Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge: 4: Fiddlers Three (1944)

Now, this one is a real curio - a British romantic comedy science-fiction / fantasy musical. Starring one of Ealing's early comedy 'stars' - Tommy Trinder (probably most famous these days for the 1944 Champagne Charlie) - this is a fun but lightweight time travel film with two sailors and a Wren sent back to Nero's Rome during a thunderstorm on Midsummer Night at Stonehenge.

It's a shame I saw this too late to include it in my new book (Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction) because it does play with most of the standard time travel conventions (most of which existed before there was anything that could be described as a 'science fiction' genre): the time travellers survive by offering prophecies of the future (here, about Nero fiddling while Rome burns - a concept that this Nero rather approves of), they inadvertently cause famous events to occur (because of Trinder, Nero accidentally chops the arms off the Venus des Milos statue), and comparisons are made between 'now' and 'then' (Nero scolds his wife for using up too much milk for her bath, says they can't have an expensive funeral during wartime). In this sense, comic fantasy might be a more appropriate term than 'science fiction,' if only because of the obvious debt the film owes Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).

The film is constantly playful, even if doesn't offer the most successful blend of comedy and musical. The songs are solid but forgettable - the stand-out probably by Poppaea (Frances Day), whose 'Caeser's Wife' is a list of her conquests of famous Roman emperors - but one of Trinder's better numbers offers nice time travel lyrics comparing Rome to London ('There's a Hippodrome in Leicester Square, and a Circus in Piccadilly'). There are also flashes of postmodern fourth-wall-breaking: a Roman tailor, nonplussed when Lydia (Diana Decker) and 'the Professor' (Sonnie Hale) announce they are from the 20th Century, notes that they (Rome) had Eddie Cantor visit a few years earlier (in the 1933 Cantor film Roman Sandals, Cantor's character falls asleep and wakes up in Roman times).

The cast are strong, but there are few stand-outs: Trinder is charming and a good lead, but perhaps not best served by this script; Hale is a decent straight man, but Decker is a strange inclusion: playing a Wren but obviously American, was she on loan to Ealing at the time? Day is also American, but the character of Poppaea is described as a 'glamour girl' by Hale early on, and the film plays up to this - her hair and make-up are more 1930s Hollywood than ancient Rome, and her overt sexuality seems a direct continuation of that characterisation. Nero (Francis L Sullivan) is never as conniving, jealous or villainous as the script demands although, as noted, his childish glee on recognising his potential behaviour while Rome burns is well-played.
Much of the comedy appears like an early draft of Carry On Cleo - there is a slave auction, male cross-dressing, slapstick antics around a milk bath, servants more intelligent than their masters, and terrible puns both visual (the Roman tailor has a stone sign with a scissor motif on it) and verbal (one of the attractions at Nero's orgy is 'Lisa, the strip-teaser, from Pisa'). Like the Carry On series, the script also revolves around the promise or allure of sex - not a topic that Ealing Studios was ever that comfortable with - and which is diffused here through Trinder and Hale dressing in woman's clothes wherever possible, or the tamest Roman orgy scene in cinema history. As the film's strongest sexual figure, Poppaea's attempted seduction of Trinder points out the irony of his supposed ladies man persona - he's reluctant to get his toga off, and ends up hiding inside a vase when Nero appears.

The film is notable in other ways - the set design is impressive, with Ealing's studios being transformed into various spacious Roman sets; there is (again) solid use of back projection (most notable in the final scene, when Trinder is dangling over a lion pit); and it gives a whole musical sequence over to black character Nora (Elisabeth Welch, an American singer whose career included several British productions), although visual aspects of 'Drums of My Heart' do also pander to particular African native stereotypes.

Like many time travel films, however, the narrative reaches a curious (and unsatisfying) conclusion. Given the fantasy elements of their transport back to the past - lightning striking a druid's altar at Stonehenge at Midsummer causes them to go back to Stonehenge in ancient Britain - their return to the future is caused... by lightning striking a metal spear in a lion pit in Rome which sends them back to Stonehenge in 1944, with their old navy uniforms on. The change in location and costume seems to suggest the old 'it was all a dream' option, but their memories of Rome are fresh and accurate - the lightning has, apparently, sent them back to the moment they went back in time (the complexity of temporal mechanics in time travel narratives obviously not the main aim here).

The most curious element, however, is that - after running away from Stonehenge to avoid the lightning strike - the film itself offers a visual metaphor for time travel. The film literally rewinds the original footage, so that all three (in reverse) hop back onto the bike, ride (in reverse) down the country lane, and end up back on the main road - at which point the film moves forward again, and they head off, avoiding the route to Stonehenge completely. It is a small note, and it was no doubt a cost saving measure, but using the reversal of film stock to suggest the effects of time travel links the film to the earliest 'trick' films and to later bigger budget science fiction movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment