Britain’s Ealing Studios all but defined the term “whimsy” in practically two dozen gentle (if sometimes dark and bitingly satirical) comedies created over ten years starting in 1947. These motion pictures, famously like such treasures as King Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Maggie (1954), and The Ladykillers (1955), steadily became common in America, typically in modest, art residence-sort venues.
Ealing Studios was sold to the BBC, which brought about an untimely end to official Ealing comedies, but such was their popularity that Ealing-style British comedies continued to be produced over the next six or seven years, numerous of them featuring and later starring Peter Sellers, like The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959), The Mouse That Roared (1959), I am All Right Jack (1959) – and The Battle of the Sexes (1959).
The makers of The Battle of the Sexes appear to have been particularly conscious of both the Ealing influence and of the developing interest toward these movies in America. Even though not an Ealing comedy per se, it has all its earmarks, whilst at the same time gently sending up each American impudence and stereotypical, intractable British (although specifically Scottish right here) traditions and values.
The mainly elderly staff of an Edinburgh Scottish Tweed weaving firm face an uncertain future when its longtime owner, Old Macpherson (ancient Ernest Thesiger in a delightful vignette) draws his last breath. His inexperienced, English-boarding college-raised son, Robert (Robert Morley, his Old Wellingtonian accent as a result explained) will quickly assume energy.
En route, Robert becomes infatuated with a pushy American efficiency professional, Angela Barrows (Constance Cummings), who all but barges her way into the quaint, almost Dickensian organization, turning Old Macpherson’s stately workplace into a Gray Flannel Suit nightmare, wiring it with an elaborate intercom system, and vowing to replace the old workers and the precious wool itself with synthetic fiber.
To the rescue comes timid accountant and teetotaler Mr. Martin (Peter Sellers), who regardless of his milquetoast manner rallies to unimagined heights to save his beloved workplace.
The film is a loose adaptation of James Thurber’s famous brief story “The Catbird Seat” (a baseball reference, acknowledged in the movie’s dialogue), and adapted by its producer, Russia-born Monja Danischewsky. He was an Ealing veteran, starting out in its publicity division in the late 1930s just before branching out into writing and making, like Rockets Galore! (1957), the largely forgotten sequel to Whiskey Galore! (1949). He later wrote the script to Jules Dassin’s celebrated Topkapi (1964).
Peter Sellers was just starting to segue from massive supporting parts to major roles earlier that year he headlined The Mouse That Roared (in which he was prime-billed) and I’m All Right Jack (billed third), each massive hits. In The Battle of the Sexes he’s a marvel of subtlety and restraint, efficiently playing a man in his late fifties even though in his mid-thirties. (Robert Morley, by contrast, was 51, but playing a character presumably at least a decade younger.) With minimal makeup and eyeglasses, Sellers’s voice and mannerisms create an entirely believable man of late-middle age, 1 utterly bereft of any vice till situations compel him to indulge for the higher excellent.
Couple of remember Seattle-born Constance Cummings, but her profession was nothing at all quick of exceptional, starting on the stage in 1928, and continuing with pre-Code talkie Hollywood films starring Harold Lloyd (Film Crazy) and directed by Howard Hawks (The Criminal Code) and Frank Capra (American Madness).
She married British playwright Benn Levy and moved to England, where she continued to act on the stage, such as the RNT’s production of Extended Day’s Journey into Night opposite Laurence Olivier, and in a smattering of films like David Lean’s Blithe Spirit, and continued acting properly into the 1980s prior to her death at 95 in 2005.
The Battle of the Sexes amusingly captures American pushiness and its then-obsession for utilitarian modernization, technology, and efficiency, as properly as its fondness for “quaint” British traditions. The shop in the film, played by the Justerini & Brooks (J&B) spirits organization in exterior shots, most likely seemed old-fashioned to Brits even in 1959, although such establishments continue to thrive in Britain, maintaining up appearances if only for American tourists. The image seems to have been a significant influence on Terry Gilliam, whose “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” prologue to Monty Python’s Which means of Life (1983) could practically be deemed a remake, and draws upon many of these very same British stereotypes.
Other amusing touches include an original film-within-the-film that Sellers’s character watches, a Sherlock Holmes-variety mystery featuring Michael Goodliffe as the Holmesian detective, and William Mervyn as his companion. Blacklisted actor (and later director) Sam Wanamaker provides droll narration and, in an early scene set in New York, Donald Pleasance has a little function as “Irwin Hoffman,” a shrewish victim of Cummings’s man-consuming. He impacts a profoundly bad American accent that have to be heard to be believed.
Video & Audio
In crisp black-and-white and presented in its appropriate 1.66:1 widescreen, The Battle of the Sexes looks wonderful on Blu-ray, sourced from original British elements, which includes its original British Board of Film Censors seal. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1. mono is robust and lively, even so. The disc is Region A encoded. No Additional Attributes.
Delightful, The Battle of the Sexes is Highly Advisable.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days whilst he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.
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