The Wrong Box showcases a kind of inspired silliness exclusive to the British.
There’s a special place in my heart for silly comedies. I realize I don’t review these kinds of movies on the show very often, and that’s partly because it’s hard to describe what makes them work, the truth being that they don’t always work for everybody. Well, the British seem to excel at this sort of thing—from early Alec Guinness, to Peter Sellers, to the Monty Python troupe, the Brits love being silly. Today I’m talking about one movie that is not very well known, but for reasons that are partly personal has always been dear to me. From 1966, it’s The Wrong Box.
The premise of The Wrong Box is ridiculous in itself. A tontine is established for twenty schoolboys in the early 19th century. So, what’s a tontine? In this case it means that the parents contributed a certain sum for each boy, the total of which, for all the boys, gathers interest over their lifetimes, turning into a substantial fortune of a hundred thousand pounds, to be paid out to the last surviving person. By 1882, there are only two survivors, elderly brothers named Joseph and Masterman Finsbury. Masterman, played by the great veteran actor John Mills, is a bitter and irascible old coot who pretends to be dying so that his brother will visit, and then he can bump him off to get the money. Joseph, played by Ralph Richardson, an even more eminent English actor, goes through life boring everyone to death with his incessant talking on obscure subjects. He has two greedy nephews, played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and of course they’ll do everything they can to get the money for their uncle, and by extension for themselves.
Some of you might not know that before gaining success in films on his own in the late 70s, Dudley Moore was part of a very funny comic duo with Peter Cook, whose dry, sardonic sense of humor influenced just about everybody that came after him in British comedy. They are the spice that gives The Wrong Box its special flavor—their combination of avarice and idiocy makes me smile just thinking about it.
Now, Masterman, the cranky one, has a grandson, a shy and naïve medical student played by a very young Michael Caine, in only his fourth movie. He falls in love with Joseph’s beautiful ward, played by Nanette Newman, in scenes that spoof the embarrassing hesitancy and decorum of English romantic fiction. The plot becomes so hilariously convoluted that it would be spoiling the fun to say too much more about it, other than telling that there’s a statue mailed in a large box, and another box containing a dead body, and they each get delivered to the wrong address. The complications keep building, and at one point, Peter Sellers shows up as a drunken doctor, living in squalor, surrounded by dozens of cats, forging death certificates, and briefly taking over the movie. There are lots of other delightful character actors in the film as well.
The Wrong Box is deliciously funny without ever being stupid or obvious. It was directed by Bryan Forbes, an underrated talent known best for directing the original Stepford Wives. It was based on a collaborative novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne, but with a special mid-1960s flavor that of course the book didn’t possess. The film did fairly well everywhere—everywhere, that is, except England. According to Michael Caine, the film’s parody of British manners was so spot-on that English audiences either didn’t get it, or didn’t want to get it.
I’ve watched it several times and it never fails to make me laugh. But it also has a certain sentimental value for me. I went to see it with my grandfather when I was eleven. What we didn’t know is that he had gotten the movie time wrong, and had come in half way through the movie. We couldn’t understand what in the world was going on, so we decided to stay for the next showing to see what we’d missed. You could do that in those days. It was very funny when we realized that we had missed the entire first half.
The Wrong Box is an antidote to gloom, a little gem of inspired lunacy.