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You were damn bolshie in the army, and now you’re doing the same thing here.

I’m All Right Jack

(SPOILERS) I don’t think I previously recognised quite what an incredible performance Peter Sellers gives in I’m All Right Jack. There are others for which he is better known – Clouseau, Strangelove, maybe Chancey Gardner – but none are as immersive as this transformation. You can’t see Sellers in Fred Kite, waiting to corpse, even though, being Sellers at his best, the performance is very funny. Perhaps he rose to the challenge so immaculately because the Boulting Brothers’ satire is so perfectly sculpted. Every character, plot development and pointed barb is acutely judged; it remains one of the pinnacles of British comedy.

Hitchcock: I might have known it! You were damn bolshie in the army, and now you’re doing the same thing here.

The picture is commonly simply cited as having an anti-union stance, savaging laziness on the part of the workers and militant tendencies on the parts of the union leaders, but it would be much too simplistic to characterise its focus so narrowly. Philip French told how the Boultings, initially to the left politically, were frustrated by the restrictive influences of union behaviour on the film industry – one only has to dip into your average BBC documentary to hear similar tales from television – such that their establishment-pricking position emerged over a series of features and targets. French cogently corrected the general takeaway when he observed “The movie is in fact an attack on corrupt Britain”. Time Out’s Robert Murphy also understood the picture when he suggested “Accusations of union bashing are misplaced”. Indeed, it’s more a case of, to misquote Monty Python and the Holy Grail “See the corruption inherent in the system”. Unions are a consequence of (class and) capitalism, as much as communism is, and all are crucial to any efficiently enforced Hegelian dialectic (and cheerily, all inevitably lead to a global transhumanist drone state).

Pauline Kael makes for a good reference point with regard to the prevailing response at the time. Yes, I’m All Right Jack was a huge hit in Britain (after, ahem, Carry on Nurse, the most popular British picture at home that year), but its reviews were mixed. She noted English critics were commonly taking issue with the Boulting’s spikiness towards the target, such that “The only possible conclusion can be that it’s all right to see human folly on the right, but it’s not fair game if you find it on the left”. She went further than Murphy and French, however, in breaking down why it was the picture seemed to be getting such a reaction: “The big businessmen are the villains in the plot, but the film also shows the trade unionists as smug and self-centred, and though the satire of union practices is much more affectionate, it is so accurately aimed – and we are so unused to it – that it comes off much the better.

The Boultings (John directing this time, Roy producing) are simply targeting the wheels of industry here as they earlier did education (Lucky Jim), the legal system (Brothers in Law), the army (Private’s Progress), and later the church (Heavens Above!) In this case, the film is a direct sequel to Private’s Progress, with Ian Carmichael’s posh twit Stanley Windrush now out of the army – “In my days, the university man went into one of the learned professions, if he had any brains. If he hadn’t, it was either the Church or the army” – and trying to find a place in industry. Alan Hackney once again furnishes the screenplay, again based on his novel (1958’s Private Life).

Joining Windrush are the similarly demobbed Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas), now the personnel manager of Missiles Ltd, and rogues Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price), Stanley’s uncle, and Stanley’s “pal” Sydney DeVere “Coxy” Cox (Richard Attenborough). Bertram’s now selling missiles to Arabs (the company is his), but in consort with Coxy, he plans to do so at artificially inflated prices (through manipulating the unions at Missiles Ltd into striking; Coxy’s company Union Jack Foundries will swoop in and fulfil the order, so providing a nice little earner for Cox, Tracepurcel and buyer’s rep Marne Maitland’s Mr Mohammed).

Capitalist doctrine had been deftly dealt with before this, of course, by Ealing in The Man in the White Suit, and there are intimations towards its nature as a self-perpetuating beast (the mantra “To market a commodity, it is necessary to export” is repeated during the picture; or as Richard Attenborough’s Coxy/Sydney DeVere Cox puts it “And don’t forget all that bunk about export or die”). But the Boultings’ net is wider than Mackendrick’s simple but devastating fable, since it is society itself (and those who control it) that edicts both sides of the coin, the yin and yang of the money makers and those who don’t want to be exploited by the exploiters (or as the movie would have it, those who want to exploit the exploiters).

Kael quotes George Bernard Shaw’s suggestion that “trade unionism would be the capitalism of the working class” and in I’m All Right Jack, it’s at the very end where we see perfectly how, despite overtly antagonistic goals, the various sides form a complete ecosystem (of course, there are many supplementary conversations to be had about the subsequent erosion of unions and the negative impact on industries, communities and livelihoods, but that doesn’t need to disqualify the essential “See the corruption inherent in the system” point).

Windrush has no intention of changing anything, unlike Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit or Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s genuine, sincere, affable, gullible and entirely weak willed; he is not a man of principles. Rather, he is perfectly ready to go with the flow, be that moving one crate at a time or breaking the picket because Aunt Dolly (Margaret Rutherford) tells him to: “I can’t let my family down”.

However, even Stanley gets wise eventually, announcing as much during a TV debate chaired by Malcolm Muggeridge (now best known for disagreeing with Michael Palin and John Cleese regarding Life of Brian). In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this proved to be a rousing moment of sincerity, appealing to Washington’s senators to be better than they are, with Smith eliciting praise and applause for his troubles. In I’m All Right Jack, the proceedings, in which Stanley first lays in to Kite and then his uncle, descend into violence when he empties Coxy’s bag of bribe money over the studio floor. And rather than being celebrated for his behaviour, he is publicly vilified, the Magistrate (Raymond Huntley) rallying behind the union and boss and affirming they have both been unfairly slandered.

Hitchcock: You’re a positive shower! A stinker of the first order!

As Kael put it, “Wherever the innocent here turns, he sees corruption, and when he tries to expose it, he is considered insane”. There is no justice for the honest man when he rounds on those who manipulate, deceive and conspire (although, the honest man never quite knows what’s best for him either, as Windrush, bound over to keep the peace for a year, discovers when he retreats to his father’s nudist colony; even nature(ism) puts him ill at ease, as he is last seen fleeing a gaggle of adoring and unadorned female tennis plays who want him to join in: “None of us are terribly hot, you know”).

Stanley’s prior perma-naivety (well, except when it comes to the appeal of Fred’s daughter Cynthia, in the appealing form of Liz Fraser), as blitheringly hapless as it is, is essential to I’m All Right Jack. He is required to go pathetically along with everything thrown his way with a silly grin on his face. And if he hadn’t done, if he’d been remotely savvy or shown any self-will or opinion at any earlier point, each and every position of those attempting to push him one way or the other would likely have fallen apart. The opening procession of botched job interviews leads his employment agency “seriously to doubt whether you and industry are compatible”; the only difference between Stanley and the rest of us is that we’re not quite as inveterately inept. We are, however, just as likely to go with the flow.

The film’s civvy street reflects Private’s Progress’s army in some respects. Officers (Tracepurcel, Hitchcock) are once again in positions of seniority. The ranks/workers once again want to bunk off. But between them is Fred Kite, believer in the glorious revolution and sporting an entirely uncoincidental Hitler moustache. Fred is dangerous because he believes in his cause. Well, he tells himself he does, accompanied by a mountain of persuasive texts like Decline of the Privileged Class and The Guilty Rich (“I must say, it is very heartening to have you intellectuals coming into the working-class movement like this” he greets Windrush). He’s keen to have Stanley read up on Mother Russia and how they run their factories (“However, I won’t spoil it if for you”), and while he’s never been there, he’d like to go (“All them corn fields and ballet in the evening”).

Fred Kite: It’s just that I don’t like to see our class behaving like the Gadarene swine.
Mrs Kite: Ere! You watch your language, Fred Kite. If you don’t mind.

But the actual rules he wields are as suspect as those of the employers. Stanley arrives without a union card, believing membership is optional (“No, it’s not compulsory, only you’ve got to join, you see”). When Hitchcock offers to get shot of him, Fred does the mental gymnastics that require him to ensure no ground is given to the controllers (“We do not and cannot accept the principal that incompetence justifies dismissal. That is victimisation”). It’s this very precisely established order that ensures demarcation, with no one trying too hard and the firm even retaining those who have been made redundant (in order to avert a strike, and as checkers, “but don’t expect them to check anything”; they play cards all day, except when a strike is called, at which point they down them).

Hitchcock: Windrush is the real problem. How do we get rid of the shower, and avoid a public stink?

Naturally, Fred is as vain and calculating as anyone else, keen to put Stanley up in order to hold an intellectual conversation and more than happy to do a deal with Hitchcock if it means restoring order. In this respect, while he is affronted at Stanley returning to work (“A Judas and fifth column in our midst”), it is the disruption to his home life that ultimately breaks the camel’s back. He is revealed as a fairly hopeless man, nothing when not propped up by his wife, as the increasingly squiffy and weary Hitchcock comes to realise (the priceless moment has the latter darning the domestically incontinent Kite’s holey socks). Hitchcock also has the most memorable measure of the man: “Kite? Absolute shower. Sort of chap who sleeps in his vest”.

Fred Kite: You whited sepulchre you!

The workers may be bone idle, but it has already been established that the companies are making a mint (via some of Stanley’s early prospects, including Detto and Fisko; as for hygiene standards, Stanley may vomit in biscuit mix, but we’ve already witnessed staff sneezing all over a tray of their comestibles). As if to emphasise that, while unions may be in their crosshairs, the essential way of things doesn’t change, the Boultons introduce the proceedings via a Sellers cameo as Sir John Kennaway, an old duffer and establishment bastion whose methods are now a thing of the past with the winning of the war (“With victory came a new age. And with a new age came a new spirit”). Tracepurcel and Coxy are still operating the same scams, Hitchcock is still the exasperated middle man, and chump Stanley still gets the blame. The Boultings are keen to make it known deceit is endemic. Tracepurcel tips his sales speech with the “knowledge that in supplying your country with arms, the missiles are making their own special contribution to the peace of the world”. Basil Dingham announces “As minister of labour, you can be sure that I will act. You can also be sure that I shall not interfere, that is, with those great principles which I deem to be at stake”; it’s a wonder the Boultings didn’t make a movie about ineffectual government or the civil service.

Aunt Dolly: You see, it’s quite unthinkable that a gentleman should go on strike.

Only the meeting of female minds appears to bridge the no-man’s land of class and politics. Mrs Kite (Irene Handl) receives a visit from Aunt Dolly (Rutherford) and they’re soon getting along famously, culminating in Mrs Kite leaving Fred to himself. Fraser is magnificent in, if not her movie debut, certainly her first significant role as the not so bright Cynthia (never mind, though; it’s all relative, as Stanley isn’t so bright either). “Are they your own teeth?” she asks Stanley, as they make out adjacent to a beatific fly tipping spot. Even before she’d played opposite Sid James, you can hear his RA-HA-HA when Fred announces “My daughter Cynthia. Works here, spindle polishing”. Appropriately, since they turned him down for a job, Cynthia never gets to give Stanley a product from their line after Fred throws him out (“What am I going to do with his suspenders?” she wails).

Hitchcock: We’ve got chaps here who could break out into a muck sweat merely by standing still!

The rest of the cast are note-perfect too. Price’s machinations are only outdone by Attenborough’s thoroughly invidious Coxy, who outright despises Stanley. Terry-Thomas gets only one scene with Carmichael this time, but he has a series of fine interactions with John Le Mesurier, and the aforementioned drink with Sellers (their third pairing in as many years, after The Naked Truth and Tom Thumb).

Also returning from Private’s Progress are Miles Malleson (as Stanley’s nudie dad), Le Mesurier (he’s a psychiatrist in that film, so it seems unlikely his time-and-motion-management man Waters is the same character), Victor Maddern and Kenneth Griffith (Dai Jones in both movies). Al Saxon sung the title track, the B-side to his Number 24 hit Only Sixteen that year.

I’m All Right Jack rightly won Best British Screenplay and Best British Actor (Sellers) at the BAFTAs, but wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film. Liz Fraser was pipped by Hayley Mills (for Tiger Bay) as Most Promising Newcomer (“And if you can’t get a BAFTA when you’re twelve, you needn’t bother” was Fraser’s pithy observation). She opined that being remembered for Carry Ons was “the bane of my life” (although Confessions of… and Adventures of… can’t have helped matters either). I’d always assumed the title had a comma (most film guides feature one), but it seems it only appeared in the trailer. There are few British comedies that achieve the rarefied quality of I’m All Right Jack, and fewer still that can match a script this sharp with a cast so perfect.

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