Penny Points to Paradise (1951)

Penny Points to Paradise is another British comedy from the small Adelphi Studios. Written by John Ormonde, and directed by Anthony Young, this low-budget production stars an array of young British comedians of the day, including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe, three of the four “Goons”.

And that is, to some extent, the film’s biggest problem. Like Adelphi’s You Lucky People, which was designed as a showcase for Tommy Trinder, Penny Points to Paradise has a very small and simple plot which is merely there to provide the opportunity for the cast, especially Milligan and Secombe, to do their own routines.

 

+++ premise: Harry Flakers (Secombe) has just won the record sum of 100 000 Pounds via British football pools, a fact which has been widely reported in the newspapers, as have (inexplicably) his plans to travel to a certain small hotel in Brighton. This draws the interest of gold diggers as well as con artists. And the fact that Harry does not trust the banks and instead insists on carrying the entire sum around with him on his travels makes him particularly vulnerable. His friend and travelling companion Spike Donnelly (Milligan) is more level-headed than Harry, but he is not much use either, especially as both of them are distracted by fellow guests Christine (Paddie O’Neil) and Sheila (Vicky Page). +++

 

As I said, the plot itself is very simple and small. And not much is done with it. This could have been a comedy of errors, or an intricate con/heist film with double-dealings and surprising twists. Penny Points to Paradise is none of those things. The first act, and much of the second, is used to allow Milligan and Secombe to run through a number of small sketches and routines (mostly unconnected to the plot), while Sellers is allowed to do a bit of acting as an elderly retired army man who, whilst somewhat befuddled and fond of drink, is still scheming to get hold of other people’s money. To allow Sellers to indulge in his fondness for different wardrobes and different accents, a completely unconnected and pointless scene has been shoehorned in, in which he plays a Canadian travelling salesman.

 

Sellers, Milligan, Secombe are not the only ones who are given room to play. Paddie O’Neil gets a few seconds to do her mock-impressions of Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson; and when Harry and Spike visit a variety show with Christine and Sheila, there is an opportunity for Secombe and O’Neil (seemingly under the spell of hypnosis) to mockingly perform a gender-swapped operatic duet.

The cast is very good, of course, but the unconnected comedy routines do not work in the artists’ favour, and – needless to say – not in the film’s favour either. Apart form O’Neil’s and Page’s roles, smaller female performances include that by Hazel Jennings as the talkative hotel owner. But the film’s most outstanding supporting role is the pretentious and grand-standing conman Haynes played by variety performer Alfred Marks (who would go on and marry O’Neil one year later). Smaller supporting performances include Freddie Frinton as a drunkard, and Bill Kerr as Haynes’s right-hand man. Only a few years later, Kerr would rise to fame on radio in Hancock’s Half Hour.

 

As I said, the story suffers from being a bare-bones structure onto which comedy routines and slapstick scenes have been hung. Consequently, you find none of those things you expect from a well-written comedy. There are no surprises in this film, and no memorable scenes. There is also no “morale” or lesson, and no growth or development of character.

The first act merely sets up the premise and characters, and beyond that is only filled with comedy routines. In the second act the actual plot takes place, but as it is so small and simple, there is ample room for more comedy routines. The third act soon develops into one long slapstick chase scene of little value, apart from being a historic glimpse into the Brighton way museum of the day. Apart from that third act, there are also at least two car travel or car chase scenes which are slapstick-y in character and are presented in fast-motion. These car scenes are very reminiscent of the kind of thing you would see in silent American comedies of the 1920s.

 

Commercially, Penny Points to Paradise was not a success. Despite some mildly positive reviews, cinemas were reluctant to book the film. When the fame of Peter Sellers and the other Goons grew over the coming years, Adelphi made another attempt to earn some money with this film: in 1960, a shortened re-cut was produced, under the name Penny Points. At under 58 minutes, this re-cut was intended to be a “second feature” to be shown after other comedies, as was custom in many markets back then. Penny Points did not simply omit several scenes from Penny Points to Paradise, but according to Vic Pratt’s contribution to the booklet of the BFI DVD release, several Sellers scenes from the short Let’s Go Crazy were inserted into the new cut. Which makes sense as the decision to re-release a new cut was made to cash in on Sellers’s new-found fame.

 

Both Penny Points to Paradise and the re-cut fell into obscurity afterwards. Only the recent restoration by the British Film Institute has made Penny Points to Paradise available again in great picture quality and – to the best of everyone’s knowledge – in the originally intended cut. Still, the restored BFI release is just under 69 minutes long, whereas contemporary sources (contradicting each other) give slightly longer running times ranging from under 72 minutes to 77.

With the exception of one or two grainier scenes (where, I assume, adequate source material was missing), the BFI’s restoration of Penny Points to Paradise is crisp and clean.

 

As I pointed out above, the film is far from being a great comedy. The BFI’s restoration efforts are justified by its historic value as being the first silver-screen outing of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. As a viewing experience, however, I cannot rate this film any higher than 4.0 or 4.5 out of 10.

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