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A Little of Tommy Steele Goes A Long Way,
This review is from: Half a Sixpence (DVD)
MY FAIR LADY was based on George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION and first appeared on stage in 1956 and was filmed in 1964. OLIVER! was based on the novel OLIVER TWIST by Charles Dickens and first appeared on stage in 1960, eventually reaching the screen in 1968. HELLO, DOLLY! was based on Thornton Wilder's THE MATCHMAKER, opened in 1964, and was filmed in 1969. And then there was HALF A SIXPENCE, based on the novel KIPPS by H.G. Wells, which hit the stage in 1963 and was finally filmed in 1967. All four plays came out at about the same time and were set in approximately the same period and were extremely well received, but only MY FAIR LADY, OLIVER!, and HELLO, DOLLY! have gone on to become staples of the theatre, and while the film versions of MY FAIR LADY and OLIVER! received critical accolades and frequently turn up on television, HALF A SIXPENCE did not and does not.
The reason for this rests on the fact that HALF A SIXPENCE was very specifically designed for a particular actor: Tommy Steele, and when it played in London and later in New York both the show and Steele proved a very popular ticket. But virtually everything in the show--songs, choreography, dialogue, even the use of a banjo--was created with Steele in mind, and without him at the center of the show, it proves very thin stuff. In 2008 a revival toured the United Kingdom, where the play is still fondly recalled, but it has never received a significant revival in London or New York and, becoming more and more obscure with every passing year, it has never become a significant title in world theatre.
According to most sources, and with the exclusion of a bit here and the addition of a bit there, the film version of HALF A SIXPENCE is surprisingly faithful to the original play. Steele plays Arthur Kipps, an indentured shop clerk, who is in love with Ann (Julia Foster), a woman he has known since childhood. But through a series of flukes, Kipps inherits a fortune and, suddenly too good for Ann, climbs the social ladder. Through a similar series of flukes, Kipps then wastes and otherwise loses his inheritance, sadly realizes that money cannot buy happiness, and discovers that Ann has remained loyal. It is flyweight stuff indeed, and like most musicals of the 1960s it feels excessively overblown, but the colors are pretty and the musical numbers are enjoyable and all in all it has a lot of charm.
The cast is quite good, including a cameo by Cyril Ritchard and a bit part by young John Cleese, and Julia Foster is appropriately winsome as the long suffering Ann. But the big noise here is indeed Tommy Steele, and in truth he may be too big of a noise for some viewers. Steele (b. 1936) is generally regarded as England's first pop teen idol. He had a significant recording and singing career between about 1955 and 1965, and throughout his life he has had major success on the stage as both actor and director. But he was much less successful on the screen, appearing as an actor in perhaps a dozen films and television programs, most often in supporting roles. In truth, like many other stage performers, Steele had difficulty modulating his stage personality to the screen, on which he seemed less energetic than flatly manic. There was a general feeling that, when it came to the movies, a little bit of Tommy Steele went a long way.
Ultimately, how much you like HALF A SIXPENCE depends on how much you like Tommy Steele. At about two hours and forty minutes, the film feels overlong, and while all his bright and bouncy energy is fun at the beginning of the film, it begins to feel a bit wearing as the film rolls on. By the time you finish the second hour you may feel you've had enough of Tommy Steele to last a lifetime, and never mind those last forty minutes. Still, the movie is well made, well put together, and if taken in the right spirit entertaining in the same excessive, too-pushy way as the Barbra Striesand HELLO, DOLLY. The picture elements are very good, but the sound could use a bit of a brush-up in spots, and there is absolutely nothing in the way of bonus material. If you're a musical fan who has never seen the film, give it a try, but don't feel badly if you can only cope with it in half-hour increments.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
In Memory of Floy Bennett