Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Carol Reed is a great filmmaker (please, somebody revive Outcast of the Islands!) and A Kid for Two Farthings fits nicely into his works, alongside another study of the weird mythologies of childhood in The Fallen Idol. But after seeing some other movies by the
writer Wolf Mankowitz, we know to whom the show really belongs. A tale of life in a tawdry Fashion Street open market has a lot in common with the London street life tale of Expresso Bongo. An ensemble piece, it divides its time between diverse but converging personal dreams of the overworked, ambitious residents. The whimsical tale centers on young Joe, a boy who believes in magic.
In the hurly-burly wholesale-retail life of Fashion Street, everyone has a dream to relieve their sadness. Presser Kandinsky (David Kossoff) wants a real steam pressing machine. His assistant Sam (Joe Robinson) is a body builder who wants to be a famous muscleman. His fiancée of four years Sonia (Diana Dors) wants a real wedding. And Joanna (Celia Johnson), who works with Kandinsky, wants to be reunited with her husband in Africa. Kandinsky has coaxed Joanna's young son Joe (Johnathan Ashmore) into a fanciful belief in magic, and the boy searches for a Unicorn that can grant eveyone's wishes. All seems hopeless, until Joe does find a Unicorn - a sickly runt of a goat, with just one twisted horn in the middle of its forehead.
A Kid for Two Farthings is a loud and brassy evocation of life on a crowded garment district street where entrepreneurs rub shoulders with grocers hawking vegetables, poultry salesmen and charlatans like Ice Berg (good old Sidney James), a hawker of fake rings. Beneath the music and gaiety the overall situation for most is sadness and desperation. Little Joe, a tyke with an open heart and a naive mind, bounces around the stalls and rough customers like a pinball. We're acutely aware of Kandinsky's poverty and his habit of spinning tales to brighten the gloom; he fails to
cheer Joanna but has worked little Joe into a strange state of gullibility. With her husband off in South Africa, Joanna's marriage may be over, but we spend a lot of time with Sam and Sonia, a hopeful pair of lovers who have to visit bedroom sets in stores to dream about the marriage they can't afford.
The main menace in the story comes from Sam's decision to pro wrestle to earn enough to get married. He's to fight the intimidating giant Python Macklin (Primo Carnera), and could easily get his looks spoiled, which would wreck his promising career as a performing muscleman.
In the huge ensemble cast jammed into a few hundred square feet of stalls and shops, are at least a dozen Brit favorites. Brenda de Banzie is a worldly store owner advising Sonia. A very thin Lou Jacobi is the enthusiastic wrestling promoter. Alfie Bass (The Fearless Vampire Killers) is one of the grocers, and Danny Green (The Ladykillers) a dim wrestler. Various Hammer faces like Eddie Byrne and Sam Kydd man the stalls.
Young Johnathan Ashcroft is very much like the boy in The Fallen Idol, a questing, keen mind that has not yet the ability to keep a firm grip on reality. So obsessed is he with his pet 'Unicorn' that, when sudden progress on everyone's dreams comes to pass, he believes the magic is working. 1
Fashion Lane is predominantly a Jewish business enclave, and David Kossoff's Kandinsky seems to embody a statement about the plight of surviving European Jews only ten years after WW2. His mythologizing about a race of Unicorns with magic powers that were destroyed everywhere but may still exist in some far-off country, would seem to represent the holocaust. Joe's animal pets keep dying off and he keeps a graveyard for them behind the shop. Little Joe's unflagging optimism has a desperation about it that would seem to be a struggle against the despair all around. (spoiler) The film has a haunting last image, of Kandinsky carrying a tiny body to the graveyard, passing in the opposite direction a Torah-reading street Rabbi that we've seen a dozen times studying books in the street.
With a cacophonous soundtrack that overlaps dialogue and layers music tracks (there's a couple of charming snippets of a 'A Kid for Two Farthings' song in there), Wolf Mankowitz builds a dense web of alliances among his characters. Vera Day plays a girl that tries to trip up Sonia and edge herself in with the attractive Sam. The Python is a creep who thinks he can attract Sonia by threatening to throttle the weak little runt of a goat.
Carol Reed continued on to the similarly dense circus atmosphere of Trapeze while Mankowitz dreamed up his frenetic tale of pop promotion in the coffee bars in Expresso Bongo and gave The Day the Earth Caught Fire its human edge. This picture has its strange angles, especially the casting of a muscle man opposite the plastic vavoom girl Diana Dors, Britain's answer to Marilyn Monroe. They make a weird pair, a Barbie and He-Man Adam and Eve. But the overall tone is of an odd tenderness amid the noise and struggle of the markets. A Kid for Two Farthings is almost a British classic.
Home Vision's great disc of A Kid for Two Farthings captures its soft primary hues and gray alleys in brilliant color. There's a touch of unsteadiness in the titles (shrunken elements?), and a scratch here and there, but the picture's mostly pristine. Wilfrid Shingleton's designs look great, as when interior sets are revealed to have fake model trains working in the background.
The audio mix is a real basket of noises, but I got most of the key dialogue, so the DVD reproduction must be pretty good. There aren't any real extras, but Neil Rattigan's liner notes are surprisingly insightful. The packaging and artwork are up to HVe's high standards.
This title snuck up on Savant and was an extremely welcome arrival. Here's hoping that Home Vision keeps up the flow of great & neglected quality pictures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Kid for Two Farthings rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2003
1. Little Joes' plaintive voice is so consistent and bright, that I suspect he was dubbed throughout by one of those talented Englishwomen that specialize in children in films. I guess I'm thinking of little Martin Stephens in The Innocents and Village of the Damned when I think of excellent child dubbing.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson