Following the huge box office bomb that was London Town in 1946, Sid Field concentrated on stage work for a couple of years until the Rank Organisation persuaded him back for what was to be his final film appearance, released in March 1949 just ten months before his untimely death in 1950.
A more modest, black and white, production, Cardboard Cavalier takes place in the London of the 1650’s. Following the Civil War England is ruled by Cromwell as its Lord Protector. The regime is treated pretty roughly in the film, a sort of 17th Century Nazi state where anything enjoyable is condemned as ‘sinful’, informers and spies are everywhere and Cromwell himself is an “inhuman monster”. It’s true the Protectorate was a military dictatorship, but it was hardly Stalinist Russia. Cromwell himself enjoyed dancing and hunting, and would happily smoke a pipe while meeting foreign diplomats. However, these are the gripes of a history buff.
Royalists are plotting to put Charles II on his rightful throne. An “unwitting dupe” is needed to deliver the letter containing details of the plot to one of its key conspirators. The dupe, of course, turns out to be ‘Sidcup Buttermeadow’ (Field) who is drawn into the plot by Colonel Lovelace (Jerry Desmonde) a double-agent in the Cromwellian government. In the course of the film he becomes involved with Nell Gwynne (Margaret Lockwood), a free spirit who enjoys singing and dancing, “lewd” behaviour which breaks up her relationship with Tom Pride (Brian Worth), a lieutenant in Cromwell’s army.
Proceeding to Doverhouse Castle, Sidcup succeeds in delivering the letter but only after disguising himself as a French dancing teacher, then in drag as Lady Doverhouse’s (Mary Clare) cousin Matilda, and with the help of a friendly ghost, Lady Agnes (Irene Handl), who has the useful ability to remove her head when things get really tough. At the end of the film, with Charles restored, he gets his reward of a knighthood, becoming Sir Sidcup Buttermeadow.
Compared with Field’s earlier big-screen outing Cardboard Cavalier forms a far better vehicle for his talents as a character comedian. It has to be said the film takes a while to get going, but after 20 minutes or so it starts to provide plenty of fun. Field really starts to relax and show his mettle when demonstrating to Desmonde how he will deliver a letter “discretely”. The sequence echoes many of their stage routines with Desmonde as the exasperated straight man and Field as the well-meaning fool. There is a good sequence with a drawbridge that seems to have a mind of its own, his turn as the dancing master is good, but the scenes as ‘Cousin Matilda’ really make the film. Cromwell comes to Doverhouse Castle to uncover the plot and – in an effort to calm her nerves - Matilda succumbs to the influence of barley wine and begins flirting with the great man himself (“Olly-Wolly! Soon I shall need a protector to protect me from the Protector!”).
The script is light-hearted and witty, although its use of a pastiche 17th Century English with thee and thou and wouldst and couldst dotted about takes a bit of getting used to. There are also some rather grim torture and execution scenes for a comedy (Sid himself is nearly lynched at one point). The production values are good, with well-detailed period trappings, which lend an authentic atmosphere to the action.
Production of the film was actually halted at one point due to a technicians’ strike. Filming began in June 1948, but was not completed until early in the following year. On its release it was poorly received by critics and was disappointing at the box office. (It was also banned in Syria as part of a general ban on British films.)
Overall, the film is well-paced and deserves to be better known among British comedies of the 1940’s and is surely worthy of a DVD release. It certainly gives a frustrating indication of the way in which Sid Field’s film career could have developed if he had been spared an early death. Watching him dash about the castle and engage in quite vigorous physical comedy it is hard to believe that degenerative heart disease would soon severely restrict his professional appearances and ultimately end his life.