Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (1949)
Based on the classic Mark Twain novel Timecop, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tells the story of Hank Martin (Bing Crosby), a crooning auto mechanic from 1912 who recalls the time he took a bump on the head and woke up in 528 A.D. It’s not the first film adaptation, nor is it the first musical adaptation, but it is the first musical film adaptation, so there’s that. Also, what the hell, why isn’t the Will Rogers version on DVD? Well, enough excuses, on to our first Time Out movie with repeated occurrences of inexplicable singing (if you don’t count that parade with the dinosaurs).
Yes, certain pieces of (what I read about) the novel (on Wikipedia, because who has time to read?) find their way into the movie, but it never quite escalates above, “Hey, ain’t this nifty?” I think the biggest problem for me was no real objective for the titular Yankee. He ends up in 528 and that’s that. Best get used to it. The end. Things happen around him and things happen to him, but other than getting out of the occasional jam, he mostly just wanders around Camelot smirking at things.
That’s not to say the movie is entirely bland, it just feels more like a collection of scenes than a narrative. It’s the kind of thing I can see an over-enthusiastic trailer for in my head. “It’s got action! Comedy! Romance! Singing! You like those things! Don’t cha?”
They did manage to keep in the part about King Arthur disguising himself as a peasant to determine the public’s opinion on him, but because this is a big happy musical, they’re off to see the downtrodden with a merry spring in their step. I don’t know, doesn’t it feel wrong for a satire of the romanticization of medieval times to be so… romanticized?
Artie’s breakdancing is pretty tight, though.
Bing Crosby has the charm on 110%, and while his character remains consistent, you’d think even the most laid-back guy would start freaking out at some point after he’s whisked centuries back in time.
“Worrying is Bob Hope’s thing, kitten. Sex?”
And of course he has eyes for a Vaseline-blurred dame that lives in the castle. Rhonda Fleming is very very pretty as Alisande “Sandy” la Carteloise, and while she does make her a bit of a heroine rather than a damsel at the end, it’s ultimately her job to look nice while getting crooned at.
If you think I’m unfairly judging her on looks alone, wait until the spoiler section.
Comic relief comes from William Bendix as Sir Sagramore, who is immensely doofy and steals every scene. There’s a rather dark moment where he fiddles with a gun not knowing what it is or what it does, and it’s a distressing bit of physical comedy that’s only made more disturbing by the whimsical score plinking away like he’s a cat with a ball of yarn.
By the way, guns are presented as being from a world “chock full of miracles!”
Murvyn Vye is a stone-cold evil pimp as Merlin.
“Higitus figitus, muthafucka.”
And last but not least, we come to Sir Cedric Hardwicke as King Arthur. For some reason, he seems sleepy and disinterested the whole time, and while I might chalk it up to an actor’s disdain for the material in another movie, I found him surprisingly engaging and one of the most memorable performances in the film. I still can’t pinpoint why. Perhaps kings are supposed to be either fun or cruel, but he is simply… king. Ho hum.
“I’ll do some kinging later, I’m eating.”
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
Yeah, in terms of time travel effects, there isn’t a lot of model work and green screen involved in a bump on the head.
Hell, they didn’t even bother to put him in the same position after the dissolve.
Maybe that tree likes him.
I’m not saying the movie doesn’t have some impressive effects, though. Check out this shot of the famed solar eclipse scene and tell me what’s a matte, what’s a model, and what’s real.
Hint: pretty sure the sun is fake.
BONUS CATEGORY! THE SONGS:
That’s right, it’s our first musical! So what toe-tapping numbers are still stuck in my head?
Practically none of them.
The first song out of the gate, “If You Stub Your Toe on the Moon,” has a catchy chorus and fairly down-to-earth lyrics about the importance of trying your best. Bing sings it to a bunch of kids while he’s fixing up a car pre-concussion, and while it might flesh out his character’s attitude a little bit, it’s probably the song that has the least to do with the plot. Still, it’s the only one whose tune I can remember.
It’s a catchy little ditty about wholly embracing your utter failure.
The only other song worth mentioning is “Busy Doing Nothing,” which Sagramore, Arthur, and Hank sing while pretending to be peasants. It’s all about how lazy the lower classes are and probably gives Republicans erections. It also took me out of the story; aren’t they supposed to be laying low? I don’t think harmonizing is the way to accomplish that.
Though all peasants probably sing in this world, but I’m not here to analyze musical rules.
Everything else is completely forgettable romantic nonsense sung between Crosby and Fleming. Yawn.
Even they look tired.
Oh, and there aren’t any lyrics, but there’s a scene where Bing teaches the house band to play jazzy big band-style music. Because apparently at least half of all time travel movies require this trope.
“Watch me for the changes and try and keep up, okay?”
OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:
- Ending spoiler. Remember when I said that the only thing that really matters about Barbara Fleming is that she’s pretty? At the end of the movie, when Bing Crosby is lamenting the fact that he’s back in 1912 and won’t see “Sandy” ever again, he’s approached by a woman that looks exactly like Barbara Fleming. It’s possible she’s an ancestor, but she definitely does not recognize him, so it isn’t any sort of love magic that transported her forward in time. And Bing is just a-smilin’ from ear to ear! Because he can fuck someone that looks just like her. L’amour! Oddly, Black Knight ends the exact same way. (Don’t pretend you cared about Black Knight spoilers.)
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Hank finds his situation to be absurd exactly once. When he first meets Sagamore in full armor, he assumes he escaped from a nearby loony bin, but when he sees the castle in its prime, he starts to question his own sanity…
“I guess I owe you an apology, brother. I’m the guy they’re coming after.“
When it comes to classic time travel books, it’s no secret I lean more towards The Time Machine than Connecticut Yankee. I likes my sci-fi, and the scientific aspect of time travel has always been more interesting to me than the historical. On top of all that, this adaptation just didn’t hold my interest, save for a few scenes, and the songs didn’t help in the slightest. I’d love to see the Harry Myers or Will Rogers versions (seriously, where are those DVDs?), but more out of curiosity than love of the story.
Maybe if that Yankee was a robotics engineer or a kid…
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.