Director: Bryan Forbes
Script: Larry Gelbart & Burt Shevelove
Cast: John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Nanette Newman, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Thorley Walters, Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Gerald Sim, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier
Running time: 105 minutes
The film’s prologue sees a group of young boys, their fathers standing behind them, listening to one of their public school masters explaining a special lottery or tontine to them whereby each father pays in £1,000 to a pot and the last surviving boy will inherent the amalgamated wealth (+ interest) years down the line.
The film then moves forward in time showing the demise of several of the boys (now grown men) through various scenarios, meeting their sometimes sticky ends. For example, one ex-pupil is killed by a cannon ball during a battle, another by his own hawk; one adventurous man falls into a mountain, while another is crushed in a mine accident, while fellow pupils are killed by a charging rhino and an arrow in the mouth respectively. Possibly my favourite untimely death is reserved for Leonard Rossiter being shot by a pair of duellists that he’s supposed to be moderating for!
The story proper kicks off when it becomes apparent that two feuding brothers, played by John Mills and Ralph Richardson, are the last surviving members of the tontine. Masterman (Mills) gets his grandson (Caine) to summon his brother to come and see him, and encouraging him to do so by pretending that he’s on his deathbed. Joseph (Richardson) is persuaded by his own grandsons to visit Masterman, and the two of them, Cousin Morris (Cook) and Cousin John (Moore), accompany him. On the way their train crashes which results in a confusing scenario whereby a possible killer, who’s stolen Joseph’s coat, is killed and is mistaken for the much older man. Determined to still claim the lottery money, the scheming brothers hatch a plan to ensure that no one knows their grandfather has died until Masterman himself is dead so they can inherit the winnings for themselves, on behalf of Joseph. But, as is always the way with complicated plot machinations, things never go according to plan.
The Wrong Box is a strange film to try and categorise. It’s obviously supposed to be a comedy, only it’s not very funny, and there’s not enough ‘drama’ in it for it to come under that category either. Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson, director Forbes probably thought he was making a comedy of errors, but instead managed to make a comedy with a lot of errors!
While Forbes has to be commended for gathering together an impressive array of fine British thespians he forgot to take a bit more care over the script, leaving a rather confused mess of a movie, although one that is still enjoyable to watch for all the quirky performances that can be admired throughout its runtime. Much of the dialogue is pretty bad, and the director obviously requested some of his actors to come up with somewhat hyper-real performances with somewhat mixed results. However, both Richardson and Sellers come out of the film smelling of roses since both really serve their characters well. Apparently Sellers ad-libbed most of his role and dialogue, which just goes to show what a genius the man was. He came up with the kitten ink blotter scene, for example.
The Wrong Box should have turned out better than it did. Not only is there a legion of amazing actors involved, but also some great production design and locations, including the Royal Crescent in Bath. Sadly, despite some real positives it just doesn’t hang together very well and much of the ‘comedy’ feels very forced and twee.
Many years ago I saw this film, as a kid with my mother, and I remember quite enjoying it, hence the reason why I asked to review it. Sadly, watching it years later, as an adult, I found it to be something of a disappointment, albeit still an entertaining one, with a couple of great scenes in amongst the generally confusing melee.
Best lines include Michael Caine saying: “My grandfather is dying, but it’s nothing serious!” and Mills stating: “If we cannot join the ruling class one must do one’s best to deplete them!”
Powerhouse Films are distributing The Wrong Box on Blu-ray. As per usual the package includes a great range of special features including:
Audio commentary with Jo Botting and Vic Pratt;
Bryan Forbes interview – This is a British Entertainment History Project interview with director Bryan Forbes that took place on 9th August 1994. Bryan is interviewed by Roy Fowler. He talks about his career as not only an actor (for 22 years) but also as a producer and director. He says that creative people always have to defer to the distributors who have the real power in the industry. He talks about the old studio system at length too.
Box of Delights (20 mins) – Interesting interview with Bryan’s wife, (and actress), Nanette Newman who has happy memories of making the film. She recollects that she put on weight during the 16 week shoot due to eating too many bread and butter puddings from the food services van!
Box Cutting (9.5 mins) – Interview with Assistant Editor Willy Kemplen who recalls that Tony Hancock was a very glum man, but Ralph Richardson, however, was a lot of fun. Apparently they had to ask neighbours to take their aerials down since it was a period film. No ‘painting out in post’ back in the Sixties!
Chasing the cast (10 mins) – Second Assistant Director, Hugh Harlow, recalls that he worked for Hammer Films from when he left school and therefore got a shock working on The Wrong Box which was a very relaxed shoot, despite the fact that all the actors were working for scale pay and they had some issues with the locations they used.
Theatrical trailer (3.5 mins) – This focuses on really selling the fantastic cast;
Image gallery (18) – Quite a few are posters.