Genre: Historical black comedy
I’ve been meaning to watch and review this one for ages but got the boost I needed when I saw it’s being shown today on TCM. Used to be it was impossible to find this one on DVD but recently both a region 1 and region 2 version have been released. The full movie can also be watched at IMDB and on youtube. With the recent use of Victorian England as a popular historical romance era, “The Wrong Box” can slide in right between your reading schedule.
Seventy-some years earlier, the parents and guardians of twenty young, upperclass English boys entered them in a tontine. The idea is that for each boy, the sum of 1,000 pounds is entered into a “pot” – to be appropriately managed financially – and that the last surviving member gets the whole ball of wax. With the death of the third to the last man, two elderly brothers, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson) Finsbury, are now the only living ones left. They’ve been estranged for years but both are eagerly taken care of by their respective heirs with the hope that their man will outlive the other and thus get the (current value) 111,000 pounds.
Masterman appears to be fading at last and a telegraph is sent to Joseph summoning him to London. Accompanied by his two greedy nephews Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore), Joseph takes the train but a horrible crash, a badly mangled body and Joseph’s propensity to wander around and get caught up spewing facts to complete strangers leaves the nephews certain that he’s dead. Now what do they do? If they can conceal Joseph’s death until after Masterman kicks off and then stage their uncle’s “death,” they can claim all that lovely money. But Masterman isn’t ready to hand in his notice quite yet plus Joseph has managed to make it to London leading to fast and furious hijinks as everyone tries to conceal everything just long enough to win the prize.
The – slightly bizarre – opening credits give a hint of the pace to follow. This isn’t a frantic screwball comedy but rather a slower, more stately black comedy that takes a little while to begin building up the pace to the humor. The plot has to be explained, the main characters introduced and the stage set before the macabre fun can kick in. There are misunderstandings, misidentified people, misidentified bodies, a hearse chase through London (these final chase scenes seem to have been so popular with 1960s directors), a final confrontation/explanation at a cemetery and of course the switched – wrong – boxes. And a piano.
Before the main action begins, there’s an amusing sequence which shows the deaths of some of the boys/men – now stop being shocked, this is a black comedy – and believe me, some of them could easily have competed in Monty Python’s “Upperclass Twit of the Year Award.” Even Queen Victoria acts a touch twitish while attempting to knight one of them. At various times throughout the film, amusing cue cards, like those from silent movies, will appear on screen. And be sure to read the order of the cast at the end.
The film is packed with some of the best talent in Britain. Richardson plays a man obsessed with trivia who successively bores anyone unfortunate to encounter him while Mills is his cranky, cantankerous brother who attempts to kill Joseph at least 7 different ways during the short scene of them together. I didn’t mention in the plot but Michael Caine is Masterman’s grandson Michael, who has been selling off all their possessions for years in order to keep a roof over their heads, while Nanette Newman plays Julia, the supposed niece of Joseph. Those two sweet, charming ninnies fall quickly in love-at-almost-first-sight complete with a hilarious scene of them set off into spasms of swooning slo-mo emotion by the mere sight of her ankle and his bare elbow. They were Victorians, remember? Their joy is complete when they discover that their children won’t be idiots, due to the fact that they’re not really related, and that they share being orphans, his parents were killed in a balloon ascension while her missionary parents were eaten by their Bible class.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are fabulous together as the two nephews who’ve slaved away at keeping Uncle Joseph well all these years and who, By God!, aren’t going to lose that money now. Cook’s caddish Morris is the true brains of the two while Moore’s randy John never met a chambermaid, or housekeeper, he didn’t like.
But the two actors I found I absolutely adored here are Wilfred Lawson as Peacock, the venerable and doddering butler of the Masterman Finsbury household and Peter Sellers as Dr. Pratt. For the entire film, you’re convinced that Peacock is only a few vertical degrees from falling over or just about to kick the bucket himself yet he doggedly persists in answering the door, announcing visitors, fetching the tea, packing crates of valuables to hock at Sotheby’s and whatever else the Finsburys need of him. It’s literally old family loyalty in action to the end. Both of Sellers’ scenes are played with Cook and you can almost see Cook fighting not to laugh at how funny Dr. Pratt’s lines are. Pay close attention as Sellers mumbles a touch to give Pratt the absent mindedness needed and watch for how he uses a thermometer and a kitten. Be assured though that none of the tens of moggies crowding his decrepit quarters are harmed in the making of this film.
I was amazed that in spite of all the switches, near misses, misunderstandings and skullduggery, the plot is easy to follow and I never once got lost trying to remember who’s stuffed into what. The Victorian settings and decor are suitably overcrowded and dark and there’s a nod to one of the manias of the era in the form of Morris’ egg collection. And of course the whole movie is a love letter to the Victorian fascination with death. The dialogue is subtle and the zingers are understated so listen carefully to catch them all. This is a quiet little gem that sneaks up on you and I’m glad I finally pulled it out from my “recorded off TCM” stack, dusted it off and gave it a spin.