Summary: Ambitious and thoroughly satisfying spoof of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Highly quotable. Carry On Choppin'! SPOILERS!
In `Don't Lose Your Head' (aka `Carry On Pimpernel')
the Scarlet Pimpernel myth/legend is presented by the `Carry On'
gang as an hysterical parody. Real revolutions are generally bloodthirsty,
and often go wrong LONG before they achieve their aims. Oh YES,
the peasants were revolting! Cheering the guillotine, they stank
on ice! This spoof by the double-entendre-gang stands unique among
other Carry Ons, because it almost passes for serio-comedy, milking
considerable drama and adventure from the story. It helps if you
know a smattering of French, because the puns, especially the
character names, rely on gag translations. There's also a touch
of the Marx Brothers here, so SOMEONE had the right idea about
its caliber! Without question, artistically this is the gem of
the `Carry On' franchise.
The film opens at a Paris guillotine. "What's the tally for the day so far?" asks the Secret Police's Citizen Camembert, the Big Cheese (Kenneth Williams). "Twenty-six set of aristo's", answers his toadying assistant Bidet (Peter Butterworth). " -Carry On Chopping!" cries Camembert, providing a thinly veiled alternate title.
Sir Rodney Ffing (Sidney James), and his "inseparable companion,' Lord Darcy Pew (Jim Dale) are two "fashionable layabouts" who do not discriminate between "a girl" and "a chap" in order to pursue "hunting", "shooting" and "fishing,' all of which amount to much the same thing. So, both "exceeding bored" by the "same old girls...same old balls,' they decide "to lift a finger, or two" over the French Revolution. Sir Rodney becomes the `Black Fingernail,' who always leaves his calling card at his rescues of French aristocrats from Madame La Guillotine.
This of course "utterly bedevils" Robespierre (Peter Gilmore), Camembert's boss and the real zealot behind the Revolution. The leader of the Royalists, the Duc de Pommfrit (Charles Hawtrey), meanwhile, hilariously refuses to get off the execution cart to go to the guillotine because he's "just on the last chapter of the latest Marquis de Sade", and "Couldn't POSSIBLY put the book down". We're even offered beheading jokes: "Your grace, there's an urgent letter for you!" " -Oh, drop it in the basket, I'll read it later" quips Pommfrit, who's definitely about "to have his chips" (a gag based on his name). When the blade gets stuck, he complains that "this would NEVER have happened under a ROYALIST government", to which Camembert snippily retorts, "-There's no need to make a political issue out of it!" (Now this really IS quite clever).
When the Black Fingernail rescues Pommfrit, Robespierre threatens Camembert with the loss of his own head; so Camembert, his charge Desiree, and his trusty Bidet all pose as escaped French aristocrats in order to follow the Black Fingernail's trail back to England. Thus begins my favourite, the Calais scene, viz "Alais to Calais". At the chief exit port between France and England, Camembert encounters a border guard: "Listen, has anyone passed out within the hour?" he asks. The guard (an Eric Idle-lookalike and soundalike) replies " -Only the sergeant, but he's sleepin' it orff now". Camembert presses on: "I'm looking for a woman". Guard: " -Aw, nothin' doin' out here, chum; you wanna try LaMatre!"
In England, Sir Rodney meets Desiree (a very busty Joan Sims) at the ball, greeting her with "You're a picture M'moiselle...a trifle overexposed". But Camembert has come to the ball to sniff out The Black Fingernail. "We must be circumspect", he warns Bidet. "-Oh, I was, when I was a baby!" offers his illiterate assistant.
Sims' ample endowments and the locket upon them are used both
as a ruse to trap the Fingernail, as well as a running gag (thankfully
without becoming crass).
At the ball Sir Rodney realises that "Count Henri de LaPlume de MarTonte" is really Camembert, but he and Darcy `act natural' by indulging in a somewhat gay and anachronistic polka! Still, Camembert manages to pick a pretext duel with Sir Rodney. "As the injured party, I have the choice of swords or pistols", he demands. "-Oh, we won't quarrel over that! You have the swords, I'll have the pistols" quips Sir Rodney in a gag that preempts `Raiders of the Lost Ark' by 14 yrs!
With a decent plot and visually rich sets, the double-entendres are entirely at home in this spoof, providing more substance than other `Carry Ons.' It's difficult to fault either the screenplay or the cast; Peter Gilmore is an almost entirely serious(!) Robespierre, and Joan Sims, Jim Dale, and Charles Hawtrey are all in tune and excellent. Sidney James, sadly though, is too old to swash much buckle or woo Desiree, even as a ruse. Williams flares his nostrils and Butterworth puts up his dukes a few times too many, but otherwise everyone is pretty good.
The screenplay delves into quite a few political issues for such a "fluff" movie. There's no attempt, for instance, to gloss over the facile hubris of the aristocracy; conversely, the emotionally blunt populace cheering at the guillotine are most like Bidet, who is revealed as a bastard child and a dull, inept peasant. The supercilious Camembert is revealed as a grubby plutocrat, contemptuous of both peasants, and even the Revolution: "I DO wish you'd stop Vive-ing all over the place!" and, "Oh, I really hate these peasants; give me the aristocracy any time!".
Talbot Rothwell's modest but clever screenplay adapts the Pimpernel legend/myth to suit the `Carry On' gang like a glove. It gives each castmember something to shine with, while still milking the inherent drama. The custom (ie not overdone) double-entendres still sound fresh, and serve to justify the plot adaptations; while the surgical casting allows the actors to successfully trade on their established quirks.
The one element that does fail is the story arc about the aging Black Fingernail's sudden "true love" Jacqueline (Dany Robin); their asides to camera are merely disruptive, and her Beatles-ed-up "He Loveth Me" harp scene is cringingly bad.
Otherwise this is a hilarious spoof, good for laughs & quotes aplenty!