(4/10) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and future Doctor Who Jon Pertwee star in a British atomic age screwball comedy set on a farm. Mr. and Mrs. Drake see their lives upended as the military invades their farm chasing a duck that lays uranium eggs. Future Quatermass director Val Guest makes a light-hearted comedy that leaves more to be desired.
Mr. Drake’s Duck. 1951, UK. Directed by Val Guest. Written by Guest & Ian Messiter. Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Yolande Donlan, Jon Pertwee, Peter Butterworth, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Arthur Hill. Produced By Daniel Angel & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. IMDb: 5.4/100. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
When I studied journalism, one of the first things we were taught was that “Dog Bites Man” isn’t particularly newsworthy, whereas “Man Bites Dog” is a given headline. The same rule applies to situation comedy. It is the intrusion of the extraordinary into our ordinary lives that sets up for comical situations. No wonder then, that comedy writers have so often turned their eyes to speculative fiction when writing movie scripts. The very first SF shorts in the late 19th century were comedy skits that were built on the movie camera’s magical ability to make the impossible seem possible. And during the heyday of the screwball comedy, SF provided writers with ample opportunities to throw a wrench in the wheel of the humdrum life of the middle-class family. Some of my recent reviews include the Finnish 1948 movie Hormoonit valloillaan, in which a stuck-up businessman is turned into a mental child, the 1949 farce The Perfect Woman, where an ageing playboy must accompany a robotic lady on a date, and the 1950 US production It Happens Every Spring, which sees a high school professor invent a baseball that averts wooden bats.
Mr. Drake’s Duck from 1951 is another movie that fits right into this pattern. In this British comedy, we follow the life of Mr. Donald Drake (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), an American who’s inherited a Sussex farm and is looking forward to settling down into a nice, quiet life with his newly wedded wife Penny (Yolande Donlan). Accompanying them are the film’s two comedic reliefs, farm hand Reuben (John Pertwee) and handyman Higgins (Peter Butterworth). But alas, when city girl Penny goes to the village and watches a livestock auction, she accidentally buys a herd of geese. And this is where the trouble starts.
Because the next day, one of the geese lays a radioactive egg made out of uranium. And when word about the extraordinary egg spreads, the military is fast on hand to capture the goose that laid the uranium egg. However, there are two problems. The first is that the Drakes can’t tell which one of their geese laid the egg, and the second that all branches of the military want in on the action, and very soon the Drake’s once idyllic farm becomes occupied with range rovers, tanks, planes and a few hundred soldiers. To make matters worse, the farm with all its inhabitants (including a couple of wholly redundant supporting characters) are put on lockdown until the magical goose can be found — something which turns out to be an almost insurmountable task.
Mr. Drake’s Duck originated as a radio play in 1951 called Mrs. Drake’s Duck, written by Ian Messiter, a British broadcast celebrity known for creating the gameshow Just a Minute. Today the film is primarily remembered for its lead actor and its director, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Val Guest. It was Fairbanks who insisted the film should be called *Mr.* Drake’s Duck when he signed on as star and co-producer. Val Guest, of course, would later make movie history with Hammer. Although fairly forgotten today, Mr. Drake’s Duck was a success in the UK, and did moderately decent business in the US.
First up, it must be said that the film is in every way a pleasantly harmless and moderately entertaining affair that may well be “responsible for some chuckles”, to quote the New York Times review. The cast is great and includes, apart from Fairbanks and Guest’s future wife Yolande Donlan, a number of very talented British character actors, perhaps most notably John Pertwee, who would go on to SF immortality as the Third Doctor on the cult show Dr. Who. Fairbanks is good as always, without needing to overly exert his acting muscles. Donlan is well-cast is a zesty role foreshadowing Marilyn Monroe. Peter Butterworth’s handyman is the butt of a long-running gag where he is never allowed to finish a job before being called to another, and Butterworth’s burlesque character work is the standout performance in the film. Guest’s direction is fluid, but somewhat leisurely, something which isn’t helped by the stagnant script.
In my review of It Happens Every Spring, I pointed out that the film’s downfall was that it never developed beyond the gag of a baseball veering wildly away from wooden bats. Mr. Drake’s Duck has the same problem. When the military lays siege to the Drake farm, the movie grinds to a halt, and when the tanks knock over Don Drake’s fence posts for the third time, the joke has already worn out its welcome.
Mr. Drake’s Duck does have all the ingredients of a satire. This was a period when the major power players of the world all flocked to uranium mines trying to come out on top in the nuclear arms race, and both the UK and the US governments waged mighty propaganda wars on its own citizens, trying to convince them of the risk-free and convenient nature of civilian nuclear power plants. The different branches of the British armed forces all competing to get to the uranium egg can very well be interpreted as the international race toward nuclear armament and power. The problem is that the movie never really works up the courage to take on this theme properly, instead it is content with some mild-mannered and friendly banter about the different branches of the British military. The script half-heartedly tries to tie in the movie with international politics, but with the satire rudderless from the get-go, this feels tacked-on.
Another angle, of course, is the movie’s nod to Aesop’s fable The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. In this classic moral tale, a farmer and his wife discover that their goose lays golden eggs, and figure that it must have a large lump of gold inside. In their greed, the kill the goose, but find no gold inside. Having not been content with their good fortune, but craved more, they have now killed the bird that could have given them a fortune for years. But despite the very obvious inspiration, the film also veers away from this theme thanks to a last-minute twist ending.
It feels as if screenwriters Messiter and Guest haven’t been interested in saying much anything about anything, and the movie certainly doesn’t work as a satire, being way to meek raise any serious talking point. And as stated, as a situation comedy it never develops beyond the initial premise; that the military invading the Drake farm in order to catch a duck is funny. The punchlines always consist of yet another branch of the military joining the party, or the whole lot returning once more just as we thought they were gone. It’s mildly amusing once, but doesn’t hold up for continuous milking.
Another problem is that all the characters are terribly bland. Everybody’s quite polite and reasonable, and even Mr. Drake manages to keep his cool throughout the proceedings. The two extra characters caught up in the farm along the usual residents are set up to be nuisances, but both readily fall in line. The military is the “bad guy” of the film, but their representatives do nothing but apologise and try best as they can not to cause any trouble. There’s a short spell of bad temper between Mr. and Mrs. Drake, but we all know it’s just a matter of time before it’s resolved. There’s no real human drama in the movie, and the characters are largely forgettable.
There’s also way too many plot holes and questions that Messiter has been too lazy to provide answers to. The first, and most glaring one is, of course: Why does the goose lay uranium eggs in the first place? While an answer isn’t necessary for the plot, it’s just plain lazy writing to not at least hint at an explanation. The second, equally glaring question is: Why doesn’t the army just take all the geese? There’s not more than 60 of them, and it certainly seems an easier solution than laying siege to an entire farm with hundreds of soldiers. Of course, then we wouldn’t have a film, but again: Not providing a satisfactory answer is lazy writing.
Nevertheless, Val Guest directs with a steady hand, and manages not to make the stock shots of military hardware too glaring for the film to work. As the film takes place mainly on a farm, of which we see rather little (there’s a lot of talk of cows, but I can’t remember if there was actually one on screen), the production design is no great feat, but it works well such as it is, and doesn’t feel cramped or low-budget, even if that is probably what it is. Art director Maurice Carter would go on to earn two Oscar and three Bafta nominations. He also designed the sets for At the Earth’s Core (1976) and The People that Time Forgot (1977).
Jack E. Cox’s cinematography is solid without impressing. Cox, a veteran of British cinematography, would shoot a slightly better known SF film a couple of years later, namely Devil Girl from Mars (1954). Costume designer Julie Harris went on to win an Oscar and a Bafta and worked on a number of James Bond movies. Assistant director George Fowler later turned up as the producer of the low-budget clunker Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956).
At the time of its release, critic A.W. at The New York Times was forgiving and slightly amused by Mr. Drake’s Duck. According to him, despite the potentially inflammable subject-matter, the film is “hardly explosive”, but “gossamer light in its approach”. He concludes that the filmmakers “are, of course, laboring one joke, but they do come up with enough laughs to make Mister Drake’s Duck a pleasant if slight lampoon”. Later reviews are few and far between. Time Out calls the movie “a light-hearted frolic from another age”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings writes: “It’s only sporadically amusing, but it does have a great cast of character actors; in particular, it’s fun to see a pre-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee as the cranky farmhand”.
As a conclusion, I would argue that Mr. Drake’s Duck’s idea is better than the film. Its undoing is its weak script that doesn’t quite know what it wants, and avoiding any satire that someone might take offence to, ends up looking like something resembling a light-hearted romantic comedy, but sans the romance. The solid performances keep the whole thing enjoyable enough, and there’s a few chuckles to be had along the way.
Director Val Guest is a household name in science fiction, and he is best known for completely altering the direction of legendary Hammer Films in the fifties by writing and directing The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957). While classics of SF, it was the horror elements of these movies that Hammer executives saw appealing to audiences, and this was how Hammer Horror was born. But by 1951 Val Guest was still known as a comedy expert. Born in London in 1911, he tried his hand at acting in the late twenties and early thirties, and in 1934 became the one-man UK office of The Hollywood Reporter. Incensed by Guest’s comments about the quality of director Marcel Varnel’s latest films in his regular column, Varnel challenged Guest to write a better script himself. The result was a collaboration on the Gainsborough Pictures production No Monkey Business. The studio liked his work, and signed him on.
Val Guest wrote dozens of comedies for Gainsborough and other studios in the thirties and forties, and gradually started doing a little bit of uncredited second unit directing here and there, and in 1942 directed his first short film, an Arthur Askey educational reel about the perils of sneezing (one can relate in these times). His feature debut was a musical comedy called Miss London Ltd. (1943). It was also comedies that took Guest to Hammer in the early fifties, when he was offered to direct a low-budget Robin Hood film, The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954).
Hammer Films had been resurrected in the mid-thirties, when the UK government required that at least 20 percent of films showed in cinemas should be British. It was one of many small film companies taking advantage of the artificial demand for British films by producing low-budget features that cashed in a small profit — so called “quota quickies”. In 1953, the BBC produced Britain’s first science fiction TV show, set in London and aired live, The Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale. The show was a tremendous success, a cultural landmark, and by some stroke of luck, Hammer was able to snatch up the film rights, despite very little experience with the genre. And despite Guest’s penchant for comedies, Hammer asked him to direct the film. Initially he wasn’t keen on doing it, as he didn’t like science fiction, but his wife Yolande Donlan convinced him to reconsider. The result, The Quatermass Xperiment, was a watershed moment for Hammer, as the movie, intentionally X-rated, became a barnstormer. Ever the shrewd businessmen, Hammer executives did audience interviews and found that rather than the SF elements, it was the horror elements that most appealed to cinema-goers, and since horror really wasn’t a genre produced in the UK at the time, they reckoned they were sitting on a cash cow. This is how Hammer Horror was born. But alas, to a science fiction nerd there is always that pang of regret over the fact that the studio chose to focus so exclusively on horror, that it almost entirely dropped SF from its repertoire.
Val Guest agreed to direct the follow-up, Quatermass 2 (1957), but returned to his bread-and-butter genre thereafter. But as fate would have it, he wasn’t to remain out of SF territory for long. In 1961 he co-wrote and directed the classic apocalypse film The Day the Earth Caught Fire. In 1970, Guest’s star had waned and he found himself doing super-cheapos, such as the belated pop comedy Toomorrow, a film with the moronic premise that dying aliens kidnap a pop group because they need their “vibrations” to live. The movie is probably best known for featuring Olivia Newton-John. The same year, he directed the low-budget prehistoric film When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, perhaps best remembered for featuring Victoria Vetri. In the seventies, Guest gradually moved over to TV, and co-wrote and directed a few SF episodes on series like Space: 1999 and Hammer House of Horror and Mystery.
Apart from his love for comedies, Guest was also a fine director of crime dramas, best know is probably Jigsaw (1962). And apart from his Quatermass fame, he is probably best remembered to a broader audience because of his involvement with the ill-fated James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Guest was one of the many writers on the project, and was hired as the director in charge of splicing all the different pieces of the film together into one coherent narrative. He was offered the unique title of “coordinating director”, but declined the honour, not wanting the mess of a film to reflect negatively on his reputation, and settled for the less prominent title of assisting director of additional scenes. Another film of interest is his 1959 music business satire Expresso Bongo, starring Lawrence Harvey, Cliff Richard and Yolande Donlan.
As stated, Mr. Drake’s Duck is perhaps best known for being one of the last films that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. did. Like so many children of famous movie stars, Fairbanks wasn’t initially set on becoming an actor, and the multi-talented man did indeed create a career for himself in a number of different avenues. Like his father, the swashbuckling hero of the silent era, he excelled in sports, but also in academia and art, and took to painting and sculpting. Still, acting was in his blood, and after finishing his studies, he started working for Paramount, but was careful both of not becoming a pale imitation of his father, and of working his way up the career ladder slowly and on his own terms. Thus, he started as a lowly-paid bit-part player, making a bit extra on the side as a camera assistant. During the mid-twenties Fairbanks did supporting roles and stage work, before getting leading man roles on the cusp of talking pictures, mostly in romantic dramas, comedies and many of the musical revues so popular at the end of the twenties. But his breakthrough came with Warner Brothers, in the crime drama Little Caesar (1931), where he played the hapless partner of the title character. This would become a defining feature for Fairbanks, as his other most lauded roles, as in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Gunga Din (1939) were mostly supporting characters.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. took a six year break from acting during WWII, when he served as a navy officer, primarily in the Mediterranean, and was a key player in the US developing a military deception unit, which he was ultimately placed in charge of. This special unit, called Beach Jumpers, was crucial to a number of operations in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
When returning from the war in 1945, Fairbanks, like a number of other second-grade stars of Hollywood, found that their services were no longer in particularly high demand. He spent two years preparing his comeback, and despite spending much of his career avoiding walking in his father’s footsteps, chose RKO’s Sindbad, the Sailor (1947), in which he played the title role. The film met little acclaim, as did three more self-produced romantic swashbuckling movies made between 1947 and 1949. An outspoken Anglophile, Fairbanks was well known in British social circles, and received an honorary knighthood in 1949. In 1950 he left the US for Britain, were he starred in two films, including Mr. Drake’s Duck, and produced, co-wrote and starred in an anthology series on TV called Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents (1953-1956). Via a short detour to Italy, where he made a little remembered film, he returned to the US, where he made occasional TV roles and cameos in the sixties, seventies and eighties, before quitting acting in 1989. He passed away in 2000. While never quite the celebrated matinée idol his father was, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. had a highly successful acting career, which was only one part of his multi-faceted life. Mr. Drake’s Duck was his only run-in with SF.
Fairbank’s wife in Mr. Drake’s Duck is played by Yolande Donlan, another American. At the time of the Films Act in the UK, many quota quickie companies made deals with US distributors, who required them to have an American actor of some marquee value as top billing in their films, which led to the odd practice of Britain churning out a vast number of British films with slumming US stars, who could count on prolonging a sputtering career with a few years by moving to London. This was not the case, however, with Yolande Donlan.
Donlan, born in 1920, was the daughter of Hollywood character actor James Donlan, and had a few small film roles in the late thirties and early forties, including the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat (1940, review). It was the stage, however, that made her a star. After a lauded performance in the play Born Yesterday in 1946, she was recruited by Laurence Olivier himself to repeat the role in London, to more success, and followed it up with another hit in Peter Pan. She decided to stay in London and started accepting film work, which, for apparent reasons, was not difficult to come by for an American star residing in the UK. After a string of movies for Val Guest, the two married in 1954 after Guest’s previous marriage had fallen through. Donlan made a handful of more films, primarily with Guest, and a couple of films with Lewis Gilbert in the seventies, and continued her stage work. One of the better known ones was one of the later Tarzan films, Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957), with Gordon Scott as the loincloth-wearing jungle man, filmed in the UK.
The actor in the movie with the greatest SF pedigree is of course Jon Pertwee, who would go on to international fame as the third Doctor in the cult series Doctor Who (1970–1974) — and one of the most popular Doctors in the series’ over 50 years’ history, at that. This was a level of stardom that few had envisioned for the wizened character actor. While he looks a good bit older, he was in fact just one year older, at 32, than Yolande Donlan while filming Mr. Drake’s Duck. Hailing from a showbiz family, Pertwee began his career as a circus performer while still in school — riding the Wall of Death on a motorcycle with a toothless lion in the sidecar. He was contracted by BBC Radio at 18, and spent six years during WWII in the top-secret Naval Intelligence Division.
Returning from the war, Pertwee racked up a career as a comedy performer on the radio, and in numerous small parts in films. His first fling with actual fame came in 1959, when he played the conniving Chief Petty Officer Pertwee on the long-running radio show Navy Lark, which he stayed with until 1977. In 1969 he was, somewhat to his surprise, cast as Dr. Who in the immensely popular TV series started in 1963. With Pertwee started the “James Bond” era of the show, and during his five seasons, as the Doctor was remolded as “an active crusader with a penchant for action and fancy clothes, while the character was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords for much of his tenure”. Pertwee didn’t have to deal with the same sort of international fame as later Doctors, as the show was still largely a British phenomenon, and perceived more as a cult phenomenon outside the Commonwealth. Still, it had been aired internationally since 1964, and in 1970 it was picked up in the US, making Pertwee the first Doctor introduced to a North American audience. Pertwee left the show after five seasons, for a number of reasons, partly having to do with the changes in the cast, and partly out of fear of typecasting. He is seldom named as anyone’s favourite doctor, but steadily ranks as fifth or sixth most popular of the 13 different (official) incarnations. He complained in later years that his Dr. Who fame did hurt his career, as he was frequently turned down by producers who thought he was too well-known as The Doctor. He wrote shortly before his death in 1996 that he only ever once worked in BBC drama again after Dr. Who.
Pertwee’s next big hit was the children’s sitcom series Wurzel Gummidge, in which he played the title character for all of the four original seasons. In 2013, the show made the list of Britain’s 50 most popular children’s shows. Despite his complaints over the Dr. Who Damocles Sword hanging over his head, he had a long a successful later career both on TV, in film and on stage. Despite his SF pedigree, he appeared in no other science fiction feature films than Mr. Drake’s Duck.
The Pertwee acting legacy is carried on by Jon’s son and daughter, the son Sean Pertwee being the better known of the two. Sean has some SF pedigree of his own, with substantial parts in films like Event Horizon (1997), Soldier (1998), Equilibrium (2002), Dog Soldiers (2002) and Doomsday (2008). He is probably best known to a larger audience for his starring role as Alfred Pennyworth in the Fox series Gotham (2014–2019).
Peter Butterworth, a much-loved and employed character actor, does a great job as the handyman on the Drake farm. Butterworth never achieved star status, but was a popular entertainer and character player. He had a small role on The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and had a recurring role on Dr. Who in 1965 and 1966 as the villain Monk.
The cast is full of seasoned and interesting character actors, all worth a small mention. But if we are to pick one, then it must be Wilfrid Hyde-White, playing one of the men accidentally besieged at the farm. Not especially memorable in this role, Hyde-White was nonetheless a highly respected character actor with a long and varied career on stage and in film and television in Britain, as well as in South Africa and the United States. Making stage debut in 1922 and his screen debut in 1934, Hyde-White appeared in all manners of genres, from comedies to crime films, historical dramas and all-out science fiction. While not perhaps a household name, the one role that he will be remembered for is Colonel Hugh Pickering in My Fair Lady (1964).
Hyde-White caught the eye of movie producers in Hollywood as early as 1949 with his small part in the classic film noir The Third Man. Other movie outings worthy of mention are George Cukor’s Marilyn Monroe vehicle Let’s Make Love (1960) and Disney’s Jules Verne adaptation In Search of the Castaways (1962). Other interesting genre performances came in the afore-mentioned Tarzan and the Lost Safari, as well as in the infamous Tarzan the Ape Man (1981) starring Bo Derek, and he appeared as a heavenly voice in the fantasy film Xanadu (1980). A chapter completely of its own is the bizarre Frankie Avalon/Shirley Eaton/Klaus Kinski train wreck called The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967), based on a novel by Sax Rohmer. As many distinguished British gentlemen, he was sought-after for horror movies, and appeared in a number of these, including the 1979 remake of The Cat and the Canary. In the seventies he became a TV staple, popping up in series like Peyton Place, Mission Impossible and Columbo. His biggest TV job was the lauded comedy series The Associates, in which he played one of the main characters, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work.
Hyde-White also has some SF pedigree, as he had a small role in the original seventies TV show Battlestar Galactica, which was also featured in the theatrically released “pilot” movie Battlestar Galactica (1978), which was actually the three first episodes edited together. He appeared as a club member in King Solomon’s Treasure (1979) and in the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1981).
We can also give a shout-out to a young Arthur Hill, who would become a much respected character actor and leading man with some SF experience, who has quite a small part in Mr. Drake’s Duck, as the American vice consul. Hill is probably best known for his leading role in Robert Wise’s and Michael Crichton’s SF movie The Andromeda Strain (1979), and had a large supporting role in the Peter Fonda film Futureworld (1976). He also appeared in a number of well-received SF TV movies.
Mr. Drake’s Duck was co-produced by Daniel Angel for Angel Productions, another one of the quota quickie companies that popped up in the forties. Suffering from polio during WWII, he learned how to walk with crutches, which he did until 1971, when he was permanently assigned to a wheelchair. Starting with documentaries of the people working at the British court, Angel moved into producing feature films in 1949, and produced around 20 movies up until 1975, working mostly with directors Val Guest, Lewis Gilbert and Joseph Losey. He co-produced both Fairbanks’ British films. Angel is perhaps best known for being the first movie producer in Britain to sell his movies to television, which caused a huge upset in the British movie industry, and several cinemas and distributors boycotted his later movies.
Mr. Drake’s Duck. 1951, UK. Directed by Val Guest. Written by Guest & Ian Messiter. Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Yolande Donlan, Jon Pertwee, Peter Butterworth, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Reginald Beckwith, Howard Marion Crawford, A.E. Matthews, Ballard Berkeley, Harry Fowler, Bruce Bellfrage, George Merritt, Arthur Hill, Danny Green. Music: Bruce Campbell. Cinematography: Jack E. Cox. Editing: Adam Dawson, Sam Simmonds. Art direction: Maurice Carter. Costume design: Julie Harris. Makeup: Joan Carpenter, Freddie Williamson. Produced By Daniel Angel for Angel Productions and Doyglas Fairbanks, Jr. for Douglas Fairbanks productions.
Categories: Other SF element