The Ladykillers

The Ladykillers“Simply try for one hour to behave like gentlemen.”

– Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson ) “The Ladykillers” (1955)

"The Ladykillers" (1955) poster

It’s easy to see The Ladykillers as a series of metaphors for the state of post-war Britain.” – BBC Films

Alec Guinness in "The Ladykillers" (1955).

Alec Guinness in “The Ladykillers” (1955).

“A heavily made up (and virtually unrecognisable) Alec Guinness, above, is both sinister and hilarious as the seemingly imperturbable Professor Marcus, looking like something that has just limped off the set of a 1930’s horror film. Apparently, he based this persona on the actor Alastair Sim, who was originally considered for the part.” – Films de France

Original New York Times Review – 21 February 1956

The Ladykillers – Gala Premiere

“You may recall it was the innocence of schoolgirls in buying solid gold statuettes that started the undoing of Alec Guinness and his criminal partners in “The Lavender Hill Mob“. And it is likewise the innocence of a nice old widow that confounds Mr. Guinness and some bandit friends in his latest frolic in crime, “The Ladykillers,” which opened at the Sutton last night.

Somehow, the obstacle of goodness in the guise of conventionality is always getting in the way of Mr. Guinness when he undertakes to play a jocular rogue. Nice people and their respectable ways of living continue to confuse his wicked plans and baffle his waggish companions. It is frustrating – but it is fun.

In this particular picture, which was given a gala première for the benefit of the Union Settlement of New York City, it is the indignation and dismay of a little old lady who has been innocently caught up in a mammoth London robbery engineered by Mr. Guinness as a mastermind criminal that knocks the whole enterprise askew. And it is the primness of this righteous little creature that puts his arch companions to fatal shame.

Mr. Guinness, got up with monstrous buck teeth and eyes sunk darkly in his head, is perhaps the most farcically fiendish character he has ever played. He has the unctuous and wicked personality of Captain Hook in “Peter Pan,” the hollow and angular appearance of that other great British comic, Alastair Sim. In his long, flapping coat and wayward muffler, he would seem an invincible rogue. But the little old lady defeats him. And that is the substance of the joke.

Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnso ) "The Ladykillers" (1955).

The producers originally rejected director Alexander Mackendrick’s choice of Katie Johnson for the role of Mrs. Wilberforce on the grounds that she might be too frail for the project, and so they cast a younger actress – who died before filming began! (TCM)

“Simply try for one hour to behave like gentlemen,” she commands Mr. Guinness and his four companions when she catches them trying to make away with the banknotes picked up in the robbery, just as she has tea-time guests coming in. “These are some of my oldest and closest friends.” Of course, the embarrassed bandits sit down and try to obey. That is the sort of whimsey William Rose has written for this film.

Perhaps it is slightly labored. Perhaps it does have the air of an initially brilliant inspiration that has not worked out as easily as it seemed it should. Still and all, Mr. Rose’s nimble writing and Alexander Mackendrick’s directing skill have managed to assure “The Ladykillers” of a distinct and fetching comic quality.

And, in addition to Mr. Guinness, it boasts a performer who does one of the nicest bits of character acting you could ask for at any time. She is the 77-year-old Katie Johnson, who plays the old lady into whose home Mr. Guinness and his string ensemble of bandits intrude themselves before – and after – they pull their stunt. Miss Johnson, gentle and proper, yet upright and stubborn as a mule, makes a beautiful English rock of ages, against which the comical villains lash themselves to foam.

Assisting Mr. Guinness in his robbery are Cecil Parker as a timid, toffish type; Herbert Lom as a dark, impetuous gangster; Peter Sellers as a youthful rogue, and Danny Green as a thick-headed bruiser who is soon calling the old lady “Mum.”

Michael Balcon’s production in color gives the whole thing a slightly garish look that is not wholly consistent with the humor. But no matter – it’s an easy, sprightly joke.”

Bosley Crother – New York Times

Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) "The Ladykillers" (1955).

Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) “The Ladykillers” (1955).

“Actress Katie Johnson who played Mrs. Wilberforce, was born in 1878 and was 77 when she made the film. She first appeared on screen in 1932 at age 55, but didn’t received critical acclaim until she appeared in The Ladykillers in 1955. The role earned her a British Film Academy Award for best British actress. She died less than two years afterwards.

Meet Mrs. Wilberforce. She’s a kindly old lady who lives alone in a house at the end of a line by some train tracks. Nicest woman you’d ever want to meet – but she does get some rather crazy ideas, though… you know, about extraterrestrials and whatnot. She’s very easy to unsettle. Be that as it may, she’s leasing one of her rooms – and this draws the attention of Professor Marcus (Guinness), an intellectual who just so happens to be the leader of a string quintet. At least… that’s what Marcus tells Mrs. Wilberforce. He’s really a demented criminal mastermind who’s going to perform a daring heist – and use Mrs. Wilberforce as an integral part of his plan.”

"The Ladykillers" (1955)

The last of the great Ealing Comedies, The Ladykillers is a wonderfully macabre black comedy that really does improve with age.

“Ealing stalwart Alec Guinness delivers a typically mesmerising performance as Professor Marcus, a criminal mastermind whose brain should have been displaying an Out of Order sign for some time. His latest plan is to dupe a sweet old lady, Mrs Wilberforce (Johnson), into picking up the loot for him and his mismatched gang after they rob a security van.

The gang consists of a genial bruiser (Green); Jack-the-lad rogue (Sellers); doddery old army type (Parker); and cold-hearted assassin (Lom). Under the guise of playing string quintets, all five meet at her house to plan the robbery. The actual heist is probably one of the easiest in cinematic history (“Rififi” this ain’t), but the fun and games all follow afterwards.

It’s easy to see “The Ladykillers” as a series of metaphors for the state of post-war Britain (it’s set in a dilapidated house which lists precariously due to heavy war damage, for example). Luckily, it’s also easy to see it as a deliciously black comedy – a sister picture to “Kind Hearts and Coronets” – in which five supposedly hardened criminals go weak at the knees at the thought of doing in a little old lady.

While Guinness’ teeth could have won a best supporting actor award in their own right, every performance shines through in smog-filled London. If you’ve seen “The Ladykillers” before, make sure you see it on the big screen to appreciate Alexander Mackendrick’s Gothic approach. And if you’ve never seen it before, you owe it to yourself to see how great the British film industry used to be.

It’s little wonder Hollywood has spent the best part of a decade trying to remake “The Ladykillers” – pray to God they never succeed.”

– Adrian Hennigan, BBC Films

Danny Green and Peter Sellers in "The Ladykillers".

Danny Green and Peter Sellers in “The Ladykillers”.

“The cast is wonderful. As well as Guinness’ sinister mastermind, Johnson does a great job as the naive but determined biddy (she won a BAFTA), while the sparring presence of Lom and Sellers anticipates their relationship in the Pink Panther films a decade later. The setting is similarly fabulous, especially for contemporary Londoners who will be rapt by the sight of a quaint community on the site of Kings Cross’s current vice-ridden streets.

The humour may be of its era, but it doesn’t feel stale. This Ealing world has a timelessness that is exemplified both in the technical aspects of the filmmaking (The Ladykillers boasts great sets and highly atmospheric lighting) but also in the script’s blackly humorous banter. “No, no, no. Not down there in front of the parrots,” the major equivocates when he is dispatched to do Mrs Wilberforce in.  Mrs W is all little England, “It’s long past my bedtime, and I’ve had the most exhausting day”, reminiscing about her late hubby, merchant navy man Captain Wilberforce; Marcus is similarly a great British character, part monster, part academic; the others the charming products of a hybrid between 1950s British cinema and US movie criminal types.”
– Film 4

Herbert Lom in "The Ladykillers".

Herbert Lom in “The Ladykillers”.

Rewind: The Ladykillers: Herbert Lom recalls filming Ealing Studio’s classic 1955 comedy

The Independent, March 1994

“I must say that The Ladykillers is one of the few films I’m not ashamed to be associated with. It’s a perfect little movie. I was appearing on stage in “The King and I”, in my second year, and was desperately looking for something to get away from playing the King eight times a week, so I accepted an offer from the producer Michael Balcon to do The Ladykillers.

I had my head shaved for The King and I, which is why I wear a hat in The Ladykillers. I wouldn’t have liked to wear a wig. Anyway, I play the kind of character who could have easily had his head shaved from his last stint in prison.

Sandy (Alexander) Mackendrick, the director, died recently. He was a lovely man: very sensitive, very nervous, highly strung, always ready to work himself up into a little hysterical scene or lose his temper, but never, repeat never with his actors on the floor, only with the producers in the front office.

It was enjoyable making it. I met the young Peter Sellers, chubby and not very experienced. I remember him asking me after the film was finished if I could help him get another job in the movies. I said I didn’t think he’d need me. And he didn’t. In the course of The Pink Panther films we became quite close friends for many, many years. Everybody asks me if he was difficult, but I think he was the easiest chap to work with. He was a giggler, and if you’re making comedies, that’s important.

Working with Alec Guinness was quite funny. One learned a lot because he was, after all, the most experienced of us all. I said one day after we’d been rehearsing for some time, “Come on, let’s do it once more, Alec”. He said, “If you know too much about it, all the fun goes”. There’s some wisdom in that remark and it taught me a lesson.

Sandy was an intellectual in the best sense, and also a very good technician. He had a very tough time, I believe, when he went to the United States. Many Americans who made it to super-stardom were – how shall I put it? – physical types: Burt Lancaster was a former circus acrobat. These chaps were ready to grab you by the throat and hang you out of a third-floor window till you agreed with their point of view. Well, Sandy almost came to physical blows with some stars he had to work with, and I think he gave up directing to teach because he felt that directing in the USA was too much of a physical battle.

There was talk recently of an American remake of The Ladykillers – some of the morons in Hollywood want to remake every successful picture that ever was. I think Shirley Maclaine was approached to play the old lady. I don’t think they asked Sandy but I’m sure Sandy would have sent them packing. But I also heard, the last time I was in Czechoslovakia (Lom was born there), about six months ago, that a very serious and brilliant composer had written an opera called The Ladykillers – I’m dying to see that.

The picture of Mrs. Wilberforce’s late husband above the fireplace is actually a painting of Alec Guinness in his role as The Admiral in the earlier Ealing Studios comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).”  – Herbert Lom

An applecart is upset in a street scene from "The Ladykillers".

An applecart is upset in a street scene from “The Ladykillers”, Dec 1955, Life Magazine.

Awards for The Ladykillers

Win: Best British Actress – Katie Johnson – 1955 British Academy of Film and Television
Best Screenplay – William Rose – 1955 British Academy of Film and Television

Nomination: Best Film – Any Source – 1955 British Academy of Film and Television
Best Original Screenplay – William Rose – 1956 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science

Compiled by Bryan James