The Ugly Duckling (1959)

The weird thing is that, if I told you that Hammer made an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 1959, most of you would assume that it was a lesser-known horror film from the start of their horror cycle.

Although, if you look at their three, completely unrelated versions of the story — The Ugly Duckling, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde — they do not, as we would expect, form a loosely connected series of films like their Dracula and Frankenstein films.  Instead, we got three films which go in radically different directions from the original.

For whatever reason, they just couldn’t bring themselves to make a straightforward adaptation.

But a comedy version with Jon Pertwee and Carry On regular Bernard Bresslaw (also noted for playing very large monsters)?

The mind boggles.

Henry Jeckle (note the spelling) is a big, shy clumsy guy who works in the family chemist’s shop.  He always tries his best but it usually fails spectacularly.

Sometimes, as when he tries to help his brother and sister with their dance team, very spectacularly.

His sister is getting worried about him, and is afraid that he’ll end up like their ancestor, the original Dr. Jeckle.

Mind you, she would be even more worried if she knew he’d just found the good doctor’s secret formula.

Hoping it will give him the boost in confidence old Henry claimed for it, he turns himself into Teddy Hyde, a bold, confident bully who attracts the attention of a gang that’s about to make a huge jewel heist.  They need someone who is ridiculously strong, a gymnast, and brilliant enough to open an unopenable safe.

And Teddy is just the man for the job…

Now, as you’d expect, there’s also the cute girl hopelessly in love with Henry, and Jon Pertwee gets to join in some of the best tomfoolery (well, you’d expect it if you’d ever seen him in anything other than Who, like his long radio series, The Navy Lark.  In fact, he seems to be playing a dialed down version of that character, one not quite as cockney, who isn’t quite as larcenous, but who does have a knack for desperate last minute schemes.  Although you have to love the little advertising jingles he throws in everytime he recomends one of the products in the store).  It came as a mild surprise to me that Bernard’s performance as Teddy is limited to just two sequences as I rather expected we’d see a lot more of him.  And he’s conveniently forgotten at the end because, obviously, we have no need for the character anymore (okay, I’m being cynical).  Instead, we get a long, amusing amusing sequence when Henry has to try to repeat Teddy’s athletic feats in order to take the jewels back, with the dubious help of Jon Pertwee.

The other curious thing is that, in a fairly short film, we spend a lot of time in a dance hall, listening to band music and watching the dancing, with a few dramatic events set there as well.

Perhaps more than anything else, it resembles Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor, which wouldn’t get made for another four years or so.  You almost have to wonder if he saw this one, although I’ll confess that I like mopey nice guy Bernard Bresslaw a lot more than I ever did Jerry in, oh, basically anything he ever made.

Perhaps, one day, when the true mysteries of the Universe are finally revealed, we’ll learn why the French think he’s a comic genius.

But I have my doubts.

And I digress.

By 1959, Hammer’s Horror films had moved to color with only a few exceptions.  If you see a black and white film from this era, it’s generally a giveaway that it didn’t have much of a budget.  Other than the dance scenes, which appear to have been shot in a real Dance Hall, most of the scenes are fairly small, and the big robbery scene and its follow up take place on a fairly small forced perspective set (if you watch carefully, they did a poor job with the widescreen “mask” in some of these shots and the tiny city buildings “below” are visible just under the wall they’re walking across.  Ooops.  That did happen a lot, particularly on lower budget films.  Although it’s a lot worse in Twelve to the Moon when, during a fairly long scene on the moon, we can clearly see the studio’s catwalks, lights and booms above the heads of the Astronauts on the surface).

The British film industry — including Hammer — turned out a lot of these little comedies in the Fifties.  Most of them hold up pretty well thanks to the great British tradition of comedy and all the old music hall and radio comics they had to draw on.  Yeah, most of these films — including The Ugly Duckling — are fairly minor.  But they have a lot of charm and can be quite funny.

So, yes, it helps if you remember that when you watch this one and keep your expectations fairly low.  It’s a nice minor comedy…

And it even has Jon Pertwee.

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