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DVD SAVANT

The Mouse That Roared


The Mouse That Roared
Columbia TriStar
1959 / color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 83 min. / Street Date July 22, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg, Bill Edwards, William Hartnell, David Kossoff, Leo McKern
Cinematography John Wilcox
Art Direction Geoffrey Drake
Film Editor Raymond Poulton
Original Music Edwin T. Astley
Written by Roger MacDougall, Stanley Mann from a novel by Leonard Wibberley
Produced by Carl Foreman, Jon Penington, Walter Shenson
Directed by Jack Arnold

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An adolescent farce that gently satirized U.S. foreign aid, Leonard Wibberley's little book The Mouse that Roared was taken as great reading material for grade-school kids - it was clever, faux-topical, and totally harmless: the definition of Whimsical.

The 1959 movie version still has its cute moments and retains an overall positive reputation, but is neither a classic nor really very good. Star Peter Sellers plays three roles Alec Guinness-style, but no longer seems the comedy sensation of the age. Jean Seberg is woefully miscast, and the whole movie has an unforgivable cheapness about it. Fave Universal monster director Jack Arnold has a knack for economy, but does little to heighten the comedy - as a result, the film plods along, always convinced it's funnier than it really is.

Synopsis:

The tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick, smaller than Central Park, suffers a crisis when a California winery puts out an imitation of its only export. Prime Minister Mountjoy (Peter Sellers) gets an okay from the Duchess Gloriana XII (Peter Sellers) to put a wild scheme into play: Fenwick's military head (and gardener) Tully Bascomb (Peter Sellers) will lead Fenwick's army (a platoon of longbow archers) on an invasion of the United States. When they fail, Fenwick will receive the consolation prize to which every defeated foe of the US is entitled: oodles of glorious foreign aid. Tully gets his men to Manhattan, but because the entire population is underground conducting an A-Bomb drill, he can't find anyone to surrender to. But he does find Professor Kokintz (David Kossoff) and his daughter Helen (Jean Seberg), and captures the working prototype of the Professor's incredibly destructive weapon, the Q-Bomb. Instead of the quick surrender they wanted, Grand Fenwick has instantly become the most important nation on Earth.

It made great sense to turn The Mouse that Roared into a Peter Sellers vehicle, as its light political satire resembles the classic Alec Guinness comedies that Sellers' vehicles sometimes emulated. His own rather flat spoof Carlton-Browne of the F.O. concerns relations between Great Britain and a similar tiny country, that's literally been misplaced in the consular files.

The main drawback is the dated central whimsy of Wibberly's source book, that the United States of America (in the 1950s or now) is a bountiful, bottomless pit of foreign aid to needy little countries around the globe. Big hearted, do-gooder American generosity is a given here. As this was the general image of American foreign aid at the time, the attitude was understandable - but I've never heard of The Mouse that Roared being taken to task for it.

'Dated', is too kind a word for the film, which makes Wibberley's little jokes even more literal. The U.S. is represented by some well-intentioned but harried diplomats who solve problems by throwing huge sums of money at them. They ignore Grand Fenwick's formal declaration of war as a joke, but when the bomb disappears, all attention goes to the little country. The American diplomat in charge dismisses the idea of invading Grand Fenwick (which would only take a half-hour or so), because 'The United States never invades tiny, defenseless countries.'  1

All of this was of course total Hooey. The 'freedom-loving' PR in the 'fifties was so pervasive, it's certainly not Leonard Wibberley's fault that at least 50% of The Mouse that Roared now has a rather sour ring to it. The other half of his satire, the nuclear threat part, is handled fairly well. The absurdity of the Q-Bomb (which destroys everything in a thousand-mile radius) is cleverly imagined: it's basically a metal football (how American) that constantly threatens to blow up, often without provocation. It also makes a variety of amusing noises in imitation of the Guinness satire The Man in the White Suit. Although the Q-Bomb becomes a source for some silly slapstick comedy, it provides some definite Doctor Strangelove-like black humor. Kubrick's film, if you recall, was once intended to end with a pie fight. Roared has one excellent Goonish/Pythonish gag, when a tense scene with the Q-Bomb suddenly cuts to a nuclear explosion. A narrator pipes up to tell us that it's just a gag, and then the scene continues without further delay. Other broad jokes, mostly about stupid soldiers and N.Y. policemen, seem forced and witless.  2

Producer Carl Foreman was a notable Blacklistee who went on to great things in the UK, sometimes having to forego screen credit. The fact that he should have produced a movie with such a sweetheart view of U.S. foreign policy shows us that not all Blacklist victims were as politically motivated as some liberal critics want us to think, or, more likely, that in the late 50s, the benign image of the U.S. seen in The Mouse that Roared was shared by almost everyone.

If The Mouse that Roared were funnier, or less cheap, it might not seem as dated now. Grand Fenwick is one run-down castle set, cheaply decorated with bushes. The entire trip to New York seems to happen in front of a process screen. The lighting is flat, and the film's design sense is a big Zero.

Sellers' impersonations are reasonable, but not inspired. The blocking necessary to keep his 3 personae apart results in lots of awkward shots that don't cut well. Director Jack Arnold directs very flatly. There's no emphasis, and no finesse to the comedy bits that don't involve the bomb. With no character to play, Jean Seberg merely provides exposition for the professor and gets dragged around a lot. It's all done on the scale of a TV variety show skit. Grand Fenwick had some charm on the written page, but here is just the butt of a joke - its young females are put forward as a peace offering to the occupying forces who never come.

This was Peter Sellers' breakthrough role, although his career really didn't take off until the one-two punch of Lolita and The Pink Panther two years later. He still looks his slightly chubby 50s self, pre slim-down. He's adequate but never shines, as he did in some of his earlier b&w English vehicles, the ones that got only limited release in the states.

If Jean Seberg had come along ten years later, she might have had a glorious career, but here she plays a sub-Gidget role in the same year she wowed 'em in Godard's Breathless. With that success failing to overcome her Otto Preminger flops, hers was a career that really never was - her later comeback attempt in Airport and Paint Your Wagon is nothing less than tragic.

It's more fun, frankly, watching Leo McKern and David Kossoff's comedy support turns - their roles are easier to make work. Unlike the standard English Ealing comedies, many of the bits are sloppy and unconvincing - the maidens at the castle look like a roundup of producer's girlfriends, and the various New Yorkers, again, come off badly, with dumb lines to speak as they Twist the Bomb Alert away in the subway tubes (Englanders seem to think New Yorkers could be persuaded to use Subways as bomb shelters, like their cleaner London Underground).

(spoiler) The finale has a nice twist, with a dud Q-Bomb safe in Grand Fenwick, held hostage to ensure that the big Nuclear bullies mind their manners. Today, surely, that would put Grand Fenwick at the dead center of the Axis of Evil. The Mouse that Roared has become dated in a truly fascinating way.


Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Mouse that Roared virtually revives the movie as a watchable entity. It was previously seen only in bad 16mm television prints, that were grainy and badly colored. The enhanced widescreen framing is essential to matte off the picture so that stock shots and process work function properly - it was much more artificial-looking before. Now, some of the scenes in and around the Duchy are actually attractive.

The only extra is a hyped trailer that offers The Mouse that Roared as the best comedy of all time. It worked in 1959, as we kids certainly thought it was fall-down funny in all departments. The trailer's 'wild' sense of humor extends to rave reviews, written by the producer and the mouse, ha ha.

The opening Columbia logo on this film is one of the strangest gag logos on record. The torch lady (with an electric cord hanging from the torch) raises her skirt and runs off when frightened by a mouse. Very bizarre.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Mouse That Roared rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 4, 2003


Footnotes:

1. The inclusion of this line really smacks of somebody using influence to ensure that viewers wouldn't get the the idea that the U.S. stands anywhere but in the total right, foreign policy-wise. It reminds of the offensive references in James Bond films, pointedly absolving 'free world' powers of the crimes it attributes to its terrorists and renegade political criminals.
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2. The sad thing is, political satire for the mass media was pretty terrible in 1959, when the L'il Abner view of power-mad generals and senators had little to do with reality. When Jerry Lewis turned Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet into a movie, I'm told the play's political satire was reduced to a Three Stooges level of sophistication.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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