Mink Stole

Just to set the record straight, this is not Diana Dors:

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That’s the magnificently rotund Hattie Jacques, oomphed up in disguise as she plays her part in a fur robbery. Jacques is best known, at least to me, for her doughty participation in the Carry On series, but here she’s part of a light-fingered gang in 1960’s Make Mine Mink, whose title sounds like a Doris Day rom-com, except it isn’t. It’s a cheeky little British comedy about four charmingly dotty amateur thieves who steal fur. But for a good cause, though, raising money for charity. The whole thing’s like a minor-Ealing Lavender-Hill-Mob-style romp, only this time the thieves get away with the loot, which might upset any expectations out there that crime doesn’t pay, because here it does. I suppose I should have pursed my lips at such a shocking acceptance of immoral behavior, but I was enjoying it too much. All good clean fun.

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And the crooks are all darling. Athene Seyler, who’s so round and dumpling-ly that you want to squeeze her, plays on-her-uppers Dame Beatrice (the gang calls her Dame B), who needs to keep up with her philanthropic donations to save face. That’s why she lets rooms in her house to three lodgers: Jacques, Terry-Thomas, and the quaintly christened Elspeth Duxbury, a name that conjures up images of tweedy spinsters nibbling chocolates in the front parlor. The roomers are all unhappy, unfulfilled, and bored. Thomas, a retired army major who once commanded the “Mobile Bath Unit,” misses the military life of schedules and timetables; Jacques teaches deportment to unpromising Cockney debutantes; and Duxbury (who resembles a dragged-up, sweet-tempered Clifton Webb sans mustache) mends old china, when she isn’t breaking it. I was curious about that china-mending bit; can one really earn a living gluing cracked crockery? But the film never lingers on such fussy details; it just tosses them out like birdseed and then skips ahead to the next amusing situation, one of its virtues.

MAJOR RAYNE (TERRY THOMAS) GETS FRIENDLY WITH LILY (BILLIE WHITELAW) ON THE SOFA. *** Local Caption *** Feature Film

The Gang of Fur

There isn’t really a story, mainly a push to start the frolics rolling. Seyler’s maid, Billie Whitelaw, who had previously done prison time (“It made no difference to me,” Dame B grandly assures her, “that your last post was with—Her Majesty”), in a moment of weakness pinches a fur coat left on the balcony of an adjoining apartment. Billie really nabbed it out of gratitude, as she means it as a gift to her employer for hiring her, but Seyler insists on noblesse oblige. She aims to return the fur without implicating the maid, and her three lodgers willingly help out. They cook up an impromptu, intricate scheme to distract the owners and sneak the coat back, involving a police whistle, a stalled lift, and weighty discussions on what to do if the short-sighted porter is on duty rather than the deaf one. Fortunately it’s the deaf one, or the movie might have ended right there. (Oddly, the idea of simply knocking on the door and handing back the garment doesn’t occur to any of them. Happily for us.)

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The plot improbably succeeds and Our Gang enjoys the excitement so much (“Fancy going back to mending chipped china after this,” sighs Elspeth), that they all decide to chuck their yawning lives and make like Raffles’s slightly batty relatives. Down deep their larceny is noble: rob ritzy shops of expensive furs so that Dame B can then fence the goods and donate the proceeds to her charities. Yes, really. Really. (“Can we,” propounds our regal dame, “in all conscience neglect our moral obligations?”) Thomas takes charge, of course, in accordance with his dignity and army background, and sets up a “specialized task force run on military lines,” plotting each haul with soldierly exactness—sketching out moves on a whiteboard and assigning key tasks and disguises, including a fake bosom for Elspeth. It coulda fooled me. So off go our foursome, pure of heart if not of motive, carrying out their crimes by the seat of their pants. Meanwhile, Whitelaw starts dating a nice policeman, the two of them unaware of the crookery happening practically under their noses. As yet.

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Had this been a 1960 American movie, I think the then-near-toothless Production Code busybodies would have been wearing out their own pants trying to find ways to punish the Gang of Four, because you’re not allowed to get away with crime, even if you’re having fun (especially if you’re having fun). But this being a British film (land of Magna Carta, bulldog pluck, and Wodehousian larks), the quartet merely has to deal with baffled bobbies and Duxbury’s goodhearted blunders. There’s a special providence that hovers over the innocent, no matter what they, innocently or not, get up to, and our four giddy naïfs get up to plenty; they not only succeed with their fur snaffling, they end up plotting to steal the Crown Jewels (“Good show!” exclaims Thomas, his eyes madly a-gleam as he espies all that loot). No lip-pursing from me here; I wished their enterprise well.

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Yes, the film’s a trifle, but it’s cute and funny, and goes down as sweet and smooth as ice cream in your throat. There’s even an in-joke on The Third Man, which I think may be the first one ever done in cinema. Surely that counts for something? Anyway, the cast does. Per Adorable Athene’s IMBD profile, she said she never took a vacation because she enjoyed acting so much; and I believe it. She lived to be 101 and God bless every holiday-free year. Thomas does his delightful harrumphing-Tory bit; Jacques plays her scenes with a breezy, right-ho British heartiness, as if a clean-shaven C. Aubrey Smith were crossed with a ladies’ field hockey coach; and Elspeth, whom I definitely want to see more of, flutters about like Ray Bolger dancing the Dying Swan. Plus, as an added treat, dear Kenneth Williams pops up in a cameo as Dame B’s nephew, who obligingly provides fencing services. That makes two Carry On actors in this film. If the producers could have sneaked in Sid James and his raunchy laugh, I think it actually could have been a Carry On movie. Carry On Thieving, perhaps. Or maybe Carry On with a naughty pun on Fur. That sounds more likely.

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