Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Millionairess (1960)

'Talking Pictures TV has advised that the following film contains scenes of outdated racial representation that some viewers may find offensive'

This advisory note headed up the Talking Pictures broadcast of Anthony Asquith's 1960 romcom The Millionairess and refers to Peter Sellers, who 'blacked up' to portray Ahmed el Kabir, a socialist Indian doctor working in London's East End. To be fair to Sellers though, he delivers a sensitive performance that doesn't set out to poke fun at the character or indeed, perhaps most crucially, his ethnicity; this is far from the comic stereotype of Indian and Pakistani characters that populated much of British comedy at the time, such as his Goons co-star Spike Milligan's portrayal of an Indian in Johnny Speight's somewhat ill advised sitcom Curry and Chips. In short, whilst the very act of 'blacking up' to portray a different ethnicity may be offensive, Sellers' intentions in his performance do not seem to be.

The story is a loose and modern day update of George Bernard Shaw's 1936 play of the same name which would later receive a more faithful adaptation from the BBC in a 1972 Play of the Month production starring Maggie Smith, alongside future Doctor Who star Tom Baker who donned the 'blacking up' make-up alongside a fez ("I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool") to play the good doctor. This version stars bombshell Sophia Loren as Epifania Parerga, the richest woman in the world and a wilful and arrogant heiress whose fortune derives from her late father. 

Following an unhappy, ill-suited marriage, Epifania contemplates suicide by drowning herself in the Thames. There she meets Sellers' doctor and falls immediately in love. The doctor however is impervious to her charms, so she sets out to win him by purchasing the rundown East End neighbourhood surrounding his clinic and building a modern, cutting edge facility for him to run instead. Intimidated, Kabir refuses to be bought or return her affections and manufactures a challenge for his bride-to-be laid out by his mother on her deathbed. This challenge states that he can only marry a girl who can take a dowry of 35 shillings and earn her own living from it for three months. Undeterred, Epifania accepts the challenge whilst revealing her own late father's challenge for any potential husband she intends to wed; a dowry of £500 is given to Kabir which he must then turn into £15,00 within the same three month period. 

It's quite apt that The Millionairess was made in 1960 as I think it's a production that is caught bang in the middle of two periods in British cinema, specifically in the comedy genre. As a film, it conjures up both something of the previous decade and the immediate post-war years as well as the swinging decade that was to come. The general storyline, tapping into the still relatively new NHS and the social make-up of the UK, along with casting of Alistair Sim, Alfie Bass and Dennis Price in supporting roles speaks of the Ealing-esque traditions, whilst the casting coup of the unbelievably glam and beautiful Eurocutie Sophia Loren, sweeping through sets that are bold and colourful and infatuated with gadgets and technology (automatic electronic doors that swish open like Epifania lives on the Starship Enterprise) point the way forward to later glitzy, zany and star-studded Sellers vehicles like Casino Royale and What's New, Pussycat. As such, The Millionairess falls between two stools and is never truly satisfying. The ingredients are there, but in its presentation it is both out of fashion and before its time.

The film itself is perhaps now best known for the off screen relationship between Sellers and Loren. Sellers claimed to all and sundry that he was in the midst of a mad, passionate love affair with Loren which subsequently led to the break up of his marriage to first wife Anne Howe, the mother of his two children Michael and Sarah. Loren however claims that their relationship was never more than strongly platonic, a claim that has been backed up by many insiders and close friends of Sellers who believe that the chameleon immersed himself too deeply in the character of Kabir, deluding himself that the on screen love affair was also happening in reality. 

Both performers possess a natural chemistry together that help to enliven proceedings when its needed the most, but the best chemistry in the film is perhaps on display when Loren performs opposite her mentor, the director Vittorio de Sica who has a small cameo role as the employer of a pasta sweat shop Epifania arrives at to comply with Kabir's late mother's test. Elsewhere, Alistair Sim quietly steals the film as Epifania's lawyer and it's a delight to see: but then, as a sleeve note to an Ian Dury album once said, 'everyone loves Alistair Sim'.

Speaking of music, The Beatles producer George Martin, who was at that time the producer of Peter Sellers' comedy recordings, came up with the idea of an in-character comic duet between Sellers and Loren entitled 'Goodness Gracious Me', with the intention of it being incorporated in the soundtrack of the film. 

The film's producers however did not agree and so the song appeared as a stand-alone single. It instantly became a chart hit in and succeeded in publicising the film and is still somewhat fondly recalled to this day. In short, the film producers were idiots.


  1. Hi, Mark.

    Coincidentally, the new "Sight and Sound" has an article by Hanif Kureishi about his fondness as a child for Sellers' "Indian" roles. - and it also has an article about Talking Pictures TV, though the Kureishi piece is a tie-in to the release of "The Party" on Blu-ray.

    1. Hi Steve, ooh ta for the tip! I'm a fan of Kureishi's so I'll be interested to see what he has to say. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Lovely review and you are right caught right in the middle of two genres of British comedy. I know I got this film as a freebie with a Sunday newspaper a few years ago so will have a hunt for it and give it another whirl.

    Ah - Sophia Loren. A rare beauty indeed but I am in danger of saying something about her figure that might be construed as sexist (despite the fact I'm female) so will leave it there!

    1. Thanks Alyson. It's not a great film by any standards but it's one I have some affection for, thanks to my love of Sellers and Loren. Sophia is the ultimate goddess in my book :)