Friday Film (88)

Having marked the 50th anniversary of Tony Hancock’s death with that little posting the other day, I want to use this entry in our ongoing film music series to highlight something that happens in the score of Hancock’s film The Rebel (1961). It’s been on my mind for several years (on and off); I’ve not written about it until now for, basically, two reasons…

The first is that, whenever I’ve previously searched online for this film or extracts from it, I didn’t find clips of all the bits I was looking for: videos have come and gone, but the things I needed were never all there at the same time. My recent search for Hancock material, however, revealed that someone had actually uploaded the entire movie to YouTube and not had it immediately booted off: it’s been there since March, and now that I know about it, I’m going to make use of it while I can!

My second reason for not having previously written about this film is that … well, I’m afraid I don’t find it entirely satisfactory. Far from it being what one would wish it to be — a 105-minute ‘Hancock’s Half-Hour’, as it were! — it is, to my mind, confused in its aims and messy in its execution: it seems to me that, here and there, it really doesn’t work at all; and there are even bits that I can hardly bear to watch, they seem so painfully misjudged…

I don’t want to go on about this, least of all in a film music posting; but it might be worth pointing out that Hancock’s long-standing writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (who hadn’t had a full-scale film script produced before) saddle themselves with a comic-dramatic writing problem that must be close to insuperable. For it is surely the case that a putatively satirical story in which a would-be artist of staggering giftlessness gains rapid acceptance and respect within a hyper-pretentious ‘art set’ is allowing itself too many ‘cheap shot’ depictions: the possibility of meaningful comedy vanishes beneath what look to be the flailings of a reactionary philistinism too much in love with its own contempt.

[[Insert: More subjectively, I also can’t quite make myself forget that this film shows Hancock at a point in time where the angle of his self-destructive decline was becoming noticeably steeper — at least from our vantage-point: the March 1961 release-date places The Rebel between the two final BBC TV series; i.e. after the sixth (at the end of which he forced out his co-star Sid James), and before the ‘solo Hancock’ seventh (following which he sacked Galton and Simpson, as well as his agent Beryl Vertue).]]

Anyhow, here’s an extended example of what I mean by ‘really doesn’t work at all’…

That said, there are terrific — even classic — moments in the film; and I want to share some with you now. This extract — from quite early on — shows our main character’s landlady finding out what he has been doing in his rooms…

[[Note: Those fantastically wretched paintings were produced — as was all the other art in the film — by no less a figure than Alistair Grant (1925-1997) … and I’m telling you now that they will stay with you forever…]]


All right, let’s get on with the music…

The first thing I want to say is that the film-related output of composer Frank Cordell (1918 – 1980) is not large, and the only reason I came to notice and remember his name, years and years ago, was that I was so impressed by the evident competence of his writing in Khartoum (1966) and Cromwell (1970). (For some biographical information that casts light on his professionalism, see his IMDB entry.) Obviously, neither of those large-scale, big budget films had much room for musically embodied wit and knowing reference — whereas, as we shall see, The Rebel does…

To make sure everyone notices what Cordell has done here, however, I need to proceed in stages.

Here, to begin with, is an extract from the opening of the 1951 film An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly. The music is, of course, taken from the magnificent jazz-influenced orchestral piece of the same name which was written by George Gershwin in 1928 (and re-worked by someone else for the film, Gershwin having died in 1937 at the age of only 38)…

Gershwin’s piece is famous for — among other things! — its incorporation of taxi horns to create an impression of a city full of motor traffic and bad-tempered drivers. Here’s the first couple of minutes…

All right, now here is a stretch of The Rebel during which Hancock, having given up his hated job and resolving to devote himself to art and art alone, travels from London to Paris. You’ll notice the references to actual French melodies — but note also the way little gestures from Gershwin’s piece eventually start to arrive as well … in small, lawyer-proof doses…

All of which I think is rather splendid.

And at the end of which you realised, of course, why it was that Cordell used up his Gershwin jokes while Hancock was still on his way to Paris: there’s a big tune — in the form of that seductive Gallic waltz! — waiting for him when he arrives there…


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2 thoughts on “Friday Film (88)

    • It’s worth pondering what would have happened if the score had saved up its Gershwin jokes for Hancock’s arrival in Paris, rather than using them on his journey in a way that seems superficially rather odd. The fact is that the ‘Paris’ sequence would have been *destroyed* — its strength and significance entirely sacrificed in the service of a few musical reminiscences which, in that context, would actually have sounded more like *plagiarism* than witty commentary. In putting those ‘American in Paris’ references within the music for ‘An Englishman on His Way to Paris’, Cordell knew perfectly well that the odd place was the right place!


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