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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

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…

Still got that nasty sinus problem, I see.

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
(SPOILERS) A star’s quest to buck audience – and often studio – preconceptions is invariably a dangerous game. You can quickly flame out the very thing that made you an attractive prospect in the first place. Or you can plod on, entrenching yourself determinedly in a style that doesn’t suit you (Robert De Niro in most broad comedy, Bruce Willis in most straight drama). Michael J Fox wanted to be taken seriously – being adored for Family Ties, Back to the Future and, yes, Teen Wolf just wasn’t enough – and it took him three attempts to realise no one really wanted to come along with him on that journey, whether he was serviceable in those roles or not. Bright Lights, Big City arrived after the John Hughes teen wave had peaked and a more cautionary tone was being taken towards youthful 80s abandon. It’s major problem, however, is that it’s all cautionary; the excess never looks like it’s fun, even for those partaking.

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…