Murder at the Windmill (1949)

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“Always something coming off, always something going on!”
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vt Mystery at the Burlesque
UK / 65 minutes / bw / Angel, Grand National Dir & Scr: Val Guest Pr: Daniel M. Angel Cine: Bert Mason Cast: Garry Marsh, Jack Livesey, Jon Pertwee, Elliot Makeham, Diana Decker, Donald Clive, Jill Anstey, Jimmy Edwards, Margot Johns (i.e., Margo Johns), Genine Grahame, Pamela Deeming, Johnnie Gale, John Powe, Constance Smith, Barry O’Neill, Ron Perriam, Christine Welsford, Peter Butterworth, Ivan Craig, Robin Richmond, and members of the Windmill Theatre Company: Raymond, Anita, Pat, Margot, June and Maureen.

“Wherever it was practical to do so this story was filmed on the actual sites in and around the Windmill Theatre and the parts played by the Girls and Staff of the Theatre were re-enacted by themselves.”

The Windmill Theatre, just off London’s Piccadilly Circus, was famed for two things: the fact that its variety shows (the closest, but I think rather misleading, US equivalent would be burlesque) featured nude tableaux, and its claim (which may have been truthful) that it missed nary a performance all through the Blitz. “We Never Closed!” was the boast—indeed, here it is:

The idea of a murder mystery set within the Windmill and featuring a number of its real-life performers must have seemed irresistible to producers, to director Val Guest and indeed to potential cinema audiences. Of course, the screen censors wouldn’t allow the inclusion of any of the famed tableaux, even though it was censorship that was responsible for the tableaux in the first place: moving performers weren’t at the time permitted to be naked on the London stage, for fear of undue jiggling, heaven forfend, but motionless tableaux featuring classical themes were exempt, being clearly of educational interest.

Which I suppose in a way they were, for at least some of the younger spectators among the Windmill’s audiences. Even so, one of the unusual features of the theatre was that opera glasses were forbidden.

By the time I lived in London, the Windmill was alas long gone, its place having been taken by the Paul Raymond Revue Bar, which as far as I’m aware was just a glorified strip club. Sic transit. Among the many stars of British comedy to have played the Windmill during their ascent to national and sometimes international fame were two of the Goons: Peter Sellers and the original Can Belto himself, Harry Secombe.

It was obviously the curio value that attracted me to watch the movie—that and the cast, with people like Pertwee and Edwards. I’d assumed, with Guest having scripted and directed, that there’d be a pretty decent mystery to go along with the unique setting, rather in the way that The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) offers a fully formed piece of detective fiction to go along with the interest of the locale. In this I was disappointed: although I didn’t have a stopwatch to hand, I’d say that over half the movie is taken up with stagings of Windmill acts, supposedly put on for the benefit of the investigating cops but really just to exploit the venue. While this is fair enough, it does mean that the murder mystery, which is extremely rudimentary, seems merely tacked on as an excuse for making the movie at all. In other words, even the movie’s title comes parlously close to false advertising.

So, the story:

One night, clearing up after the show, usherette Edna (Grahame) discovers a man shot dead in the front row. Detective Inspector Matthews of the Yard (Marsh) and his unnamed but inappropriately well educated, intellectual (or quasi-intellectual, at any rate) sergeant (Pertwee) arrive on the scene, to be welcomed by the Windmill’s famous manager, impresario Vivian Van Damm (Livesey). As an aside, with so many of the other parts being played by Windmill staffers, it seems incongruous that Van Damm didn’t opt to play himself but let an actor stand in for him.

Edna (Genine Grahame) reports her discovery to Van Damm (Jack Livesey).

Inspector Matthews (Garry Marsh).

Jon Pertwee as the intellectualizing sergeant.

The dead man proves to have been a certain Jack Balfour, a makeup salesman who called backstage once a week to try to sell the girls lipstick and the like. Moreover, Balfour was known to be sweet on one of the singer-dancers, Patsy (Anstey), and was showing himself reluctant to take no for an answer, even though everyone was aware that Patsy and lead singer Donald Clive (himself) were an item.

Donald Clive (self) and Patsy (Jill Anstey), lovers onstage and off.

Inspector Matthews soon works out that Balfour was shot from the stage—and not just from the stage but from one of the various platforms used during the acts. It’s ostensibly to see where those platforms were located at different times that Matthews demands a special staging of the latter part of the show.

Diana Decker as the dancer Frankie.

Some of the acts are quite good, so it’s no burden to sit through them. Val Guest, a multi-talented fellow he, not satisfied with just scripting and directing the movie, also wrote and composed a couple of the musical numbers: “Two Little Dogs” and “I’ll Settle for You”—and, since you ask, they’re not at all bad.

Stage hand Gimpy (Elliot Makeham, left) in confab with Van Damm (Jack Livesey).

The only real embarrassment is the performance of comedian Jimmy Edwards. Edwards would soon become a household name in the UK through his performances in the BBC radio series Take It from Here (1948–60), notably as Pa Glum, and as the booze-swilling, swindling, corporal-punishment-happy headmaster in the TV series Whack-O! (1956–60, 1971–2); the latter was the basis for the movie Bottoms Up! (1959).

Take It from Here has survived the years quite well, and still provokes chuckles. Whack-O!, well, not so much; and the same can be said of Edwards’s outing in Murder at the Windmill, in which he explains repeatedly how his act has the audience rolling in the aisles when the Windmill is packed but can’t really be reproduced for a pair of resentfully bored cops.

“Professor” Jimmy Edwards . . .

. . . and his response of his enthusiastic audience, Garry Marsh (left) and Jon Pertwee.

He’s right. It’s excruciating. Embarrassingly so.

The non-Windmill players do their best with a screenplay that is for the most part a tad uninspired—although I did like a line from Diana Decker, playing the singer-dancer Frankie:

“Come to work at the ’Mill—always something coming off, always something going on.”

The Windmill’s Margot (herself) is unintimidated by Inspector Matthews (Garry Marsh).

The real fun of watching the movie comes from the group of genuine Windmill girls, identified in the credits solely as Anita, Pat, Margot, June and Maureen. There’s a bubbling mischief about most (not all) of their performances that’s really quite infectious, as if they’re having a whale of a time sharing on-screen the kind of bolshie banter that’d bring down the wrath of God—or at least of Van Damm—were they to be caught uttering it in real life.

Stage manager Johnnie Gale (himself).

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7 thoughts on “Murder at the Windmill (1949)

  1. Sounds like the genre I normally relish, though your favored aspect -the Windmill girls- is a sideline. Engagingly penned! I have written it down.

    • Actually, the Windmill girls and other Windmill crew members, plus the use of the interior of the theater, are probably the biggest value of the movie. It may not seem so to US audiences, but it offers a fascinating insight into UK social history.

      I did once see a TV documentary on the Windmill, many years ago, but as far as I can recall it was made after the place had been torn down. The only interiors it could have shown were likely from this movie.

  2. Shame this is so poor, Guest should have been able to make more of this. The Raymond Revuebar is also no more (as a venue it closed over a decade ago and is now being redeveloped). When I walked by it the other evening a ‘lady of the night’ propositioned me, so some things haven’t changed in Soho …

    • As I’ve just been saying to Sam, the big reason to watch the movie is to see the Windmill in action, complete with personnel.

      Can’t say I’m sad to hear the Raymond Revuebar has gone — I always thought it was a real eyesore, and somehow a travesty of history.

      • Strictly speaking, I don’t believe the Revuebar was actually the Windmill, that was a different building, but all part of the Paul Raymond empire – he was said to be the biggest landlord in Soho at the time. I have not seen the Michael Winterbottom biopic, THE LOOK OF LOVE – have you?

  3. This place NEVER closed during the war? That is remarkable. I’d never heard of The Windmill and it does sound like a fascinating bit of London history. Sounds like this movie might be worth it for the historical aspect, like you say.

    • My guess is that the “we never closed” boast means they delivered every scheduled performance, not that they stayed open 24 hours a day for the relevant years. I may be wrong.

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