Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Live-in Servant

Two Films about Servants:

Both English
Both produced by BBC
Both from 1963
Not at all alike
"The Servant" (in English) Harold Pinter, directed by Hungarian Joseph Losey,1963 (112 minutes, B&W), based on from Robin Maugham's novella. Pinter puts in a cameo appearance as a "society man."
Starring a new film sensation, Dirk Bogarde (superficially genteel and correct, but underneath ... sinister) and a young James Fox - weak, spoiled, disorganized, lazy, clubby, teddibly British, that's a good man, and all that!
This film was presented at a time when servants, butlers, and a gentleman's gentleman are long gone in most of the civilized world.

Interesting also that in the same year we saw "Tom Jones" introduce the ultimate sensual food-lust scene, full color and full mouths. And we must never forget that Julia Childs introduced "The French Chef" in 1963. Those were hot times!

this film eschews food opportunities, except for Fox's casual remarks (I'm damned fond of Indian curry" and "Barrett, this is delicious. How do yo do it?"). Pinter hits directly at what's important: British male social roles and forces between a British gentleman and his live-in butler or man servant and their respective fiances. Subtly erotic.
Trivia delight: the opening scene is London and the business address of a sanitary engineering firm, Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd. (1836-1919).  Yes, of course he invented the modern toilet.

"Neunzigste Geburtstag"
(The 90th Birthday or, Dinner for One, in both German and English)
A delightful evening with Miss Sophie and James, and her elderly but loyal butler, played by British actor Freddie Frinton, and written by Laurie Wylie, 1963 (18 minutes B&W)

The point is, this is a long-gone world and the audience realizes this early on by the decor and the sheer style of food presentation - long table, long guest list, highly decorated nobility and military figures, all in a somewhat shabby, possibly Victorian dining room.
Hilarious prat-falls and impersonation skills as a single character not only serves many courses for dinner and pours wine but impersonates seven guests (who either ignored the invitations or who have long since died and, in any case, never appear) in their various toasts and conversations with a totally blind Miss Sophie. The only impediment to this feast is a large tiger (with head intact) rug lying between the table and the side-board. The surprise ending is the best part.

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