Saturday, February 26, 2011

I'm All Right, Jack (1959) — For the benefit of Mr. Kite

Decades before America invented the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan), the Brits provided us with the Boulting Brothers, John and Roy. And one of their very best films gave us one of Peter Sellers' very best performances.

Back in the post on Hoffman, I mentioned that I didn't want that particular movie to be the one that capped my recent off-the-cuff Peter Sellers film blogorama. I said that I wanted to end on an up note with a title that, unlike Hoffman, I actually enjoy. To do that I reached back before any of those other films to 1959's I'm All Right, Jack.

Although largely forgotten today, especially in the U.S., it delivers Sellers' first great big-screen role, after his smaller parts in films such as the The Ladykillers. Here's the feature performance that made him a star, one that shows us an early indicator of his later masterstrokes in Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and Being There. And yes, it's a film I enjoy immensely.

So did quite a few other viewers back in the day. According to a fascinating historical backgrounder podcast transcribed at
The film opened in London in late August 1959 and was a huge success - in 17 weeks more than two million people flocked to see it in British cinemas. Apparently, when [Conservative Prime Minister] Harold Macmillan went to Balmoral in early September to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election, the Queen arranged a special projection of the film for them to watch in the evening....
Today we can appreciate I'm All Right, Jack as a landmark satire firmly tent-pegged into its time and place — Britain in the 1950s, when festering classism and industrial stagnation were so endemic in postwar England that movies attacking the resulting paralysis became something of a subgenre. This soot-black farce is the best of that breed, a witty yet acidic dagger thrown at both Labor and Management, two opposing factions each rotten with "fuck you, buddy" self-interest.

While there's no getting around the film's particular datedness (its musical scoring for one), here 52 years later there's quite a bit of renewed currency in this pointed little period piece. After all, there's still plenty of material to be found in spoofing a me-first society where everyone's out for his own advantage and sod the greater good. As we're exposed to more recent current events — Wisconsin governor Walker's tactics against that state's public sector unions, Wall Street's systemic assholery, the U.S. banking and mortgage and insurance industries, plus as many etceteras as you'd care to add — we can but nod and sigh and remember whatever it is they say about "the more things change."

That's a '58 Heinkel 153, by the way.
You can argue that I'm All Right, Jack leans more toward a union-bashing stance. It does draw more humor from the packs of boorish shirkers who consider playing cards among the shipping crates a full day's work. But that's too simple a read for the film's all-embracing irreverence. Everyone here is lousy with tactics and cynicism rooted in a sense of "All for one, as long as it's me" entitled exploitation.

The trade unionists are indolent toughs besotted by their militant leader's pat sloganeering to do as little work for as much pay and privileges as possible. Meanwhile, the industry bosses are an inbred, elitist gentlemen's club with no concerns toward production efficiency or the good of the commonwealth as long as their personal bank accounts are filled. But when the power players at the top try to sucker the workers below them, they end up tripping over their own greed and conniving.

Seen through a lens of modern-day Left-Right polemics, I'm All Right, Jack plays up each side's exaggerated caricatures of the other. The unionists receive the more cartoonish treatment by far, while the bosses' machinations come off more readily believable even as the oily bounders figuratively twirl their capitalist mustaches.

Both paranoid, do-nothing factions maintain a comfortable status quo until a clueless patsy mucks up the works by being, horrors!, productive and cost-effective.

I'm All Right, Jack presents Labor and Management not merely as the absurd extremes of a calcified industrial caste system. Rather, the two blocs are so different they might as well be two separate species of the genus homo held over from the Pleistocene. In the end what makes them put down their clubs and meet at the watering hole is something as fundamental to modern man as food and females were to our caveman forebears — that universal solvent: fat wads of cold, hard cash.

Earnest but clueless upper-class naif Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) has just graduated from Oxford. Like P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster from a generation earlier, Stanley was "brought up as a gentleman" and therefore hasn't had to work a day in his life. His understanding of the world outside the radius of the London gentry is as narrow as the stripes on his Oxford tie.

Yet unlike Bertie, Stanley's side of the family is broke (he lives with his wealthy Aunt Dolly, another Wodehousian trope played by Ealing veteran Margaret Rutherford), and he's determined to make a place for himself in the world. So he sets out to go "into business" as if doing so were as simple as stepping into the Drones Club.

Naturally he aims to start in a management position. But Stanley fails at his attempts to get in at a detergent factory ("You'd better go, Mr. Windrush; you are not the detergent type") and the Num Yum candy manufacturer (a robotic assembly line purgatory that reminds me of Chaplin's Modern Times, although Chaplin's character didn't vomit into a vat of sweets).

Things look up when Stanley's uncle, Bertram Tracepurcel (Dennis Price, Kind Hearts and Coronets), offers him a blue-collar job at his armaments factory, Missiles Ltd. Although Aunt Dolly tries to talk Stanley out of "throwing in his lot with the working classes," the eager twit leaps at the opportunity to earn his way up the working man's ladder.

But it's a set-up. This gormless innocent is the patsy in a lucrative Arab arms contract scheme manipulated by his uncle and another factory entrepreneur, Sidney de Vere Cox (dapper Richard Attenborough), to line their silken pockets. All they need is a workers' strike caused by giving a forklift to this suit-and-tie stooge. (The cause-and-effect chain behind the "high finance" ruse is a bit serpentine; the screenplay makes it all gleaming clockwork.)

The conspiracy works — too well.

Stanley upsets everyone's entrenched and delicate balance by being wantonly efficient. He proves, without trying to or even being aware that he's doing it, that a dopey unskilled employee with no experience can outperform the union workers by doubling or tripling his productivity in half the time.

So of course Stanley gets pummeled at the center of a clash between the personnel manager, Major Hitchcock (Terry-Thomas), and the union shop steward, Fred Kite (Sellers).

Pompous and sanctimonious, Kite is a Cockney Marxist martinet who speaks in the rote dialectics of a streetcorner pamphleteer ("We cannot accept the principle that incompetence justifies dismissal; that is victimization!") yet holds upmarket intelligentsia pretensions. ("Ah, Russia. All them corn fields and ballet in the evening.") 

One things lead to another until Stanley's presence spurs Kite to stage a company-wide strike, unknowingly playing into Tracepurcel and Cox's hands.

Seeing Stanley as a potential fellow traveler, Kite invites the young man to lodge in his home. There Stanley meets Kite's curvy daughter Cynthia (Liz Fraser), who, Kite says, also works at the factory, "spindle polishing." (The script treats us to a number of such wink wink, nudge nudge nuggets.)

Cynthia and her mum both take a shine to the well-mannered, "intellectual" gentleman. Cynthia in particular, who "just wants a bit of fun," becomes smitten with their oblivious boarder. One of my favorite moments tells us everything we need to know about Cynthia's predominant concerns:
[Tracepurcel is giving a motivational speech at a works canteen meeting]
Cynthia (chewing gum, bored expression): What's 'e on about, Stan?
Stanley (gung-ho): Commercial intercourse with foreigners.
[Her eyes light up and she chews faster]
Because Stanley is too dim to be corruptible by either his uncle's fraudulent colleagues or Kite's shiftless proles, he can't see himself as being on either one side or the other; he just wants to get back to work. So that's what he does, crossing the strike line.

Galvanized by the press, which tosses its own petrol to the fire, events go kablooey when Cox's factory workers go on strike in sympathy with the Missiles Ltd. workers, thereby kneecapping Cox and Tracepurcel's arms contract scheme. Other work stoppages spread until the whole nation grinds to a halt. Once Kite kicks Stanley out of his house for (as Kite sees it) collaborating with enemy Management, even Kite's wife (Irene Handl) and daughter pack up and move out in civil protest.

Stanley becomes a cause célèbre, an "example to the nation" of that stout-hearted English work ethic that vanished soon after the war. Mobs gather to support his seeming steadfastness and fortitude against the strike. Alongside picket signs held up by the Housewives League and the Empire Loyalists, buxom girls wear shirts with "Elvis" crossed out and "Stan" scrawled in its place. "Three cheers to Mr. Churchill and Stanley Windrush!" All the while, he just can't figure out what the fuss and bother and fan mail is all about.

Meanwhile, over bottles of port, Kite and Major Hitchcock find their common cause and collude to bring conditions back to their dysfunctional equilibrium, with Stanley as the fall guy.

Stanley finally arrives at his moment of clarity when, while waiting to go on a national TV current-events talk program, good old "Coxie" attempts to bribe him with a "cut" of the salvaged arms-deal windfall — on the condition that Stanley play ball and stay quiet about it.

While he's live on TV with Kite and the other perps, as the television cameras zoom in, Stanley finally understands that all along he has been lied to, manipulated, treated as a dupe, and had his good will abused by authority figures he trusted. So he decides that he's mad as hell and not taking it anymore. He exposes both sides' corruption and malfeasance, then tells them, essentially, to sod bloody well off. He rages on-air against—
"...all the phony patriotic claptrap of the employers, all the bilge I've heard talk about workers rights until my head's reeling with the stink of it all. Trouble is everybody's got so used to the smell they no longer notice it.... Everywhere you look it's 'Blow you, Jack, I'm all right.'"
Here in 2011, how many of us can't identify with him in this moment? That, for me, is the key to the movie's ongoing appeal. Suddenly I'm All Right, Jack reveals a third faction, one represented by Stanley: all the rest of us, anyone who has felt screwed over by society's more callous movers and shakers, its self-serving games-players. And you don't have to be an absolute cynic to sigh with recognition when you see that it's Stanley, the only certified innocent in the bunch, who ends up punished by the very judicial system established to protect the world's Stanleys from the world's Thracepurcels, Coxes, and Kites, all of whom walk away scot-free.

Within one of the most terrific British ensemble casts ever gathered before a lens, Sellers outshines them all as Kite.

The actors around him play their characters (marvelously) with broad and explicit strokes. Now watch Sellers: his pinched restraint, his bottled-up manner that strikes a subtler, more subdued tone and tempo that's such a brilliant contrast to those around him. In crafting his dour short-back-and-sides performance, he makes choices that sculpt the role of a petty proletarian dictator (complete with Hitler mustache) into a sympathetic family man whose tiny, tidy world unravels at the workplace and at home.

"Brother Kite" emerges so affectionately, so dimensionally from this lampoon peopled by types, Sellers won a British Academy Award for best actor, beating Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Peter Finch. He was now an international star. (The film also took, not surprisingly, the BAFTA for best screenplay.)

Sellers was 34 in 1959, though he makes Kite look older, more world-weary here than his characters in films that followed throughout the next decade.

Sellers was one of our great shapeshifters. We get a hint of that here in a brief pre-credits scene. While the throngs of London outside his chambers celebrate the end of World War II, Sellers' elderly "Sir John" is on stage just long enough to represent "what seemed to be an ordered and stable society" that will soon give way to the title song's "I couldn't care less" ethos. As Sir John rises with arthritic slowness from his easy chair and toddles toward the exit, the narrator gently intones: "There he goes, on his way ... out." We never see him again. (TCM clip.) Moments later, after the credits, the narrator tells us that now it's Stanley's forthcoming tale — that is, his unwitting immersion in institutional exploitation and disunity — that is "the story of a nation." That old Dunkirk spirit? Goodbye to all that, it seems.

Ian Carmichael (appointed an OBE in 2003) made a career out of playing the silly-ass Englishman type in Boulting comedies. It's only right that he later played Bertie Wooster, opposite Dennis Price's Jeeves, on television in the BBC's World of Wooster (1965–1967).

Miles Malleson, naked, is as usual pitch-perfect as Stanley's father, seen at the film's beginning and again at the end, in a framing sequence set at a nudist resort. The setting is not only an idyllic oasis utterly divorced from the rancor and anxieties of modern life, it also appears to have a 5-to-1 female-to-male ratio. ("She's not a natural blonde, of course," quips dear old dad about one of the friendly volleyball enthusiasts on the other side of the hedge.)

John Le Mesurier is memorable as the undercover efficiency expert Major Hitchcock hires to spy on his loafing workers. His facial tic alone tells us volumes about the toll his job has taken on the poor fellow.

I'm All Right, Jack is a sequel to the Boultings' 1956 army comedy, Private's Progress, with Carmichael, Dennis, Attenborough, Terry-Thomas, and Malleson reprising their roles from that film. I'm All Right, Jack stands on its own and self-contained, with the only noticeable reference to the previous film being the moment when Major Hitchcock at last remembers Stanley as the ass who caused him so much grief in their army days.

Because it's firmly embedded in its time and place and social milieu, modern non-U.K. viewers may be a bit disadvantaged when it comes to the period British slang ("What a shower!") or the depictions of 1950s welfare state politics and English class distinctions from attitudes to accents. Deeper time-capsule discomfiture may come from the repeated references to "the blacks" and "the coloreds" is contexts that make it clear there are even lower rungs on the social ladder.

But like The Man in the White Suit, which bites into similar themes, the film's teeth are still sharp, its humor — silly, droll, or vulgar — is ageless, and the way Sellers inhabits Kite is twelve kinds of magnificent.

Music: John Adams / Kronos Quartet, John's Book of Alleged Dances
Near at hand: The brochure for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's current season