Thursday, April 10, 2014


I am in shock. That distant cousin of mine, Doreen Scrawcrunch, and her husband Hubert, pulled up in front of Chateau Maine in that odious recreational vehicle and moved in uninvited. Doreen has announced that she plans to nurse me through my infirmity and restore me to robust good health. Norman and I have never trusted this pair, especially after the good silver soup ladles went missing at the time of their last visit. Then there was the time Doreen was billing herself as 'Doreen Lester' and appearing in cheap bus and truck tours of some of my more famous stage successes. I tried to bring her up on charges with Actor's Equity but she is, of course, non-union.

Doreen and Hubert seem to have taken over the main floor of the house while I am confined to my boudoir and terrace as I cannot get the wheelchair down the stairs. I hear them thumping away until all hours of the night but, when I ask Doreen about it when she brings my meal trays, she tells me not to worry too much and gives me more medication. I tried to telephone Joseph, my manager, about this state of affairs but there seems to be something wrong with the line. Fortunately, my computer is working fine as I keep the terminal hidden in a lovely 18th century fruitwood commode.

I've been feeling a bit tired and wooly headed, but did manage to prop myself up in bed and take in a film on cable the other night, Yellowbeard, a raucous 1983 comedy brought to us by some of the same folks responsible for Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe, and other classics of British madcap. Even Spike Milligan of the seminal The Goon Show is along for the ride.

Yellowbeard is a spoof of all of those Errol Flynn/Clark Gable/Gary Cooper swashbuckling sea epics of the late 30s and early 40s. There are plot elements and references to Treasure IslandMutiny on the Bounty, Captain Blood, and other gems of the genre sprinkled throughout. In this crazed parallel universe, we are introduced to the famous pirate Yellowbeard (Monty Python's Graham Chapman), expert on killing, raping and burying treasure. He returns home, after many years in prison, to his not so loving wife (Madeline Kahn) and son (Martin Hewitt) who, for reasons to complicated to go into here, has the map to the buried treasure tattooed on his scalp. Son Dan, gardening apprentice to Lord Lambourn (Peter Cook), soon gets swept up into a treasure chase which ends up in the Caribbean at an island, under the control of a couple of dimwitted Spanish (Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong). The plot, which exists mainly as an excuse for some specialty comic bits, also allows James Mason to show up as a Captain Bligh figure, John Cleese to turn in a couple of good scenes as Blind Pew and both Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman to strut their stuff. Add in Python's Eric Idle as a crown agent trying to claim the treasure before the pirates and Michael Hordern as a strangely experimental doctor and stir rapidly.

I found Yellowbeard to be mildly amusing, but not as uproariously silly as Python in its heyday. While three of the Pythons are on view, John Cleese's part amounts to an extended cameo. The Python style just doesn't gel very well with some of the other comics on view. The Americans who have a Mel Brooks history, like Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle, are able to ape the breezy approach to logic that Pythonesque humor requires, but others seem out of their depth. Cheech and Chong, in particular, are so different in manner that their scenes appear to have been made for a different, and far worse film. Some bits flow like a dream with the actors perfectly in synch with their comic timing, other pieces fall completely flat.

The glue which must hold the film together is Graham Chapman in the title role. He's used to playing straight man in the Python epics Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail so he's up to the task. Here, he not only has to play protagonist, but he's also asked to make the protagonist a larger than life lampoon. Using his full physical size and incredible bluster (honed from years of Python), he succeeds and the film works as long as he's in command of a scene.

The script is credited to two of the performers (Chapman and Cook) and to two other writers. It's unclear if different people worked on successive drafts or if this was a more collaborative effort. While it maintains a relatively consistent tone, a lot of the film is just little comic bits strung together and then done up in early 17th century costume. The direction, by Mel Damski (best known as a television director) is serviceable, but not stellar.

The physical production is splendid. The recreations of 18th century life are both reasonably historically accurate and slyly witty. There are good gags about gender roles, the indolence of the late Stuart court, and maritime life. The costumes, by Gilly Henden and Stephen Miles, are especially of note.

This is a pleasant diversion. Not a great film, but interesting to fans of British comedy. It gives the chance to see old favorites in a new milieu and makes a good pair with the contemporaneous Monty Python's Meaning of Life which also featured a great pirate spoof.

Prison escape. Comic rape. Acid drowning. Gratuitous David Bowie. Transvestite royalty. Deadly tavern brawl. Foot nailing. Nagging Madeline Kahn. 

No comments:

Post a Comment