The Early Bird
Norman Wisdom plays Norman Pitkin, a milkman from the independent firm of Grimsdale Dairies - proprietor, the ubiquitous Mr Grimsdale (Edward Chapman) - in this, the first of his colour films for Rank. Wisdom and his horse Nellie find themselves up against the might of Consolidated Dairies, a huge impersonal company that wants to crush its inferior rival into the ground. Consolidated’s owner is Mr Hunter (Jerry Desmonde) who, together with his senior milkman Austin (Bryan Pringle), does all he can to make the old business bankrupt. Thus it is up to Norman to save the day and show that a good family firm is more important than a vast impersonal corporation.
So much for the political ideology, how about the film itself? Well, if you like Norman Wisdom, you’re going to love this one. Critical evaluation of these sorts of films is hardly necessary or worthwhile, as they were never intended to be anything more than crowd-pleasing entertainments, but at the same there’s no harm in pointing out where their strengths and failings lie. The Early Bird’s chief recommendation is the lush cinematography and the cartoonish, almost dreamlike, quality of many of the slapstick sequences. There is some wonderful modelwork on display, notably in the ‘out of control lawnmower’ scene, and although obviously unreal, the continuity in terms of colour and texture with the live action work is impressive. Cliff Culley’s optical matte effects are also rather wonderful, transforming a Pinewood car park into the vast edifice of Consolidated Dairies.
An important aspect of Norman Wisdom’s humour is his emphasis on silent slapstick routines. In The Early Bird we are treated to a ten-minute opening sequence in which Wisdom, Chapman and the buxom Paddie O’Neil (playing Grimsdale’s landlady/ladyfriend Gladwys Hoskins) wander around their house in various stages of sleepiness. Cue falling down stairs, bumping into walls and general sleepwalking mayhem. It’s a great introduction to the film, helped enormously by Ron Goodwin’s catchy music score. Other slapstick routines - such as Wisdom dressing up as a vicar and causing chaos on a golf course, or dressing up as a fireman and causing chaos at Consolidated Dairies - are frenetic, noisy affairs, staged with more emphasis on their visual appeal than on their subtlety.
My favourite scene is when Wisdom and Pringle (a great character actor, inevitably playing the villain or evil henchman) face off against each other in a clever pastiche of a Western film. Six years before Bennie Hill’s hit song ‘Ernie’, all the clichés are in place and the direction on the scene is a joy. There’s a simplicity in this, and the rest of the film, that’s very appealing.
On the downside - and this is a problem for most star vehicles - the film is nothing more than a series of set pieces, most of them rather clumsily linked. Unlike, say, the team efforts of the Carry Ons, Norman Wisdom storylines (such as they are) are always subservient to the comedy routines. I assume these routines, virtually self-contained sketches, were thought of first and then a story fitted around them. At least that’s how it appears. The Early Bird exhibits these qualities, but not to the extent that the other film on this box set does.
In a nutshell, it's superb. Colours are vivid and bright, although not garishly so, and there is virtually no sign of print damage or wear. It’s hard to believe that the print is almost forty years old. Unfortunately, just after the opening titles, the picture is zoomed in to 1.33:1 from its original slightly wider picture ratio of 1.66:1. It seems a pity to go to the effort of remastering the film and then presenting it in a truncated format - although for the most part it doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment, certain scenes, such as the aforementioned Western face off demonstrates that the sides of the picture have been clipped unnecessarily.
The original 2.0 Mono is perfectly acceptable for this sort of film - music, dialogue and the various comedic sound effects come across very clearly. As is the way with a lot of films made before the ‘70s, much of the location dialogue appears to have been re-dubbed afterwards, so the stilted delivery of these lines is to be expected.
A trailer (2m 26s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic 2.0 Mono) gives away the best moments, so don’t watch it before you see the film - I did, and it spoiled the best surprises. A brief Commentary Biography is just an advert for Wisdom’s involvement with these new releases. As to the commentary itself, ‘comedy historian’ Robert Ross is the man chosen to prise the memories from the recalcitrant Wisdom, an activity that at times resembles squeezing blood from a stone. Some interesting anecdotes emerge, but generally the conversation is not scene specific; when Ross does mention something on screen, it is inevitably several minutes after it’s happened and Sir Wisdom usually can’t remember what he’s referring to! Sadly, the star’s ageing state of health (he is now 83) seems to affect his vocal delivery and his memory (or perhaps he was always forgetful?) and there are many dry patches.
Press For Time
This time Norman Wisdom plays three roles - incompetent Norman Shields; doddering grandfather, Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Shields; and - in sepia flashbacks - his suffragette mother Emily (!). Wisdom is given the job of journalist on small seaside newspaper The Tinmouth Times, the main job requirement being that it is hundred of miles away from the PM! There he falls in love with Eleanor Lampton (played by the gorgeous Angela Browne, one of the best reasons for watching this film), despite the doe-eyed infatuation of bespectacled Frances White, daughter of Lady Mayoress Mrs Corcoran (Noel Dyson) and Labour Councillor Ernest Corcoran (Derek Francis). Amidst much political wrangling - much of it caused by Wisdom - the diminutive reporter organises a beauty parade that goes spectacularly awry. But all ends well and he ends up with the right girl all along - no prizes for guessing who.
As with the previous film in this double release, Press for Time is nothing more than a series of set pieces. What makes this film less successful is that the set pieces are few and far between, with much of the film consisting of rather mawkish, slow-moving dialogue scenes, a major failing of the comedian’s later efforts. Certain moments do stand out, such as the bus chase and the collapsing house, but a lot of this film I found distinctly dull. The picturesque Devon resort of Teignmouth stands in for ‘Tinmouth’ and, as with The Early Bird, as a social document it’s an invaluable record of an older, seemingly simpler, way of life. Like a big-screen Donald McGill postcard, Press for Time is a slice of middle-class 1960s British life preserved forever in aspic. Hard to believe this is the same era in which the Mods and Rockers fought pitched battles on the seafronts of Brighton!
I found Norman Wisdom’s character here less likeable than in The Early Bird; he often comes across as causing trouble just for the sake of it, an aspect hinted at in the former film but given full reign here. If I had to put my finger on why Wisdom isn’t my favourite comedian, it’s that his comedy comes more out of ‘conscious irritation’ than ‘well-intended incompetence’. Laurel and Hardy always try their best despite their inevitable lack of skill, and the same goes for Frank Spencer (Michael Crawford) too - but there’s always a suggestion with Norman Wisdom that he’s causing mayhem and disaster in an almost wilful mood of rebellion. He means to irritate others, and as such, I find it hard to warm to his character at times.
As with The Early Bird, the colours are vibrant and clear and the film looks as clean and undamaged as if it was shot yesterday. The title sequence is particularly imaginative. There are one or two repeated frames towards the end (presumably to replace frames that contain poor film splices) which I noticed, but probably most people won’t. The whole film appears to be presented in its original ratio of 1.33:1.
A trailer (2m 37s, 1.85:1 non-anamorphic 2.0 Mono) is the usual sort of affair, enlivened slightly by Wisdom taking over from the Rank gong-beater at the start - with predictable results.
As with The Early Bird, the 2.0 Mono is perfectly adequate for this sort of film, with dialogue, music and effects clear and sharp throughout.
Norman Wisdom fans will get a kick out of this double set, with the fantastic picture restoration being a big draw for film aficionados in general. Whilst not my favourite comedian, for the reasons outlined above, there is plenty of visual tomfoolery on offer and both films will no doubt amuse children of all ages.