Sing their names with praise: The Titfield Thunderbolt, Whisky Galore, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico, The Man in the White Suit. These and other British comedies from the late Forties and early Fifties brought delight and charm not just to the British but also to a large number of Americans. We'd find ourselves in highly unlikely, sometimes ridiculous circumstances during which the actors played their roles with oblivious seriousness, without a wink or smirk to the audience. The writing was clever, the direction was brisk and the acting was highly skilled deadpan. Brandy for the Parson, filmed in 1952, tries hard to be a member of that group, doesn't quite make it, but still has much to appreciate.
A young couple, Bill Harper and Petronilla Brand (James Donald and Jean Lodge), out for a boating holiday, manage to hit and sink Tony Rackman's boat. They wind up conned into taking Tony (Kenneth More) to a French port where he says he was going to pick up a few things. It turns out the "things" are 12 barrels of prized and illegal brandy. By the time our couple and Tony get the barrels back to England, the custom's inspectors are after them. Bill and Petronilla reluctantly feel they must help Tony. After all, they sank his boat, it's not much brandy and, with the inspectors after all of them, they don't have much choice. So now we're off on a series of improbable adventures involving everything and everyone from a Boy Scout troop, trained circus ponies, the Lascombe Steam Laundry van and its delivery driver, George Crumb (Charles Hawtrey), shady pub owners, effete wine merchants, a gentleman farmer who knows too well the price of brandy and an assortment of some very capable, pungent British character actors.
But, oh, is the pace leisurely. Individual scenes are amusing, but the movie at times just slogs along. Adding to the problem of pace is that we see too little of that confident and charismatic extrovert, Kenneth More, and too much of the uncharismatic and often dour James Donald. More, after years as a strong second lead, crashed into major stardom as Ambrose Claverhouse with his next movie, Genevieve. He brings conniving good cheer to the movie, but he disappears for a good deal of the middle. James Donald, on the other hand, was a fine actor in secondary roles. You might remember him as the major who cries "Madness! Madness!" in The Bridge on the River Kwai. He was the kind of humorless, thoughtful actor who telegraphs how hard he's acting when he has to smile. Still, the character actors, some just briefly seen, keep giving us pleasant surprises...men and women like Alfie Bass, Reginald Beckwith, Arthur Wonter, Frank Tickle, Patience Rintoul and so many others. Almost every small role is a gem. How does Britain cultivate these people? America seems to have nothing like them. Especially, there is Charles Hawtrey as the Lascombe laundryman who winds up as a more-or-less innocent accomplice to Tony, Bill and Pretronilla.
Hawtrey was a small, thin, bespectacled man who, as part of the Carry On gang from 1959 to 1972, raised mincing about to an art form. He looked a little like a cross between a small Clifton Webb (without the waspish superiority) and a young Ernest Thesiger. While discreet in his personal relationships and activities (homosexuality at this time was a crime in Britain) he made no effort to be anything than who he was. As the years moved on Hawtrey became a passionate alcoholic, an enthusiastic collector of brass headboards and teenagers, and a flamboyant greeter of sailors. He quit the Carry On series in a dispute over billing and refused all entreaties to return. He seemed to have no close friends and often alienated the unclose ones. He was 73 when his doctors discovered the arteries in his legs were hopelessly diseased. When they told him his legs had to be amputated or he would die, he categorically refused. He supposedly told them he preferred to die with his boots on. He did, a month later. I doubt if I'd have wanted to spend much time with Hawtrey, but I can't help liking him. He was uproariously shameless flouncing about in all those Carry On movies.