The Optimists (1973) dir. Anthony Simmons
Starring: Peter Sellers, Donna Mullane, John Chaffey, David Daker, Marjorie Yates
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
This is the sort of neglected (though slightly tarnished) gem that, on the surface, appears to have had the recipe for success.
The ingredients are as follows:
Peter Sellers in a restrained, delicate performance plays a cranky, poor, old music hall singer living in a slum who lives alone with his memories and his sick old dog.
Two cute working class kids (Donna Mullane and John Chaffey) want to rescue a cute orphan puppy from the pound.
When the abovementioned first meet, the Old Man is surly towards the children. In spite of this, they find his eccentricities, old songs and dog most amusing. He secretly enjoys their company and eventually the three become friends. He even helps them get a puppy from the pound.
Add to this recipe songs and music by Lionel (“Oliver!”) Bart and George Martin (yes, THAT George Martin!).
Sounds like a winner, right?
Wrong. The picture was barely released, garnered less-than-stellar reviews (when anyone bothered to review it at all) and even now, has found its way into the home entertainment market with barely a peep.
While I’d like to report that it’s some kind of forgotten masterpiece. I cannot. I can, however, suggest that it’s worth a look for both Sellers and the kitchen sink glimpse into the landscape that was working class London in the late 60s and early 70s. If it wasn’t as depicted in this film, it sure feels like it was, anyways. Smoke belches steadily from factory chimneys, everything feels wet and mucky, there’s seldom a sunny day, the interiors feel worn and grimy and everyone, save for the kids, have the most dour expressions on their faces.
Aside from the wisps of plot described above (in addition to a thrown away sub-plot dealing with the children’s parents who neglect them only because they’re slaving to keep food on the table), this is pretty much what comprises the picture and alas, the running time is far too long to sustain an audience’s interest in such muted and dreary goings-on.
It might have been a different story with a Tony Richardson or Karel Reizs or John Schlesinger directing, but Anthony Simmons, directing from a screenplay adaptation by Tudor Gates of Simmons’s own novel “The Optimists of Nine Elms” is, as a director, barely competent. Scenes run on too long, the camera is often in the wrong place at the wrong time and many sequences feel truncated, not because of poor editing, but because the poor editor (a usually crackerjack cutter), John (“Frenzy”, “A Fish Called Wanda)” Jympson, clearly didn’t always have the proper coverage (footage, shots) to work with.
In spite of this, Sellers is quite remarkable. He puts his heart and soul into his performance and there are numerous moments where his command of the role and the screen itself are so powerful that it’s almost impossible to divert oneself from the picture when he’s on-screen. His eyes convey decades of hurt and lost dreams and the only time he explodes with joy is when he bursts into song. Sellers is heartbreaking in this picture. The performance itself is on a par with his work in “Being There” or his supporting bits in the Ealing comedies. Too bad the movie isn’t up to snuff.
All that said, though, any movie that climaxes in an abandoned pet cemetery with the weather beaten headstones of long-ago departed canines and Peter Sellers burying his old dog, whilst inheriting a new one, can’t really be all that bad, can it?
“The Optimists” is currently available on the Legend Films DVD label as part of the series of titles that Paramount Pictures did not feel like distributing themselves.