George Sanders running a Victorian whorehouse? Sounds too good to be true, yet that’s a key plotline in 1969’s THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON, now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.
A flawed, but generally amusing (and often, riotously so) comedy, this Philip Saville-directed farce uses many real-life Victorians to tell its sordid tail…errr tale.
Rampant prostitution has made it impossible for decent women to walk the streets, so to speak. It’s become so crowded that the Queen has ordered head government officials to perform an act at once! In rapacious response, the editor of The Times congregates a quorum of high level capitalists to help come up with a solution. And come they do. Smarmy Sir Francis Leybourne (Sanders) is recruited to bankroll the lunatic idea that the only way to remove women of ill repute from the sidewalks of London is to ensconce them in a palatial brothel, catering to the very elite (and thus, relegating the lower horny classes into working 24/7 for the rich, as they won’t be able to afford the pleasures of the flesh; in effect, keep the poor in the gutter, and get their minds out of it). Wow – what a concept!
Sir Francis takes this scheme to heart and even actively finds a desirable location – a girl’s boarding school, which he plans to “renovate.” Leybourne figures it might be a coup if he can likewise scout young, winsome lasses to stay on and thereby learn a trade.
Sanders is superb in a major sequence at the lower school’s girl’s recital where he does one of his trademark double-takes as a pre-teen sings joyously of her pet in a ditty entitled “My Little Pussy.” It’s a Mrs. Slocombe moment to be cherished. Sanders also triumphs in delivering many of the double (and triple) entendres and bon mots, especially later on when we learn that the profits from his ill-gotten gains are to be transferred to his India holdings, where he plots to have his plantation slave labor harvest opium, which he plans to sell to (wait for it) the Chinese. Told that his workers are rebelling over what he considers generous conditions, Sanders (again, as only he can) brilliantly retorts, “You pay 2 pounds 10 a year and it goes to their heads!”
But THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON isn’t all George Sanders (who expires midway through). There’s a genuine historical point to be made. The efforts of women’s rights advocates Emmeline Pankhurst and Josephine Butler are personified by the beauteous presence of Joanna Pettet (as Josephine Pacefoot), suffragette-setting all over the place. Realizing that poor women have two choices, appalling poverty/early death or prostitution, she strives to help the fallen ladies achieve independence in ways other than those of the flesh. To this goal, she enlists eccentric Italian inventor/aristocrat Count Pandolfo (the great and recently departed Warren Mitchell), who employs the former whores and escorts as builders of his mammoth dirigible, a hilarious visual pun in itself (shots of the young women stroking and stretching the airship, essentially a giant deflated phallus, are a sight to behold). Helping Pettet is lovesick goody-goody Benjamin Oakes (prat-falling pratt David Hemmings). Ignorant of all ways of the female, Oakes prays that he will win the coveted hand of Josephine. But there is dastardly business a(Pace)foot, as so does Hemmings’s separated-at-birth Snidely Whiplash twin, the evil Walter Leybourne (you guessed it, a twixt-the-sheets relation of Sanders) who also desires Josephine, and not just her hand.
Disguised as a convent, the “house” becomes the center of gossip amidst an air of mystery. Where are all these whores suddenly disappearing to? “You can’t put them all down to Jack the Ripper,” offers Hemmings to Pettet.
This is, as one might surmise, crazy, wacky stuff – sort of a Carry On movie on a grander scale. Indeed, so many comedic Brits show up in cameos that the obvious omission of Carry On folk sticks out like a sore…thumb; the producers, including Carlo Ponti (at one point the movie was to be an Italian import, starring Ponti’s wife Sophia Loren), seem to have intentionally divorced themselves from the long-running and popular series. While the hearty laughing-at-themselves giggles and guffaws of Barbara Windsor and Sid James are sadly missed (although Eric Barker does sneak in an unbilled appearance), one can’t carp at the thesps who do appear. Dany Robin (as the French madame of the joint, and lover of both Leybournes) Martita Hunt (the girl’s school proprietress, in her last pic), Maurice Denham, John Bird, Bill Fraser, Wolfe Morris, Tessie O’Shea, Charles Lloyd Pack, Ferdie Mayne, Peter Jeffrey and Thorley Walters (as Holmes and Watson) and even Hammer stalwarts like Milton Reid and Veronica Carlson (badly dubbed, as a Cockney). Plus an early screen appearance by John Cleese.
Nevertheless, it’s the aforementioned celebrated Victorians themselves who provide an additional incentive for entering THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON. Swerving in and out of the brothel, the busy London streets (courtesy of leftover Oliver! sets), the halls of Parliament and the offices of the fourth estate are (in various stages of dress and undress) Charles Dickens (whose carnal urges prompt him to create “this curiosity shop”), William Makepeace Thackeray, Daddy and Elizabeth Browning, Prime Minister Gladstone, Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope (replete with built-in pun), John Galsworthy, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oscar Wilde and even Dr. David Livingstone. Much of this mirth and wit comes from the pen of screenwriter Denis Norden, who also wrote The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom, another comedy from this era that I like.
What is disturbing about THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON isn’t the raunchy goings-on throughout the abode’s numerous fantasy/sketch rooms, but the fact that a mainstream movie could be made in 1969 featuring references that a mass audience could glean surrounding the likes of the above 19th-century icons. This is especially grim today, where a large number of Americans can’t even tell you who’s vice-president. Our increasingly alarming dumbing-down epidemic transcends culture shock – it’s culture apocalypse! Oh, well, that’s all the Pacefooting you’ll get out of me!
THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON, for all its wink-wink bawdiness and infrequent bare bosoms and bums, was nonetheless given the dreaded X-rating, when MGM disrobed it here in June of 1969. Today, it has played on TCM during the early morning hours opposite such infantile fare as Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine and Morning Joe. That said, in the UK, HOUSE was given a more reasonable release, paired with Metro’s The Green Slime.
The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON looks pretty good, displaying only slight wear over the decent replicated widescreen MetroColor visuals (nicely photographed by the terrific d.p. Alex Thomson). Wilfred Shingleton and Fred Carter decorated the “house” with a plethora of Victorian psychedelia, so prominent during the late 1960s, a warm, appreciated retro dose of nostalgia. The mono soundtrack contains a peppy score by Mischa Spoliansky (leave us not forget the scandalous kitty song by Ronnie Cass and Peter Myers).
With its nonstop gags, buffoonery and over-the-top silliness (ranging from sidesplitting funny to downright groaning awful), THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON can now be enjoyed by all the classes (including the classless). Probably the only comedy to tackle the Contagious Disease Act of 1864, ‘66 and, most prominently, ‘69, THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON sows its oats from the loins of The Goon Show, occasionally offering us a precursor of its Blackadder progeny. And ya don’t need protection!
THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON. Color. Widescreen (1.85:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic). Mono audio. DVD-R made-to-order. The Warner Archive Collection. CAT # 1000547818. SRP: $21.99.
Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: warnerarchive.com