Regardless of its star appeal, an English farce made during the mid-1960s has arguably failed to stand the test of time. Mark Fraser looks at the reasons why.
To understand why Brian Forbes’ 1966 star-studded comedy The Wrong Box hasn’t aged particularly well, one needs to consider two things.
First, it is helpful to compare the film with a similar American counterpart that has maintained some longevity, albeit – in a few camps at least – just by the skin of its celluloid teeth.
Second, the movie should be put into historical context vis-à-vis the evolution of English film and television comedy during the second half of the 1960s.
Admittedly, making a comparison between The Wrong Box and Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) may be problematic. But there is no denying they are cut from the same conceptual cloth – even if the Hollywood production is way bigger, longer and far more expansive than its younger UK cousin.
To begin with, both are (and this description is lifted from Michael Caine’s 1992 autobiography) comedies that quickly develop into farce.
They also have large casts of well-known names, most of whom play unlikeable characters. Furthermore, one of the key themes explored in both works is the idea “that greed is bad and the maniacal pursuit of wealth at any cost can only lead to trouble for those who choose that path” (Sobcznski, 2014).
In addition – as Peter Sobcznski says about the Kramer film in his January 2014 essay on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World published on the Criterion Collection website – there is, in the Forbes film, “an occasionally nasty undercurrent to the proceedings that is sometimes off-putting”.
Although the American movie is able to counter this unpleasantness with its sheer size, the same cannot be said about The Wrong Box, which simply doesn’t have enough gags or spectacular set pieces in its quainter repertoire to stop reminding viewers that pretty much everyone on the screen – with the possible exception of Caine’s Michael Finsbury and his cousin Julia (Nanette Newman) – is either excessively eccentric, unbearably repugnant or both.
Given these cinematic types are usually only good for a handful of laughs, it’s no surprise that their routines become a little repetitious by the film’s half way mark.
On the positive side, the Englishman Forbes, like Kramer, enjoys a comedic lack of restraint as he successfully brings together “disparate talents in an anarchic, but recognisable universe” (Lumenick, 2014) – in this instance the anarchy including a big finale in which nearly all of the key characters take part in a horse and carriage road chase, and wherein a container of cash is involved.
In the case of The Wrong Box, the talent includes two of England’s best-known leading male thespians of the day (John Mills and Ralph Richardson), an up-and-coming star (Caine), one of the country’s then favourite funny men (Peter Sellers) as well as an emerging comedy duo (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore). Also thrown into this mix was the popular British television comedian Tony Hancock, whose appearance really amounts to nothing more than an extended cameo.
Others recognisable names for those with a keen appreciation of 20th century English film, television and theatre include Wilfred Lawson as Peacock the butler (whose excessive eccentricity is actually quite sweet), John Le Mesurier (a brief, sharp and somewhat acerbic performance that suggests he should have been given a larger part), Leonard Rossiter, Jeremy Lloyd, Cicely Courtneidge, Norman Bird and Avis Bunnage.
Set in Bloomsbury during 1882, The Wrong Box is primarily about the imploding Finsbury family, whose pair of aging patriarchs – brothers Masterman (Mills) and Joseph (Richardson) – are competing for a wager (or tontine) put in place 63 years earlier by their preparatory school teachers.
Basically, whoever in their class outlives the rest wins the interest-accumulating cash prize. As the two remaining survivors, one Finsbury now has to bury the other in order to pocket the (now substantial) reward.
Waiting in the wings for this eventual windfall are their grandchildren – a quartet of adopted orphans who, not surprisingly, don’t really look anything like each other.
As medical student Michael takes care of his ailing and bed-ridden grandfather Masterman and falls in love with Julia, his other cousins Morris (Cook) and John (Moore) do their best to keep their granddad Joseph alive with the intention of pocketing the money when his brother falls off the perch.
Meanwhile, the bed-ridden Masterman has plans of his own – he decides to kill his sibling so his grandson will inherit the money.
Everything becomes a little complicated, though, when Joseph is mistaken for the dead Bournemouth Strangler (Tutte Lemkow) following a train crash. To try and cover up his “death”, Morris and John agree to send what they think is his body to their Bloomsbury home and conceal it until Masterman’s imminent demise. Meanwhile, the much alive Joseph continues on his quest to see his dying brother.
Naturally, as the movie’s title suggests, the wrong box eventually turns up at the wrong address – after which point the farce seriously sets in.
Although Forbes does let members of his cast go, there are times when they become downright annoying. This is particularly true of Cook and Moore, whose Morris and John antics (particularly their victory dances) become repetitious, while Mills is basically at his eccentric worst. Even the cat-ridden scenes with Sellers, in which Morris procures a phony death certificate for his grandfather from the kooky Dr Pratt, seem to run out of a bit of steam by their end. Out of this stellar cast, the only likeable oddball is Richardson’s Joseph, and that’s primarily because – despite his penchant for constantly reeling off endless facts to anyone within earshot – he is at least honourable.
Caine, as the dewy-eyed straight men, is also okay, although one would argue that his role is not – as the star says in his 1992 memoir – “small”. Indeed, one could argue that without him The Wrong Box would be an even more difficult film to enjoy.
In terms of the second point as to why this film has become outdated, one should take into consideration the fact that the whole nature of British humour radically changed with the arrival, in October 1969 on the BBC, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, whose visual jokes – a sometimes sophisticated hybrid of surreal, absurdist and illogical comedy – left traditional farce standing dead in its tracks.
(As an aside, someone like John Landis* has suggested the seeds for Python were partly planted by American director Richard Lester, given his How I Won the War and The Bed Sitting Room [1967 and 1969 respectively] relied on all kinds of satirical cinematic hijinks to create a kind of surreal and disjointed black comedic effect. Lester, however, seemed to be looking to the French New Wave, and other international film movements of the 1960s, for inspiration; Python, on the other hand, was home grown, with its five English members emerging from the hallowed drama societies of Cambridge and Oxford universities.)
At its best The Wrong Box is amusing. But it is also a product of its time, now fulfilling its role as an interesting piece of nostalgia for those with a love of British cinema and who enjoy an appreciation of English comedians and actors now gone.
Author Louis Barfe, in his analysis of the film which appears in the promotional material provided with the Powerhouse Films Ltd Blu-ray release of this movie, sums it up pretty well: “The Wrong Box is not perfect. What is? Nonetheless, there is so much here to love.”
Except, possibly, for those who missed the best years of Ealing and the golden age of television and, instead, grew up watching Monty Python’s comedic nihilism.
*Landis tries to give the American-born director credit for the emergence of Monty Python during his appearance in the Trailer From Hell for The Bed Sitting Room.
Michael Caine: What’s It All About? Arrow Books (London), 1993, p 224-26
Peter Sobcznski: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” Gets the Deluxe Treatment From Criterion, Criterion Collection website, January 21, 2014
Lou Lumenick: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” – Nothing Succeeds Like Excess, Criterion Collection website, January 21, 2014
Louis Barfe: The Wrong Box, Powerhouse Films Ltd, 2018, p 11
Words by Mark Fraser
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The Wrong Box was released by Powerhouse Films in the UK on November 26, 2018.