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Arthur Lucan, a Lancashire lad, played Old Mother Riley, a comic Irish
Irish crone, for many years old the stage and screen; his wife, Kitty
McShane, played his daughter. The only modern comparison would be to
Tyler Perry's Madea ... if Madea were played by Rob Schneider acting
like Stepin Fetchit. Produced cheaply for the home market, Old Mother
Riley was enormously popular.
In this movie, Mrs. Riley goes for a job with a failing circus and saves it, discovers Kitty McShane, her long-lost daughter has been with it since she was an infant and has to save it again from Roy Emerton, its shoddy owner.
The comparative excellence -- so to speak --- is achieved by the use of circus acts and a subplot in which Riley goes to an illegal nightclub, where an uncredited young woman in a spangly bikini sings and does a tap dance. I credit director Thomas Bentley, a specialist in portraying and staging Dickens, whose movie career stretched back to 1912, and included THOSE WERE THE DAYS, a British movie which showcased several music hall acts and an early appearance by Will Hay. This was his last film credit.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane starred in a series of low-budget
comedies that were extremely popular in 1940s Britain, in which Lucan
(in drag) played an old Irish scrubwoman named Mrs Riley, and McShane
(Lucan's real-life wife) played Old Mother Riley's daughter Kitty.
Neither of these portrayals were very plausible: Lucan's 'Irish' accent
was just as obviously fake as his allegedly female gender. The running
conceit of McShane's character is that Kitty is supposed to be
extremely gorgeous. (She was mildly pretty in the earlier films, but
less so later ... especially when the camera catches her in profile so
we can see her nose in all its glory.)
'Old Mother Riley's Circus' isn't very funny (neither are any of the others in the series), but this feature benefits from a higher budget than most of the others, and by a rousing tap-dance number by a shapely brunette who is unmentioned in the credits. There are some impressive (and expensive) burst wipes during the opening credits.
This time, Old Mother Riley is given a backstory that renders Lucan's character even more implausible than usual. Years ago, Old Mother Riley was the young and beautiful Maggie O'Hara, a star in the variety halls until her no-good husband George left her and took their infant daughter Kitty. The elderly Lucan is utterly implausible as an *old* woman. To assert that 'she' used to be a beautiful young actress is a notion that's too grotesque to be funny. When Old Mother Riley mentions that she performed in tights, the mental image is not a pleasant one. When Old Mother Riley is offered a job in a cinema, and she covets one of the scanty uniforms worn by the pretty usherettes, this is apparently meant to seem like the wistful desire of an old woman to relive her young days as a beauty. As Lucan performs the scene, he comes off like an old drag queen drooling over a new frock.
Intriguingly, although male actor Lucan is playing a biological female in all the Mother Riley films, they usually contained at least one reference to Lucan's true gender. In 'Circus', this comes when an actor says scornfully of Mother Riley: 'Anyone can see SHE's no lady!' Speaking of cross-gender casting, there's a very bizarre scene between Old Mother Riley and a young clerk at the labour exchange. The clerk is played by an attractive young actress ... but she's dressed as a young man, has short-cropped hair, and she speaks her lines in what appears to be an intentionally deepened voice. I honestly can't tell if this character is meant to be a young man (played by a woman) or an androgynous girl. The ambiguity serves no purpose except to make the whole movie seem weirder.
Kitty McShane is prettier than usual here in her circus cozzy, an Annie Oakley get-up with a short skirt and gauntlets. This film varies the usual formula of Lucan's and McShane's on screen relationship. Kitty is still playing Old Mother Riley's daughter, but this time they've been separated since Kitty's infancy, and are reunited only by chance in the dodgy circus where Kitty is working as the target of a drunken knife-thrower. Implausibly, after mother and adult daughter meet for the first time, they very soon behave as if they've known each other all of Kitty's life. More impressively, Lucan does a scene in which Old Mother Riley disguises herself as a counterfeit countess. To his credit, in this sequence Lucan actually seems to be playing a completely different female impersonation from his Mother Riley turn.
All of the Mother Riley films are top-heavy with puns, but 'Circus' (more so than most) features British references that American viewers won't comprehend. There's a pun on the word 'stalls' in the British sense of a theatre's orchestra seats. Lucan does a monologue about the maharajah who married a sultana, and she's his 'current wife'. (In England, 'sultana' -- the word for a sultan's wife -- also means a raisin or a dried currant.) Lucan also comments: 'All's fair in love and Wardour Street' ... this being the London street where most of Britain's wartime film studios had their business offices. There's also a gag about 'Dan, Dan, the lavender man' ... this is a cleaned-up version of a smutty joke that used to be popular among English schoolboys. Substitute 'lavatory' for 'lavender' and you'll get a hint.
SLIGHT SPOILER. For most of its length, 'Old Mother Riley's Circus' manages to be mildly amusing. There is (no surprise) a happy ending. But then comes the very last shot in the film. This is a grotesque shot of female impersonator Lucan in extreme close-up. Leering directly into the camera, he tells us in his falsetto brogue: 'Bye-bye. God bless you. See you again soon.' And then 'she' makes a little moué kiss at us! No thanks! I'll rate this movie 2 points out of 10, mostly for that uncredited brunette girl who does a sexy tap-dance.
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