It's a bit boring, I'm afraid. This realisation came as a surprise to me, since the usual Carry On ingredients are all present and correct and for a while I'd been really enjoying it. In fact, at first I resisted the idea. Carry On films are great. Sid James rules. A little worm of suspicion started nibbling on me about thirty minutes into the movie, but it took another thirty minutes for "am I imagining this?" to harden into "no, this film definitely isn't working".
Then I hit the finale and all doubts were settled. Yup, boring. How could I have forgotten the tedium of that battle scene? Oh yes, because it's forgettable.
We'll take that as our premise. This film starts well, but becomes dull. The interesting question is why this should be, since the film would seem indistinguishable from any other Carry On. It's got Sid James and Jim Dale as the heroes, Kenneth Williams and Peter Butterworth as the villains and Joan Sims and Charles Hawtrey as characters of less easily defined alignment. It's got lots of jokes. It's got a period setting with lots of lovely sets and costumes. Everyone's doing what they've done a hundred times before, but somehow it falls flat.
It's the script, isn't it? More precisely, it's the story. It's one of my little bugbears, the idea that being a comedy doesn't mean you don't need a strong plot. That's always been the weakness of the Carry On series, to be honest, and it's what lets them down here too. We start out with James and Dale being heroic as they save scores of people from the guillotine in Revolutionary France, but then Williams and Butterworth get into the plot and everything goes a bit pear-shaped. They're the villains, but they're also airheads. Sid James encounters them repeatedly in a series of laughably poor disguises and they never, ever recognise him. We've had pathetically moronic heroes in Carry On films before now and I wasn't wild about the results, but it seems I'm even less enthusiastic about the villains who are similarly useless.
At one point their gormlessness seems like a continuity error. Williams is telling Peter Gilmore's Robespierre that they don't know what Sid James looks like, despite the fact that Williams just spent several minutes being hoodwinked by the man himself in broad daylight. What does he think he just saw? A man-shaped hole in the air? This could be approximately explained by Williams's inability to recognise James when he's wearing, say, a different hat, but we're still talking about a plot hole so big that it's distracting even in a Carry On film.
All this lets the air out of the story. Sid James is such an old pro that he'll always be worth watching, but you never believe for a moment that Williams and Butterworth could be the slightest threat to him. He makes them look like fools at will. It doesn't even take any effort. They are fools. They're doing it to themselves even before he shows up. Thus the film gradually dribbles away until by the time we reach the climactic fight scene, it's clear that what we're watching doesn't matter worth a damn. James and Dale could tie themselves up and jump into the guillotine themselves and they still wouldn't be defeated.
Mind you, it doesn't help that Williams's contribution to the fight is to whine about his precious antiques, while Butterworth is getting flattened by doors and marble busts. This is in a film where Charles Hawtrey is being made to look like a randy ladies' man and swordsman. I'll say that again. CHARLES HAWTREY. Seeing him defeat revolutionaries in single combat is enough to make the sequence absurd in itself.
Ironically though that fight scene would have been good in a better film. It's crammed with gags daft enough to make Mel Brooks proud, but in fairness to the film, simply counting jokes would make this one of the better entries in the series. For starters, you've got Sid James's Sir Rodney Ffing (pronounced Effing). Half the time he's his usual hard-nosed Cockney self. Interestingly though that's only when he's being heroic, whereas in his natural habitat in England he's the most ridiculously bewigged and powdered 18th century fop. This is much further than James usually pushes himself in his performance and he's an absolute scream. Kenneth Williams slaps him with a glove. "Oooh, that hurt." I love the way he switches between personas, not to mention the fact that his character is a master of disguise. Fans of horror and the grotesque will be excited to learn that we see him in drag. Impossible though this might sound, Sid James is even more of a reason to seek out the film than he usually is.
Then we have the wordplay, which is pushing Carry On Cleo levels. There are puns, near-puns and tortured snippets of French. "Mon blooming Dieu!" "Allez! To Calais!" The only reason I'm not turning this paragraph into a fat litany of quotes is that doing that kind of thing spoils the film. Joan Sims turns Count into an expletive that you're genuinely surprised got past the censors. There are topical references to the unions. There's even an 18th century cover version of a Beatles song. I admired all that.
Then there's the parody element. It's a pisstake of The Scarlet Pimpernel, who I have a feeling isn't as famous as he used to be. The Pimpernel was created by Baroness Emmuska Orczy in a 1903 play, which she later turned into a novel and then a series of them. It's set in 1792 during the French Revolution and is a precursor to the "disguised superhero" genre that would eventually include figures like Zorro, Superman and Batman. This one's called the Black Fingernail, although you already knew that.
I love the film's costume drama aspect too. Lots of country house locations and some outrageous 18th century costumes make for decent eye candy, at least. Mind you, it's a surprise when Sid James's love interest proves to have small breasts. She's played by Dany Robin and she's the only person in the film to be doing a French accent, probably because she really is French. I quite liked her, but after this she only did another couple of films and this would be her only Carry On. However the real surprise on looking up her CV on the internet was learning that at the time of this movie she was 39 years old and had been doing films for a good two decades! Wow. She carried it well. I'd have guessed she was in her early twenties at most.
On the downside, this is another of those blithely brutal Carry Ons. It's not disturbing as such, but it also doesn't see anything wrong with having Sid James cackle happily at the end of the film as he guillotines Kenneth Williams and Peter Butterworth. No blood, mind you.
I should mention the title, I suppose. The franchise had changed distributors, moving from Anglo Amalgamated to the Rank Organisation, and the new folks didn't want to see the words Carry On. It was released as Don't Lose Your Head, but it's still clearly part of the series and the two extra words have since got reattached after a later re-release.
Overall, this is a film that seems almost mysterious in its badness. Everyone's good in it. Charles Hawtrey gets a wonderful introduction, while Joan Sims gets to have fun with both her accent and her cleavage. If nothing else, the film should definitely be watched by all devotees of Sid James. So that's everyone, then.
Nonetheless, in the end it's boring. Does not compute.