Last night I watched The Rebel, part of the DVD Tony Hancock Collection and paired with The Punch and Judy Man. A slim volume, although Hancock only ever appeared in five feature films, and of the remaining three he was only cast in supporting roles. In his excellent biography of the comedy actor John Fisher examines radio and television, the worlds that Hancock conquered and made his own. Fisher even considers his achievements as a stage comedian in a new light. But sadly Hancock’s impression on the cinema is all too brief. It’s thankful then that The Rebel is one of the best British comedy film of the 1960s.
The Rebel essentially took the Hancock persona from television, casting him as a bored office worker who dreams of becoming a successful artist. The sad reality is that he is awful at art, producing childlike compositions of derision, known in the film as the infantile school. Travelling to Paris to find his fortune he is forced into the position of passing off the work of another artist as his own. He becomes hugely successful, but facing the pressure of having to produce more original work tracks down the other artist, only to discover that he has changed his style completely in a bid to to embrace the infantile school. These paintings also become a success.
Released in 1961, The Rebel is a rare example of Hancock in colour, contrasting sharply with the middling technical quality of his television work. It also exists as a fascinating period piece. Bowler-hatted commuters, offices with early adding machines, beatnik cafes all fall comfortably into place. It isn’t going too far to say that The Rebel epitomises the lost world of innocence that the era that produced it suggests. Age has matured its charm like a vintage port. Despairing at a fellow commuter, oblivious to his dull fate, he exclaims “if this train is still running in 1980, he’ll still be on it!”
There’s also the supporting cast. Throughout his radio and television careers Hancock regularly worked with the same repertory company of actors. Many of the surviving tv episodes from the late 50s are a joy to watch simply because of the strength of the support. The Rebel features Hugh Lloyd as a fellow commuter, John Le Mesurier as the stiff office manager and Liz Fraser and Mario Fabrizi as workers in a cafe (“froth? I want a cup of coffee – I don’t want to wash me clothes in it!”) and they are all fabulous. Unfortunately there is no Sid James but we can’t have it all.
Irene Handl is a welcome addition as landlady Mrs Crevatte (the role was played on television by Patricia Hayes). Handl is fantastic, rushing around her house with her bra straps hanging down over her shoulders. It’s here that we first witness Hancock’s “art”. “What’s that horrible thing?” demands Mrs Crevatte. “A self portrait” Hancock answers proudly only to meet the reply “who of?” “Laurel and Hardy!” he snaps in despair. The early scenes of the film are priceless comedy.
Paul Massie plays an essentially straight role as Hancock’s artist friend and George Sanders – a big star at the time – appears as an art dealer. Apparently he received a larger fee than Hancock. Dennis Price turns up as an avant garde artist called Jim Smith. Also look out for Nanette Newman and Oliver Reed in early roles. Interestingly, and unusually for a comedy film, Hancock changes gear to play the straighter scenes with Massie and does so admirably – revealing a depth to his acting that was never fully exploited. In this sense, together with its international flavour, the Rebel anticipates many of the later caper films of the 60s, where comic and straight actors played together in expensive looking European locations, for example The Pink Panther.
The DVD features commentary by writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson together with Hancock enthusiast Paul Merton. In many ways the commentary makes the film funnier, with the trio often falling into fits of laughter, especially in the scenes between Hancock and Handl. It’s like watching with a gang of obsessive friends, and there are many fascinating anecdotes I’d never heard before, such as the time Hancock embarked on a two day bender whilst garbed in the paint splatterd pyjames he wore after filming the “Jackson Pollock” scene.
A highly enjoyable experience. Incidentally, Galton and Simpson also confess to writing far too much material for this film; even after they edited it down it is still a trifle overlong, but I’ll forgive them for that. Who wouldn’t?