Main Cast: Robin Phillips, Leo McKern
Director: John Kirsh
I’m just back from the editor’s studio where I was able to see a rough cut of my new musical extravaganza, The Desert Song. It still needs some fine tuning before release as the five hour running time doesn’t allow for the vagaries of the human bladder. I’ve suggested we split the film into a Part One and a Part Two and double our box office take but the contracts we have with streaming services are for a single picture so we’ll start whittling away until we have a masterpiece with a running time of under three and a half hours. As long as none of my stunning numbers hit the cutting room floor, we’ll be fine as the public continues to demand more Vicki Lester on screen, television and pay per view special event. Our initial focus group testing suggests that the title is seen as old fashioned and in order to get the young people to tune in, it will have to be changed. We’re looking at several alternatives but the one with the most support is Blood on the Rocks.
The rest of the day was spent in meetings about the launch of my new luxury product kiosks for combined MNM and Apple brands in down market dollar stores throughout the land. I have very high hopes for iDolla’Tree as our market research suggests that 37% of lower income consumers would be more interested in a sequined Vicki Lester iPad cover than in instant ramen. We’re going to celebrate the grand unveiling next month with a new MNM collector doll. It will be wearing one of Tim Cook’s grey business suits but it reverses into sateen tap shorts accessorized with a cunning little magenta feather boa and elegant patent leather tap pumps. Bob Mackie has outdone himself and I see it out selling this year’s Holiday Barbie.
After such a busy day, I was determined to have a low key evening. It’s been rather warm here in Hollywood so I poured myself a stiff vodka tonic to keep the mosquitoes at bay and settled myself on the terrace where we recently had a sixty five inch plasma screen installed for film viewing in warm weather. I was too lazy to even put a DVD into the player so I turned on some random film channel and caught a movie with which I was unfamiliar. The 1968 film Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher. It having been a while since I had seen a film from this period of British cinema, I settled in to revel in the vanished world of Carnaby Street and Swinging London.
The film is based on Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, first published in 1928 and lampooning London society and aristocracy of the jazz age just before the crash. It together with Vile Bodies, published slightly later, cemented his reputation as the social commentator of the age. When it came time to make the film, some forty years later, the producers decided to update it to their modern day of the late 60s, not really taking into account all of the major upheavals that had taken place over two generations. It’s a little like Hollywood releasing a film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull set in 2015. Needless to say, the results are somewhat puzzling and the film, despite lavish production values and some greatish performances, soon descended into obscurity. More recent adaptations of Waugh such as Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust have left the stories in their original decades and have been much more successful.
The film follows the misadventures of a naïve young man, Paul Pennyfeather (Robin Phillips playing the sort of role Michael Crawford essayed back in the 1960s) whom we first meet as a university student. One night, while out searching for owls with his field glasses, he falls afoul of a number of rambunctious undergraduates and is mistakenly accused of peeping into the women’s dormitory. For this he is sent down and ends up as a teacher in a thoroughly undistinguished Welsh public school. Here he meets up with a number of other washed up academics (Leo McKern, Colin Blakely, Robert Harris) who are also tasked with keeping a tribe of adolescent boys lately escaped from The Lord of the Flies in line. The school scenes owe an awful lot of Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s but without the scabrous wit. While there, Paul meets the glamorous mother of one of the pupils (Genevive Page), is smitten and has his social stock soar when he becomes her intended. It all comes crashing down again when he is arrested at the altar for white slavery (I’m not making this up) and incarcerated in the world’s sunniest prison under the care of a somewhat foggy warden (Paul Rogers). All of his old compatriots from the school also all end up imprisoned there and things continue to go downhill until Pennyfeather is finally able to shake off his old life and head off for whatever new adventures might await on the other side of the misty West Country hills.
In the right hands, the film might have become a smart social satire but everything that could have worked goes just a little bit wrong making it, at best, a fascinating failure. The chief fault is in the screenplay. There are four credited screenwriters at least one of whom has the dreaded ‘additional scenes by’ credit. This leads to some wild swings in tone which, when combined with the unfortunate decision to update Waugh to the 60s leads to the plot and character development being a bit of a mess. Then there is the crucial miscasting of the central role. Poor Robin Phillips does not have the film charisma to hold the center of the would be zaniness that surrounds him and this leaves a bit of a black hole in terms of both filmic structure and audience attention. His film career petered out soon thereafter but he continued to work successfully as a stage actor for decades.
On the other hand, there are some things to greatly admire. The art direction by John Barry and costume design by Anna Duse and Julie Harris perfectly capture the mod feel of London and environs in the mid-sixties and it is easy to spot the inspiration for some of the gags in the Austin Powers series of films from a few years ago. Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography also has a wonderful use of color which helps us understand theme and mood. There are also comic gems in the supporting performances. Leo McKern, one of the best British comic actors of his generation blusters his way through his scenes with aplomb and stage veteran Paul Rogers has great fun in his role. The true revelation, however, is French actress Genevive Page as the femme fatale. She slinks, struts, and slithers her way across the screen like a very British Marilyn Monroe by way of Louise Brooks and Jayne Mansfield. She’s sensational and should have had a bigger career based on this performance alone. I’m going to have to look up more of her cinematic oeuvre.
While the movie ultimately is not good, it is eminently watchable as a relic of another age and I can’t say that I was not entertained at the end of it. If you’re channel surfing and run across it, by all means tune in, but I wouldn’t rush out trying to find it on DVD or Amazon Prime.
Trashed piano. Bad toupee. Wooden leg. Stolen school trophies. Rolls Royce that color coordinates with Genevive Page’s outfits. Gratuitous missing tooth. Arrow uniforms. North African interlude. Body in armoire. Lavender coffin.
photo by Evan Swigart
Originally from Seattle Washington, land of mist, coffee and flying salmon, Mrs. Norman Maine sprang to life, full grown like Athena, from Andy’s head during a difficult period of life shortly after his relocation to Alabama.