“Sergeant-major, you’re a sex maniac.”
Up The Front is a British comedy starring the late great and much loved British comedian Frankie Howerd. Howerd starred in a popular television series about ancient Rome, called Up Pompeii, and he played the leering, campy slave Lurcio. In some ways this character is simply transported to the WWI film Up The Front. Bob Kellett directed both the 1971 film Up Pompeii and Up the Front (and for that matter, he also directed Up The Chastity Belt, which also stars Frankie Howerd). In Up The Front, Howerd plays Lurk, a servant in a posh London home in 1914. Each episode of Up Pompeii started with Lurcio trying to deliver the Prologue, and in each episode, he would face the camera and begin with the word, Greetings. This is also exactly how Up The Front begins.
When war breaks out, a wave of patriotic fervor sweeps through London, but Lurk doesn’t take the bait. However, when Lurk hears that the Butler, Groping (Bill Fraser) and the housemaid, Fanny (Madeline Smith) are about to attend a enlistment rally, he goes along too–just to show that he doesn’t deserve the white feather callously handed to him by Fanny in a private moment.
Unfortunately for Lurk, he’s hypnotized, and operating under the idea that he “must save England,” he enlists. Lurk soon finds himself near the Front and his sergeant-major is none other than Groping, the former butler.
For the most part, Up The Front is a very silly comedy designed as a vehicle for Howerd, so Howerd fans (me) will enjoy the film if for no other reason than Howerd is in almost every scene. Howerd is his usual leering, sly, tongue waggling, and cheek sucking self. The comedy is largely bawdy double entendre with a little slapstick thrown in for good measure. There’s even some peeping through keyholes and one on-going joke has Lurk peeping through keyholes and interrupting Groping’s sexual escapades. The final third of the film is the strongest section, and the film suddenly seems to spring to life. Howerd, who sports the German Master Plan tattooed on his bottom, is in one great cross-dressing scene (what’s a British comedy without a cross-dressing scene), and there’s a superbly timed denouement involving the Buttercup Girls and a Can-Can routine. There’s also a great scene between Howerd and Mata Hari (Zsa Zsa Gabor), and what a mismatched couple they make.
Up The Front isn’t much of a WWI film. There’s no reference to the millions of died, so it’s a peculiar setting for a comedy, but it’s almost beside the point that The Great War is raging. Patriotism is portrayed as a sort of insanity–after all the patriotic Nigel Phipps-Fortescue (Jonathan Cecil) is a bit of a twit, and Lurk must be hypnotized before he’ll enlist. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do a great deal for Howerd’s comedic talents. Keep an eye open for Dora Bryan in the role of dotty Cora Crumpington (Dora Bryan).
Up The Front was just released on DVD by WHAM, and this is a very good print. I had no problems with it whatsoever. I copied some lines down for all Howerd fans out there:
“Don’t worry Fanny, I foiled his fondling .”
“Let’s have a quick feel.”
“Sergeant-major, which means the sun shines up my arse.”
Mata Hari looking at herself in the mirror: “I even intoxicate myself.”
Mata Hari to Lurk: “To a Just Peace in our time.” Lurk replies: “To a juicy piece any time.”