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…

I will beat you like a Cherokee drum.

Fast & Furious 8 aka The Fate of the Furious (2017)
(SPOILERS) Fun. Brio. That’s what any director needs to bring a sense of to the ever more absurd Fast & Furious franchise at minimum. Action chops are definitely up there, but paramount is an active affinity with how plain silly the series is. And it’s a quality F Gary Gray doesn’t really have, or if he does, he’s never shown it, previously or here. Even his action leaves something to be desired (his The Italian Job remake is far superior in that regard). Which isn’t to suggest there isn’t fun to be had from Fast & Furious 8/The Fate of the Furious, but it’s much more sporadic and performance-based than the previous outing, lacking the unbridled gusto James Wan brought to Furious 7.

But maybe I’m wrong about this. While I’ve seen every instalment in the franchise (only the once, mind) I haven’t followed it avidly in order (1, 4, 5, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, I think, only the first and last two at the cinema), although, it isn’t as if t…

I’m sorry to bother you, but are you telling people you’re God?

The Leftovers Season 3
(SPOILERS) I didn’t watch the final season of The Leftovers in Damon Lindelof’s preferred weekly format. Rather, I took it in over three nights (blame Sky for not knowing what to do with it), and if I’m completely honest, it wasn’t until the finale that I thought it reached the heights of Season Two. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t still (probably) the best series currently on TV (or was, at any rate), just that by the time of its third run it had evolved into something familiar, rather than disconcerting. As such, HBO was probably right to call time, as a fourth innings (Lindelof projected it might have had enough juice to go that far, left to its own devices) could have seen a shift towards mild contempt.

The big takeaway is that Lindelof has successfully rehabilitated his reputation after the litany of brickbats coming his way following the Lost finale (3.8: The Book of Nora is the anti-Lost finale) and the unfair maligning he received following Prometheus (blame …

This is our last stand. And if we lose... it will be a planet of apes.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
(SPOILERS) It isn’t difficult to see why War of the Planet of the Apes didn’t open as well as its predecessor and is unlikely to come close to its gross; it plays it safe. Which sounds odd to say, for such a dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim blockbuster, but the lack of differentiation between this and its dark, downbeat, (almost) relentlessly grim predecessor suggests Matt Reeve and Fox thought more of the same would tickle its audience’s anthropoid itch, when in fact it only leads to a lack of differentiation. Which is a shame, as War of the Planet of the Apes is (mostly) an accomplished movie, expertly directed by Reeves and performed with due conviction by its mo-capped (and otherwise) cast.

It does seem a tad churlish to complain about what a movie might have been when it maintains the series’ consistent high quality, but I’m now firmly in the camp of wishing some of the more tonally-varied content of the original pictures was finding…

There’s no surf in Michigan.

Don’t Breathe (2016)
(SPOILERS) I passed on Fede Alvarez’ The Evil Dead remake – it seemed a tad too close to torture porn for my tastes, and besides, why redo Evil Dead if you’re eschewing a sense of humour; it’s what made it what it is – so this home invasion thriller in reverse is my first exposure to his work (he also has a new Lisbeth Salander movie, baffling rebooting the series with the fourth instalment, and a remake of Labyrinth on his to-do list). Don’t Breathe is okay, effective within its highly exploitative bracket, rarely doing anything but serviceably pushing obvious shock buttons.


I’ve seen reviews complain about the rape subplot herein – some even seem to think the Blind Man’s defence of “I’m not a rapist” is a representation of the views of the filmmakers, and that it thus needs emphasising that he is, in fact, which rather suggest a desire to be outraged than ends up making them look a bit dim – but it seems to me to go with the generally dubious territory of this ki…

Why would you sell the cows?

American Pastoral (2016)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Philip Roth and cinema just don’t mix. I couldn’t say for sure, as I haven’t read any of his novels, but the consensus is pretty much that none have resulted in highly acclaimed adaptations (eight have been translated to film or television thus far). American Pastoral won him a Pulitzer, so I presume it must be good, although you wouldn’t know it from the stodge that ends up on screen, any more than you’d have the remotest idea what it was in the material that hastened Ewan McGregor to make his directorial debut.

He can’t take the blame for the screenplay (stand up, John Romano) so that’s something in his favour, and technically, I guess, you could call him competent, but in terms of putting a dramatically coherent film together he does, alas, seem pretty hopeless, miscasting himself in the lead (and this after a string of roles that have rather re-established his early promise) to underwhelming effect – ironic, since he had been attached as an…

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.

Is that a cherry pie?

Twin Peaks 3.11: There’s fire where you are going
(SPOILERS) A damn good episode. Perhaps the lesser part of it is the still great FBI plotline, but that’s only because – despite having the most overtly weird elements – it is more linear and less inimitable than the other claims to fame: Bobby and the shooting incident, and Dougie-Dale’s encounter with the Mitchum Brothers. Yes, it’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally come around to silver fox Bobby. Or should that be Becky’s pops.

What impressed me most about this sequence was the way it develops – escalated would be the wrong word. You think the scene is about one thing but then it becomes about something else, and then it becomes about something else entirely. During the build-up to this we’ve had the ominous, Blue Velvet-esque scene in which a boy playing ball sights Miriam crawling bloodied from the woods. Followed by Shelly riding the bonnet of her car until Becky throws her off. 

There’s something very matter-of-fact procedural …

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …

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…