Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Wrong Box (1966)

If you like comedy movies, you might well enjoy Jeff Cohen's mystery stories detailing the adventures of Elliott Freed, who runs a comedy-only theater in New Jersey. On his website, Jeff highlights a Movie of the Week each Wednesday, always a comedy of some sort. Recently, he mentioned The Wrong Box (1966). Since there were only about 2 months during 1966 when I was able easily to go to the movies (country life, followed by collegiate poverty), I somehow had missed this one, but when I heard that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were in it I had to see it. I've enjoyed their work ever since my sophomore social studies class went to New York to see Beyond the Fringe, the revue they created with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.

Netflix didn't have it! I had to do some online shopping and buy a used VHS tape -- $12.98 including postage, and I have an almost inflexible rule against buying DVDs and videos. But sometimes I break it, and I was reasonably happy to have done so this time. This was not the funniest movie I've ever seen (that honor still goes to another Cook/Moore vehicle, the original Bedazzled (1967)).
But it was plenty funny.

It's based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, which you can read here. But with no disrespect to the immortal RLS, the movie is better. Screenwriters Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, who had just done A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Gelbart would go on to write the TV series M.A.S.H., among other things), took some of the plot elements, some of the characters, and then gave them a much funnier twist. The story starts with two brothers (played by theatrical dynasts John Mills and Ralph Richardson) who are the last survivors of a schoolboy tontine. Richardson's wicked nephews (played by Cook and Moore) are very solicitous of him since they are itching to get their hands on the lolly. Meanwhile, Mills, his grandson, a hopelessly good and naive medical student (a very young Michael Caine) and their aged butler live in poverty, selling off the furniture to keep body and soul together. Caine is in love with his uncle's ward (Nanette Newman, a very lovely young woman now apparently best known in the UK for advertising dishwashing liquid) -- the brothers live next door to each other, which facilitates the farcical aspects of the comedy. A train wreck, a case of mistaken identity, and deliveries of "the wrong box" all combine for a lot of laughs. One of my favorite scenes was when Mills receives a visit from his long-estranged brother, Richardson, who believes him to be on his deathbed; Mills attempts to kill Richardson and much slapstick ensues. Peter Cook excelled at playing the plausible rogue, and Dudley Moore was a great foil for him; he wasn't a stupid man, but he could play one. Peter Sellers, whom I almost didn't recognize, had a part as a "venal physician" (one of the direct quotes from the original story).

The setting in London, circa 1900, is well-done with lots of details, and the production designers (I imagine) added a campy atmosphere by inserting Peter Max-style silent film titles such as "The Girl He Worships From Afar" and "The Wrong Box" every now and then.

Too much analysis isn't good for comedy, so you should take a look at this one yourself. It should be available in older video rental stores, public libraries, and the used video market; also I'm told that it appears on TCM with some frequency.


  1. I couldn't find the link to the Robert Louis Stevenson story.