*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Films: 16 – The Ladykillers


16: THE LADYKILLERS: 1955. Director: Alexander Mackendrick. UK. Comedy crime caper. Alec Guinness. Herbert Lom. Peter Sellers. Katie Johnson. Cecil Parker. Danny Green. Jack Warner.
The last of the great Ealing Studios British post-war comedies. Directed by American/Scottish Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1993), it was his triumphant swansong after nine years with Ealing before he returned to the USA. The screenwriter was William Rose (1918-1987), another American, married to an Englishwoman, Tania Rose, who was his collaborator. He claimed that he dreamt the entire film, and simply then wrote it down! Whatever, he received a BAFTA award for the screenplay. The Producer was Michael Balcon. Music was by Tristan Cary. Screen-time was 91 minutes. Made and distributed by Ealing Studios/Rank Organisation.
Geoff Andrews, one-time editor to London’s Time Out magazine, summarises the film for Steve Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: “Alexander Mackendrick’s final Ealing film (and also his darkest), made before he went to Hollywood and gave us the memorably bilious Sweet Smell of Success (1957), is a deliciously black comedy of English manners. A gang of thieves, hiding out disguised as a music quintet in the genteel Edwardian home of innocent and very, very proper little old lady Katie Johnson, decide they must murder her after she finds out about their recent robbery and insists they return the loot. The trouble is, the honor among these particular thieves is skewed, and although they can’t quite bring themselves to kill off the sweet old thing, they have no such reservations with regard to one another. Essentially then, The Ladykillers is a farcical variation on the classic heist-gone-wrong theme, fascinating both for its deft characterizations (the gang comprise a devious mastermind, a bluff military type, an Italianate hit man, a spivish ‘Teddy boy’, and an intellectually challenged muscle man) and for its suggestion that postwar Britain, overly reverential towards an earlier age, was so divided as to be unable to move forward into the modern era. Otto Heller’s color camera work and Jim Morahan’s production design serve to reinforce the sense of a society trapped in the past.”
Once again, we have a top-notch script, combined with some brilliant comic character actors from the time, some already established, others early in their careers, while Katie Johnson was 76, her penultimate film.
Alec Guinness (1914-2000, born Alec Guinness de Cuffe, and already a Ealing Studio regular), played Professor Marcus, the gang mastermind, with a hairpiece and outsized teeth, channelling Alister Sim – who, it was reputed, had been originally considered for the role. Guinness was so good in the part that many people subsequently thought it was Alister Sim. He had previously featured in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob (both 1951). Later he appeared in several David Lean movies, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). He played Adolf Hitler in Hitler – The Last Ten Days (1979), and John Le Carre’s spy, George Smiley, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), and Smiley’s People (1982). He is probably now best remember as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). His theatre career was from 1934 to 1988, and filmography 1934 to 1996.
Veteran English actress Katie Johnson (1878-1957) played Mrs Louisa Wilberforce, whose age in the script was actually two years younger than Katie. Initially passed over as being “too frail” for the part, the next choice actress died prior to filming! Aware of her long acting career and her advanced age, Mackendrick asked that her name be prominent on posters, as this might be her last movie. As it was she made only one more after this. That said, her performance as the rather doddery, slightly befuddled, old lady was perfect – what a swansong! Of the gang members, character and comedy actor Cecil Parker (1897-1971) played Major Claude Courtney. He specialised in supporting roles, often military types, and his filmography was from 1933 to 1969. His last movie was Oh! What a Lovely War. Herbert Lom (1917-2012) played mafioso-type Louis Harvey. Born Herbert Charles Angelo Kucha?evoi? ze Schluderpecheru, a Czech of Jewish and possibly noble heritage, he moved to the UK in 1939, although his earliest film was 1937, back in his native homeland. In 1942 he played Napoleon in The Young Mr Pitt. In 1961 he played Captain Nemo in Mysterious Island; the title role in the 1962 version of The Phantom of the Opera; Van Helsing in Count Dracula (1970); and Nazi villain Dr Hartz in the remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1979). We shall meet him again in Gambit, 1966. His best known role is that of French police Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus in the ‘Pink Panther’ series, initially playing opposite to Peter Sellers – A Shot in the Dark (1964), Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), Trial of the Pink Panther (1982), Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), and Son of the Pink Panther (1993) – these last three were a money-making attempt to continue to cash in on Sellars after he had died. As Louis, he wore a black hat throughout, as his head was shaved whilst playing the stage version of The King and I – at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, a total of 946 performances from 1953. Peter Sellers (1925-1980, born Richard Henry Sellers), played Harry Robinson, the spiv ‘Teddy boy’. This was his first big break into movies and he was in awe of Alec Guinness. Both his parents were entertainers, but the biggest – perhaps ultimately rather baleful – influence was his mother Doreen, known as ‘Peg’ (1892-1967), who was Jewish. Despite his official birth names they called him Peter, after his deceased, elder brother, who was stillborn. That probably contributed to his own life-long identity crisis, where eventually he felt the fictional characters he played were more real than he was. As a long-time Goon Show devotee, I admire the collective genius of Sellers, Michael Bentine (1922-1996), Harry Secombe (1921-2001) and Spike Milligan (1918-2002 – another troubled genius). Of his later movies, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1963) and Being There (1979) are probably his most worthy cinematic masterpieces, followed by the early Blake Edwards’ ‘Pink Panther’ Inspector Clouseau movies. However, Seller’s personal life spiralled out of control, with self-doubt, wives, women, children, increasing ill-health and mental issues. Off-screen, he was a troubled, moody, often unstable, flawed genius. After several heart-attacks, came the fatal one. He left behind a mixed legacy – flashes of brilliance, sown with much bitterness. Danny Green (1903-1973) played the “slow-witted ex-boxer” ‘One Round’ Lawson, very much his repertoire of comic gangster types. His filmography was from 1929 to 1968. Jack Warner played the police Superintendent, another familiar role for him as a policeman. Born Horace John Waters (1895-1981), he started in music hall, moving on to movies and television. His filmography was from 1943 to 1978. In 1950 he played PC George Dixon in the UK movie The Blue Lamp. From 1958 to 1976 he reappraised this role (the scriptwriters having resurrected George Dixon from the dead) in the television police drama series Dixon of Dock Green, set supposedly in the London East End. As such he became “the most famous policeman in Britain”, the friendly “’Evening, all” face of the British bobby, until Z Cars came along with a much more gritty, darker version of policing. Even not wearing his ‘George Dixon’ helmet, he often played police officers – inspectors or detective-inspectors – in various movies. Here he is the police station superintendent, used to ‘batty’ Mrs Wilberforce’s frequent complaints and fantasies, assisted by his Station Sergeant, played by Philip Stanton (1908-1961), whose own filmography was from 1947 to 1956, and who eventually migrated to Australia. Comedian actor and performer Frankie Howerd (real name Francis Alick Howard, 1917-1992) had a bit-part as a barrow-boy.
The origins of Ealing Studios go back to 1902, and in 1929 it became the Associated Talking Pictures Ltd., under Basil Dean, the actual studio buildings being from 1931. In the 1930s and 40s it saw top names like Gracie Fields, George Formby, Stanley Holloway and Will Hay, to be followed by the post-war, often more social satirical, comedies that became the hallmark of Ealing – Whisky Galore!; Passport to Pimlico; Kind Hearts and Coronets (all 1949); The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit (both 1951); The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953); and the war drama The Cruel Sea (also 1953). In 1955 the studio site was acquired by the BBC and the Ealing name moved to the MGM British Studio at Borehamwood. In 1995 it was sold again and became the National Film and Television School, and in 2000 it was acquired by a consortium.
The website imdb.com lists the continuity errors in The Ladykillers – most of which would slip by the average viewer, myself included: there is some confusion over Mrs Wilberforce’s first name; words are sometimes out of synch; the police station sergeant’s name – MacDonald or Harris? – a night-time sky that changes back to twilight; doors that are open one minute, shut the next, or magically repaired; like the house chimney in the last reel; or the police office’s missing whistle and chain, unthinkable at that time. To me, the most obvious to anyone who knows the area of London around St. Pancras railway station, is the location of Mrs Wilberforce’s house. In the movie it is at the end of a cul-de-sac, facing towards St. Pancras and the Euston Road (NW1), which seems to relate to Argyle Street, except that is not a cul-de-sac. More important, the house in the movie backs onto the busy railway lines emerging from tunnels (so, actually running under the house), but no railway lines exists on this south side of St. Pancras, or its neighbour, King’s Cross – the lines all run north. In fact, the house was constructed (deliberately lopsided, with no right-angles) on a then-vacant plot at the west end of Frederica Street, over a mile to the north, running west from Caledonia Road, facing Pentonville Prison. This entire street was since been redeveloped for housing, and none of the old, original houses remain. The railway tunnel itself – Copenhagen Tunnel – is behind Frederica Street, and was the line to the King’s Cross goods yard. Apparently, from Vale Royal, running east from York Way (N7), it is (or was) still possible to see where the Professor and Louis had their final shoot-out, and the “decayed grandeur of the tunnel entrances”, although the potentially lethal, old-fashioned semaphore signals have long since been replaced. The location of the robbery itself was next to the gasometers on Goods Way, near Battle Bridge Road, just immediately north of St. Pancras station. Again this locality has been extensive redeveloped and only one gasometer remains.
The music played – supposedly by the Professor’s quintet – was Luigi Boccherini’s String Quintet in E. Op.13, No. 5.
In 2004, and not for the last or only time with our collection of favourite, classic movies, the Americans – in the person of directors Joel and Ethan Coen – decided to do a re-make, while at the same time relocating the story to the state of Mississippi! Not even having the talented, and very likeable, Tom Hanks as the gang leader – now re-named (as everything was) Goldthwaite Higginson Derr, Ph.D., a “southern dandy” – could make me ever want to watch this piece of cinematic sacrilege. Although it made a profit – a budget of $35million (which could have gone on making an original movie instead), with a box office take of $76.7million – I hope most of that was in the USA, where the audiences didn’t know any better. The critics panned it – “Coen’s weakest effort”, “negatively compared to the UK classic”. Quite right. Hang your head in shame, Tom. The original featured some great, memorable names in the acting community. This totally unnecessary rip-off had no one else. Hopefully it has since sunk without trace. You take a brilliant, British 1950s comedy classic set in London, and move it to Mississippi? Why?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.