Friday, April 10, 2015

Practical Jokes from Beyond the Grave

Leaving a will may be important for many reasons for many different people but perhaps for no-one is it more important than the infamous prankster. When Henry Russell (Hugh Griffith) dies at the beginning of 1951's Laughter In Paradise he happily leaves his family in chaos, his will instructing the talented cast of this ensemble film to do dangerous and embarrassing things for a shot at fifty thousand pounds. At times dully moral, this is mostly a delightful comedy.

The would-be Russell inheritors are Agnes (Fay Compton), Herbert (George Cole), Simon (Guy Middleton), and, my favourite, Deniston (Alastair Sim). For years he's hidden the fact that he's made a living off vulgar pulp novels and hopes to live off the fifty thousand and publish only respectable novels under his own name from now on. The trouble is, to get it Henry's will requires him to commit a crime that puts him in prison for no less than twenty eight days.

Obviously obsessed with his reputation, Deniston finds this impossible to explain to his fiancée, Elizabeth (Joyce Grenfell), the respectable daughter of a magistrate. I mean, just look at her.

Grenfell is becoming of my favourites of British comedy films, she pulls of the unselfconscious gawkishness so well. As her suitor this time, Sim has his usual tentative and sort of sedately vexed hopelessness. He finds being a criminal difficult not just for the embarrassment but also because he fails to be convincing at shoplifting and unable to commit to the act when a clerk tells him the price of what he's picked up.

Meanwhile, George Cole also has to commit a crime--the timid bank clerk is tasked with holding up his boss with a toy gun. Cole is wonderfully awkward but this plot his sadly given very little screen time, the movie too much favouring Agnes' story where the woman who's a terror to her serving staff is required to spend no less than twenty eight days working as a housemaid. It's a funny enough premise, especially in the beginning when, on receiving a telegram notifying her of Henry's death, the first thing she does is to scold her maid for not dusting her brother's portrait.

Unfortunately, the story quickly becomes a humourless, mechanical comeuppance as she finds herself put to hard work by her cranky, bedridden employer (John Laurie).

Guy Middleton's story is pretty funny--the incorrigible womaniser is forced to marry the first woman he speaks to. It's a shame he doesn't keep his word because the first woman he talks to is a cigarette girl played by Audrey Hepburn in her first credited role.

The whole movie's available on YouTube:

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