Maskenball bei Scotland Yard (1963)

This black&white Italo-Austrian co-production is a third-rate comedy that looks like it took some effort to make but that ultimately fails to tell an enjoyable, coherent story.

Now, in case you were wondering: not a single per cent of the story takes place in London or the UK; nor is Scotland Yard involved in any way. The film randomly takes its title from the title of one of the many songs that are performed within this film (all of which are thematically unconnected to the plot).

Inserting singing performances into comedies was the thing to do in German-language comedies of the 1960s, for better or worse. Actually, mostly for the worse. And, as with regular musicals, the question arises: how do you justify people randomly transitioning from dialogue into songs? Maskenball bei Scotland Yard has it easier, because of its premise:

+++ Agostino (Bill Ramsey) is a young, befuddled inventor making outrageous claims: he says his invention enables anyone (wherever they may be) to hack themselves into live television broadcasts just by using a number of small portable devices, taking over the airtime in the process. If true, this would not only be of interest to broadcasters, but also to malicious actors like the KGB.
But no-one is taking Agostino’s claims seriously, and so he is locked up in a mental institution. One man, however, is willing to take a chance on Agostino: Giorgio Bonetti, a young Italian PR man working in the US (but currently in Rome on a family visit). The small cake factory of his elderly maiden aunts is doing badly, and Giorgio hopes to save the business through advertising. But all the regular ad time-slots on Italian television are already booked out for many months to come. So, by using Agostino’s invention, Giorgio hopes to hack himself into the TV broadcast and air his own “pirate” ads. +++

This is the whole plot, really, and it is just as thin as it sounds. Something that reviewers have repeatedly taken note of. But my point here is that this plot allows the filmmakers to include as many songs as they like; and there is no need to construct a complicated reason to make it appear seamless: the songs are simply part of the regular TV broadcasts that Agostino and Giorgio interrupt. And one or two of these songs are performances by our pirates and/or people they happen to meet during their exploits.

What works well from an in-story point of view, however, does not make the viewing experience more seamless. On the contrary: with so many songs just part of the in-universe TV broadcasts, they have no connection to the plot, something that other comedies at least tried to achieve at times (e. g. with the titular song to Drei Mann in einem Boot). So despite the fact that the songs are technically more justified than in many other similar films, they make the story feel more disjointed, not less.
And in spite of the fact that the premise allows the filmmakers to “seamlessly” insert unconnected songs into the story, they still manage to make the bizarre decision to add a song by German crooner Rex Gildo that hits 10-out-of-10 in randomness. Instead of connecting this music video (which it essentially is) to any of the TV broadcasts in the story, it is for some reason merely something that runs on a TV in the background in somebody’s office – a TV that nobody in the story is watching or is paying any attention to.

But all this weird “in-universe un-connectedness” is far from being the film’s biggest problem. The writing is just very poor, and the whole story is poorly developed. There is a “mysterious Mr. X” subplot that is poorly set-up and does not have a satisfying pay-off. And the film mainly tries to be a RomCom, which almost automatically results in there being “less comedy” in the film.

Being an Italo-Austrian co-production, Maskenball bei Scotland Yard was filmed on location in Rome as well as on soundstages in Vienna. The director was Italian (Domenico Paolella), as were the lead actors (except for Ramsey) as well as nearly all of the supporting cast and the extras. And here I believe you can spot the same problem which I felt haunted Maddigan’s Million: there is a different work culture and attitude amongst the Italian bit-players: they likely film several such appearances each week for whatever studio or agency they works for – simply showing up, looking into the camera and saying their line, without really knowing what film they are in, what character they are playing, or why the character is saying these lines at this moment. Irritating at the best of times, but with a plot so thin and contrived, and a film so incoherent as is the case here, it just does a lot of additional damage.

The cast is neither here not there. Stelvio Rosi as Giorgio is rather charming and works well as a leading man. France Anglade as his love-interest certainly looks the part, but her character is written so two-dimensionally that she cannot bring much to the table.
The two actresses playing Giorgio’s befuddled aunts are very enjoyable in their limited roles, but they are not properly credited in the film or on Imdb/Wikipedia. It seems they may have been Elisabeth Stiepl and Alice Franz, but I am not sure. Also uncredited is the aunts’ major domus, Onci (also a decent performance in a smallish role). Imdb identifies the actor as Carlo Pisacane.
Other minor supporting roles went to Austrian actors Raoul Retzer and Rudolf Carl.

As mentioned earlier, Cincinatti-born Bill Ramsey plays the absent-minded inventor Agostino. I’ve written about Bill Ramsey’s background (and his transition from studying at Yale to having a successful music career in Germany) in some detail in another review. In this film here he provides one song, the one which gave the film its title: “Maskenball bei Scotland Yard”. It is the typical, amusing fare that Ramsey provided in many a German-language film of this era. And it has a catchy melody which the film employs as its theme as well as occasional score.

Our US-based PR man Giorgio for some reason knows a meek and foolish chicken farmer from the outskirts of Rome. Matteo, played by Carlo Delle Piane, helps Giorgio in his exploits, mostly by providing a van. Delle Piane gives a good performance here, but this is another role that is written two-dimensionally. The role of Matteo’s love interest (and possibly boss, though the script is unclear about this) is played by German comedic singer and actress Trude Herr, who has her own song in this film. It is the only song that is not part of any type of broadcast in the story.

In the end, all the barely existing conflicts are resolved and everybody lives happily ever after. As mentioned before, the plot is very thin, and the story is poorly written. The only mildly interesting aspect is the “pirate broadcast” idea. I remember that this was a much-used plot idea in the 1980s, but apart from the 1940 British comedy Band Waggon, Maskenball bei Scotland Yard might be the earliest example. But that is of pure novelty interest and does not change the fact that this film (despite some decent performances) has nothing to offer. Should you ever happen upon it, I suggest you don’t waste any time on this. Rating: 2.5 out of 10.

music post-script:

As stated above, Bill Ramsey, Trude Herr, and Rex Gildo have one song each in this film. Other musical acts which would be well-known to German-speaking audiences at the time include the Kessler Twins, and Hannelore Auer. Auer had middling success as a singer, but (partially due to her relationship with Franz Antel) she had singing appearances such as this one in a large number of films throughout the 1960s, sometimes even playing a character in the film. In 1979, she married German singer Heino and shifted from singing into management.

Also in this film are “some” of the California-born Peters Sisters. I say “some”, because while Virginia, Anne, and Mattie (or Mattye?) formed a trio under that name, their sisters Edith and Joyce also used the name in their career as a singing duo. The film’s credits only say “Peter Sisters” (without the final -s, for some reason), and Imdb says it’s Edith and Joyce. Which makes a lot of sense, since Edith had moved to Italy in 1958. But there are three ladies in that particular song number in the film, and if Edith and Joyce are two of them, then I’d like to know why there was a third person, and who it was.

Finally, we have Peppino di Capri, an Italian singer who had his breakthrough in 1961 with a cover of “Let’s Twist Again” – the song which he also performs in this film. By 1965, he was established enough to open for the Beatles during their tour through Italy.

I am still trying to understand the commercial and contractual nature of these musical numbers. If your lead actors sing a certain number of songs in a films (like Peter Alexander in Die Abenteuer des Grafen Bobby or Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot), then I have no doubt that there are specific contracts put in place well in advance which detail publicity work and divide profits between films studio and record label. But with musical numbers that are simply shoehorned in, like most of the songs in this film, the question is: who profits, and who is paying whom? Are Peppino di Capri or the Kessler Twins a “big catch” for the studio in 1963; one that would mean they pay money to an artist’s record label or music management in order to have them in their film, because having them in the film would have a measurable positive effect a the box office? Or is it the other way round?; with the label/management paying the studio percentages or a one-off payola in order to have a song by “their” artist featured in a film headlined by Bill Ramsey?

Given that this is an Austrian-Italian co-production, I am also wondering about the choice of songs. Two of them are in English, the rest are in German. And the only Italian singer featured here is singing in English. So how useful was it for a film to be released in Italian cinemas (under the title Ballo in maschera da Scotland Yard) to have that many German songs? Including the song that film takes both its German and Italian title from.
Since most of the musical numbers in this film are unconnected to the plot (merely a part of the TV broadcasts in the story), it would have been feasible to re-cut this film and put in different songs depending on the release market. Something that would have been no problem on a technical level, and something that would undoubtedly be done today (opting for more Asian musicians for a release in China; or for license-free numbers once a film hits the streaming services); but it seems unlikely to me that this was done back in ’63 with this film, and I have found no information to the contrary.


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