Monte Carlo or Bust
Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies
(SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie.
Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win the Monte by a country mile, thanks to the comedians/comedy actors cast; they’re hilarious. Both cars’ worth.
Jack Davies co-wrote the screenplay with Annakin. Best known for his succession of Norman Wisdom scripts (including the near-masterpiece The Early Bird) and Gambit, Davies had collaborated with the director numerous times (on A Coming-Out Party, Crooks Anonymous, The Fast Lady and subsequently on Paper Tiger). Annakin, a journeyman who had his start making wartime propaganda pictures, went on to cultivate a reasonably successful relationship with Disney (Swiss Family Robinson was his), and set up Magnificent Men at Fox after his contribution to The Longest Day got him in the good books of Darryl F Zanuck; Monte Carlo or Bust was made with Paramount, however, and if it arrived at a point when that style of movie was on the way out, it apparently did respectable business (it was still being recycled as a double feature with The Italian Job three years later).
Besides Davies, Annakin reunited with a clutch of other Magnificent Men collaborators for the project. Cartoonist Ronald Searle’s magnificently memorable animation work bookends and occasionally providing linking material to both pictures. Composer Ron Goodwin, whose score is every bit as good, if not better than his previous effort, originated the iconic The Schickle Shamble for German jewel smuggler Willi Schickle. Iconic because it has been the theme tune to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue for the past 44 years. And because it’s genius, a piece of music that is just naturally very funny.
Also returning were screen legends Gert Fröbe (as Willi) and the inimitably dastardly Terry-Thomas (first, dependably representative line: “Hard cheese, sir!”) T-T plays Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage, son of Magnificent Men’s Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, which is quite a feat since this can’t be more than 15 years later, but provides appealingly casual continuity to what would otherwise be merely thematic connection (and so closer to the Dollars trilogy than a Cannonball Run II). Eric Sykes is back as T-T’s assistant (Perkins rather than Courtney this time), as are Willie Rushton (later of I’m Sorry) and Michael Trubshawe.
Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage: Ghastly! Being caught, I mean.
Annakin, one can safely assume, got on well with all those faces, which wasn’t the case with Curtis (“brittle, self-centred and a bully”). His hero feels like the kind of sop to American audiences many a British picture (although, this is closer to Euro pudding) would adopt in the hope of transatlantic success. Chester Schofield is immediately established as the antithesis of frightful rotter Sir Cuthbert, and his straight arrow makes for a foil as effective as Ian Carmichael, just with a degree of added mugging that would make Harry H Corbett think twice.
It’s implicit in the script’s structure that America is progressive, fair-minded, plays by the rules and is in favour of equality for all. Everything Britain, or England is not (as represented by T-T/Sir Cuthbert; Pete and Dud are a different matter, their virtues merely stymied by an archaic belief in the superiority of the Empire – albeit, this aspect is much more drolly emphasised than other, more sledgehammer offerings of the period, such as Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade). Chester has won a 50% share in Sir Percy’s auto business in a poker game (“He never lost!” protests Sir Cuthbert; “By default, sir. He had six cards in his hand, instead of five” replies Perkins).
Sir Cuthbert: What, play cards with you? I’d rather play with my own father.
The factory, which manufactures the Nifty-Nine, isn’t quite making Sir Cuthbert “stinking, ruddy well rich”, at least not while Chester is concentrating on expansion, putting every penny of profit into new plant, redesigning the car and raising everyone’s pay! Just to prove his unassailable virtue, “He works day and night, night and day, and doesn’t take a penny in salary”. If that doesn’t put the viewer firmly on “despicable” (as Perkins frequently refers to him) Sir Cuthbert’s side, nothing will. And that’s before we see Curtis, doing his Cary Grant shtick and exclaiming “Zowie!” So, while everyone else (well, pretty much) has higher motives, Sir Cuthbert is entering the Monte Carlo Rally strictly for the money.
A movie like this pretty much tells itself, in terms of plotting; you have a self-sustained narrative, and the key comes from littering it with challenges, altercations and incidents of a humorous nature, to keep it peppy and lively. The danger comes if the different groups fall flat, or there’s indistinct variation. Annakin’s headlong dive into national and gender stereotyping, employing a cheerfully affectionate xenophobia that encourages us to be in on the joke, rather than occupying a position of cruelty or wilful offensiveness, works entirely in the picture’s favour.
Schofield: Who won the war?
Sir Cuthbert: We did, Schofield, and don’t you jolly well forget it. Still, I do admire your pluck.
That said, the territory where the picture occasionally struggles is in the “straight” narrative of Chester’s romance with simperingly perky Betty (Susan Hampshire). You couldn’t call Curtis a bland lead, and he’s giving it some in the frantic mugging stakes, but he’s almost trying too hard, perhaps conscious that everyone else is so consummately larger than life. Really, with the legacy of Some Like it Hot, he shouldn’t have worried.
As it is, T-T effortlessly steals Curtis’ thunder most of the time through Sir Cuthbert’s Dick Dastardly attempts to hamper Chester’s chances (threatening to report him for cheating by taking on Betty, an unregistered passenger, whom Sir Cuthbert has put up to it); as an insufficient counterweight, Chester is given an winningly restrained line in oath-making (“Oh, damn, heck and h-e-double-l”; “B-l-a-s-t”) and Curtis’ physical flair is put to effective use when his milk is drugged. In contrast to expectations, Chester doesn’t win the race, although by the time he makes it across the finish line it’s evident that all that matters is that stinker Sir Cuthbert has been disqualified.
Terry-Thomas had been the movies’ favourite cad for a decade and a half when he signed on for Monte Carlo or Bust, even occasionally exporting his talents to a more international audience (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World – another chase, well, hunt movie – and How to Murder Your Wife), but by the end of the ‘60s, the type of very British comedy that had made him famous was on the decline, and with it his kind of peerlessly blessed bounder. While he had a few notable parts post-Monte Carlo or Bust (Sir Hiss in Robin Hood, The Abominable Dr Phibes) they mostly weren’t worthy of him. Added to which, his health had begun to deteriorate, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1971. Monte Carlo or Bust is most definitely to be savoured, then, as the last truly great T-T role, one where he’s absolutely, relishably T-T. The cad!
Sir Cuthbert: (Casting an eye over Willi’s spare tyres) This chap’s got more than he needs. He won’t miss one.
Perkins: But that’s, that’s stealing!
Sir Cuthbert: Is it? Oh, don’t be so technical!
He and Sykes make for a delightfully complementary partnership, one oozing machinations, the other reluctant and remonstrating of his fiendish boss (Perkins protests about having to clear snow off the road, as “It’s cold out there”, to which Sir Cuthbert, sitting cosily in the back of the car, replies “Of course it is, you’ve got the bloody door open!”). In particular, Sir Cuthbert’s blackmailing of Perkins with evidence of his romantic affairs makes for an effective recurring plot beat, as the latter periodically believes himself free from the yolk, only for his hopes to be dashed (“Well, Mr Perky Perkins, shall we get on with the rally?”)
Sir Cuthbert is a wonderfully, casually haughty and malicious character, from the way T-T delivers a line, be it “Bon soir” or his blithe superiority over the (non-English) locals (in response to a petrol station proprietor who has no change, Sir Cuthbert dismissively advises “Well, you had better go ahead and get some, hadn’t you, old garcon?”), to his scheming foresight (he has had three identical Nifty-Nines planted along the route, the swine!), to his less than mature attitude to mixing up contestants’ footwear at the hotel (Perkins protests that “It’s awfully childish”, to which he retorts “I don’t agree. It’s all part of the strategy of the rally”).
Perkins: Sir Cuthbert paid him five thousand quid for the tyre. I thought it was a bit pricey at the time.
Sir Cuthbert: You bloody liar!
I always rather liked that Sir Cuthbert, by expressly foul means, naturally, actually wins the rally, but is hoisted by his own petard, as Perkins would say, by his decision to steal one of Willi’s wheels. And that Perky Perkins, having been returned his vital dossier, gets payback when asked to confirm Sir Cuthbert’s story, and instead drops him entirely in it.
Lieutenant Barrington: I say, sir, did you hear what that German chap called us?
Major Dawlish: Schweinhund, wasn’t it? What does that mean in English?
(Lieutenant Barrington whispers in the major’s ear.) Good heavens! I’ve got a very good mind to get out and give him a damn good thrashing!
Lieutenant Barrington: I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sir.
Major Dawlish: You wouldn’t?
Lieutenant Barrington: No, sir.
Major Dawlish: In that case, I won’t.
If the British scheme or invent (more on the latter shortly), the Germans bumble. Albeit, at the behest of Willi’s superiors (Jack Hawkins’ Cout Levinovitch and Derren Nesbit’s Waleska); they are “persuaded” to smuggle stolen gems in one of the spare wheels (the one Sir Cuthbert purloins), under express orders not to attract attention to themselves (Willi’s told to finish in 26th position, much to his chagrin as a getaway driver; he has been busted from prison in his first scene). Fröbe’s role here is more fun than in Magnificent Men, replete with prat falls and not-especially-bright bluster, as he and his co-driver Otto Schwartz (Peer Schmidt) experience altercations with the English (on a frozen river), and consider escaping the whole ordeal (when they try and make a run for it, it becomes evident that snipers are dogging them en route).
Otto: Are we not going too fast, Willi? His Excellency is saying we definitely have to finish in 26th position.
Willi: Who is caring what his Excellency is saying? We are Germans, and there is only one place for a German, and that’s first!
Because they are German, Willi and Otto are naturally given to referencing very pigeon-German items, such as a “strudel puss”, a “Bauer Frankfurter” (they have nothing to declare at customs, not even one of those) and, most memorably, ‘We will be arrested and sent back to prison, as surely as God made little apple strudels”. Appropriately, as in both World Wars, they finish second, but are stripped of their by-default victory when their true identities become clear (the Count has, meanwhile, been arrested).
The takers of third place become the actual winners, although there’s no changing of sides required on this occasion. And yet, true to stereotyped identity, the Italians are a couple of priapic lotharios. Well, Marcello (Lando Buzzanca) is; Angelo (Walter Chiari) is more intent on becoming the next Malcolm “Mac-Campbell”. Marcello is quite happy to settle for a “nice little wife with the nice big…” (cue boobies mime). Not being a devotee of Italian cinema, the only other picture I know Buzzanca for is After the Fox, but he more than equals his European opponents for energetic screen presence (Chiari is entirely the straight man). Indeed, it’s the kind of part that probably wouldn’t make it to the screen today, since Marcello is a regular Harpo Marx when it comes to acting the sex pest with the ladies.
Which means the Italians are very much pursuing, in more ways than one, the French, a trio of becoming mademoiselles (it’s also notable that both parties are gainfully employed in the public services, nominally saving and protecting, rather than embroiled in the cogs of capitalist machinery, the army or criminal activities; the Italians are policemen, the French, doctors). This involves stealing their clothes when they go frolicking in a lake, and, more alarmingly, behaving in an uber-bedroom farcical manner as Marcello accosts Marie-Claude (Mireille Darc) and manoeuvres her into his hotel room (it’s okay, though: being Italian, he’s irresistible, and his charms have clearly worked their effect by morning, as she’s entirely under his spell).
Marcello and Angelo are also, for all their dubious sexual mores, made out to be thoroughly honourable good eggs. The French chicks stop out of the race to aid the victims of an avalanche, and consequently the Italians promise to win for the girls (“Show everybody what Romans can do!”) Darc (the lead actress in Godard’s Weekend) is joined by Marie Dubois (Pascale) and Nicoletta Machiavelli (Dominique), in as buoyant a display of French sex-iness as the Italians are extolling sex-madness.
Monsieur Dupont: I don’t approve of women drivers any more than I approve of women doctors.
Annakin and Davies make a point of emphasising these are upwardly mobile, emancipated madams from the off; they’re careerists, more than capable of competing in a man’s world (or rally). Lest this lead you to suppose they might be less garlanded with the broad strokes of caricature, however, they are also introduced with sped-up film and audio, chattering about whatever they chatter about (silly women!) and driving hopelessly (women drivers!)
However, officiator Monsieur Dupont (Bourvil, in one of his final roles – he died at 53, and may also be familiar from David Niven’s The Brain and The Longest Day) has little choice but to admit them, having been set to rights by Marie-Claude (albeit, arriving in that state as a result of her driving). Really, though, the clearest signal of the screenwriterly attitudes is that they have failed to come up with actual personas for any of them, other than looking sexy (no doubt, if they’d been “garcons”, they’d be wearing striped shirts, sporting a string of onions).
Lieutenant Barrington: I say, don’t look now, sir. But old sausage and sauerkraut is waving at us.
Major Dawlish: Is he? Well, ignore him. I’ve not intention of hobnobbing with Jerry.
There’s no contest, though: it’s the duo of Major Dawlish (Peter Cook) and Lieutenant Barrington (Dudley Moore) who steal the entire movie, even from Terry-Thomas. Cook, in particular, had very mixed fortunes on the big screen; while it would take him another decade, Moore had the chops to become a movie star, but Cook was only really proficient at comic caricatures, and as such, sadly didn’t have the stuff lead performances were made of. There are exceptions, most notably the antagonist in Bedazzled, but he was by-and-large best confined to cameos (the Impressive Clergyman in The Princess Bride). This, however, is the exception, since it’s both a comic caricature and a lead (well, an ensemble lead) that fits him like a glove; the oblivious, upper class idiot, full of false, presumed privilege and status. But loveable for all that.
Major Dawlish: I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.
Lieutenant Barrington: England’s, sir?
Major Dawlish: Naturally.
Major Dawlish: Naturally.
Dawlish and Barrington (“I say. Pip-pip, sir”; “Oh, whizz-whizz, sir”; Moore’s role here is, as ever it was between them, very sporting, since it enables Cook to take all the best lines and hog the proceedings) get to have it both ways. The opening suggests the kind of dodgy colonial depiction of India you’d find in Carry on Up the Khyber or a Spike Milligan sketch (“The password is curry powder”), so of a piece with the cultural stereotypes elsewhere in the film, but soon settles into putting a pin into such attitudes while simultaneously celebrating the assumed superiority of class and national identity (because, as noted, Dawlish and Barrington are so likeable). Dawlish wishes to win the Monte in order to make his inventions world famous. The only drawback being, they’re iffy at best, impractical disasters at worst.
Lieutenant Barrington: Oh, I say, I think we’re mucking up their game, sir.
Major Dawlish: Serves them right. They should be playing something decent, like cricket.
Lieutenant Barrington: On ice, sir?
Lieutenant Barrington: I think we hit one of their chaps, sir.
Major Dawlish: On the contrary, he hit us.
The major’s interactions with Willi are a consistent highlight, and are so close to the sort of thing Cook would come up with that I shouldn’t be surprised if he improvised them. Their clash on a frozen lake sequence is a delirious medley of comic interactions, as the German and English contestants threaten each other during an ice hockey game; Dawlish maintains an unruffled, above-it-all position throughout, whereby everyone else is at fault. Likewise, his interaction with authority figures who aren’t the British Army:
Major Dawlish; (at customs) Don’t fuss so, Barrington. They’ll never search us. Any fool can see we’re British.
Major Dawlish: (concealed cigarettes and alcohol are found by customs) Ah yes, these are purely for our personal consumption. I’m a very heavy smoker. And Barrington here is a very, very heavy drinker.
Major Dawlish: (on being required to undress for a strip-search) The only persons permitted to see me in the pink are Mrs Dawlish, that’s the memsahib, Richie Veneswamin, that’s my batman, and Major G J Trosby-Ponsonby, and that’s my doctor. Request refused, and that’s that.
Theirs are also some of the goofiest sequences, as their car ends up bobsleighing, hitching a cable car ride (“A good soldier always knows exactly where he is”) and an actual cliffhanger in which they come to the aid of Chester and Betty (“A damsel in distress! And British too!”)
Endearingly, Dawlish is far more concerned with his own inventive genius than really winning (“Now, the fascinating thing about this rope of mine is that it’s made of the finest Indian hemp, by a special process known only to myself and a little Indian guru friend of mine, CJ Pedropettle, from Bombay”), such that Chester is able to shoot off back into the race (“This is what comes of doing someone a good turn”). Indeed, the final great Dawlish rocket pack is a complete right-off (“Ah well, back to the Kyber Pass”), in a jolly decent show of British stiff upper lip stoicism and resignation.
The success of this brand of (national, class) self-mockery is often dependent upon the tone struck; The Avengers (the ‘60s TV show, that is) revelled in the absurdity of the world it had created, where the gentleman spy was part of a parallel world in which notions of imperialism were benign, home counties, and at least slightly surrealist. On the other hand, when you make a big thing of having a working-class Scot perform the embodiment of upper-crust privilege, you run the risk of entering aspirant territory; that such status is something to be prized, which, despite its (half-hearted) efforts to overtly naysay such ideas, is what Kingsman: The Secret Service ultimately espouses.
Lieutenant Barrington: You’re an absolute genius, sir.
Major Dawlish: Yes, I suppose I am.
Major Dawlish: Yes, I suppose I am.
By 1970, this sort of movie just wasn’t getting made any more; post-Carry On and ‘60s liberalities, the British comedy had teetered wholesale into the bawdy, and a few years hence even the Carry Ons (Hattie Jaques pops up here) would be struggling to compete with lewder skin comedies such as the Confessions movie. As such, Monte Carlo or Bust was something of an antique even then, one whose time had expired in the space of only three or four years.
What helps it considerably is that, while the picture’s a period piece, inhabited by several heritage alumni (and the likes of Curtis were very much fading stars by that point), it also flaunts rising stars of the new comedy scene (Cook and Moore) and several bright young things, while boasting an exuberance that identifies it as very much of its era.
Annakin over-employs the back projection (his work with Disney gave him a strong grounding in matte work, but evidently not the keenness to use such skills sparingly), rather emphasising just who wasn’t on location where: most weren’t, anywhere (and Sam Itzkovitch directed the Paris sequence). But then, this was still an accepted part of the parcel then; Bond was doing it on many times the budget. Whereas, the use of split screen at key points helps make Monte Carlo or Bust very definitely of the sixties in approach. For me, it’s one of the great underrated British comedies, up there with the also Terry-Thomas starring You Must Be Joking!, and it really is rotten hard cheese that isn’t better known, or more valued.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.