This is the beginning of a new series of blogs in which I attempt to decide which, out of the many hundreds of performances the Carry On films produced, are the most iconic. I am limiting myself to a list of the top ten and I hope you'll get involved, whether you agree, disagree or think I've missed your favourite out!
In deciding on my top ten, I will be judging both on a personal level and from a more general view point. Which performances capture the essence of the films and also which were my own preferences. It's an argument that could go on for ever but I hope to produce my definitive list. Feel free to comment on my choices as we go along and of course suggest your own alternatives.
Today we are going to look back at another memorable turn, that of Belle, the buxom, glamorous saloon owner in the classic Carry On Cowboy. Cowboy, released in 1965, saw the Carry On team hitting the cinema screens all guns blazing in a rip roaring mickey take of the famous Hollywood Westerns. Not only did Cowboy garner impressive reviews from even the poshest of posh papers, it was also a firm favourite amongst many of the Carry On cast. Sid James loved his role as the gun-toting Rumpo Kid and clearly relished the macho part. Jim Dale had also risen through the ranks to secure his biggest role to date and bagged some excellent screen time as the English sanitary engineer Marshall P Knutt. The film also saw Carry On debuts for several popular actors - Angela Douglas as Annie Oakley, Peter Butterworth as Doc and Bernard Bresslaw as Little Heap (!)
Joan Sims meanwhile was in her element as Belle. Grabbing this robust, strong female lead with both hands, Joan looked a million dollars in a succession of glamorous, beautifully made gowns. She looks stunning throughout and one of my favourite ever Joan photos came from Cowboy publicity. That shot of her taken outside the Pinewood mansion house in the skin-tight black dress is Joan at her finest and how we should all remember her. It is well known that Joan was always happiest when she looked good on screen. The full gamut of nagging, frumpy middle-aged characters was yet to dominate her Carry On career so for the moment Sims could enjoy being centre stage and stunning looking.
The main plot of Cowboy sees Jim Dale mistakenly sent to Stodge City as a new peace marshall to drive Sid's Rumpo and his gang out of town. Kenneth Williams' cowardly Judge Burke has lost all control as Rumpo is in charge of Stodge. All the usual Carry On characters are on display although for the regular audience it must have been strange to see them not only in period costume but also with American accents. Most of them manage to pull it off fairly convincingly with only Dale and Charles Hawtrey's hilarious Big Heap keeping their English accents intact. It's a fantastically colourful romp with plenty of action and set pieces, some laugh out loud moments, brilliant costumes and a wonderfully dressed Western set out on the back lot at Pinewood Studios. Writer Talbot Rothwell had really come into his own after the previous Carry On adventure, Carry On Cleo the year before and Cowboy is film brimming with confidence.
You can see why Belle was one of Joan's favourite roles. That majestic first entrance as she slinks down the stairs in the saloon to confront Sid's rumbustious Rumpo. Accompanied by Eric Rogers on the piano, Joan looks fantastic. The chemistry between Sid and Joan is superb in these scenes and I think this was the moment the production team realised just how well these two actors worked together. It is the first time they are paired together for any length of time on screen and it's wonderful stuff. Joan also packs a punch, making it clear what she thinks of Sid when Angela's Annie Oakley catches his wandering eye! As always with Joan's performances, they are played for real and the humour that comes from that is honest and believable. She comes bouncing out of the screen. Her accent is also terrific, once again demonstrating her superb versatility.
Another of my favourite scenes in the film featuring Joan sees Belle pay a late night visit to Marshall's bedroom. In a film dominated by the male performances (James, Williams, Dale, Hawtrey) it's great to see the ladies shine in this scene as Sims, Douglas and the gorgeous Edina Ronay all come to blows as they fight over Jim! The script is fantastic, the delivery superb and who can resist three women having a comedy scrap over Jim Dale in his long johns?! I'm surprised he didn't escape through the trap door in the back...
The role of Belle once again clearly demonstrates what a wonderfully versatile actress Joan was. It is so unlike her previous Carry On performance as the nagging, shrieking melodramatic Calpurnia in Cleo. And it would prove eons away from her next role, that of Emily Bung in Screaming. That was the beauty of Joan and why she was so valuable to the Carry On team. There was nobody else in the regular gang who could play such a wide variety of different parts so convincingly - always reliably Joan but also always surprisingly something a little different.
In the end, even though Rumpo passes over Belle for a younger model, it is the saloon owner who comes to his rescue with Knutt gains the upper hand. Appearing from nowhere on a galloping horse, Belle (a stunt double I should imagine!) pulls Rumpo away to safety. What a woman!