“Life is a beastly mess.”
In 1959, British cinema received a much-needed injection of new life from the theatrical field. British dramatist John Osborne and director Tony Richardson helped to form a production company named Woodfall that was originally intended to film Osborne’s plays. Look Back in Anger (with Richard Burton) was the first effort to appear and following soon thereafter in 1960 was The Entertainer starring Laurence Olivier. The film was a good example of the “kitchen sink” style of film that characterized Britain’s own “New Wave” of the time — a style that focused on the working class and on the general decline of Britain’s quality of life in the post-World War II period. Other well-known examples include Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and The Angry Silence (1960). The Entertainer received mixed reviews overall upon its appearance (particularly in Britain itself), but there was widespread acclaim for Olivier’s work in the lead role. Olivier received an Academy award nomination for Best Actor, but lost to Burt Lancaster for his work in Elmer Gantry.
Previously available only on VHS in less than pristine condition, MGM has now released The Entertainer on DVD in a fine-looking black and white transfer.
Old-time and now third-rate music hall performer Archie Rice struggles to hang on in a summer show in the dreary English seaside town of Morecombe. His daughter Jean comes to visit, seeking escape from London after the departure of her brother Mick for service with the British forces in the Suez crisis of the mid-1950s. In Morecombe she finds solace in the company of her grandfather Billy Rice, but the rest of the family including Archie’s wife Phoebe and her other brother Frank seem immobilized and defeated. Archie is desperate to stay in show business and tries to seduce a young beauty pageant contestant in order to get financial backing from her parents for a new show. He even tries to get his father to come out of retirement, as an inducement to a London promoter to provide show backing. Through it all, Archie cares only for his own career and is oblivious to the hurt and suffering that his actions to sustain that career bring to his family. An ultimate failure seems well-deserved and indeed appears inevitable.
Most observers and critics of the time viewed Osborne’s play, “The Entertainer,” as an allegory for Britain of the 1950s. Indeed, it is an obvious one with its reference to the failure that was Britain’s role in the Suez incident, but particularly the broken-down performer Archie Rice who served as a microcosm of the decline of Britain’s social structure. For the film version of his play, Osborne collaborated with Nigel Kneale on the screenplay. Kneale had been the author of the Quatermass science fiction serials for BBC television.
The heart of the film is of course Laurence Olivier’s performance as Archie Rice. It is the performance of which he has been quoted as saying he is most proud amongst all his work, for .”…it had the advantage of being a complete break from the other sort of work and that made it much more refreshing than tormenting oneself through these punishing roles of Shakespeare. I have an affinity with Archie Rice. It’s what I really am. I’m not like Hamlet.” Archie Rice is a performer who thinks he’s still good, but in reality is a pathetic has-been, relying on puns and music hall routines long past their best. He’s also a con artist, an egotist, a charmer when necessary and a bastard at will. Yet at times, Archie has a not-unlikable side, which is what makes the complex character such a rich possibility for an actor. Olivier’s interpretation is mesmerizing. When he’s on stage as Archie, Olivier is almost unrecognizable behind the greasepaint that hollows his eyes and gives him an accentuated grin (á la “The Joker” from Batman). His song and dance routines are realistically done and his delivery of the so-called comic material is perfect. Yet it is in the off-stage parts of the film that one most appreciates Olivier’s excellence. Archie Rice’s family life is a misery where despair and almost hatred abound, virtually entirely due to Archie’s actions. That we can still feel some sympathy for Archie in the face of all that is a tribute to Olivier.
The Entertainer includes a supporting cast rich in fine portrayals. Chief amongst them is Joan Plowright’s engaging performance as Archie’s daughter and probably his best friend despite his treatment of his family. (In real life, Plowright would marry Olivier a year later and remain his wife until his death in 1989.) Brenda de Banzie delivers a touching performance of Archie’s wife, a woman who has become irritating and alcoholic and whom Archie can barely tolerate any longer. Both Alan Bates and Albert Finney, playing Archie’s sons, made their film debuts and display the promise that later films would bring to fruition. Finally, Roger Livesey delivers a likable and moving portrayal of the retired music hall player, Billy, who is Archie’s father.
Director Tony Richardson never managed to realize the promise that his early films suggested. After the early success with the films from Osborne’s plays and other efforts such as A Taste of Honey (1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Tom Jones (1963), Richardson’s star fell with a series of overblown or ill-conceived efforts. His last film of consequence was The Hotel New Hampshire (1984); he died in 1991. For The Entertainer, Richardson contributes an efficient, non-intrusive directing style that allows the focus to rest strongly on the actors. He effectively opens up the stage-bound nature of the story by filming exteriors on location in Morecambe (on the Irish Sea coast of northwest England), creating an effectively seedy setting for the story, characterized by decaying amusement piers, littered seasides, and shabby buildings.
MGM’s DVD of The Entertainer delivers the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The presentation is non-anamorphic and utilizes 16 scene selections. This is a very good-looking transfer from MGM. The black and white image is bright and clean, and characterized by excellent shadow detail. Edge enhancement is non-existent. There is the very occasional scratch or speckle, but for the most part, the transfer belies the film’s age of 41 years. This is by far the best this film has looked on home video. The sound is the original mono and it is in quite good condition also — free of hiss and distortion. There are a couple of occasions when the dialogue is somewhat unclear, but this appears to be more a case of how some of the lines were actually delivered than a problem with the soundtrack itself. MGM deserves congratulations for its efforts on the film itself.
On the other hand, MGM does not deserve congratulations for anything else on the disc. That’s because there is nothing else on the disc, not even a trailer. There’s not even an insert sheet in the case listing the scene selections. This is all no surprise of course, as that seems to have become the standard for MGM’s classic releases. Still one lives in hope that we may see a change.
The Entertainer is a very good film, well worth adding to your collection given the fine transfer that MGM has delivered. The lack of supplementary material is disappointing though not surprising, but the price is right — the DVD is routinely available at $14.99.