Skip to main content

This is war mate, war. Little men like you don't stand a chance.

The Early Bird
(1965)

(SPOILERS) With his frantic cry of “Mr Grimsdale!”, perpetual idiot-man-child act and insatiable appetite for slapstick, Norman Wisdom’s oeuvre  is something of an acquired taste. He elicits similarly divisive response to his US counterpart Jerry Lewis, in fact. If Wisdom never achieved the full auteur multi-hyphenate status that made Lewis so beloved by the French (he had to settle for Albania), he nevertheless actively co-wrote his pictures and maintained a tried-and-tested line up of collaborators (Edward Chapman, Robert Asher). The Early Bird comes at the tail end of his big screen zenith and, in terms of career high points, is probably equivalent to Lewis’ The Nutty Professor; both pictures are likely more accessible to viewers generally not so taken with their respective stars.


Certainly, The Early Bird was a childhood favourite. I was never so keen on the more mawkish, sentimental side of the Wisdom persona and, aside from his first Norman Pitkin outing The Square Peg (in which Wisdom plays dual roles, and features the classic scene where he confuses a platoon on parade by barking random orders from the cover of his pothole), I could take or leave, or just leave, most of them. After this, he would appear in only a few more movie roles before drifting into TV and cabaret. I hadn’t realised Wisdom was 50 when he made The Early Bird, a flattering side effect of his infantile act, I guess.


It’s perhaps an exaggeration to suggest Wisdom with regular co-writers Jack Davies, Eddie Leslia and Henry Blythe, was getting with the times, but The Early Bird is the first of his pictures made in colour, and the first to feature drugs (even as absurdly as it does) in one of the funniest sequences. Surrealism also abounds, including a lawnmower run amok that speeds along the bottom of a pond and Pitkin seeing the head of Mrs Hoskins (Paddie O’Neal) replaced with that of his beloved horse Nellie. Subsequently, Pitkin takes Nellie to bed, and she puts a leg round her kindly owner.


There’s a plethora of innuendo here too, from bumbling Mr Grimsdale carrying on with the fulsome (Hattie Jacques-like) housekeeper (don’t worry, they tie the knot), to the negligeed woman (Marjie Lawrence) who answers the door to Norman when he’s delivering the milk (a very funny domestic dispute in which David Lodge uses Grimsdale’s Dairy’s milk to hurl at his missus; when Norman keeps ringing the doorbell, the man threatens him “You’ll get a clip round the earhole! This is a peaceful neighbourhood!”), to Mr Hunter (Jerry Desmonde) requesting his secretary (Imogen Hassall) accompany him to the vault, which he promptly shuts after them. It never strays completely into Carry On smut, but it’s more risqué than Wisdom had hitherto been (back when he covered his fingers with his nipples during a medical and embarked on tiresome romances).


There’s even an element of social commentary here, not that it has the cojones to venture into full-on Ealing territory. Norman works for Grimsdale’s Dairy, which is being pushed out if its little patch (as Norman says at the climax, “We didn’t care about making a great fortune. We only had ten streets”) by heartless corporate behemoth Consolidated Dairies. Consolidated will stoop as low as they need to force Grimsdale’s out of the game, from breaking milk bottles to poisoning Nellie.


The implication is very much that small is better, a nostalgia for the old ways when there was community and progress hadn’t crushed lives in its wake. Hunter pronounces “There’s no room in this world for small, niggling firms”, at which Austin (Brian Pringle) the antagonistic Consolidated milkman stealing Norman’s patch, adds “And old-fashioned too”. Later, Hunter insists, “You can’t impeded the wheels of progress”.


That Consolidated isn’t brought to book feels like a fairly accurate prediction of the subsequent fifty years of big business run rampant. They’re merely embarrassed by Pitkin’s emotive heartstring pulling; chairman Sir Roger Wedgewood (Richard Vernon) promises Grimsdale’s can have its round back. Perhaps there’s intentional commentary there, but it seems fairly typical of Wisdom’s oeuvre that the little victory, number one, should be worried about rather than the broader implications.


Of course, no one’s watching a Norman Wisdom film for piercing insights into the state of the nation. It’s the delivery of the comedy that counts, and The Early Bird features a series of his finest moments. The opening ten-minute, wordless sequence, as Pitkin and Mr Grimsdale (and Mrs Hoskins) arise in haphazard and less-than-successful manner, is a tour de force. Much of this is Wisdom through and through – getting snagged on doors, falling down stairs, making three cups of tea in one continuous pouring motion – but what makes it sing, besides the auteurish conceit of its length, is a new element to his films: composer Ron Goodwin.


It’s no overstatement to say Goodwin’s score makes The Early Bird (it’s a great shame it’s not available to buy); it’s as singular and memorable as his work on the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marples. The opening sequence in particular perfectly accentuates the rising and falling with action, lending the proceedings an infectious rhythm (even down to Pitkin and Mr Grimsdale yawning in unison at each other). 


Elsewhere, there’s a western parody song as Pitkin and Austion confront each other on an empty street (probably an inspiration for The GoodiesBunfight at the O.K. Tearooms) and, best of all, Pitkin’s impersonation of a vicar during Hunter’s round of golf.  He attempts to instruct Hunter, “You’ve got to be taught what is right, and what is wrong” to the accompaniment of a particularly groovy section of Goodwin organ.


I’ve seen the golf scene come in for criticism as superfluous, but it’s a note perfect piece of comedy, particularly aided by the wearied tones of John Le Mesurier as Hunter’s golf partner. The key is in the responses of this pair to Norman’s irrepressible brand of anarchy. And, the notion of a vicar behaving like an irresponsible child is irresistible.


The golf course sequence is beaten for laughs only by the aforementioned apple-eating scene, which is just bat shit crazy. It must have left a permanent impression on untold tens of thousands of young minds in the endless round of Saturday afternoon matinee showings The Early Bird has seen on British TV over the past half century.


Norman and Mr Grimsdale both eat one of Nellie’s drugged apples, “coming up” while watching a belly dancer gyrating on television; there’s an unmistakable psychedelic spin here, amid the more obvious gags (Grimsdale puts his glasses on upside down, and inevitably sees the TV image upside down). This reaches a warped crescendo when Norman, entering Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion territory, retreats to a corner of the room assaulted by visions of his horse, the threats of Mr Hunter, and the Mrs Hoskins accursed clacking knitting needles.


Subsequently, Frank Thornton cameos as a drunken doctor (more lechery here, as he’s about to have his way with a couple of lovelies at a party) who instructs Norman, of Nellie, to “put her to bed with a hot water bottle… and give her a sleeping pill”. 


I have to admit, however, that by the time the grand climax arrives, with Pitkin causing mayhem in the Consolidated Dairies building (the exterior realised with a nifty matte painting) dressed as a fire chief, I grow a little fatigued by it all (likewise, Pitkin attempting to fill milk bottles from a dirty great urn just tests the patience). There’s a nice running gag with Peter Jeffrey’s fire chief continually falling down a lift shaft, but the free-for-all abandon is less satisfying than the clearly structured lunacy that precedes it.


Wisdom’s also better in scenes with foils than indulging himself on his own. So his coughing fit on the golf course is so effective for the reactions of Le Mesurier and Desmonde, while his mistaken marriage proposal, in which Mrs Hoskins’ bawling induces a likewise response in Pitkin, is hilarious.


Pringle’s wily rival milkman is perfect at pointing out Pitkin’s immeasurable denseness, and lends his already sharp dialogue the blessing of superb delivery (his account of cats “Frustrated beyond measure, they go stark staring mad, and smash the bottles” or confession “What makes a man want to break bottles? Headaches. Blinding headaches”; even with Desmonde, Pringles’s reading of “You mean, something in its food to confuse it mentally?” when discussing nobbling Nellie is scene stealing mastery).


Desmonde, here in his last big screen appearance, was a thorn in Pitkin’s side (or rather, vice versa) in several of Wisdom’s earlier pictures, and he’s the perfect face of irate entitlement, undermined by someone mentally and socially his inferior.


The Early Bird , which can currently be found on YouTube, was the end of an era for Wisdom; it was his last Pitkin, and his last appearance with Chapman. It came at a point where he had come out of a dispute with Rank regarding greater control over his projects. Arguably, wanting to change his formula was essential given he was no longer a spring chicken, but he’d collaborate with the studio in only one further starring role (and by the end of the decade he’d be putting the final nail in his big screen coffin when he ignominiously threw himself into free love picture What’s Good for the Goose). As such The Early Bird might be the most successful distillation of what Wisdom could do when he was given a (relatively) freehand, tweaking the formula rather than ditching it completely.








Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.