The History Of Mr Polly

The History Of Mr Polly


Reviewed by: Caro Ness

Quiet, shy, a bookworm, Alfred Polly is a directionless, ineffectual, rather lazy, if well-intentioned man. He is used to being told what to do by other people, so when his father dies and leaves him some money in his will, he does what he is told and uses the money to buy a shop in a small town. This is against all his instincts because he is not cut out for shop-keeping as history reveals: the film opens with him being fired from a shop for being utterly unreliable.

After 15 years of running the shop, tired of his wife’s nagging and faced with bankruptcy, he decides that the only thing to do is to kill himself, so opts to set fire to the shop and cut his throat so that his wife can collect on insurance. Since this is Mr Polly, nothing ever runs smoothly so he sets fire to the premises before he intends to, and ends up rescuing an old, deaf woman who lives next door and becomes a hero. Having now been told that now he’s a hero he can do anything, he decides to just leave and in doing so, he comes across a pub in the country which needs an odd-job man, a job that suits him well, except that there is one hitch. The landlady’s brother in law, Uncle Jim, is a drunken bully, who is permanently in and out of prison and has driven every other odd-job man away because he extorts money from his sister-in-law.

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Once again, luck intervenes and Mr Polly and Uncle Jim have a stand-up fight which results in Uncle Jim tearing his trousers and having to don a pair of Mr Polly’s. He also manages to commandeer Mr Polly’s gun but in the process of firing it, the kickback throws him backwards into the river and he drowns in the weir. The consequence is that everyone in the town think that he is Mr Polly because he was wearing his trousers and the river had done his face so much damage that he is unrecognisable. Mr Polly returns to ensure that his wife is OK and finds that she has opened a successful teashop with her sister. Having satisfied himself that she is OK, he returns to his life in the country, pretending, when he and his wife meet in the tea shop that he doesn’t know her at all.

The screenplay is remarkably faithful to the story and many consider the film a good Victorian comedy. I have to differ. I have to confess that if I had to live with Mr Polly for any length of time at all, I would have scragged him long before he thought of killing himself. One can’t help feeling that if he were a Big Brother contestant, all the other housemates would be whispering behind their hands “What does he actually do?”

While the core themes of the book (mid-life crises, career problems, marriage problems, suicidal tendencies, romantic notions of life) are perhaps even more relevant now than they were when Wells wrote it, there seems to be as much direction to the story as there is to Mr Polly himself. While I would contend good fortune has a strong role to play in life, surely it is not the only thing that shapes our lives? It seems Mr Polly stumbles blindly through life and through a series of amazing strokes of good luck and circumstance eventually finds the modest, unassuming version of utopia he has been searching for. But I can’t help feeling at the end of it all, if The History of Mr Polly had been written by anyone other than the great HG Wells we would have never seen it transfer from book to screen.

That said, it featurs a wonderful performance by the magnetic John Mills. Despite the fact that he won a knighthood, and despite the fact that he was an enormously popular performer, I don’t think there has been a more underestimated actor of his generation. He is a true chameleon in every role he plays, this role included, and thankfully this was recognised when he finally won the Best Supporting Actor for Ryan’s Daughter in 1970.

Reviewed on: 15 Jan 2007
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Victorian comedy about a hapless shop owner.
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Director: Anthony Pelissier

Writer: Adapted by Anthony Pelissier from a story by HG Wells

Starring: John Mills, Betty Ann Davies, Megs Jenkins, Finlay Currie, Gladys Henson, Juliet Mills

Year: 1949

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


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