When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 March (1.00 pm)
I haven’t watched every title in the cavernous Cary Grant boxset yet, but of those I have the actor is always immaculately turned out – tailored to perfection, suave to the point where effortless loses any meaning. All except one. For his penultimate starring role, Grant opted to play Walter Eckland in Father Goose, swapped the Savile Rows for loose, casual clothes, stopped shaving and never knowingly appeared sober. The result was a success, a fine story that hit the right notes both dramatically and in terms of broad comedy, whilst the star quickly sank into his role to turn Eckland, the sort of man you would expect to be inhabited by Humphrey Bogart circa The African Queen, into more than a novelty character.
Father Goose takes place during World War II. Far from the main theatres of conflict in the South Seas, the British are forced into retreat by Japanese forces and are pulling back from bases that risk being overrun. The local naval commander, Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard), needs people posted on remote islands to keep an eye out on enemy aircraft, and coerces Eckland – who’s little more than a drifter, albeit one with his own boat and steady supply of liquor – into filling in temporarily. The unhappy Walter accesses his new home, a spit of tropical paradise, with little sense of civilisation other than a hut containing a radio, and starts reluctantly sending messages to Houghton in exchange for the locations of booze bottles that have been hidden away. He’s forced to go by the codename Mother Goose, though frequently forgets this.
Given the opportunity to visit a neighbouring island and fetch his replacement radio operator, Eckland finds the Japanese have got there before him and killed the man. They missed Leslie Caron’s embassy teacher, Catherine Freneau, however, and the seven schoolchildren who accompany her, and he ends up taking all of them back to his base. It’s a working relationship made for disaster. Miss Freneau is appalled by Frank’s scruffiness and drinking. He has no place in his life for a snooty teacher and even less for kids. And yet, over time the pair reach an understanding and inevitably fall for each other, whilst they await rescue and attempt to avoid the encroaching enemy.
Grant had wanted a role like Eckland for some time and clearly relishes playing the cantankerous loner on a mission to escape the bits of the world that contain other people. According to Caron and Stephanie Berrington, who played the oldest child and develops a girlish crush on his character, he was great fun to work with, and had an entire team of writers on hand to polish jokes in the script. Howard has a good time also as the seaman who shows endless patience in his willingness to indulge Eckland’s wiles and grumpiness.
But it all pivots on the blossoming relationship between Eckland and Catherine. The pair have a number of great scenes together, their mutual spikiness undermining everything each other stands for. Neither can gain the upper hand. Catherine hides the booze in an attempt to reform his character, which just riles him and has the pair slapping each other in the face , completely deadpan. In one of the best scenes, Catherine thinks she has been bitten by a water snake (it turns out to be a tree branch) and Walter learns that the poison carried by the local serpents is invariably deadly. Having attempted to suck out the venom, he resorts to desperate measures and gets her drunk, leading to them telling their life stories and Catherine surprising him with her gymnastic abilities. There’s some great interplay between Grant and the kids also, as the latter develop a liking for the grizzled guy and warn him when Catherine’s approaching so that he can hide his grog bottle.
Despite the peril of discovery and attack, the main focus is on comedy, meaning the potential suspense of being assailed by Japanese hordes is never very palpable and any remaining tension is purely sexual in nature. Perhaps director Ralph Nelson, who cut his teeth in television and wisely concentrated his camera on the performers, thought the sight of a megastar like Grant roughing it held enough shock value. It’s slightly overlong at nearly two hours and, once Catherine enters the story, really has only one direction. Yet it’s all played so winningly, the limited characters so likeable, that it can’t really fail and it doesn’t. The sharp screenplay, by Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, who based Father Goose on a short story by SH Barnett, won an Academy Award.
Father Goose: ***