THE BOOTLEG FILES: “LIGHT UP THE SKY”

If you’re like me, you believe the Holy Trinity should be reconfigured to include a fourth entity: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and Benny Hill. So imagine my happy shock when I came upon a Benny Hill movie I never knew existed and which, as far as I can determine, was nowhere to be found in America before I located it from an overseas source. Benny Hill many very few films, so a hitherto unknown flick was quite a find.

The film in question is the 1960 production “Light Up the Sky,” and it is a huge surprise on many levels. For those expecting a film full of Benny Hill-inspired tomfoolery and slapstick, the surprise will be a sad one because “Light Up the Sky” is absolutely nothing like “The Benny Hill Show” with its bevy of buxom crumpets jiggling around Benny’s ogling eyes and pinching fingers. But for those seeking out an intelligent, moving and thoroughly compelling drama, “Light Up the Sky” is a wild surprise. Especially when you see that Benny Hill can give a serious performance.

Well, serious and comic. “Light Up the Sky” is centered on an Army searchlight brigade stationed in rural England during World War II. The year is 1942 and the war is dragging on endlessly. The brigade hasn’t seen much combat work since the Luftwaffe is not bombing their section of Britain. Needless to say, boredom sets in quickly and the attempts to relieve the boredom creates problems.

There is the brigade cook, who dreams of getting elevated to the army’s catering corps. Rather than create the usual fish-and-chips meal, he whips up surprisingly lavish offerings. To keep his kitchen well-stocked, Syd the regiment clown (Benny Hill) runs about the countryside stealing from the local farms. Whether coming back with a helmet full of eggs or even a couple of ducks, Syd is a master at larceny. (He even scores with a bathtub full of Brussell sprouts!)

Syd is a would-be entertainer who has a double act with his kid brother Eric (Tommy Steele, the British pop star). But things get complicated when Eric abruptly gets married to a girl, only to fall in love and get another girl pregnant. As luck would have it, Eric’s wife completely forgives him for his indiscretion – and that’s not good, since Eric would rather be with his new baby and the child’s mother (although the girl’s father will not allow him to see her or the infant).

There’s also an elder soldier whose son is stationed on the battlefront in Egypt. He writes long letters to his son, but is bothered by the short and cryptic responses he receives. The brigade’s youngest member gets fatalistic letters from his intended fiancé and rashly decides to go AWOL in order to see her. The regiment’s so-called leader is a corporal married to an enlisted woman – who outranks him (she is a sergeant). Barely supervising this off-kilter group is an upper class lieutenant (Ian Carmichael, best known here for the comedy classic “I’m All Right, Jack”). The lieutenant keeps order (barely) with gentle teasing. When the lieutenant discovers a Churchill-worthy cigar lying on a table, still spewing spoke, at a time when the men should be on duty, he playfully states: “Don’t tell me he was here!”

“Light Up the Sky,” which was based on the play “Touch the Light” (I don’t believe that was ever staged in the US), is an uncommonly well-written ensemble piece. The characters are richly dimensional, with good parts and bad part to their respective personalities. They squabble, overreach, act selfishly, fail, and yet pull together in the face of the climactic sequence when the Germans finally return from the air.

The real surprise in “Light Up the Sky” is Benny Hill, who gives a sterling performance. He is genuinely amusing when scampering through barnyards in search of goodies to pilfer, with his zany moon of a face beaming wildly when his contraband jackpot is located. But in the moments when he confronts his irresponsible brother for threatening to break up their act, he is sincere and quite touching in conveying the sense of pain which his sibling brother has heaped on him. For anyone who knows Hill strictly for crazy comedy sight gags, this performance comes as quite an eye-opener.

The highlight here is a cabaret act performed by Hill and Tommy Steele during a community talent show. Incorporating a deliberately corny rip-off of the Hope & Crosby brand of patter and song, they create a golden moment which is truly entertaining. Steele is as much of a wild card here as Hill – his best-known film work is predominantly mediocre and borderline obnoxious (“Half a Sixpence,” “The Happiest Millionaire,” “Finian’s Rainbow”), and I’ve always wondered how he became a star in England. I can see why in “Light Up the Sky”: he is rakish, charming, captivating in his song-and-dance routine and utterly compelling in sketching out the rough aspects of his character’s problematic personality. It’s a great performance and it’s a genuine shame he never received more screen roles of equal caliber.

“Light Up the Sky” was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who had another memorable film that same year with “Sink the Bismarck.” “Light Up the Sky” is clearly a low budget film, but Gilbert’s deft direction keeps the story moving along so swiftly that one is not distracted by the low-rent production elements. He would later get his hands on big budget slambang, helming the 007 epics “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker.”

So if this film is so great, why is it unknown? “Light Up the Sky” was a moderate box office hit in England, but when Continental Releasing picked it up for the US market they changed the title to “Skywatch” in order to avoid confusion with the famous Moss Hart play “Light Up the Sky” (which, ironically, was never filmed). The US release was poorly promoted and audiences of that era did not know the cast or their capacities. The film vanished from America as soon as it arrived; I don’t know if it was even shown on US television.

And this is a major shame, because “Light Up the Sky” is an excellent film. Benny Hill fans who want to see their favorite funnyman playing something quite different should dig this one up. The great English entertainer definitely deserves a big Mr. Scuttle-worthy salute for this one!

UPDATE: For fans of this column, I’d like to say thank you for dropping by each week. This is the 75th column in the Bootleg Files series and I am very grateful for the wonderful comments I’ve been receiving during its run. I have a few updates on previous columns: two titles that were previously featured here, “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “Anna Lucasta,” have emerged on commercial DVD and are no longer bootleg-only finds. Disney claims that “Song of the South” will have its DVD release in 2006, and the John Wayne epic “The High and the Mighty” is being restored now, most likely for release next year. “Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown” has been posted for realtime viewing on the Internet (most likely not with Jim Reardon’s permission, but then again he didn’t have Charles M. Schulz’s permission to make his film).

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on April 29, 2005 in Features by
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