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Half a Sixpence

Half a Sixpence
1968 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 145 min. / Street Date April 6, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Tommy Steele, Julia Foster, Cyril Ritchard, Penelope Horner, Elaine Taylor, Pamela Brown, James Villiers
Cinematography Geoffrey Unsworth
Production Designer Ted Haworth
Art Direction Peter Murton
Film Editors Bill Lewthwaite, Frank Santillo
Original Music David Heneker
Written by Dorothy Kingsley and Beverley Cross from a play by Beverley Cross from the book by H.G. Wells
Produced by John Dark, Charles H. Schneer, George Sidney
Directed by George Sidney

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Charles H. Schneer broke away from his long-running partnership with Ray Harryhausen in the middle sixties to produce some other films, and the one with the highest profile was this lavish adaptation of a hit Broadway musical. Star Tommy Steele repeats from the stage in this full Roadshow 70mm release, included here with its original intermission.

It is sometimes difficult to see what makes a musical work. Great tunes or sparkling personalities aren't always a guarantee of success. I keep asking for unseen titles because I'm curious to discover how different problems are solved as much as I am to find out what Tommy Steele (Finian's Rainbow, The Happiest Millionaire) was like. As with Fox's Star!, there isn't much of a movie in Half a Sixpence.


Draper Arthur Kipps (Tommy Steele) suffers in his no-exit job in Shalford's Emporium but finds a potential sweetheart when a Ann, a childhood friend (Julia Foster) starts spending her days off with him. Then music-hall artiste Harry Chitterlow (Cyril Richard) appears to tell Arthur that he's inherited a large estate, and the newly minted gentleman moves into a different class where he's captivated by Helen (Penelope Warner) and her high-toned family. But what about poor Ann?

Half a Sixpence is a well-produced but clumsy show from the tapering end of the musical genre. After The Sound of Music almost nothing but Oliver! was a hit, and this English film has neither a stellar cast nor hit songs that got play on the radio.

The original book was a statement about the class divide and was almost autobiographical for its author H.G. Wells, who but for chance might have never advanced past the station of draper's assistant (essentially, department store clerk). This film version of a successful stage musical may have been watered down or simplified but its plot is almost non-existent, and what's there is depressingly trite. Kipps finds out from a total stranger that he's inherited his grandfather's money. Without checking with the bank, Kipps quits his job, setting us up for an I Love Lucy count-your-chickens lesson that doesn't pay off. From then on his adventures hold little or no surprise.

With wealth comes instant loneliness, and awkward dealings with too-predictably snobby upperclass folk. Kipps is carried off by the charms of Helen (Penelope Horner), a lady intent on marrying him even though he clearly doesn't fit in with her stuffy brother (perpetually stuffy James Villiers) and insufferable mother (a waste of Pamela Brown of I Know Where I'm Going!). The characters have no depth beyond reactions to Kipps' reversals of fortune. Kipps himself is truly empty, for the random way he abandons Ann and worships Helen, and then changes his mind. Even Ann's emotional outbursts are timed to create unmotivated conflict, instead of being part of a coherent character.

There are some large-scale setpieces such as a rowing contest and a party in a huge country estate, all of which dwarf the character story. One of the shop-boys is a Communist and makes remarks from time to time, but nothing much comes from the fellows feeling betrayed by Kipps' rowing for the other side, or the patronizing rich folk. The huge dinner party ends when Kipps' grossly exaggerated lack of table manners ends in disaster - there's nothing coherent going on at all. It sounds as if Kipps has inherited a sizeable estate that includes a yearly stipend, but we see him planning a country estate of the kind that only generations of muli-millionaires could afford.

Not having witnessed Tommy Steele when he was reportedly a smash success on stage, my memory of the actor is as an over-excited guy with a huge grin. There were a number of squeaky-clean post-Beatle young English males around this time competing for attention as wholesome alternatives to the mainstream of pop music. Peter Noone of Herman' Hermits was shoehorned into an obnoxious boy next door and even Michael Crawford payed his dues in roles of this kind. Steele's considerable dancing talent is refreshing enough but we don't really warm up to him, especially not in this lightweight show.

Julia Foster (the sweet Gilda of Alfie) is instantly charming and loveable, and her meeting scene with Steele in a purple-lit park is the film's highlight. If only the script had allowed her character to grow into something more interesting.

The crazy actor Harry Chitterlow is played by Cyril Ritchard, famous as Captain Hook in the Mary Martin television Peter Pan. He also played the artist in the original Alfred Hitchcock Blackmail way back at the start of sound. But his function in the plot of Half a Sixpence is contrived and awkward, as if the movie eliminated banker characters and just gave their lines to this ham actor. When Chitterlow shows up at the end with a surprise windfall of cash, it's just ridiculous, lazy writing.

In two hours and 25 minutes (including intermission) Half a Sixpence has a dozen mostly forgettable songs and some good-to-okay dances. They're all surprisingly energetic and well-directed, especially after the weak experience of watching Star! Beyond his fixed expression, Tommy Steele has tons of energy and lots of style that make the okay choreography look better than it is. The camerawork and design in these numbers is always snappy and clever, and some are fairly engaging. But little grabs our attention because everything that happens is so generic. If we aren't interested in the characters or the story, anything short of Fred Astaire isn't going to make the musical numbers work. There are a few attempts at experimentation - color gels, blurred frames, a musical number composed only of still images - but they mostly fall flat.

Paramount's plain-wrap DVD of Half a Sixpence is a great-looking disc with a sparkling enhanced image. Several countryside locations in the opening look exactly like views in 1995's Rob Roy. The original 70mm prints had a full stereo track and this disc claims to be encoded in Dolby Surround. If this brightly colored Tommy Steele musical is already a nostalgic favorite, Paramount's disc will not disappoint.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Half a Sixpence rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 17, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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