Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Tony Hancock is "The Rebel!" (1960)

A downtrodden office worker and amateur painter and sculptor rebels against his complacent bourgeois existence and moves to Paris, where he attempts to be taken seriously as an artist.
This was the first big screen work for Hancock's Half-Hour (BBC, 1956-60) writers Galton & Simpson, with Tony Hancock as usual playing a character called Hancock. The trio's shared TV and radio work allows his established persona to inform the film, so there are some classic comic scenes and lines, developing anti-intellectual themes Hancock had worked with before. Many of the jokes about 'modern' (or abstract) art seem less funny now, and there is an air of comic stereotype cliché about them, but they remind us that one way of dealing with the unfamiliar or intellectual is to mock.
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The opening gag, where Hancock gets his train seat by sneaking aboard from the wrong side via a train on the other platform, sets him up as a rebel, and his subsequent run-ins with representatives of authority (the boss, his landlady) continue this theme. Like many rebels, though, when confronted with more serious issues - such as the loss of his ticket to Paris, the moral question of unwittingly passing off painting as his own, or coping with unwanted advances from the shipping magnate's wife - he wants to do the right thing, and in attempting to extricate himself gives depth to the comedy.
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Hancock's outfits signal what is happening: as frustrated artist he wears smock and beret; as city worker brolly, bowler and suit; as rich (con-)artist: cigarette-holder, homburg, cape and cravat are the emperor's new clothes. Finally he's in casual mode, the true rebel who has rejected it all for his 'art'.
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In this film, comic rebellion places artists as the antithesis of workers and there is a kind of lazy shorthand at work that conflates artists with Paris, existentialism, angry young men, beatniks and beat poets. Cod philosophical discussions of what art is about permeate the film, but this reflects the times accurately and allows Hancock to get in his "You're all raving mad" catchphrase as he quits the exhibition and its phony artists, artworks and monied hangers-on. The coda has him remaining true to himself, re-creating the Aphrodite statue once more, now with Irene Handl as his model. In an absurdist echo down the years, Aphrodite and the other works seen in the film were re-created by the London Institute of Pataphysics in 2002. Hancock would have loved the irony.
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Published by


Volume 28,No.326,March 1961,pages 33-4

REBEL, THE (1960)

Feeling that England has nothing to offer him, that his landlady misunderstands him and office routine is crushing his spirit, Hancock moves to Paris to pursue his career as a painter. His work is childishly terrible, but a bogus intellectual set takes him up and confirms his confidence in his genius. He becomes so patronising to Paul, the unsuccessful painter with whom he shares a studio, that the latter goes dejectedly back to England, leaving his paintings behind. Sir Charles Brouard, art critic and dealer, sees Paul's paintings, takes them for Hancock's, and promotes a highly successful exhibition. Suspicion only creeps in when Hancock, commissioned to sculpt a bust of a rich patron's wife, produces a work as hideous as it is deplorable. Sir Charles has organised a London show for Hancock, who calls on Paul in the hope that he can produce the necessary paintings. Paul, who is now painting in the Hancock manner, is acclaimed as a brilliant artist after a confession scene at the gallery; and Hancock returns to his landlady, his favourite statue, and his conviction that one day his talent will be recognised.

Tony Hancock, the funniest of the television comedians, has made the dangerous transition to the larger screen rather more happily than most. The script, by his TV writers, keeps the element of brave fantasy, the conviction of unrecognised grandeur; and Hancock at work, chipping away at his appalling statue, squirting paint with bland optimism over his action painting, is a fine figure. One misses, though, his anchor-man, the astringent Sidney James, and the whole background of down-at-heel respectability. The more prosaic the setting, the funnier Hancock seems; transplanted into a conventionally silly screen art world, he is submerged among the other grotesques. The Rebel gives its hero some agreeably deflationary dialogue; but the director, Robert Day, lacks the confidence to allow humour to take its time in developing and continually tries to force it by over-emphasis. The scene of office routine and the beatnik party in Paris are cases of thin material made to look thinner by the handling. All the same, enough of Hancock's gloomy truculence and shabby splendour come through; he makes his paint-crazed insurance clerk very likeable.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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