Friday, March 6, 2009

Lock Up Your Daughters (1969)

For those who ask, why aren’t there more Restoration Comedies in the movies, have I got a small gem for you. Released in 1969, Lock Up Your Daughters is an oddball combination of the latest (then) in cinematic gimmickry combined with ripe period dialogue and a fidelity to the bedlam and bombast of the period that borders on the obsessive.

Like a Restoration Comedy version of On the Town, this is the story of three sailors on shore leave, having just returned to London from ten months at sea and in the West Indies. Lusty (Jim Dale, the once and future narrator of the Harry Potter audio books) is unable to see his prostitute lover, Nell (Georgia Brown, the original Nancy in the musical, Oliver!), who is busy seducing Lord Foppington (Christopher Plummer). While those two are otherwise engaged, Lusty impersonates Foppington so he can wed and bed the lord’s virginal fiancée Hoyden (Vanessa Howard), who comes to the marriage with a two thousand pound dowry. Shaftoe (Tom Bell, Helen Mirren’s departmental nemesis in the first Prime Suspect) longs to be married to Hilaret (Susannah York), over the objections of her father, Gossip (Roy Dotrice before he went on to lead the underground denizens of Manhattan in Beauty and the Beast). A third sailor, Ramble (Ian Bannen, master of the cricket pitch known as the googly in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory), pines for his drowned wife, Cloris, but drowns his sorrows by trying to seduce Magistrate Squeezum’s wife (Glynis Johns, with a slight borrowing of Joan Greenwood’s insouciant purr). All three men end up in Magistrate’s Squeezum’s court, accused of rape. It all ends happily, though, with Shaftoe and Hilaret wed, Ramble reunited with his supposedly dead wife (who turns out to be Hilaret’s maid), and Lusty married to his virgin bride (and learning in the bargain that he and Hilaret are long lost brother and sister).

Lock Up Your Daughters has an unusual provenance. It is a non-musical adaptation of the West End musical, with music by Laurie Johnson (the sprightly theme to The Avengers) and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off as well as the Goldfinger theme by John Barry), which, in turn, is based on a play by Henry Fielding (author, of course, of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews). The only real singing in the film comes from a men’s chorus belting out some kind of faux sea chantey on the soundtrack.

The movie is directed by Peter Coe, a theatre director making his film debut, and it’s obvious that he studied Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) and the collected works of Richard Lester, not to mention Hogarth’s the Seven Deadly Sins and A Rake’s Progress, before even gazing through his viewfinder. The movie is steeped in early 18th century atmosphere. It was shot on location in the Republic of Ireland, with the town of Kilkenny doubling for period London. The streets of this London are covered with mud, dung and straw. Each frame of film is crammed with acrobats, begging children, hanging corpses, emptied chamber pots, milling crowds, marching soldiers, drunken carousers, fairground rides, pilloried prisoners, fighting cocks and flocks of sheep disrupting traffic. Every interior is stuffed to the rafters with people and furnishings. In the house of Hoyden’s parents, paintings are askew and chickens and pigs run wild. In Magistrate Squeezum’s chambers, books and papers are piled haphazardly on every available horizontal surface. The result is one of the most lived-in looking movies made up to this point in time

The director pays so much attention to the background details that he totally forgets the story going on in the foreground, which is more antic than it is actually funny. The performances are completely over the top, but to too little effect. Even the glorious Susannah York is wasted, playing the ingénue, even though it is obvious that she is a little too mature for the part (this is nine years after she played the ingenue role in Tunes of Glory). This being the Restoration period, Ms. York and the other actresses are squeezed into tight-fitting corsets that make their breasts pop up so high it’a a wonder they can see over them. Peter Bull (owner of the largest Teddy Bear collection in the British Isles) is quite droll as Reverend Bull, who has a mercenary idea of how religious benefits should be doled out. The second best performance is given by Jim Dale, a supple performer (as he proved on the boards in Scapino) as the false Lord Foppington. And even better, Christopher Plummer is hilarious as Lord Foppington himself. He moves his arms and legs like a spastic marionette. The idea here is that Foppington spends so much time being carted around town in a sedan chair that he has little working knowledge of how to walk. With made-up bow lips and rouged cheeks that make him look like a china doll, and a lisping, languid way of speaking, as though the very idea of talking is too great a physical burden to him, Lord Foppington is a walking Restoration cartoon come brilliantly to life.

The highlight of the movie is a food fight that erupts after two stubborn burghers in sedan chairs get into a disagreement about which one has the right of way. The scene takes place in a narrow alley lined with food stalls. The scene also serves the important function of separating the two main lovers, Shaftoe and Hilaret, on their way to the altar. Playing like an 18th century version of the food fight from National Lampoon’s Animal House, this scene is both an affront and a delight—an affront that a movie could stoop this low, a delight because it does.

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