Friday, May 27, 2011

Our Miss Fred (1972)

Directed by Bob Kellett
Starring Danny La Rue, Lally Bowers, Frances de la Tour
Rated PG
UK

“Skilled mechanic, accomplished actress – your talents are quite dazzling, Miss Wimbush. Have you anything else tucked away you propose to flash at us?”

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The British have a proud tradition of men dressing as women. It’s been going on there since at least Shakespeare’s time, and probably long before. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Danny La Rue (RIP) was a British national treasure – he was even appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2002. That may not mean much if you’re from outside the UK (or its colonies) but rest assured: it’s some pretty serious shit. Especially for a self-described “comic in a frock”.

In the ‘60s, La Rue was one of the highest paid entertainers in the country, so it’s a little surprising it took him until 1972 to get around to starring in a film. Either the film wasn’t much of a hit, or movie making just wasn’t his thing, because it’s also the last film he starred in – there was the odd cameo here and there, but it’s likely stage work was always his preference.

That’s a real pity, because he actually comes across remarkably well on screen. Granted, he’s not exactly a star of dramatic acting and mugs and grins his way through practically every scene, as if he’s about to burst out laughing the whole time. He’s super fun to watch, at the very least. That grin is just too irresistible.

La Rue plays Fred Wimbush, a Shakespearean actor conscripted into the army in 1939. Given his experience as an actor, he ends up in France – presumably around mid-May of 1940 – not on the front lines, but rather working as an entertainer for the troops. And playing all the female parts.

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He’s not entirely happy with that. “Look at me, dressed like a bird,” he grumbles. “They used to come from miles away to see my Titus Andronicus.”

“Well you better get it out and flash it for that lot out there,” says one of the other actors, “because they're getting very restless.”

Unfortunately, while he’s still in the dressing room, the Germans invade the army base. He runs outside to try and figure out what’s happening – and so as not to be left behind – but they think he’s a woman, and refuse to take him prisoner.

For some reason, the Nazis politely allow him to have a word with the Corporal (Frank Thornton, always and unmistakably Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served?). “Don't ever let on you're a man,” the Corporal says, “you'll be shot as a spy.”

“Shot as a spy nothing, sir, I want my trousers,” replies Fred.

“Damn your trousers!” barks the Corporal. “This is for England!”

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So Fred wanders off into the French countryside as the Nazis drive their prisoners away. While trying to escape the amorous approaches of two French men, he’s picked up by Nazi General Brincker (Alfred Marks), who happens to be driving past.

Brincker takes quite a fancy to Fred. “You have everything a woman should have, and more,” he says. Fortunately, there’s a British air attack before things can go much further, and Fred gets the chance to scamper away.

Soon, he comes across two women hiding in the bushes. Miss Flodden (Lally Bowers) and Miss Lockhart (Frances de la Tour, best known recently for appearances in the Harry Potter films) are there with a troop of Girl Guides. Fred’s about to try and explain that he’s really a man, but Miss Flodden isn’t exactly male friendly.

“Soldiers are soldiers Miss Wimbush,” she explains. “Put any male brute in the army, English or German, and he becomes an instant rapist.”

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If Fred were a man, she adds, she’d call the Germans onto him herself. So, keeping that fact to himself and giving his name as Frederika, Fred walks back to the barn where the Girl Guides are hiding out. Naturally, they’re all busty young ladies in school uniform. And there’s Fred, having to pretend he’s a woman!

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I have no idea who plays which girl, because none of them are ever referred to by name in the film. The blonde one is meant to be Texan, but is clearly British, and does the most wretchedly awful American accent you could imagine.

Turns out they have a car that won’t start. Fred, luckily, is a capable mechanic as well as a Shakespearean actor, so he sets to work fixing it. Some of the girls help.

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The others just sit around and watch, and make helpful suggestions. “Shouldn't the car be jacked up a little more?” one asks.

“I think it's going to be, any moment,” Fred mumbles.

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Having fixed the car, everyone heads off to bed, with the intention of making an escape from France in the morning. Before he drifts off, though, the girls drag him out to a nearby shed to show him a surprise.

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They found a snaggle-toothed Air Force pilot named Smallpiece (Lance Percival) dangling from a tree and they’ve been keeping him hidden from Miss Flodden. Fred manages to catch a moment aside with Smallpiece and explain what’s going on, but there’s some tension between the two, as Smallpiece thinks Fred is a perverted cross-dressing deserter.

Still, that doesn’t stop Smallpiece from coming along when they finally depart in the car (although he’s crammed into the boot, so that Miss Flodder won’t find out about him). Miss Flodder also suggests that everyone dress a little less conspicuously, so while the girls don peasant outfits, Fred dresses like a flamenco dancer. Bound to be inconspicuous in France, that.

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In order get to the nearest town, they have to make their way through a Nazi checkpoint. The Germans are suspicious of them – especially Fred’s reluctance to open the boot – but he convinces them that there’s an Englishman somewhere down the road. Miss Flodden is impressed.

“Skilled mechanic, accomplished actress – your talents are quite dazzling, Miss Wimbush,” she raves. “Have you anything else tucked away you propose to flash at us?”

“Not at the moment, no,” replies Fred.

Eventually they arrive at the town. Miss Flodden gets into an argument with a woman at a hotel, who dumps a bucket of water on her. Meanwhile, Fred sneaks into a bathing SS officer’s room and steals his uniform for Smallpiece.

He’s almost caught, and has to quickly change into a maid’s outfit and hit the pursuing Nazi over the head with a tray.

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Then they head off to a cottage nearby, where it turns out Miss Flodder has had an onset of malaria because of the water, or something. Miss Flodder is more or less convinced she’s about to die, and starts to make plans for such an occurrence.

“Guard my girls, Miss Wimbush,” she says, while Fred sits patiently listening, still dressed as a maid. “Defend them from the ravishments of men. Get them back to England unblemished. Make sure they have clean knickers every day.”

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Fred heads into town to find a doctor, but he ends up captured by Nazis and taken to their commanding officer, who just happens to be General Bincker.

Bincker agrees to let Fred go and get the doctor, but reveals that no one will be allowed out of the town without a pass, which only he has. He also invites Fred out on a lunch date the next day. Fred’s not sure he wants to go, but Smallpiece convinces him it’s the only way out of the town.

Together – with Smallpiece dressed in the stolen SS uniform – they head to the appointed restaurant. Unfortunately, the SS officer Fred stole the uniform from turns up, and Fred has to quickly dash inside to hide, where he somehow gets roped into a fashion show.

Because he’s not on the list, the pianist and MC is unsure what name to use and looks at him expectantly. “Fred,” hisses Fred.

“Como?” says the pianist in surprise.

“Frederika, you berk,” hisses back Fred.

“Ah,” announces the pianist. “Mms. Frederika Euberk.” Classic stuff.

Then there’s quite a long sequence in which Fred wears different dresses. Also, there’s psychedelic kaleidoscope visuals because, I guess, it was the early ‘70s.

Smallpiece and Fred escape after being chased out by Nazis, and Fred ends up having dinner with Bincker instead. Bincker flirts his way through the whole affair. “There can not be many women around like you,” he says.

“Oh, I hope you're right,” replies Fred.

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Fred decides that the best way to get the passes is to ensure that Bincker is constantly swilling champagne – not, oddly, to get him drunk, but rather to make him leave the room to pee.

The plan is a success, and the whole crew is back on the road again soon enough. They’re chased by some Nazis on motorbikes briefly, but the girls manage to take care of them with, I dunno, a spray can of cream or fly spray or something.

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They all celebrate with a rousing rendition of the old British traditional, ‘Hitler Has Only Got One Ball’. They actually had to cut the song out of the original cinema release in order to maintain the PG rating.

Soon enough, they’re near their goal – an airfield, from which they hope to steal a plane to fly back to Dear Old Blighty. However, they soon find that the Germans have taken over that too. They send the American girl over to see if there’s a way to sneak in, figuring she won’t be taken captive as the Germans aren’t at war with the US.

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She doesn’t manage to sneak in, but she does find out that they’re expecting a bus load of prostitutes. She reports that back to Fred and Smallpiece, and Fred quickly formulates a plan to intercept the bus and impersonate the prostitutes in order to gain entry to the airfield. “Just a minute, Wimbush,” says Smallpiece. “Hijacking a busload of tarts is hardly cricket.”

“No sir,” he replies. “It's war.”

Obviously, they make it back to Britain, although the manner in which they do is particularly odd, even considering the rest of the film. It’s all terrifically entertaining though, unfalteringly British and, despite its PG rating, innuendo filled – hardly a shock, given that director Bob Kellett was also responsible for bringing Are You Being Served? to the big screen, as well as numerous other saucy ‘70s British comedies.

But really, it’s all down to the undeniable talent of La Rue, who dominates every scene he’s in – which is all of them – with the grin of a man who can’t believe how much fun he’s having.

As a result, every protest from Fred about having to wear a dress is rendered completely absurd, of course: La Rue can’t hide the fact that he’s loving every minute of it. You wouldn’t want him to either, because each and every smirk and grin means you can’t help but enjoy yourself along with him.

- Alistair Wallis

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