Down Among the "Z" Men
Mostly I write about new movies, but occasionally I sometimes run across something else that's so unusual it just needs to be mentioned. Such a curiosity is "Down Among the 'Z' Men," (a.k.a. "The Goon Show Movie") which appears to be the one and only one movie specifically featuring the cast of the BBC radio comedy "The Goon Show," although cast members Harry Seacombe, Peter Sellers, and Spike Milligan all had extensive film careers individually.
My enjoyment of British comedy has an interesting history: in my early college career, (circa 1977) my Drama professor loaned me his precious collection of "Beyond the Fringe" tapes. I found I didn't share his enthusiasm, partly because I just didn't find much of it funny, and partly because the low-fidelity of reel-to-reel tape made it hard to listen to. Shortly thereafter came "Monty Python's Flying Circus," which I have to say I wasn't initially enamored of, either, but with exposure and attention, I caught on to it. (This is something that seems to be endemic among theatre people. Just about every cast I've been in has numerous people who can quote large sections of Monty Python sketches verbatim.) I didn't really discover the Goons until I met Georgie, who had not only been able to hear them on Canadian radio in Buffalo, but owned some of their record albums. I found them wonderful.
Therefore, we were both surprised and intrigued when we discovered the local library system owned a video of "'Z' Men," which neither of us had heard of before. Made in 1952, the film structurally resembles a Marx Brothers picture: that is, it has a rather basic comic plot augmented by musical numbers and comedy set-pieces. In this case, a typical Goon radio plot, involving attempts by foreign agents to steal the formula of the "Bicarbonate Bomb," is expanded for the screen. The foreign agents intend to use small-town shop assistant Harry Jones (Seacombe) as a cat's-paw to help them steal the formula from crackpot Professor Purehart (Bentine). Jones fancies himself as a detective based upon his little theatre success in a detective thriller, "Bats of the Yard," and is easily fooled by the cunning spies into working as their tool. Purehart has been transferred for safekeeping to an Infantry Training Base (what we in the US would call a "boot camp") under the command of Major Bloodnoc (Sellers) with "M.I.5 girl" Carole Gayley (Carole Carr) as his minder. Sneaking into the camp, Jones is swept up into an incoming "Z draft" class (evidently a kind of Army Reserve or National Guard training—hence the "Z Men" title) and put under the mentorship of thick-as-two-planks Eccles (Milligan) who has just made provisional Lance Corporal after ten years as a private. Eventually the spies are foiled after a couple of musical interludes by the talented Carr and dance numbers by twelve female soldiers (WRACs?) (billed in the credits as "The Twelve Toppers,") who have a nice Rockettes/June Taylor tap dance chorus line style. The plot also incorporates a base "talent show," which included Sellers doing a very good John Wayne imitation, and an inspired piece of comic rigmarole by Bentine, in which a piece of broken chair becomes a flag, a rudder, a pillory, a lyre, a plow, and too many other things to count.
By the way, the fact that the movie title is a pun may be lost on US readers: in the British fashion, 'Z' is pronounced 'Zed,' so it's actually "Down Among the 'Zed' Men," which is a pun on the title of a classical drinking song, "Down Among the Dead Men," which is also used in the film with updated words.