedy of errors that is meant to confuse and confound us as we sit helplessly waiting for a resolution in the final scene. The greedy family members lose their proper Victorian veneers where money becomes the ultimate goal as the two-sided morals of the day quickly slip away. It's a film for fun, typical British humor and guessing what's coming up next. A marvelous mix of acting styles as Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Mills bring their fame and talents from the 1940s and 1950s to work alongside the newest 1960s players like Michael Caine and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I heartily recommend your viewing this one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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