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Sometimes the title changes films undergo when moving from one country to another seem arbitrary and odd, especially when the exchange occurs between two countries that speak the same language...roughly. But the distributors of the British comedy Man in a Cocked Hat (1959) can't be blamed for the radical name shift, considering the original title, Carlton-Browne of the F.O. makes no sense to an American audience. How effective can marketing be when it must be explained first that Carlton-Browne is the name of the main character and F.O. stands for Foreign Office, the British equivalent of our State Department? Better to call it something completely different, and if the best you can come up with is Man in a Cocked Hat, then you'd better hope your comedy is a winning one, with a cast that can sell it.
This turned out to be no problem. The picture was the latest sharp satire put out by the producing-directing team of John and Roy Boulting. It might be a stretch to call these twin filmmakers the Coen brothers of their time and nation, but they did create a string of very funny films taking on such institutions as the army (Private's Progress, 1956), the legal system (Brothers in Law, 1957), and higher education (Lucky Jim, 1957). Those targets may have limited the international audience to those who understood the sacred cows and eccentricities of British society, but Man in a Cocked Hat widened the range beyond purely domestic concerns into the realm of world politics, shining a comic and topical light on such serious subjects as the collapse of Britain's empire and its decreasing world influence, the Cold War, the often volatile drive toward independence by former colonies and territories of Western powers following World War II, and the partitioning of once unified nations into separate, warring countries (like Korea and Viet Nam).
Cadogan de Vere Carlton-Browne (try putting that in a title) is a bumbling, none-too-bright Foreign Office functionary sent to straighten out a mess in a tiny, forgotten corner of the Commonwealth, the island of Gaillardia. It seems a rich mineral deposit has been discovered there, bringing agents from several world powers to the scene with a hunger for a piece of the pie. Unfortunately, Carlton-Browne's feeble handling of the situation actually brings about unrest, fomented by the unscrupulous Prime Minister Amphibulos, using young King Loris as his puppet. Carlton-Browne's further fumbling allies Britain to the wrong side, the mineral-free North. Somehow he manages, in the course of revolution and a romance encouraged between the king and a beautiful princess from the opposite camp, to restore international peace and order.
Terry-Thomas, already well known to British audiences thanks to his work on television, the earlier Boulting films and to American audiences through his supporting role in the George Pal fantasy-adventure tom thumb (1958), is the star of the film as Carlton-Browne, and his expert comedy skills easily carry the story along. But Man in a Cocked Hat also featured an actor who had made quite a splash over the previous few years, again on British television and in supporting roles in several notable productions such as The Ladykillers, 1955, with Alec Guinness; Val Guest's military spoof Up the Creek, 1958; and tom thumb. Peter Sellers was becoming known as a comic caricaturist of great skill, able to melt into a variety of accents and types. As Gaillardia's conniving prime minister, he didn't have quite the opportunities to shine afforded Terry-Thomas, but working with the Boultings proved to be a turning point in his career.
Sellers's agent had contacted the duo urging them to watch Sellers perform on TV one evening and vowed that his client had the makings of a first-rate actor far beyond his mere gifts as a comic with a knack for funny voices. Having once unwisely rejected the agent's suggestion of another talent--who turned out to be Audrey Hepburn--the Boultings decided they had better pay closer attention. They found Sellers's performance "incisive" and "brilliant" and immediately signed him to a five-year, non-exclusive contract.
Sellers had great difficulty at first finding the character of the double-dealing official, and withdrew into a petulant reluctance to deliver a performance, a cover for his debilitating lack of confidence. It took a bit of deft handling by director Roy Boulting to provide the key to unlock Sellers's genius. Boulting was aware that writer Jeffrey Dell had based the character on Italian entrepreneur Filippo del Giudice (aka Del), whose machinations and great persuasiveness had been instrumental in getting backers for such important but apparently non-commercial ventures as Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare adaptations Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948). Boulting gave Sellers a devastating impression of del Giudice, "and within two minutes, on the sidewalk, he proceeded to improvise dialogue and put on an act as a man he'd never seen which was more Del than Del himself." It was clear they had landed a major talent; over the coming years it was also clear they had saddled themselves with a wealth of hang-ups, demands, and unbridled egocentricity. "A man with an infinite capacity for sucking people dry," they said. "A man of immense dependence [notably on his mother] seeking ruthlessly, by any means, to establish his independence and preeminence."
The cast of Man in a Cocked Hat also featured Italian bombshell Luciana Paluzzi, recently seen in Hercules (1958) opposite Steve Reeves, and Scottish actor Ian Bannen, whose career extended from early Boulting comedies (Private's Progress) to his work in Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995) and the comedy Waking Ned Devine (1998), made shortly before his death in 1999 at the age of 71.
The Boultings, who alternated producer and director credits, as well as occasional writing chores, continued to feature Sellers in comic takes on labor struggles (I'm All Right Jack, 1959) and religion (Heavens Above!, 1963), as well as a romantic comedy distributed widely in the States by Columbia Pictures, There's a Girl in My Soup (1970), co-starring Goldie Hawn, and another war farce, Undercovers Hero (1974), in which Sellers played six major roles.
The mix of satire and broad farce in Man in a Cocked Hat was not a plus for many critics, and the sharp barbs at British foreign politics raised the hackles of a few. The Monthly Film Bulletin published by the British Film Institute found the satire "invidious," decrying jokes about colonial administration, efforts by the United Nations to quell revolutions, and the dominant influence of both America and the Soviet Union to have "uncomfortable topical parallels" and "not easily dismissed." Seen from a distance, however, the film stands up much better than the British press would allow at the time.
Those with sharp eyes will notice in the film's credits that the editor is Anthony Harvey, who went on to direct more than a dozen pictures, including They Might Be Giants (1971) and the later Katharine Hepburn vehicles The Lion in Winter (1968), Grace Quigley (1984), and a made-for-television version of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie (1973).
Directors: Roy Boulting, Jeffrey Dell
Producer: John Boulting
Screenplay: Jeffrey Dell, Roy Boulting
Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum (as Max Greene)
Editing: Anthony Harvey
Art Direction: Albert Witherick
Original Music: John Addison
Cast: Terry-Thomas (Carlton-Browne), Peter Sellers (Prime Minister Amphibulos), Luciana Paluzzi (Princess Ilyena), Ian Bannen (King Loris), Miles Malleson (Resident Adviser Davidson).
by Rob Nixon