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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – The Ugly Duckling

My notes on the rare Hammer horror comedy The Ugly Duckling

This 1959 Hammer Film was shown on television – broadcast on the various ITV regions – in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and then fell out of any form of circulation for so long that it was sometimes listed as a lost film.  As it happens, it wasn’t even misplaced – just sat there on shelves.  Now, thanks to Talking Pictures TV, it’s being seen again, like a great many other British films that simply vanished for the lack of any interest in issuing them on any homevideo format or even tucking them into the quieter corners of the TV schedules.  It’s of interest to fans mostly as the first of Hammer’s three takes on the Jekyll and Hyde story – and, incidentally, for trying for something vaguely like the approach Jerry Lewis later took in The Nutty Professor.  I doubt anyone was expecting it to be a major rediscovered classic, and it’s not – but it is interesting.

 

Though Hammer was working on The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll at the time and had all but cornered the market in classic horror, this comes from a different strand of the company’s product – having made spin-offs of presold wireless and TV properties (from The Lyons Abroad to the Quatermass films), Hammer signed star Bernard Bresslaw to reprise his role as Pvt Popplewell (from the sit-com The Army Game) in I Only Arsked! (1958), which elevated his supporting turn to star status and was named after Popplewell’s catchphrase.  That obviously did well enough for the studio to create another comedy vehicle for him.  Incidentally, his career might have taken a different turn if Christopher Lee’s agent hadn’t asked for less money when Hammer needed a tall actor to play the Monster in Curse of Frankenstein.  Bresslaw had a bit thug role in the Hammer imitation Blood of the Vampire and later played an Ice Warrior on Doctor Who, but the bulk of the rest of his career was in the Carry On series and like ensemble comedies (he’s in Vampira).  The Ugly Duckling, which does bring in Jon Pertwee as a kind of Bud Abbott type partner, shows that Bresslaw’s schtick wasn’t really suited to leading roles – playing two characters here, he’s not really that great in either, and the film doesn’t seem to trust him to be funny on his own.

 

It opens at a Soho dance hall, where bandleader Joe Loss jumps up and down in front of his big-name guest star orchestra and Lionel Blair handles the choreography.  Meek, hulking idiot savant Henry Jekyll (sometimes spelled Jeckle onscreen) is introduced in a painful skit where he wrecks a dance routine with his clod-hopping clumsiness – it’s always a sign of desperation in a comedy when onscreen characters are required to laugh at clowning, and that’s compounded by a score which needs to add drumrolls and oom-pahs to each pratfall.  A later bit where Bresslaw and Pertwee flounder while trying to walk along a narrow high wall is equally protracted and flat – this desperately wants to be a comic climax, but it’s just marking time before we get on with it.  Henry, his brother Victor (Pertwee) and sister Henrietta (Maudie Edwards) live in a chemists’ shop founded by their great-great grandfather – Bresslaw plays the original Jekyll (and Hyde) in a portrait that gives the alter ego a look quite close to Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Henry is so embarrassing that he’s a threat to the possible happy union of his sister and prissy hypochondriac snob Reginald (Reginald Beckwith), another plot thread that writers Sid Colin and Jack Davies throw in for no apparent reason.  A square, he’s jeered at by local youth Bimbo (Jess Conrad) and his mild roughs … but squeaky-voiced gamine Snout (Jean Muir) is stuck on the big lug.

 

Blundering about the shop, Henry finds the famous old formula and concocts a potion that – with samples from James Bernard’s Dracula score on the soundtrack – transforms him into the slim-tached, sharp-dressed cool cat Teddy Hyde, who tears up the dance floor with Bimbo’s girlfriend (Norma Marla, who was also a dancer in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll) and then falls in with club-owning crook Dandy (Elwyn Brook-Jones), who needs a daring man to carry out a jewel robbery.  The crime subplot allows for cameos from David Lodge and Michael Ripper – held over from I Only Arsked! – as comedy underworld types, but is yet another sidetrack.  Having hit on the idea of a Jekyll and Hyde comedy, the film does all it can not to make any use of the premise – there’s no sense of amiable dolt Henry enjoying the liberation of being tough and deft rather than cowardly and clumsy, and it shies away from the darkness that makes The Nutty Professor work.  Pertwee has one cynical line criticising his brother the jewel thief (‘you couldn’t just go out and strangle a blonde like great-great grandfather’) but Hyde vanishes from the plot after the potion’s used up, and the rest of the film is wearisomely focused on putting the stolen jewels back.

 

Directed by Lance Comfort, who later did better (a bit) by the straight vampire movie Devils of Darkness.  With Richard Wattis as the police inspector.  The most interesting performance comes from the little-known, sprite-like Muir – and that may be because the film’s middle-aged idea of youth culture (dance halls and teddy boys were already on the way out – coffee bars and beat girls were taking over) tries to dress her up as a freak (she puts on a nice dress for the happy ending) but accidentally makes her look relatively cool.

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Discussion

One thought on “Film review – The Ugly Duckling

  1. Still a little bit in shock that this has finally appeared after so many years as a “lost” film.

    I agree entirely with your review, Kim – it’s essentially exactly what I was expecting: slight, likeable (Pertwee and Muir are pretty good), but it simply isn’t interested in doing anything much with the concept beyond the bare minimum.

    Glad to have finally seen it, though – an itch that was good to scratch at last!

    Posted by Karlos | October 21, 2018, 2:33 pm

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