A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of the World As We Know It

July 9, 2011

How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of the World As We Know It

We have in our collection a few movies that are too short to really qualify as movies. They’re television specials, really. We wanted to feature them as part of our project anyhow though, and the way we’ve decided to handle this is to combine two specials together into a single feature length viewing experience. Today’s features are both John Cleese specials from the sixties and seventies.

How to Irritate People:

First up we have a sketch comedy special that John did with Michael Palin and Graham Chapman in 1969 before they were part of Monty Python. Cleese hosts with what could be considered very short stand-up routines between the sketches which act to hold the piece together, presenting each segment as an example of methods that might be used to irritate people. Irritating people displayed include parents, “pepperpots”, used car dealers, airline pilots, restaurant patrons and servers, actors and talk show hosts.

I saw this for the first time when I met Amanda. I recall her bringing it down to the AV lair where we both used to hang out and showing it to the whole group, and we were mightily impressed. It’s like getting a more coherent bonus Monty Python episode for those of us who had seen every one and crave more. The feel and writing is very familiar (seeing as this special came out the same year as the first year of Monty Python that’s no big surprise.) There’s even an entire sketch, the job interview, that was used word-for word in Python (episode 5 – Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century.)

John’s then-wife Connie Booth (who also appears in our second special for this evening’s viewing) takes all the young female parts, while Gillian Lind plays a couple of irritating mother roles. (Of course all the middle-aged ladies are just the male performers in drag.) There’s also a couple non-Python performers here: Dick Vosburgh in two very minor one-line appearances and Tim Brooke-Taylor who plays the hapless job applicant and the funniest of the pepperpots.

The sketches themselves are for the most part fun. There’s only one that drags a little bit, and that’s kind of part of the joke (the talk-show-host who takes so long to introduce his guest that there’s no time for an interview.) A couple of them stand out for me as the absolute funniest. Tim Brook-Taylor as an addled pepperpot competing on a quiz show (a sketch which was adapted for Python but was not exactly the same) is absolutely hilarious. The used car dealer is clearly the inspiration for the Bolton pet-shop owner who sells a less-than-fully-alive parrot to John Cleese in the Python show. Then there’s the great segment where Cleese and Chapman play airline pilots who irritate their passengers with announcements like “The wings are NOT on fire.” That’s probably my favorite sketch in the program and the one that stuck in my memory longest after first seeing the show.

This special is full of that particularly great and quintessentially British humor which John Cleese excels at. It’s all about people being friendly and understanding in the face of unbelievably irritating behavior, internalizing their anger until they inevitably explode. Graham Chapman in particular, during the “freedom of speech” segment loses his temper in a particularly outrageous and hilarious manner. I remember being delighted when Amanda first showed this to me, and I continue to enjoy it to this very day.

The Strange Case of the End of the World as we Know It:

The second half of our John Cleese double feature is this very strange little film. It has a coherent story throughout although it still feels somewhat like several comedy sketches linked together. It also has a significantly higher budget than I’m used to seeing in 1970s British television, with location shots, larger crowds, and a generally more polished feel than, say, Python ever had. On the other hand, it hasn’t aged quite as well as most Python stuff. It’s very much a parody that is part of its time period, particularly the second half with all the impersonations of current TV detectives.

The film follows a nefarious plot by the last living descendant of Professor Moriarty to destroy civilization as we know it. It starts when American diplomat Henry Gropinger has his diary stolen, leaving him disoriented and causing him to greet a delegation of Arabs in Hebrew. They promptly kill him. The bumbling President of the United States (probably meant to be Ford) dispatches his head policeman (who appears to be an Italian gangster) to confab with other civilized nations and figure out how to stop the end of civilization. The confederation of policemen is wince-inducingly painful and filled with dated stereotypes like the Austranian, the Chinese, and the backwards African.

These fools choose to find the last living descendant of Sherlock Holmes to do battle with Moriarty. Arthur Sherlock Holmes is played by John Cleese, his trusty (but dim) sidekick Dr. William Watson is Arthur Lowe and their strangely accented housekeeper is Connie Booth again. Holmes hits upon the scheme of having every great detective in the world come together in one place, which will draw Moriarty out of hiding because there is no way that such a tempting target can be ignored. This sets up the final act of the movie which involves farcical versions of well-known detectives being killed by Moriarty in disguise. There’s Collumbo and Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade and some guy from Hawaii 5-0 and Macleod. Again, it has a pretty seventies feel to it.

The best humor in the film comes from the interactions between Holmes and Watson. John Cleese is of course always fun, but it is Arthur Lowe who stands out for me as the runaway star. His trademark “good lord!” and “you never cease to amaze me, Holmes” are wonderfully funny. The two stand-out sections of the movie are when Watson and Holmes do a crossword together where every answer sounds suspiciously like “elementary” such as “alimony Tory, my dear Watson” and when Moriarty is disguised as Watson and Holmes must figure out which of them is the impostor. Indeed I’d say that any time Arthur Lowe is on the screen the movie comes to life.

This is an odd little film. It’s a self-contained micro-film at only fifty five minutes long. It has some powerfully dated stereotypes and references to shows and political figures that were popular at the time but are pretty much gone from the public consciousness now (who remembers Kojak? Really? And Jerry Ford?) There are some parts however that are fantastically written and are still funny today. I have to admit that I think those bits do pretty much redeem it.

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July 9, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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