The Chiltern Hundreds (1949)

[a. k. a. The Amazing Mr. Beecham]

 

This charming British comedy pokes fun at British political institutions and the alleged class system. The Chiltern Hundreds is based on William Douglas-Home’s 1947 stage play of the same name, and was, for whatever reason, released in the US as The Amazing Mr. Beecham. The film was directed by John Paddy Carstairs, and was shot in Clacton (Essex) as well as at Denham Studios.

 

+++ It’s May 1945. The war in Europe is over and Britain is heading for its first general election since 1935. Viscount Anthony Pym is a friendly, good-hearted young man with no interest in politics. But since his American fiancée might be leaving for the States soon, he purports to be standing as a candidate in the general election in order to get special leave from his army regiment in Belgium. Word travels fast, and even before he arrives at home and might be able to weasel his way out of it, the Conservative Party has already accepted him as their candidate. This means he actually has to run an election campaign. And with a nation-wide Labour victory on the horizon, he has to face the rather embarrassing prospect that he may loose a parliamentary seat his family has held for centuries.

Things get more complicated as his fiancée is not content with his efforts, while Anthony feels rather intrigued by the charming new maid who is much more warm-hearted than his fiancée. +++

 

Apart from a very intriguing premise, this film lives from its satire and constant dig at party politics, but mostly from its great characters and outstanding cast. The plot itself, however, becomes muddled as the story moves along, with some character developments unconvincing and a number of romantic entanglements that are established poorly (or not at all).

 

 

I love the characters and the cast. A young David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins) plays the charming and slightly pitiful Anthony Pym, and Anthony’s parents (Lord and Lady Lister) are portrayed by A. E. Matthews and Marjorie Fielding. Helen Backlin is cast as Anthony’s American fiancée June, a tough and strong-willed woman who has very little patience for Anthony’s lack of ambition.

 

Cecil Parker plays the patient, dignified butler Beecham – the backbone of the household who suffers silently under Lord Lister’s eccentricities. Beecham’s life is made especially difficult by the fact that there is basically no staff left at the Pyms’ huge manor house. Financial constraints, the war, and a general lack of suitable candidates may all have contributed to this decline in personnel (his lordship does complain about tax and the costs of running the house and the estate; and Lady Lister does hint at the difficulties of finding domestic servants).

But a new maid (Bessie, played by Lana Morris) has just been sent through an agency, so there is at least some additional help for poor Beecham. Bessie is the exact opposite of June: warm-hearted, wide-eyed, and full of dreams and romantic ideals.

 

The core cast is completed by Tom Macaulay and Joyce Carey. Macaulay plays the local Labour candidate (whose looks appropriately seem to have been slightly modelled on Attlee), while Carey plays Anthony’s aunt, Lady Caroline, who is rather proud and Conservative, and who – unlike her family – has severe prejudices against Labour.

 

 

The dialogue is very funny throughout, but not entirely smooth, as there are a number of lines (mostly political bons mots) that feel slightly shoe-horned in. Most of the characters benefit from the generally very good writing, and all the actors have a perfect sense for delivery and timing. But while the entire cast deliver great performances, A. E. Matthews definitely steals the show as the befuddled elderly aristocrat.

My problems with the film are not with the dialogue, but – as mentioned above – with character developments that are not set up in a way that would make them believable. And this includes romantic feelings that certain characters are supposed to have for each other. These problems become increasingly visible towards the ending, which feels rushed and which sees a number of twist and decisions (including some of a romantic nature) that come seemingly out of nowhere. Since I do not know the original stage play it is difficult for me to say if this problem lies there or in the screenplay that Douglas-Home wrote in collaboration with Patrick Kirwan.

 

I will rate this very entertaining film at 7.5 out of 10. But to be clear: if the ending wasn’t as rushed and unconvincing, and if the romantic entanglements were slightly more believable, this would easily be an 8 or a 9, given the acting and the humour.

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