Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Frozen Limits (Gainsborough/Gaumont-British/General Film, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Frozen Limits, which Charles had downloaded from and which for some reason I had assumed was a serious “Northern” set in the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush. Instead — as became apparent from the fact that the six male leads were billed collectively as “The Crazy Gang” (they consisted of three two-man comedy teams who performed both separately and together in the British music halls — Jimmy Nervo and Teddy Knox; Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen; Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold — and they, plus one elderly comic actor, Moore Marriott, were billed together on the opening title card even before the name of the movie appeared), it was a comedy set the year it was made, 1939.

The film opens with the six main members appearing at a carnival as “The Six Wonder Boys” — and bombing, especially since they’re on one side of the midway and a hootchi-kootchi dancer is on the other. Once they finally do start to attract some paying customers, they’re driven out first by their landlady and then by the owner of the carnival, who demands that they pay the back rent on their space immediately, or else. They find a newspaper that announces that there’s been a major gold strike in the Klondike in Alaska, and they immediately steal enough money from the carnival treasury (reasoning that they’re owed it because by throwing them out, the carnival owner cost them scads of money) to go there. Only when they arrive they find that the newspaper was 40 years old and the “Prime Minister Chamberlain” who was announcing that Britain was at last ready for war (“It’s about time he started talking like that,” said one of the six) wasn’t Neville but Joe, and the war he was talking about wasn’t World War II but the Boer War. They meet up with Moore Marriott, playing crazy old coot Tom Tiddler, who’s obsessed with the idea that he owns a gold mine but has totally forgotten its location.

He’s living with his granddaughter Jill (Eileen Bell, a personable young ingénue who’s a good deal better than the sort of starlet who usually got parts like this in the U.S.) in an abandoned theatre in which the Wonder Boys decide to put on a play, with Teddy Knox in drag as the leading lady. They run up a bar tab at the local saloon that they can’t afford to pay and thus get in trouble with the owner, Bill McGrew (Bernard Lee, the principal villain and almost unrecognizable as the same actor who was the first “M” in the James Bond series a quarter-century later), and they stave off the worst by pulling out a lump of gold ore (“gold or what?” says Flanagan, kicking off a marvelous verbal routine that answers the question, not that you ever asked it, what would Abbott and Costello have been like if they’d been British)  which Tom Tiddler found while he was sleepwalking but, once again, can’t remember where. McGrew gives them 12 hours to come up with the location of the mine from which they got the ore, or else he’s going to get the townspeople to lynch them — he and the townspeople also accuse the Six of faking (“salting”) the gold discovery to be able to sell the old man’s land at a fraudulently high price — and as if that weren’t intrigue enough, McGrew also insists that Jill Tiddler marry him as his price for not letting the Wonder Boys be lynched.

Needless to say, she doesn’t like the idea, especially since she’s got a nice, hunky rival for her affections — Tex O’Brien (a surprisingly attractive Anthony Hulme) — whom she’d much rather marry, but when Bill promises he won’t let the townspeople lynch the Six Wonder Boys, Jill agrees to marry him and feels honor bound to go through with it no matter what. Of course, he double-crosses her and tells the townspeople to lynch them anyway — and the Wonder Boys double-cross him so he ends up marrying the heavily veiled Teddy Knox instead. As a six-man British comedy team, the Crazy Gang are amusing but hardly at the level of Monty Python, and any comedy made about the Klondike Gold Rush has the long shadow of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Gold Rush hanging heavily over it, but The Frozen Limits is a nice, amusing movie that turns truly inspired in the final reel, in which Tex O’Brien sneaks out of town and reports the goings-on to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who send out a company whose captain sings a stentorian song called “We Always Get Our Man” that sounds like a Nelson Eddy outtake and leads Tex to be concerned; he asks the captain, “Can you stop singing so we can get there a little faster?”

There are also quite a few metafictional references to other movies — the Six Wonder Boys compare themselves to the Seven Dwarfs and Jill Tiddler to Snow White, and at one point they even do a dance number to the song “Whistle While You Work” — which, given how fiercely protective Disney was of the rights to everything his studio handled, one wonders how they got away with that! — and there are also some gags about Britain’s war situation and some surprisingly racy bits they couldn’t have got away with if they’d been making this in the U.S. (like now, the British Board of Film Censors was quite a lot harder on violence and gore than the U.S. censors but more easygoing about sex!). The Frozen Limits is an unexpected little charmer from the production staff that had worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes; it might not be laugh-out-loud funny but it’s got more than its share of gently amusing bits.