The Comedy Man (1964) ***

Unemployed actor Chic Byrd (Kenneth More) clings to his sanity through a series of rejections in this realistic portrayal of life as a stage actor. Even humor fails to leaven despair as he fails for the most part to even achieve auditions, reduced to a job as Santa Claus in a department store and acting in television commercials while a friend Julian Baxter (Edmund Purdom) suddenly shoots to fame in the movies.

Chic has never been a success, his name never adorning a West End marquee, trundling round one English repertory theatre after another, living in one tiny leaking apartment after another. And now, on the wrong side of forty, knocking on disillusion’s door, feels life has passed him by. The price of failure is high, another failed thespian Jack (Alan Dobie) commits suicide. Chic still has charm enough to revive an old relationship with fellow actor Judy (Billie Whitelaw) and deflower virgin Fay Trubshaw (Angela Douglas).

It’s a well-rounded character. While living on scraps, he still takes taxis. He pawns valuables. While Judy between acting jobs works as a waitress, he feels that is beneath him. To some extent he has coasted, too many easy love affairs getting in the way of the hard work required to build a serious career.   

There is some sharp observation: sleazy agent (Dennis Price) operating a casting couch and feeling free to maul every girl in sight, even Fay; extras go on strike in a film; rain washes out location shooting; a shocked young girl watches as a man cuts in on her male dancing partner; no female backside within reach remains un-slapped; the platoon of out-of-work actors keep up each others’ spirits.

This was a strange case of life imitating art. Kenneth More’s career was on the slide. From Genevieve (1953) to Sink the Bismarck (1960) by way of Doctor in the House (1954) and Reach for the Sky (1956), More had combined comedic charm with stiff-upper-lip heroics to achieve massive success at the British box office. But his career had gone into tailspin after he offended the boss of Rank, not just one of the top British studios but owner of one of the top cinema chains. He remained under contract to Rank without receiving any work.

With its depiction of life in the raw – plus enough sex and swearing to command an “X” certificate – it should have been a shoo-in for acceptance as part of the British New Wave, for whom work and unemployment were essential elements. It could have revived More’s career, shifted critical and audience perception. But it did neither.

At this point Canadian director Alvin Rakoff was more of a television stalwart than movie maker, but he does elicit a poignant performance from More, fills the background with incident and steers the picture clear of the maudlin. Readers of this Blog will be familiar with Peter Yeldham who wrote the screenplay – from the novel by Douglas Hayes – since he was also responsible for The Liquidator (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) and Age of Consent (1969).

Cecil Parker has a cameo as a befuddled ageing actor on the scrounge, supporting actor Norman Rossington (Tobruk, 1967) again makes an impact as a neighbor whose chat-up lines fail to strike a chord with sophisticated actresses, and Frank Finlay appears in a bit part. Billie Whitelaw is excellent as the old flame who acts as Chic’s conscience while Dennis Price takes his usual charm down a seedier road. But it’s More’s film and it is something of an eye-opener even though seen by so few.

Although completed in 1962, the film was shelved for 18 months as original distributor Hal Christie of Albion Films struggled to find a place for it in the release system. More was especially vexed as he had deferred his salary so would not be paid until the film turned a profit which it was never going to do sitting on a shelf. With his career now mostly dependent on independent production, More now , typically, vented his anger on this filmmaking sector complaining to Variety that “they were little men running around in small, stupid, circles”

The picture had cost $500,000 but $300,000 of that came from a loan from the National Film Finance Corporation, a government scheme which had a habit of investing in duds. When it was finally released in 1964, it was ironic that it went out on the lower half of a double bill with another film that had been shelved for even longer – three years – Peter Brooks’ The Lord of the Flies. Doubly ironic, it was Rank that paired them.

This was More’s final starring role so it is an unusual swansong and a shame, really, that he did not attempt this kind of picture in his heyday when it could have expanded his career.

By the way, unless Imdb has changed it since I told them, More does not play a character called “Chick” because his surname is Byrd. He plays a character called “Chic” because that is standard British shortening of the first name Charles, as in Chic Murray.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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