Through this fun blog series, we’ve already explored a total of ten Carry On films! Of course, we’re not even halfway through them, but I’m glad this is going so well so far!
Oh, before I continue, yesterday, I discovered some beautiful photos of Kenneth Williams and Ingrid Bergman! The two starred on stage together in Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. Ingrid probably discusses it in her autobiography, which I read, but at the time, I didn’t know who he was so I probably didn’t pay enough attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if she mentioned it. She talked about a lot of aspects of her life, and stage life definitely took an important part in it.
Also, I don’t know if you remember, but when I reviewed Carry On Cruising, I discussed that scene where Kenneth Connor plays the guitar and sings and was wondering if it was really him doing so as he seems quite talented. Well, I found a photo of him playing the guitar to his son Jemery, so I guess it more or less answers my question! Did he sing? I don’t know, but I guess he could indeed play the guitar!
Talking of Kenneth Connor, Carry On Cleo (Gerald Thomas, 1964), that I’ll be reviewing today, was his comeback after being absent from two of the Carry On films (Jack and Spying). But then, it will take six years before seeing him in more films of the franchise after Cleo. I will miss his presence for sure!
Carry On Cleo parodies the story of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Marc Anthony or, more precisely, it parodies Joseph L. Manckiewizc’s Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison. The story begins in Britain when the land is invaded by Romans eager to enlarge their territory. Some men are made prisoners by Mark Anthony (Sid James) and Sergeant Major (Victor Maddern), including Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) and his new neighbour, Horsa (Jim Dale). In Rome, Horsa is sold as a slave and Hengist is destined to be thrown to lions. The twos manage to run away, and they hide in the Temple of Vesta where the Vestal Virgins help them to hide.
On his side, Julius Caesar (Kenneth Williams) is back from Britain (poorly welcomed by his people) and members of the Senate want him dead. His wife Calpurnia (Joan Sims) is angry at him because he went away for so long, and his stepfather, Seneca (Charles Hawtrey), keeps having terrible visions on his subject. Under his recommendations, he decides to go to the Vesta Temple to consult the Vestal Virgins. When his own bodyguard Bilius (David Davenport) tries to kill him, Horsa and Hengist come to his rescue. Horsa, once again, runs away, leaving Hengist alone. Caesar, therefore, thinks Hengists saved him all by himself (when it hardly was the case), and he promotes him his new bodyguard.
Mark Anthony goes to Egypt to meet Queen Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie) to ask her to abdicate the throne in favour of Ptolemy. However, he is charmed by the queen’s beauty. After seducing each other, they plot to kill Caesar for Mark Anthony to become the new emperor and, therefore, they could form a powerful Egypt-Rome alliance.
Said this way, it doesn’t sound very funny but believe me, the film has enough Carry On humour to satisfy you.
Carry On Cleo was describe as “perhaps the best”(1) of the Carry On franchise by the website Icons. A Portrait of England. The article mentions the strong connection between the film and Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, not only for the obvious narrative parallels but also for its production context. (2) Indeed, a lot was left at Pinewood studios for the Carry On team to recycle for their own film. (3) For example, not only it was filmed on the original sets built in London for Cleopatra (that was finally filmed in Rome), but Sid James’s costume was also the one previously worn by Richard Burton. Most of the other costumes had also been initially created and intended for Cleopatra (4). However, we guess the budget was far from being as big as the one for the film with Liz Taylor! Anyway, they already had a few things at their disposition but, despite that and not being an “epic” film, it still looks pretty amazing visually. Of course, there probably aren’t as many extras (who needs them anyway?), but the use of colours is one of the best so far in a Carry On. These are bright and lively, and the sparkling cinematography that made me think of the French comedy film Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra (Alain Chabat, 2002), based on the comic Asterix and Cleopatra by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. And can we mention Cleopatra’s costumes and signature blue eye shadow? It was a way to parody Elizabeth Taylor’s Egyptian make up but, here, I think the blue worn by Amanda Barrie on her eyes was more flashy. But then, parody lies within the concept of exaggeration.
James and Barrie vs. Burton and Taylor
Golden and colourful
Taylor vs. Barrie
Icons. A Portrait of England also highlights the quality script by Talbot Rothwell. Indeed, the film has some of the most memorable lines of the series such as Kenneth Williams declaring “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” (5) Of course, this was some perfect material for Williams. Who else would have you imagine saying that? However, as it is indicated on IMDB, Rothwell doesn’t own the credit of this famous quote. It was supplied by writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden who had used it first for BBC Radio comedy Take It From Here. They gave their permission to Rothwell to use it in the film. (6)
One of the principal ironies of the film, apart from the fact that Cleopatra looks quite silly and that Caesar eventually has to row his own ship, is how Kenneth Williams and Sid James were cast. Normally, one would have expected to see James cast as Caesar as he was the oldest one of the twos, and Williams cast as Mark Anthony, but the opposite was done instead. But it works! Of course, you cannot think of Mark Anthony as this peppy young man anymore, but Kenneth Williams couldn’t have been better in this parodies and comedic version of Julius Caesar. We know he was larger than life, and so was Caesar. So, both figures complete each other quite well. Mark Anthony has more of a passive role here which wouldn’t have fit Williams so well because we always expect him to do more and show his brilliant theatricality whenever he can. Sid James was more modest in his acting, playing more “serious” people (in a way) but that could make us laugh as well. So the role of Mark Anthony stuck quite well with him.
Kenneth Connor and Jim Dale worked wonder as a duo: the short man and his tall friend. It was a joy to see Connor back in a role that only he could have done so well; the scared little man who tries to show courage. The scene at the beginning where he builts a square wheel (that then becomes a window frame) and then, later, when he rides on his bike with square wheels were among my favourite comic aspects of the film. And Jim Dale finally had a part that was bigger than the one in previous Carry On films. It allowed him to develop his acting skills more than he had the occasion to before.
And Kenneth Connor’s character has many moments of unintentional comic glory such as this part where he first meets Julius Caesar (Williams) at the Vestal Temple:
Caesar: Ah, good evening. I wanted to ask… are you really a vestal virgin?
Hengist: Oh no… no I’m an ennuch!
Caesar: Oh I see… You’re a what?!
Definitely one of the funniest bits of the film!
Joan Sims and Charles Hawtrey who play daughter and father are part of the things that make us strongly understand that none of this is serious. Joan is perfect as the choleric wife, and Hawtrey was back to a role that fitted him wonderfully. How can we forget that moment when he hides in a vase to spy on Cleopatra and Mark Anthony! On her side, it was the last time Amanda Barrie was cast in a Carry On film (we saw her previously in Carry On Cabby). She knew perfectly how to give a pretty but stupid-looking dimension to Cleopatra, which was intended for this film to be a true Carry On. However, even though the film is entitled Carry On Cleo, it takes time before we see the Cleo(patra) in question and her role in the film remains quite small, even if the story pretty much revolves around her.
Earlier, I’ve mentioned the comic book Asterix and Cleopatra. Well, there’s one of the dialogues in Cleo that easily made me think, not of this particular book, but another one in the series, Asterix in Britain:
Mark Antony: You know I just don’t get these Britons; everytime we get a good punch up going, someone behind the line yells “Teas up!” and they all disappear!
Julius Caesar: “Teas up”? How very odd! It must be one of these strange gods they worship, like this other one they’re always talking about, “Crumpet.”
Mark Antony: What?
Julius Caesar: “Crum-pet”, I don’t understand it at all.
Mark Antony: You know something; I don’t think these Britons don’t want to be conquered.
As a matter of fact, at the beginning of Asterix in Britain, we see the Romans conquer Britain, and they complain exactly about the same thing: Brits always have to go away to have some hot water with milk (because, historically speaking, the concept of tea didn’t exist yet). The book was published in 1966, so two years after the release of Carry On Cleo. Was it inspired by it for that joke? I have no idea. In a way, I don’t think so since it seems like quite an easy joke to think of.
It probably won’t surprise you that, on its release, Carry On Cleo was quite successful. The film was the 12th most successful film of Britain in 1965 and received favourable criticism as well. (7) It’s quite interesting to know that, in 1999, Colin McCabbee, a professor at the University of Exeter, published an article for The Guardian entitled Why Carry On Cleo and Carry On Up the Khyber are two of the best films ever. I won’t go into it, but you might be interested in reading it here.
On my side, I did like it a lot, but, despite all the praise it got, I cannot say that it is my favourite Carry On so far. I suspect I prefer the earlier and more simple ones like Carry On Constable or Carry On Sergeant. Then again, it’s just my own tastes. I know it’s a favourite for many and I won’t deny the fact that it’s a rich film in many aspects. It’s definitely worth seeing!
The next Carry On film we will look at is Carry On Cowboy! However, I’m going to take a short break from the series as I’m participating in a blogathon within the next days. Stay around as we’ll be back in Carry On business quickly enough!
Want to follow that series closely? Make sure to take a look at my other reviews!
(1) “Carry On Films.” Icons. A portrait of England, n.d., https://web.archive.org/web/20080420130205/http://www.icons.org.uk/nom/nominations/carry-on-films. Accessed Oct 10, 2019.
(4) “Carry On Cleo: Trivia.” IMDB, n.d., https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057918/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed Oct 10, 2019.
(5) Ibid. note 1
(6) Ibid. note 4
(7) “Carry On Cleo.” Wikipedia, 15 September, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carry_On_Cleo. Accessed Oct. 10, 2019.