THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, a droll, often laugh-aloud British satire on The Bomb, international diplomacy and American foreign policy, tickled a good number of funny bones in 1959, especially in the United States, and makes a nice rediscovery or fresh find for those who think Monty Python invented socially nippy silliness. Directed by Jack Arnold, the screenplay by Roger MacDougall and Stanley Mann was adapted from Leonard Wibberley’s novel. *
The tiny European ‘Duchy of Grand Fenwick’ faces bankruptcy thanks to an American company undercutting their proud and precious wine industry: pinot to neighboring France is Fenwick’s sole export. ‘Count Rupert Mountjoy’ (Peter Sellers, the Prime Minister, hatches a plot: declare war on the USA, lose, and reap lavish American aid to rebuild. After dowager ‘Duchess Gloriana’ (also Sellers) gives her royal approval, entrusted to lead Fenwick’s soldiers in an assault on New York City is kind but doltish game warden ‘Tully Bascomb’ (Sellers #3). Once there, Tully and his men not only seize the dreaded ‘Q-bomb’ (which can take out an entire continent) but capture its inventor and ‘Helen’ (Jean Seberg), the scientist’s comely daughter. Tully is smitten, Rupert flabbergasted, the Duchess serene above the fray.
Getting the jump on his later tri-party triumph spinning the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove, Sellers is in grand form, especially as the Queen Victoria-inspired matriarch. Seberg’s cute as a strawberry yet in performing she’s a syrup-free pancake, but her token presence does no damage: there are clever sight gags and quips at the expense of everyone and every country involved and it ends with a smile.
Made for $450,000, this was oddly a bit of a dud on home sod, grossing but £400,000. Then the “jokes-on-US” lark fared well in the States, taking $5,700,000, placing as ’59’s 42nd. Mouse was the most popular of the year’s quality British imports, topping Our Man in Havana, Look Back in Anger, Room At The Top, Northwest Frontier, I’m All Right Jack (with Sellers) and Tiger Bay.
Wisely just 83 minutes, so even with the expected 3rd-act ramping up of slapstick, the welcome mat stays out. With Leo McKern, David Kossoff, William Hartnell (a hoot), MacDonald Parke and Austin Willis.
* In 1955, Irish-American writer Leonard Wibberley kicked off his own private war on Great Power idiocy with “The Mouse That Roared” (in Britain, “The Wrath of Grapes”, which fits if you know the setup, or are au courant with vintage Pinot Grand Fenwick). He continued the attack with “Beware Of The Mouse”, “The Mouse On The Moon” (another funny movie in 1963), “The Mouse On Wall Street” and “The Mouse That Saved The West.”
While director Jack Arnold he obviously had a sense of humor, he’s primarily known for his 50s sci-fi epics: It Came From Outer Space, Creature From The Black Lagoon, Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Maybe dealing with outsized talents helped him handle Peter Sellers.