Penny Points to Paradise Review
Regardless of the qualities or flaws that Penny Points to Paradise might have as a low-budget British comedy feature, the primary interest of its appearance on DVD and Blu-ray lies in it being a rare Goons movie, featuring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, made by the radio comedy team in their early years. The Goons radio show was quite revolutionary for its time, providing a healthy injection of anarchy and surrealism into a rather staid tradition of British music-hall variety, so in the absence of any significant complete viewings of the film pretty much since its release in 1951, the pertinent question is whether Penny Points to Paradise can successfully translate the guys peculiar brand of comedy to the screen (and in this context whether it stands-up for a modern day audience) or whether it’s the “terribly bad” film that Peter Sellers recalls it being.
For most people the answer will lie somewhere in-between. The film certainly has its faults, but it’s also more than just a Goons curiosity. The problem with the film – a fact that would only become apparent in the following years with the rise of Peter Sellers as a tremendous comedy acting talent – is that it sidelines Sellers in favour of what at that time would seem to be the more obvious focus on Secombe and Milligan. Neither in their screen debuts prove to be natural actors, their particular brand of humour moreover being somewhat subdued by the necessity of stagily delivering scripted lines that have to bear some semblance of sense in order to move the film plot along.
The plot is certainly nothing too complex – Harry Flakes (Secombe) has just won £100,000 pounds on the football pools (the penny points of the film’s title), but hasn’t let it go to his head, returning to the same modest seaside B&B for his holidays with his friend Spike (Milligan), rather than seek out more luxurious accommodation. He is concerned however about the safety of his money, carrying it around with him in a big suitcase. And he has every right to be worried – there are a couple of gold-digging females also boarding at the house (Vicky Paige and Paddy O’Neil), and there’s the Major (Sellers), a scatty businessman who thinks it could be invested in schemes like his North Pole Coconut Corporation. A couple of con-men (Alfred Marks and Bill Kerr) have also got wind of the pools winner being in town and have their own designs on what to do with it.
In effect however, the plot is just a loose framework for the various comedians – all putting their own money into the production – to perform parts of their routines for the big screen with little concern whether they have anything to do with advancing the story or characterisation. Secombe does a wonderful surgeon mime skit, Paddy O’Neil does her Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson impersonations, and the two of them doing a fine hypnotist music-hall act together, while Milligan doesn’t really seem to know what to do and just rolls his eyes about his head and gurns at the camera – which in itself is all highly entertaining, but hardly the stuff of feature films. Peter Sellers however, relying on his turn of inhabiting various characters, playing the Major (deeply concerned about Harry’s spondulicks) and a Canadian Salesman, is however revealed as being in another league altogether, even in this his screen debut, but is spread much too thinly to make the bigger impression that the film desperately needs to hold it together.
Perhaps that’s a little too much to expect of a group of comedians in their first screen outing together, and anyone wanting to settle for some Goons goofing-around (and to answer the question posed in the introduction, heaven only knows what a modern audience unaccustomed to the likes of Milligan’s mania would make of this kind of comedy!) will find plenty to entertain in Penny Points to Paradise, the presence alone of Milligan, Sellers, Secombe et al, making this a much more entertaining and memorable film that it might otherwise have been.
The supplemental short film Let’s Go Crazy, which does indeed highlight Peter Sellers qualities more, came about as a kind of side project to Penny Points to Paradise when it was discovered that that only three of the four weeks paid studio time had been used in its making. Set in a posh restaurant, the film consists of a series of rather dated musical and variety acts, with Milligan and Sellers in various guises as waiters and patrons of the establishment.
Penny Points to Paradise and Let’s Go Crazy are released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI. The disc is BD50 and comes with a 1080/24p encode. The set is not region locked.
Derived mostly from a nitrate finegrain 35mm positive (due to the original negative being subjected to various cuts), the transfer of a partially lost film is unexpectedly quite impressive. There is hardly a mark on the print at all, with only one or two fleeting problem frames and, as far as I could see, only two or three short sequences that were evidently taken from the lesser quality 16mm source need to restore the complete film. The majority of the print however is crystal clear and stable, with no flicker and very good greyscale tones, although skin tones look a little smooth and there is a surprising lack of any visible grain. Without having seen the corresponding DVD, I’m not sure that the HD transfer offers any substantial benefits, but neither do I think that the film could reasonably be expected to look any better than it is presented here.
Let’s Go Crazy also benefits from the full restoration, with only one reel of the final act towards the end looking as if it has been patched in not only from a different print, but from another film entirely. Again though, this is an excellent restoration, better than anything you might reasonably have expected.
A PCM 2.0 mono 48k/16-bit audio track gives the soundtrack a fine presentation also. Dialogue can be a bit booming in places and some dialogue can be a little difficult to decipher in one or two places, but for the most part it is fine. The limits are certainly stretched in Harry Secombe’s opera-singer performance, revealing a little harshness at the edges, but overall it copes pretty well. Let’s Go Crazy shows up a little crackle in one or two reels, but is otherwise also fine.
English for Hard of Hearing subtitles are available for all features on the disc.
The Slappiest Days of Our Lives
Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Ben Turpin, Billy Bevan, James Finlayson – who would have imagined that the earliest of Max Sennett comedies would ever make an appearance on a Blu-ray disc? More than a compilation, this French made feature attempts to put together some kind of narrative from a number of diverse clips, with Stan Laurel playing the part of a journalist for the Daily Splash rocketed in to the USA to see the American way of life, but being suspected of being the spy K2... or at least, that’s how Peter Sellers (with assistance from Graham Stark) interprets it in his funny voice-over narrative and impersonations for the English version of the film for Adelphi, and doing such a good Stan Laurel impersonation that he had me fooled for a few minutes. A fine extra not only for Sellers’ participation, but also for some clues as to the influence these early slapstick comedies had on the Goons. Unrestored, you wouldn’t expect much of this considering the age, but it actually looks in great shape.
A 30-page booklet contains an essay by Vic Pratt, the Curator of the BFI National Archive, on the history and making of Penny Points to Paradise, the different versions produced, the disappearance of the full version and its recovery and restoration, also considering how Let’s Go Crazy and Slappiest Days of Our Lives came about. Mark Cousins also takes a look at how Peter Sellers and the Goons made the transition from radio to film, while Kate Lees covers the history of Adelphi Films. Cast & Credits information is supplied on all three films, and a longer section by Kieron Webb on the complications involved in the restoration work. The booklet is wonderfully illustrated with photos and I love the inclusion of a funny letter from Spike Milligan on the receipt of his modest earnings for the film.
No-one is going to pretend that Penny Points to Paradise is by any means a great film, but featuring most of the Goons, it is an important one and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s also often quite funny in places. Fully restored and collected here with some fine supplemental features, photos and essays, no-one however could feel that the BFI’s Blu-ray release is in any way disappointing. This is well worth a viewing by any fans of a classic era of British comedy films and may perhaps even be more than a curiosity for a younger audience. As the first of BFI’s Adelphi Collection moreover, this Blu-ray release sets a terrific standard and holds out the promise of other classic British comedy treasures being given a similar treatment.