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Before he took the Beatles through A Hard Day's Night (1964), director Richard Lester made some pretty vital connections with The Mouse on the Moon (1963), a whimsical satire of the cold war and the race for space. And though the film was less successful than its 1959 predecessor, The Mouse That Roared, Lester proved himself so adept at comedy that he was producer Walter Shenson's first choice when he needed someone to shepherd the Fab Four through their screen debut.
Shenson had moved from publicity to production when he optioned the rights to Leonard Wibberley's satiric novel about the world's smallest country, the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, which declares war on the U.S. in order to enjoy reconstruction payments after they lose. The original film made Peter Sellers an international star, featuring him in three very different roles, including the Grand Duchess. When Shenson got the idea for the sequel, inspired by the escalating space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Sellers was unavailable, but he suggested Lester as director. The two had worked together on the trend-setting anarchic comedy short The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film in 1959. Lester was trying to make the transition to features from television directing, where he had learned rapid cutting making commercials. He had already directed the rock musical It's Trad, Dad! (1962, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm) and The Mouse on the Moon looked like a ticket to the big time.
Replacing Sellers required two top-notch comic actors. Ron Moody, who had played Fagin in the original stage production of Oliver! took on the role of vainglorious Prime Minister Mountjoy. Margaret Rutherford, one of the grande dames of the British stage and film comedy, took over as Gloriana XII, the vacant, tipsy grand duchess. As new characters, Lester and Shenson included Terry-Thomas and Bernard Cribbins, two stalwarts of the popular British comedies of the '50s, and, in a one-minute cameo, Frankie Howerd, a popular television comic who had starred in the definitive British comic film, The Ladykillers (1955).
Although one of Great Britain's most beloved stars, particularly after her turn as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in Murder She Said (1961), Rutherford's presence caused some problems with the film's insurers. Because of her advanced age, they refused to cover the film against her death or illness. To get around their narrow-mindedness, Lester and Shenson put up their salaries as a bond and filmed all of Rutherford's lines in two days in close-ups against a variety of backgrounds. Although she continued with the film to perform in long shots, they were covered in case she fell ill. She didn't and would go on starring in films until her death in 1972.
Despite the unfounded concern over her health, Rutherford had a great time with the film, particularly when Columbia Pictures decided to take a press junket to Cape Canaveral (later Cape Kennedy). Not only did she get to accompany other cast members on the trip, but also she was asked to autograph a photo for astronaut Scott Carpenter and later got to go swimming with the astronauts.
Although most critics found The Mouse on the Moon inferior to its predecessor, The Mouse That Roared, many had a special fondness for the film as a reminder of the beloved British comedies produced at the Ealing Studios, an echo reinforced by the presence of Rutherford, Thomas, Cribbins, Howerd and screenwriter Michael Pertwee (Make Mine Mink, 1960). The big winner on the film, however, was Lester, whose ability to work on a tight schedule and standing sets (the film was shot on sets left over from Cornel Wilde's Sword of Lancelot, 1963) convinced Shenson to hire him for A Hard Day's Night.
Producer: Walter Shenson
Director: Richard Lester
Screenplay: Michael Pertwee
Based on the novel by Leonard Wibberley
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: John Howell
Music: Ron Grainer
Cast: Margaret Rutherford (The Grand Duchess Gloriana), Ron Moody (Mountjoy), Bernard Cribbins (Vincent), David Kossoff (Kokintz), Terry-Thomas (Spender), June Ritchie (Cynthia), Frankie Howerd (Fenwickian).
by Frank Miller