This article was originally written in January 1991, shortly after BBC 2 screened the film. I hadn't read Mark Twain's original book for a long time, and didn't have a copy with me when I originally wrote this article. Please bear this in mind!
One film that turns up on the small screen every so often is the 1949 version of Mark Twain's fantasy, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. This New Year's morning, those who were able to get up before midday had another chance to see it.
It is the sort of film that prolongs the longevity of the Arthurian legends while easily alienating the purists. For example, in this version Merlin is described as a "devil", and a "villain" as indeed he appears in true Hollywood costume fashion, clad in black and with shoulder length black hair and beard for good measure. [To be fair, this is of course inherited from Twain - MK, 1995] The image of Arthur would be more familiar to mediaeval romancers; he is a well-meaning, but somewhat out-of-touch old fellow remote from the woes that are being inflicted on his kingdom. The part has little original about it on paper, but Sir Cedric Hardwicke was able to inject it with little touches of wry humour, such as the King's remark on the appearance of Sir Bedivere and his wife on the road to London: "I expect he's taking her on a shopping trip!" and his comments that the clothes he wears while disguised as a peasant "seem to be inhabited".
Mark Twain did not have his characters breaking into largely forgettable songs at the slightest excuse. But this is one of the inferior Hollywood musicals, stemming from the time when that town really was the dream capital of the world, and there were several very slick production lines churning out exactly what the public were supposed to want in a way even more successful than the Grundy Organisation manage today. They wanted Bing Crosby, and so they got Bing Crosby.
Crosby's character is that of the eponymous Hank Martin, whisked away during a lightning storm from the USA in 1910 into the environs of Camelot, Britain, 528. Saved from death by the judicious use of a magnifying glass to burn away the proclamation that decrees his execution, he falls in love with the Lady Alysande, betrothed to Sir Lancelot, and makes an enemy of the humiliated Merlin, who is plotting with Morgan le Fay to remove Arthur from the throne.
As may be expected, Alysande is the Hollywood repressed raver stereotype, anxious to learn to wink (!) and reluctant to wed the priggish and non-too-bright Lancelot. In fact, none of the knights can be described as shining examples of valour: Bedivere goes round whipping peasants, and most of the others are eager to ally with Merlin and place Morgan on the throne.
The one exception to this rule is Sir Segramore, played by William Bendix. Relegated to squire after capturing Hank (who takes his place at the Round Table as 'Sir Boss') he becomes his comic foil, fainting after blacksmith knight Hank manufactures a pistol, accidentally firing it, and being reduced to the level of being referred to as 'Seggy' or even 'Clarence'. While this joke is easily wearing [while serving the useful task of conflating two characters from Twain's original] one that is not is the brief appearance of Sir Galahad at King Arthur's ball. Clad from head to foot in white and silver, with a mushroom-like blond mane, his main interest is informing members of the court of his most recent chivalrous exploit. Thus is the Grail Knight cut down to size.
The most memorable part of the film is the sequence where Arthur, Bing and Seggy, in peasant garb, dance through the studio forest set singing Busy Doin' Nothin', later to be done to death on the BBC children's series Rentaghost. It actually is quite fun, despite being a little long.
Needless to say, good appears to triumph in the end just as Hank is snatched away. The whole story is framed by a strange sequence involving Hank's visit to 'Pendragon Castle', home of Lord Pendragon, also played by Hardwicke, who displys various relics of Arthurian times, including a set of shields that would entirely rewrite the history of heraldry! The story concludes as the sometime Sir Boss is introduced to Lord Pendragon's niece Sandy (also played by Rhonda Fleming), who can wink.
The film is noteworthy for its curiosity value, both within the Arthurian and musical genres, and worth watching if you can bear a few squirms.
Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 18, Hilary 1990