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Carry On Sergeant (1958)



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Little did anyone involved with this production know that this little comedy would become such a smash hit in England that it would spawn a series of 31 films. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see why this movie caught on so big. Carry On Sergeant is a good movie but not cleverer or more inspired than a great many British comedies of the 50s.

Perhaps where it excels is in the blend and balance of characters and how completely the actors embody their roles. William Hartnell, as Sergeant Grimshawe, is the epitome of the crusty British officer, observing all elements of the stereotype while remaining a unique individual. The general storyline is that this sergeant will be retiring soon and has one last shot at winning the Star Squad prize with his last batch of new recruits. The catch is that the recruits are the most hopeless ragtag bunch he's ever seen in his career. Comic mishaps of all kinds ensue.

The film, as I say, was so popular that a sequel was made, and then another and another, until the Carry On films became a veritable institution of British comedy. Perhaps one of the secrets of its success is that the sequels did not attempt to continue the storyline of this film, which is complete in and of itself. Rather, they reconvened much of the same cast and sought to recreate the chemistry and humor with new characters and new settings.

Looking back with these even more popular sequels in mind, this first film is a curious mix of returning and non-returning cast members. None of the eventual Carry On regulars -- including Kenneth Connor (who steals the show this time around with his neurotic hypochrondriac act), Kenneth Williams (who had yet to develop his snide persona), Charles Hawtrey, and Hattie Jacques -- received particularly high billing. Hartnell and Bob Monkhouse would not appear again in the series. Other main cast members -- Shirley Eaton and Eric Barker -- would appear again in a couple more but not become actual regulars. But this mixing of regulars and guest stars continued throughout the series and perhaps also contributed to its longevity. The regulars never wore out their welcome by hogging the spotlight: out of the blue, someone like Frankie Howerd or the American comedian Phil Silvers would play the lead in an installment and change things up.

Unusually for a long series, every entry had the same producer and director (Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas), and there were not that many different writers who worked on it, either. The first six were all written by Normal Hudis, whose scripts were mostly about misfit rookies rocking the establishment -- the military, in this case, and subsequently the health care system, schools, and the police force. The formula was a little too restrictive and wore thin by the time Talbot Rothwell took over the writing duties for the twenty films to follow, but it's fresh enough here. Carry On Sergeant has a pleasant, laid-back, and understandably un-self-conscious style. There are few big laughs but a great many small ones and smiles throughout.

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