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One look at the cast of 1965's You Must Be Joking! explains how it found its way onto this reviewer's to-see list -- the show is a treasure trove of British comic talent, with no names big enough to bill above the title yet plenty of likeable personalities to go around. Producer Charles H. Schneer had begun his Columbia Pictures baptism under Sam Katzman, the cheapskate of cheapskates among B-picture makers. When Schneer met Ray Harryhausen, they immediately embarked on a series of Sci-fi and fantasy thrillers utilizing Harryhausen's unique talents for combining stop-motion creatures with live action footage. Since each of those effects pictures required months of post-production, Schneer continued producing other shows for the Torch Lady, eventually graduating to a few bigger productions like Half a Sixpence at Paramount. What's the verdict? Schneer's producing reputation will remain linked to his long-term partnership with Harryhausen.
Alan Hackney's screenplay attempts to extend the tradition of British comedy by mixing the Service Farce with a small-scale version of the greedy chase of Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The B&W film is directed by Michael Winner, who at the time was considered a creative outsider with a strong commercial sense. You Must Be Joking! packs in at least a dozen name actors, almost all of whom had been working for Columbia pictures. Part of producer Schneer's assignment may have been to cast from the ranks of talent that still owed the studio a picture or two on their contracts.
Eccentric General Lockwood (Wilfrid Hyde-White) selects girl-crazy U.S. Air Force Lt. Tim Morton (Michael Callan) to be part of a morale-boosting experiment promoted by Major Foskett, a daffy Army psychiatrist (Terry-Thomas). Morton is dispatched on a wild scavenger hunt, competing against the jingoistic Scotsman Sgt. Major McGregor (Lionel Jeffries), the elitist conniver Captain Tabasco (Denholm Elliott), regular army supply Sgt. Mansfield (Lee Montague) and unhappy Sgt. Clegg (Bernard Cribbins). The players must extricate themselves from a hedgerow maze before "procuring" a strange collection of objects: a hood ornament from a Rolls-Royce; an electric rabbit used at the dog racing tracks, a set of ceramic flying ducks, 'Lady Frances MacDonough', an historical bell on display at an insurance company and an autograph and a lock of hair from Silvie Tarnet, a French teen singing sensation (Patricia Viterbo). If any of the competitors breaks the law or is caught, General Lockwood will disavow any knowledge of their mission.
The mad race gets underway immediately. Capt. Tabasco refuses to play by the rules, and signals a confederate to whisk him from the maze in a helicopter. Lt. Morton enlists the aid of his local girlfriend Annabelle Nash (Gabriella Licudi) in rounding up the needed objects, while the supply sergeant Mansfield purchases what he needs with Army requisitions signed with the forged name of General Lockwood. The indolent Captain Tabasco spends most of his time dining in a lush hotel suite while paying various helpers to finagle the scavenger items. The hapless Sgt. Clegg is a no-starter. Every time he digs his way to freedom, General Lockwood's soldiers catch him and throw him back into the maze. As the crazy chase comes to its conclusion, Lt. Morton meets the famous Silvie Tarnet, and love blooms. Collecting the final item in her chauffeured limousine, Morton and Silvie plan to desert his army and her demanding business managers, and run away together. But what about Annabelle?
You Must Be Joking! is no classic. It mostly shapes up as a case of a with-it independent director selling out to the system. Michael Winner's name was once placed in the same rank as Richard Lester and John Schlesinger. Only after the fact did critics find fault with his Oliver Reed pictures The Girl-Getters and The Jokers. On this show Winner mostly directs the traffic of several parallel plot lines, without distinction. Viewers in 1965 might have been amused by the sight of the Mona Lisa being defaced under the titles, or the scenes that begin with a frozen-frame image being assembled like a picture puzzle. With a script packed with cartoon characters, Winner has little to contribute beyond letting the comedic talent do their stuff, and staying out of the way.
When the comics are given interesting material, the movie picks up. Highlights include a look at a teen fandom factory, where middle-aged women sign autographs and prepare publicity handouts for fans of teen idols like Silvie Tarnet, a proto Yé Yé chanteuse of limited talent, but possessed of a terrific blonde bon-bon image. Looking for some porcelain ducks, Lt. Morton is being seduced by a wanton apartment dweller (Gwendolyn Watts) when her husband returns. The rowdy music hall / burlesque antics that ensue are typical for the show. Told that ceramic ducks are no longer manufactured, sneering Captain Tabasco orders up a sculptress to make a set right in the kitchen of his deluxe hotel suite.
We're happy to see these talented performers, even if some of them are far too good for the material. Lionel Jeffries was too good for 99% of the films he appeared in, and his efforts to make an interesting character of the pompous Scotsman (sorry David C.) go for naught. The sweet Annabelle Nash seduces MacGregor in order to swipe one of his scavenger prizes, and we just feel sorry for him. 1 Bernard Cribbins has a one-note gag to play, being recaptured every ten minutes or so. Any humor rattling around in this running gag soon dries up. Likewise, Wilfrid Hyde-White sticks with a standard silly twit characterization when he's surrounded by other silly twits, especially the far more impressively twit-endowed Terry-Thomas. That comedian for all seasons is consistently funny independent of anything that might be written in a screenplay. The great Denholm Elliott has such a fine old time cheating at the game with his bribes and end-runs, it's too bad that his character isn't given a memorable finish.
Salted throughout the show are cameos by noted character actors, all of whom may have been working off commitments owed to Columbia: James Robertson Justice, Tracy Reed, James Villiers, Graham Stark, Arthur Lowe, Peter Bull. All Peter Bull does is stick his face at the camera for one shot and pout, like a teapot about to boil over. Making a very quick appearance is Miles Malleson, an actor and writer on more important English films than anyone. You Must Be Joking! was his final movie.
Schneer really drops the ball when it comes to the Lt. Morton character. Actor Michael Callan had starred on Broadway in the original cast of West Side Story but despite special handling by Columbia never caught fire as a movie star. The movie gives Callan a chance to do some dancing when Morton crashes a TV show, and he's quite good. Apparently influenced by the new 'Swinging London', You Must Be Joking! makes Lt. Morton a thoughtless womanizer. He's ready to hop in the sack with one woman, while his faithful Annabelle, the worst driver in London, is out helping him win the competition. Morton then defects to the Gallic charms of Silvie Tarnet without so much as a bye-bye to Annabelle. Not only does this make Morton completely unlikeable, it goes against all evidence on screen: the devastatingly luscious Gabriella Licudi comes off as several times more desirable than the cute but personality-impaired French girl.
You Must Be Joking! was not an easy movie to see and can't be listed as a completely successful comedy. The viewers most likely to be pleased by it will be fans of the comics in the long cast list. So the picture is a bit like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World after all: there's no real story to appreciate, yet we can't help but smile at all those funny comedians.
The Sony Choice Collection DVD-R of You Must Be Joking! is yet another quality transfer from the Sony remastering department, which quietly restores all of its titles at their correct aspect ratios. The B&W lensing by the noted cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth is consistently pleasing, if not distinctively stylized.
The disc has no extras and is in fact one of the new breed of 'eternal players'. When you pop the disc in the show comes right on. Get called out of town for a couple of weeks, and when you return it'll still be going. The encoding is so tight that the closing Columbia logo is almost immediately followed by the opening Columbia logo, with the title theme by Laurie Johnson starting up afresh.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You Must Be Joking! rates:
1. The rugged MacGregor finds a long pole to promptly vault his way free of the Army's maze. Legend has it that Lionel Jeffries asked for a Scots oath to shout while vaulting, the equivalent of "Alley Oop!" A crewmember offered the Gaelic "Pogue Mahone!" (sic). Jeffries and Columbia found out only after the fact that Pogue Mahone is Irish for, "Kiss my arse!" Even if this story is apocryphal, it's too good not to repeat.
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T'was Ever Thus.