It's pretty well known in certain circles, like the ones I grew up in some time ago, that the British movie studio known as Ealing created a series of wonderful comedies in the 1950s.(Ealing Studios Comedy Collection (The Maggie / A Run for Your Money / Titfield Thunderbolt / Whisky Galore! / Passport to Pimlico) for starters.) I can still remember the thrill of anticipation I had, as I scrunched down in my seat in the movie house, and the J. Arthur Rank living logo, that bare-chested, muscular, well-oiled man, who hit the great big dinner gong, came on the screen. And "The Ladykillers"(1955), quite a black comedy, has long been considered one of the best of the lot. It was made in Technicolor, the only one of the dozen comedies to be made in color. And, like many of the others, it was produced by Michael Balcom, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, and starred the young Alec Guinness. And the script that has stood up surprisingly well all these years was by William Rose. (The recent, 2004 remake by the Coen brothers --The Ladykillers (Widescreen Edition) --was far less sophisticated.) Guinness (Alec Guinness Collection (Kind Hearts and Coronets / The Lavender Hill Mob / The Man With the White Suit / The Captain's Paradise / The Ladykillers)) plays a man known to us only as Professor Marcus, a criminal mastermind. The actor has said he based his characterization on Alastair Sim,(A Christmas Carol ) the popular, frequently- seen, Scottish-born character actor; and that he created it from a set of false teeth he wore, that gave him an extraordinary overbite. However Guinness got there, he certainly does remind this viewer of Sim. Anyway, Marcus is putting together a daring daylight train robbery in the heart of London, and has decided to plan it in rented rooms in the home of the 87-year old Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), and, further, to use Mrs. Wilberforce as an unwitting accomplice. He and his posse are meeting in the annoyingly officious Mrs. Wilberforce's house, pretending to be amateur musicians practicing a Boccherini quintet. His posse is certainly made up of first-rate comedic actors. A very young Peter Sellers,(Peter Sellers Collection) in his screen debut, plays Harry, AKA Mr. Robinson. Herbert Lom (the Peter Sellers' "Pink Panther" films); plays Louis, AKA Mr. Harvey. Cecil Parker ( The Pure Hell of St. Trinians) plays Claude, AKA Major Courtney. Danny Green (Pineapple Express ) plays One-Round, AKA Mr. Lawson. And Frankie Howerd (The Runaway Bus),shows up as the Barrow Boy. (Once upon a time, when this film was made, the English called men who aggressively sold goods from barrows Barrow Boys, and it wasn't particularly complimentary. Now, they call men who aggressively sell stocks in the City, and have made fortunes, Barrow Boys, and the implications are a lot more complimentary.) As with almost all English films, particularly of this vintage, the action's slow; surely slow to American audiences. And not all the comedy bits have held up in the nearly 55 years since the film was made. There are also several puzzling lapses in continuity: one of Marcus's men smashes their Boccherini record, but it goes right on playing: at one point, it's playing while all the men, the supposed musicians, are out of the room. One of Mrs. Wilberforce's pet parrots, supposed to have been her late seaman husband's, apparently really had nautical experience: at one point, he's giving out an S.O.S. - and at another, he says "Alec Guinness." Katie Johnson, who plays Mrs. Wilberforce, actually was quite elderly. Initially the film makers, who considered Mackendrick to be a demanding director, planned to give the part to a younger actress, but at the death of the younger woman, Johnson was cast. Her Mrs. Wilberforce at one point delivers a "Casablanca" homage: she is "shocked, shocked," she says, at what the men have planned in her house. She really is the unsung heroine of the movie; the heart of it, who holds it together, appearing in most scenes. You'd have to say the lack of respect given her, in the movie, and in real life, billing matters, etc., reflects the sexism and ageism of the time in filmmakers and actors. Furthermore, her heart's in the right place: she rubs up against Howerd's Barrow Boy in an attempt to stop his mistreatment of a horse. Right on, Mrs. Wilberforce; and you get yourself those dozen new umbrellas that you've been musing about your new-found ability to buy with the "lolly."
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