Ealing Studios represented, for many years, the gold standard in British comedy film production. Films like The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, and The Ladykillers bolstered Alec Guinness as a star player, and Peter Sellers called the latter film "my first real movie." Though the supporting cast also includes Cecil Parker, Danny Green, and Herbert Lom, the black comedy classic arguably belongs to Katie Johnson as the prototypical sweet little old lady.
Johnson's Mrs. Wilberforce--a small, serene, deceptively benign busybody--presides over her lopsided house (askew since the blitz) by sheer force of will (hence her name). Like Tweety Bird in the Warner cartoons, Mrs. Wilberforce avoids all harm with almost no expenditure of effort; her adversaries are too foolish, too tragically flawed to hurt anyone but themselves. Guinness plays frightfully clever criminal mastermind Professor Marcus, a comic creation inspired by Alastair Sim. The sinister and insinuating Marcus ringleads a gang of robbers bent on a bank heist, with Mrs. Wilberforce the innocent dupe fronting their operation. With wispy hair, jutting ears, and oversized teeth, Guinness assays one of the last of his transfomative comic performances.
His comic successor, Peter Sellers, plays one of Marcus' goons, a fidgety, pudgy Cockney Teddy boy who, in image, best represents the modern (immoral) threat to Wilberforce's prim Victorian righteousness (Sellers fans should note he also voices Wilberforce's parrots). Parker's Claude hides behind the avuncular persona of Major Courtney, and Danny Green's One Round is the bigger, slower henchman who takes a shine to Wilberforce and has enough sense to know when he or she is being threatened. Herbert Lom plays the ever-glowering Louis, the most menacing of the thugs (Lom went on to play Clouseau's foil Inspector Dreyfus in seven Pink Panther films, most with Sellers).
Part of the joke in William Rose's script is how unequipped the purportedly heartless criminal bunch proves to be when dealing with the bothersome biddy. Their solicitous attempts to please her generate great comic friction: at one point, Johnson interrupts a tense moment between Lom and Guinness by chirping, "Well now, shall I be mother?" A more ghastly idea could hardly occur to her naughty "boys." The world is Wilberforce's oyster: by the final fadeout, even a street beggar asks the tottering Wilberforce, "Turned out nice, hasn't it?"
Of course, Marcus' fatal flaws are overconfidence and fragile sanity. Rose places the heist at the end of the first act, making it an early hurdle: the true challenges are absconding with the money and keeping honor among thieves. Naturally, Wilberforce complicates both. First, she gets wise to the heist, just before a bevy of biddies arrives for tea. The film's comic height finds the gang bound to the tea party, group-singing "Silver Threads Among the Gold" ("Darling, I am growing old,/Silver threads among the gold,/Shine upon my brow today,/Life is fading fast away"). As the song predicts, when both justifications and threats fail to mollify the old lady, the crooks must hasten her demise...if only someone has the stones to do it.
Mackendrick skillfully stages the film's third act, which finds the gang bounding around the lopsided house and its trainyard environs, acting out against Wilberforce and each other. There's a delicious comic cruelty reminiscent of O. Henry in The Ladykillers, and particularly in the macabre recurrent image of bodies ignominiously dispatched. From start to finish, Mackendrick's comic confection has the sprightly snap of its theme: Boccherini's Minuet from String Quintet in E-major, Op 11 No.5.
Anchor Bay's fine disc preserves the original aspect ratio of The Ladykillers in a fine color anamorphic transfer with a healthy soundtrack for a film that's roughly fifty years old. With no distracting digital artifacts, convincing color representation, and a clean film transfer, the disc is a winner.
A surprisingly well-preserved trailer accompanies the film, as well as an entertaining and informative on-screen bio of Guinness (the film is presented as a part of Anchor Bay's Alec Guinness Collection, and available in a box set or separately). Anchor Bay also saw fit to include an insert in the amaray case describing the history of Ealing Studios (in particular the era of Michael Balcon) and offering some background on the film itself.
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