Friday, April 1, 2011

What Fools These Mortals Be (1950)

No, no, despite the movie poster to your right, I'm not doing a mermaid film today...well, at least for anything other to prove a point. And my point (I do have one) is about the post-war British movie industry. After the long war years of going without, keeping a stiff upper lip and blacking out your ration coupons, Britain was ready for a night out at the cinema, where they could run the movies as bright as they wanted and Hitler couldn't do a dang thing about it. 'Coz he was dead! That showed him.

There's a certain subclass of post-war British films I like to call fantacoms. I just made up that word and I fully expect royalties once the big-time movie critics and historians start to use it, so remember, you heard it here first. A fantacom is a movie with both fantastic and comedic elements: not quite science fiction or fantasy on its own, but a storyline where incredible events are tempered with a light and humorous love story and perhaps a good old song-and-dance number at the pub halfway through. These films could differ as dramatically as Alec Guinness's sublime The Man in the White Suit or the ribald shenanigans of the Carry On films, but my favorite movies from this period of those that mix mythology or legend—especially the legends of Britain—with its latter-day farces and giggles. Like (and I suppose you were wondering when I was going to get to it) the amazingly delightful mermaid-meets-a-mortal and they fall in love Miranda (1948) and its '54 sequel Mad About Men. A lightweight story is buoyed up by some joyously cheerful performances by Glynis Johns and Margaret Rutherford, some delightful sight gags, and such a light touch that any silliness is instantly forgiven. Miranda and Mad About Men pop up on Turner Classic Movies every few months: it's my opinion you oughtn't miss 'em.

That said, enough about Miranda, because I think one of the finest examples of this genre is the criminally overlooked What Fools These Mortals Be! (1950) Tied up in rights disputes over its defunct production company (Chelsea Studios) for the past twenty years or so, you're not going to find this on your cable movie channel or on Netflix, but if you know (ahem) where to find rare films the same way Indiana Jones finds golden idols...well, pal, downlo grab that film and run like heck while the giant cheese ball rolls down the ramp behind you.

What Fools opens with the de-mobbing from the British Royal Navy of Petty Officer WREN Myfanwy Rees (Penny Charles, complete with convincing lilting Welsh accent), a capable, spunky and outspoken female non-combatant during WWII who's caused more than a few headaches for her commanding officer (a lovely cameo by British former silent star Mary Glynne). Myfanwy ...and let's get this out of the way first, it's pronounced alternately by the case as muh-VAN-wee and muh-FAN-wee, and more than once, Leslie Howard stumbles over the name. Where was I? Myfanwy, after a quick slapstick montage in shops and a library and conductress of a bus, takes a last-chance job as the major-domo (or, as she's called once than once, the major-domo-ette) of the country estate of Lord and Lady Auberon. The Lord's a priggish, easily-annoyed recluse; the Lady's a regal and tipsy snob with a perpetually swiftly-emptied flask in her purse. That Lord Auberon is played by Leslie Howard and his wife Lady Tania by a pre-Ms. Marple Joan Hickson makes it all the more delightful.

And that is all even before Myfanwy discovers that her new employers...and the eccentric cast of characters that popular the ramshackle castle...are actually Oberon and Titania and their retinue...the King and Queen of the Fairies from Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, forced by hard times and dwindling magic ("There were ration coupons for more than just beef," grumbles Oberon) to take the guises mortals among the English country people. Penny Charles, charming as she is, still pretty much plays straight man for the rest of the cast, especially bedevilling the perpetually pained Oberon.

Broadly overacting the entire lot of them is music-hall comedian George Formby...yes, he of the wide-faced grin and the Robin Goodfellow ("You probably know me better as Puck.") Formby plays the mischievous sprite as a prankster and rascal, not in the Shakespeare mode but much more in the style of a P. G. Wodehouse eccentric cousin or uncle. He's fond of belching trick cushions and leaping toy frogs, and for those of you who can't imagine George Formby without his trademark uke, yes indeed, he does get a (short but funny) musical number.

A fine cast like this treating Shakespearean characters as comedy tropes is a concept that's hard to beat, but you'd have to go far to top my absolute favorite character in the movie: Otto the Talking Pig, who's either a man turned into a hog or a hog enchanted to talk (even he's not quite sure) who sets the plot's jewel robbery and mistaken identity B-plots into full gear during a fancy dress ball. The technology enabling Otto to "talk" on screen is definitely primitive: short pieces of film where the pig is chewing or moving his mouth is quickly run back and forth to give a only-somewhat convincing illusion that he's talking. But with his earthy humor and booming Germanic accent, Otto's a character who easily steals the show.

The brief end credits whimsically list "And Otto as himself" and indeed among the small cult of fans of this movie there's quite a bit of speculation of who actually did perform Otto's voice. Among the most outrageous theories: Michael Bentine of The Goon Show, Doctor Who's Patrick Troughton, or even then-comedy actor Dirk Bogarde. We can but wish the wisdom of the Germanic pig came from the voice of a major star, but it's much more likely, given Chelsea Studio's notorious swiftness and economy in the post-production of their films, that it may just have been a bit actor hanging about the studio.

Weighing in at an economical 83 minutes, What Fools These Mortals Be! doesn't sag or slow in pace and easily leaves enough possibilities for a sequel or even a series of films chronicling the adventures of the once-magical Lord and Lady of the Fairies among the common-sense post-War British. Alas, there was no sequel (Ill Met By Moonlight might have been a fine title!) and it remains as a briskly enjoyable but relatively inconsequential light comedy in an age which would soon give rise to the great films of its time: The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, The Admirable Crichton and the St. Trinian's series. But it's time for a remake, don't you think? I see Michael Caine as Oberon, Judi Dench as Titania, Natalie Portman as Myfanwy, and Russell Brand as Puck. And the voice of Otto? Why, Brian Blessed, of course. It'd be an Oscar-winnng voice performance.


  1. I remember this playing on ABC in the wee hours of the morning when I was a teen, but hadn't seen it again until recently. It's interesting to see it now when I can "get" the Sgakespeare references better, but really? It's fluff. But good, leave a smile on your face afterwards sort of fluff.

    Hoping some smart soul will move it over to youtube one day.

  2. Leslie Howard in a 1950 film? He died in 1943!