Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
You know how some of the wild and risqué sex farces of the late '60s- early '70s can now seem embarrassingly tame and lame? Don't worry about it. If you thought What's New, Pussycat? or The Night They Raided Minsky's to be a little strained, have no fear... they're masterpieces compared to the expensive-looking, well cast and thoroughly inspired The Best House in London. Two things make it a worthy curiosity. The first is the same reason we randy 17 year-olds took off to see it in 1969 -- it was "X"-rated, and we wanted to find out exactly what that might consist of. The second reason will only make sense to film fans looking for odd appearances by favorite actors. We all know that the Brit film industry at that time was self-destructing even more dramatically than our own. A movie like Best House came along, offering a couple of days of good work, and even name actors appear to line up to audition.
The Best House in London is a reasonably lavish production. Designed by the great Wilfred Shingleton, its overall color schemes are on the gaudy side, but perhaps appropriate for a big campy comedy about a bordello. The key acting talent involved is more than capable of putting across fifty good jokes, and if they're corny or dirty, all the better. Writer Denis Norden does little more than keep the kettle boiling. The target product seems to be a Victorian - period sex farce, with a lot of political and literary in-jokes in between smirking "woo hoo" lightweight smut humor. Has anyone ever made a successful movie with jokes on the level of a low-grade men's humor magazine?
Welcome to London in the second half of the 19th century. Proto-suffragette Josephine Pacefoot (Joanna Pettet) is looking for sponsors to fund her League of Social Purity, a campaign to take women off the streets and train them for respectable work. When literally on her soapbox, Josephine is heckled and patronized by potential gentlemen patrons -- England is presented as a hothouse of infantile sexual repression. Parallel storylines involve star David Hemmings in a dual role. His Walter Leybourne is a knave trying to get his name back in the will of his wealthy father Sir Francis (George Sanders), who survived The Charge of the Light Brigade by charging in the opposite direction. Walter gets his father's oversexed paramour Babette (Dany Robin of Hitchcock's Topaz) to go in with him on a scheme to turn a fancy mansion into an exclusive bordello for London's richest patrons. Together they recruit Josephine's streetwalkers and anybody else they can find... they even buy a woman's daughter. Meanwhile, the 'other' David Hemmings, Benjamin Oakes, is in on some scheme of his own, which partly involves a giant zeppelin being constructed by the eccentric Italian genius Count Pandolfo (Warren Mitchell). More intrigues involve the Leybourne inheritance, which brings the Chinese trade attaché (Wolfe Morris) into the picture. He maintains a torture dungeon, for special negotiation problems.
This not particularly witty movie is split between quaint spoof humor, as was done in The Wrong Box, and sex jokes that are mostly a bore. The actors can't do much with most of the jokes. Hemmings, trying to get an idea of how badly treated were Josephine's street women, asks them if they were raped. Not a one, they readily answer. Big laugh! Some of this is in the writing, but what was needed is a director with a wicked and, well, creatively naughty sense of humor. The women parade and smile, and everybody's talking about sex. Some are jaded seducers (Dany Robin) and a whole platoon of streetwalkers offer silly double-entendre sex come-ons. One featured dish, Flora (Carol Friday) does the bit of running around trying but failing to lose her virginity. I mean, The Benny Hill Show's silly-ass gags are more exciting -- Benny always appears to be having a great time being a pervert.
Some of the humor stems from the 'audacious' depiction of historical figures, the big joke being that (yawn) government ministers and even some Royals are invited to the big opening night for the film's lavish bordello. The Queen's husband Prince Albert, with his foreign accent, is given some respect -- we just hear his voice through a door. There are also cameo appearances by Charles Dickens (Arnold Diamond), Sherlock Holmes (Peter Jeffrey of If.... & Dr. Watson (Thorley Waters), Dr. Livingston (Neal Arden), and Elizabeth Barrett before the 'Browning' was added (Suzanne Hunt). The references aren't all that witty. We're also told that some of the dialogue plays word games with famous authors, but those will have to be pointed out to me.
A certain stratum of movie fans will want to see The Best House in London just for George Sanders, who plays his scenes in fine spirit considering how bored he claimed to be. None of the humor could be described as even slightly disturbing -- until we get to a scene where Sir Francis visits a charity school for little girls, run by Martita Hunt (in her last movie role). The girls entertain by singing. George Sanders suddenly shows rapt interest in the entertainment. Then, a tiny little cherub of a girl recites a four-line poem about "my pussy". When she gets to the line, "because it is so very small", the screen cuts to a close-up of George Sanders, his lips trembling as if aroused. It's a genuine child porn joke. The audience in 1969 gave this joke the film's biggest laugh - but I'll bet now the reaction would be gasps of shock. 1
Sanders' other big scene shows him at dinner in India, ignoring a platoon of Indian rebels come to wipe him out. Refusing to show fear, Sir Francis stands up, holds a Union Jack before him, and dares the Indian blighters to shoot! We can predict the result. Sharing the scene with Sanders but speaking no lines is none other than John Cleese, a couple of years before the debut of Monty Python's Flying Circus. All Cleese gets to do is a silent nervous bit as bullets shatter glassware around him.
The Best House in London is not well directed, even though it has a fast pace and stays busy. Very little is done with David Hemmings' dual role. Hemmings and his primary co-star Joanna Pettet certainly look game for whatever hanky-panky the director may demand. They and Sanders are the main performers that escape with untarnished reputations. Ms. Pettet had brought life and sparkle to similar sexy spoofery in the earlier Casino Royale, a Bond spoof that seems far more sophisticated after Best House. As is oddly the norm with lowbrow Brit comedies of the time, anything really sexy or erotic is out of the question. It's all Music Hall humor, but with all the genuine dirty Brit wit scrubbed away. The director seems intimidated when directing scenes with nudity. Until the finish there's just an errant flash of a breast here or there. The big premiere of the House cues a few more leering actors and (sometimes) semi-nude women on screen, with minimal contact thank you very much.
The costumes show ample cleavage, etc., often accompanied by ragged zoom-ins, the old 'lets see the naughty parts' game. For a while, the stupid zooms make us think that Jésus Franco has been hired as a special consultant. The director's most shameful bit gives us a prostitute wearing a skirt with a big heart-shaped cutout right over her bare bottom. A medium shot is intercut with a close-up of a delighted customer. Then we cut back to another customer bending over to look at the titillating sight. He does a take at the camera, as if to say, "look what I see!" Then the director ZOOMS into the bare bottom. Really classy, that.
The infantile peep-show continues as Hemmings and others pop in and out of 'themed' assignation rooms, revealing various attendant gags, like a strip poker session that we poke in on two or three times. There's also a scene with men betting on a pair of mud wrestlers. I'm afraid that The Best House in London doesn't flatter the erotic imagination of the British male. The nudity is as uninspired as the girlie imagery that Hammer Films would soon add to its horror output. They would never hire an out-and-out nudie film director like Russ Meyer. Frankly, Meyer would have known how to make a silly movie like this both sexy and funny, without adding anything particularly outrageous.
The camerawork is a little uneven but the special effects include some ambitious matte paintings. The giant zeppelin's only function is to become a flying brothel, for a curtain joke. It's no marvel in the effects department, but we are given some handsome shots of it flying around the Eiffel Tower, etc.
The most fun to be derived from The Best House in London is playing the actor-spotting game. Sexy Margaret Nolan was "Dink" in the 007 film Goldfinger. Martita Hunt, Jan Holden, Charles Lloyd Pack, Peter Jeffrey, Thorley Walters, Milton Reid and probably more are familiar faces from Hammer films. Ferdy Mayne is among the hypocritical authority figures; I think he ends up in the Bo Peep themed assignation room. Fave Hammer femme fatale Veronica Carlson has a couple of good bits and even (dubbed) dialogue. But sorry, the few bits of nudity are performed by selected 'body' models.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Best House in London is an okay transfer of this, uh, unique comedy, with good color (lots of purple carpets in the Best House) but just satisfactory in overall appearance. Once scene has a patch of rough, distorted dialogue, but it only stays that way for thirty seconds or so. The rest of the soundtrack gives us a good listen at Mischa Spoilansky's 'merry romp' music score.
The original trailer included is pretty sad ... it's shoves together all the chase action, peppered with hopeless ad lines like, "They don't know whether they're coming, or going!" Like much of the movie, the humor belongs in a bad American soft-core sex farce... where it might actually be funnier. Anyway, the curious will want to see The Best House in London for the cast, and perhaps the one or two shocking moments mentioned above.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Best House in London DVD-R rates:
Movie: Fair +
Sound: Good -
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 19, 2015
1. Most "X"-rated movies from 1969-1971 were later re-rated "R" as the brouhaha cooled down, like Midnight Cowboy. With the instant obscurity earned by The Best House in London, I can easily see nobody bothering to re-submit the movie for a new rating. But if they had, I'll bet the 'my pussy' bit would have been cut. It's rather sporting of the WAC not to drop it.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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