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Heavens Above!

Heavens Above!(1963)

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teaser Heavens Above! (1963)

By 1963, Peter Sellers had gained the attention of an international audience after appearing in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and Jack Arnold's The Mouse That Roared (1959). However, it was a series of modest British comedies that had enabled him to climb to these higher-profile roles -- films such as Basil Dearden's The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) and Charles Crichton's The Battle of the Sexes (1959). Such comedies were considered "regional" films because they are steeped in the vernacular and culture of working-class England, and were not especially successful outside the UK. The last of Sellers's so-called regional comedies was the Boulting Brothers' Heavens Above! (1963).

Sellers stars as Reverend John Smallwood, a kind-hearted but naive prison chaplain who, through a clerical error, is assigned to be the vicar of the quaint community of Orbiston Parva. This peaceful hamlet has been invaded by the modern ills of consumerism and rock'n'roll, and is dominated by the Despard family, whose dynasty is founded upon Tranquilax, a pharmaceutical cure-all that works as a sedative, stimulant, and laxative in one convenient pill.

By the time the error is discovered, Smallwood is entrenched in the community and compelled to defend his place there. "If I've come to Orbiston Parva," he tells Archdeacon Aspinall (Cecil Parker), "it's because I was meant to come. I'm not packing it in now." When asked to comment upon the complaints that have arisen from certain members of the community, Smallwood responds, "Remember what it says in the Bible, 'Woe unto you when all men speak well of you.'"

Smallwood upsets the status quo by instituting new charity programs, encouraging Lady Despard (Isabel Jeans) to sell her Tranquilax stock and give the proceeds to the needy, welcoming the poor into his home, and choosing as his Vicar's warden a black garbage collector (Brock Peters). This raises the ire of all the stuffed shirts in Orbiston Parva, from church officials to the Tranquilax board of directors to local shopkeepers.

The powers-that-be are vexed as to how to remove Smallwood from his post, until a corrupt bishop (George Woodbridge) discovers a toy in his bowl of cereal, and devises a most outrageous means of disposing of the troublesome vicar.

Smallwood is a misfit within the clergy not because of religious heresy, but because he dares to actually believe and live by scripture, and hasn't bent his faith to accommodate the widespread social fixation on money and class.

Hardly a scathing indictment of the bureaucratic shortcomings of the C. of E., Heavens Above! does manage to fire a few well-aimed darts at the religious establishment. In one scene, Smallwood is confronted by the Archdeacon about the mismanagement of funds. "It isn't the paying, you know," Smallwood says, "It's the caring. That's what counts with God." The Archdeacon scoffs, "I don't think there's any need to keep bringing God into this." "Well," Smallwood replies, "it's difficult to keep him out."

Sellers was educated at St. Aloysius's Boarding and Day School for Boys, and it is said that his inspiration for the good-natured Smallwood was one of the teachers, Brother Cornelius, who bore a profound influence on the adolescent Sellers. It seems the student did not make such an impression upon the master. In 1960, during Sellers's rise to fame, Brother Cornelius was asked about his former pupil. "He was just...average," the priest recalled, "not a memorable scholar, not a memorable athlete, no, nothing very outstanding at all."

So fond of Cornelius was Sellers that he stayed in touch with the priest for decades and made occasional contributions to the school. When St. Aloysius's celebrated its centenary, Sellers dispatched a telegram from the U.S. to be published in their literature, "TO THE BOYS OF ST. ALOYSIUS' COLLEGE. PETER SELLERS WAS EDUCATED HERE BUT TO NO AVAIL STOP HE TURNED OUT A RIGHT TWIT STOP SEE THAT YOU DON'T DO THE SAME STOP EXCELSIOR! PETER SELLERS" (quoted in Roger Lewis's biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers).

More than one writer has observed the similarities between the quiet, soft-spoken Smallwood and the character of Chance the butler in Hal Ashby's Being There (1979). Both men are cheerfully oblivious to the societal headaches and obsessions that plague the world around them. In fact, Reverend John Hester (another priest who bore a significant impact on Sellers) remarked that the "holy fool" of Being There "was the Heavens Above! character twenty years later" (paraphrased in Alexander Walker's authorized biography Peter Sellers).Sellers's perfectionism was rewarded when his performance received high marks from the priest who served as the film's technical consultant, Rev. Harold Ironmonger. "'Very convincing, very moving,' he told me afterwards," Sellers remembered proudly, "It made me feel like taking the cloth."

Despite Brother Cornelius's influence and Rev. Ironmonger's praise, Sellers was never drawn to organized religion. According to Walker, "He didn't belong to any church, Peter said, because he 'hated joining things.' His own religion, he added rather ambiguously, was doing unto others what they would do unto you."

Lewis quotes Sellers's son Michael as saying, "Dad could be Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or any other religious faith on a given day. If someone offered a cut-price special-offer-gift-wrapped religion that guaranteed miracles and a personal audience with the Maker, then Dad would apply for instant enrollment." He reportedly explored Yoga and the occult in his wide-ranging quest for enlightenment.

Though Heavens Above! is distinctively British, there are plenty of pop cultural references that cross continental boundaries. In a sly wink to Sellers fans, the camera, during a Sunday church service, pans from the organist to reveal an altar boy sitting behind it, reading a paperback copy of Lolita (while pumping the organ in a gesture that is unmistakably masturbatory). Another inside joke occurs when Smallwood is offered his choice of reading material while waiting to meet with the bishop: a newspaper published by the Church of England or Punch, the satirical English publication that frequently lampooned the religious establishment. The screenplay of Heavens Above! was based on an idea by Malcolm Muggeridge, who was formerly an editor of Punch, and who has a cameo role as a cleric.

Curiously, this thoroughly English film was given its world premiere at New York's Sutton Theater on May 21, 1963. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "How can they ridicule men of the cloth who are the vicars of God in Britain and the backbone of The Establishment? Well, the answer is that they have done it with a sweep of observation that takes in the foibles of all human beings as well as those of the officials of the church, thus imposing the burden of their satire upon the back of the whole human race. And they have gone at the highly ticklish subject with as much wit as audacity."

Heavens Above! was made by the Boulting Brothers, whose Charter Film Productions Ltd. was established in 1937 with the conscious aim of creating motion pictures of socio-political relevance. Born twins on December 21, 1913, John and Roy Boulting's working relationship was tight and balanced. Their filmic collaboration spanned 30 years, and yielded such memorable films as Pastor Hall (1940), the Oscar®-winning WWII propaganda film Desert Victory (1943), an adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1947), and I'm All Right Jack (1959), one of the films that established Sellers's reputation as a comic actor.

After appearing in Heavens Above!, Sellers played Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the first of Blake Edwards's The Pink Panther films. It marked the end of Sellers's appearance in "regional" British films and the beginning of a career designed to appeal to a more global audience.

Heavens Above! earned a BAFTA nomination (the British equivalent of the Oscars®) for its black-and-white cinematography by Berlin-born d.p. Mutz Greenbaum, who is credited under the somewhat anglicized name Max Greene.

Initially release in the U.S. at 105 minutes, Heavens Above! is presented on TCM in the complete 118-minute UK cut of the film.

Director: John and Roy Boulting
Producer: John and Roy Boulting
Screenplay: John Boulting and Frank Harvey, from an idea by Malcolm Muggeridge
Cinematography: Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum)
Production Design: Albert Witherick
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Peter Sellers (Rev. John Smallwood), Cecil Parker (Archdeacon Aspinall), Isabel Jeans (Lady Despard), Bernard Miles (Simpson), Brock Peters (Matthew Robinson), George Woodbridge (Bishop).

by Bret Wood

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