Dir:- Richard Lester
Starr:- Ron Moody, David Kossoff, Bernard Cribbins, Terry-Thomas, Margaret Rutherford, John Phillips
This movie left me humming through a classic Electronic song. The Mouse that Roared was a 1959 adaptation of Leonard Wibberley’s rather brilliant cold-war satirical novel, that also served as an unusual star vehicle for the comedic talents of Peter Sellers. It was the film that first saw Sellers take on multiple roles, as he played the clueless hero figure, as well as both the Prime Minister and Grand Duchess of the fantastical European Duchy of Grand Fenwick, an obscure mittel-European province in which the traditions are a distant echo of grand British imperialism. With B-Movie director Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula) behind the camera and a cast which included the likes of William Hartnell (the first TV Doctor Who), Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey) and the stellar Jean Seberg (Bonjour Tristesse, À Bout de Souffle) the movie had lots more going for it than just the Sellers-effect, however, much of the fantastic humour of the novel comes out of Sellers high-energy displays of absurd characterisation.
Seller-less and without the charm and originality of the first film, director Richard Lester must have been cursing the favour that his friend, Peter Sellers, had done him. Having worked so well alongside each other on Lester’s debut feature The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, it had been assumed that when Sellers recommended Lester to producer Walter Shenson that the film sequel was getting the man who could maximise Sellers performing talents. As it was Sellers had just come off the back of a success in Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita and with his star rising, he jumped ship to a small Hollywood comedy caper about a bungling French detective called Clouseau. As a result this revisit to the quirky, alternate cold-war reality of Grand Fenwick, although still played for laughs, is now populated by an array of dramatic acting talent (such as Margaret Rutherford as The Grand Duchess and Ron Moody as the Prime Minister) and some of British television’s best comic performers (John le Mesurier as the British PM and Bernard Cribbins as the space-obsessed hero figure). It also has room for a brief scene-chewing cameo from Terry-Thomas who seemed to pop up in almost every British comedy of the time, outside of Ealing.
In the first movie the comic incident around which all the japery was arranged was the notion that a tiny, insignificant European nation could, and would, declare a preposterous war upon the United States of America. In this sequel, Grand Fenwick is just getting back on its feet when the Prime Minister has the novel idea of funding the castle plumbing by pretending to enter the space race between the US and the USSR. Now remember this is at a point in history where the USSR have successfully managed to put Gagarin into orbit and the US, under Kennedy, have escalated their financial commitment to the space programme, but neither nation have come anywhere near landing a human being upon the moon. So one of the strikingly prophetic features of both the book and this adaptation is the way in which the scenario envisages that historic achievement occurring. Despite the ropiness of the special effects and the comedy of the moon being covered in dust-filled craters, this is actually not too far off what would take place by the end of the decade. However, whereas the first movie had a preposterous scenario that it rationalised quite marvellously, thus magnifying the satirical power of Wibberley’s work, The Mouse on the Moon seems far more content to play out some tepid sketch comedy, that disinters nuggets of physical humour that died with the advent of sound in cinema.
The movie starts with an irritating animated title sequence – something that was in vogue back in the fifties and sixties – then pointlessly retreads much of the background to Grand Fenwick’s dull history in a fitfully humourous pseudo-documentary narration. The archaic rituals, absent-minded aloofness of the Grand Duchess and inability for any Grand Fenwickian to think of something original, play out like a condensed version of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, tempering the surreal absurdity of that work and playing things strictly for laughs (although this latter aim is rarely successful). In amongst the melange of comic frippery we have volatile explosive wine, floating teapots, Russian rockets that are almost bigger than the Duchy, a language gag between Americans and Russians that is repeated as if it were instant comedic gold (it’s barely funny first time round), a frankly awful parody of a satirical Beatnik scene from Tony Hancock’s brilliant 1961 comedy The Rebel, and an utterly superfluous appearance from Frankie Howerd. Lester has to take much of the blame for the unevenness of the finished movie, particularly as the most distracting feature of the film is the ramshackle nature of its editing, with scenes being cut before they appear to have reached completion, or containing terrible jumps in the action that cannot possibly reflect an aesthetic choice on the part of the director.
David Kossoff, one of the few survivors from the original movie, seems to be the only actor thoroughly switched on to the comic potential of each scene. Reprising the role of the slightly cracked scientist Professor Kokintz (pronounced in a way that plays up some of the puerile schoolboy humour of an avian comment the character makes to Terry-Thomas’s spy, about Grand Fenwick’s seven different varieties of ‘tit’), Kossof is actually a blessed relief from the wild-eyed hamminess of Ron Moody’s Prime Minister. In particular, the sequences involving Kossof and an absurdly peppy Bernard Cribbins are some of the movies best. Being a British movie it tends to skewer America a little more effectively than it does Britain (which it is more content to gently mock as a fading force in world politics). In a session of parliament to discuss the spending of the million dollar American donation to the space programme there is a wonderfully pointed comment in response to the accusations of deception levelled against the Prime Minister, “the American taxpayer has always been deceived, it is his birthright”. There is also some nicely focused satire upon the American need for popularity in foreign policy. One of the better visual gags even pre-empts Sellers own famous nervous tic from Dr. Strangelove, as both American and Russian space programmes are shown to have some unreconstructed, arm-raising Nazi scientists in their midst. Even the otherwise wholly pointless youthful rebels that wander around outside the castle in Grand Fenwick have one effective piece of topical satire, when one of their placards has “Keep Fenwick off the moon and out of the common market” written upon it. Perhaps my favourite gag however comes from Kossoff’s pitch-perfect delivery of the scientific theory behind his atomic-power fuelled rocket, that works through an ingenious process of “catalytic disassociation”. It is a great shame that the movie didn’t work this verbal wit more frequently throughout its eighty minutes. In the end The Mouse on the Moon feels like a dated version of more recent comedy movies such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, in which the performers seem to be just a little too satisfied with the broad slaps of invisible satirical paint that they are applying to a decidedly blank canvas, leaving much of the audience wondering where the actual jokes are hidden. However one major positive that can be taken from this missed opportunity is that Richard Lester’s rather hellish experience cobbling the thing together ensured he took on increasingly idiosyncratic and interestingly executed projects as the decade wore on, culminating in his 1968 masterpiece Petulia. But more of that at a later date…
Note:- I simply must draw your attention to the appearance of a young Tom Aldredge as Wendover (the US Secretary’s advisor). Aldredge has in recent years become a go to man for superb character roles in US television drama. He plays Edie Falco’s doting father in The Sopranos, as well as playing the frighteningly cynical Uncle Pete in Damages.