THE SHEEP HAS FIVE LEGS (Henri Verneuil, 1954) ***
French comic Fernandel occupies basically the same niche as Jerry Lewis and Norman Wisdom do in American and British cinema respectively: his immense popularity is as much a mystery to this viewer as his particular brand of fooling – prone to excessive mugging and with pathos never too far away – is resistible. To be fair to him, he tried his hand more regularly at serious fare, finding a congenial rapport with such luminaries as Marcel Pagnol, Julien Duvivier (who also started the star off on the series revolving around his signature role of Don Camillo – which even gets a delightful lampoon here, but more on this later) and the director of this film.
A favourite premise with star comedians is their showing off in multiple roles: in fact, Fernandel here plays a family patriarch and his five offsprings; frankly, I was surprised he did not include a female impersonation among the lot – but the characters are, in any case, sufficiently differentiated between them. Typically, some get more attention than others: however, this eventually pays off here when one of them himself becomes the father of sextuplets (to go along with the four he already had!).
The narrative follows a necessarily episodic structure, which invariably yields hits and misses throughout; still, the highlights are pretty memorable: the bucolic old man's noisy disapproval of a highbrow play being staged inside an amphitheatre; the ne'er-do-well family man's tenure with creepy funeral director Louis De Funes (who would grow to similar stardom by the next decade) – on the other hand, his brushes with a celebrated beautician sibling are less successful...but do feature a surprising amount of nudity!; a journalist, reduced to serving as "Agony Aunt" on a magazine, is mistaken for a young woman's wealthy but middle-aged intended when he goes to visit her stuffy family actually bearing the news of the man's sudden death; a 'salty dog' engages first in routine card-play with various shifty types and then, after he loses everything (including the ship's cargo), an intense game of chance involving a fly and two pieces of sugar in an effort to retrieve his losses and make a 'killing' besides (this, too, is a fairly risqué scene – showing a girl in the skimpiest of South Sea attires!); a curate has become reclusive because the locals do not take him seriously on account of him being a dead-ringer for the afore-mentioned Don Camillo!
The movie received an Oscar nomination for the heavily-credited story, following its 1955 U.S. release; incidentally, an unspecified prize did go its way at the Locarno International Film Festival. To be honest, having watched this, I am willing to cut Fernandel some slack by approaching his filmography with more of an open mind (I do own a fair amount to tide me over) – if anything, I ought to give his "Don Camillo" outings a glance at long last...having missed out on them countless times on Italian TV ever since my childhood days!
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