January 2, 2017


A Kid for Two Farthings – 1955 | 96mins | Comedy, Drama | Colour


Plot Synopsis

A Kid for Two Farthings

After making The Man Between, Carol Reed shot off in yet another direction with A Kid for Two Farthings, an adaptation of Wolf Mankowitz’s novel of English ghetto life. A whimsical and poetic fable with an overlay of Jewish folklore, Kid has struck many critics as an odd choice for Reed, who had made his reputation with thrillers and films of social consciousness. Exteriors for Kid were shot in London’s Petticoat Lane, a bustling East End marketplace. The scenes that required controlled studio conditions were shot on an excellent reconstruction of an East End street at Shepperton Studios. Kid was Reed’s first colour film and his choice, he said, was strictly aesthetic.

The fantasy element in Kid is supposed to be preserved through a delicate balance between the reality of the boy’s current pet – not only not a unicorn, but an enfeebled goat at that – and the prayers that seem to be answered through the boy’s invocation of the unicorn’s powers. In time-honoured tradition, the magic always has a naturalistic explanation, but we never really know if supernatural forces have been at work or only the vicissitudes of human fate.

In the case of Kid, there is insufficient ingenuity in the balance between the magical and the realistic developments. (Example: Kandinsky longs for an automatic steam press, and, after Joe wishes for one, someone recalls that a nearby company may have a used press to sell.) The climactic sequence is a wrestling match between Sam and the sadistic giant Python (Primo Carnera) in which Sam takes a terrible battering for half the contest and then, infused with power by the unicorn, demolishes his mountain-sized adversary easily. The novel simply gives him the victory through superior skill and speed, but evidently something more spectacular was needed for a major action sequence in a movie. Naturalistically, the course that the fight takes in the film seems illogical, while the exhibition of supernaturalism is conveyed flatly, without poetry or dark power of any kind. Behind the myth that Kid dramatises lies the simple but meaningful notion that boyhood is a time when mythical beasts seem possible but that growing up means surrendering the glorious hallucinations of youth. Hence, the death of the unicorn at the end of Kid, though saddening, is thematically justified. To grow up is to enter the imperfect world of adulthood, where everyone has feet of clay. In the rough and tumble realities of Petticoat Lane, fragile creatures like unicorns cannot survive. ‘Unicorns can’t grow in Fashion Street’, says Kandinsky, ‘but boys have to.’

The portions of Kid that spring to life do so only briefly, like an unconscious patient coming around occasionally. The rest of the time we have to contend with comatose performances like those of Robinson and Dors, two of the least endearing lovers in the history of the screen. Their personalities can be summed up anatomically: she in her peroxide hair and buxom figure and he in his biceps. In the novel Shmule and Sonia are prudently subordinated to Joe’s story, but Reed allows them to usurp the latter segments of the movie. As for Carnera, he is a better actor than Robinson, yet Reed seems to have had difficulty adjusting his performance, and it veers uncertainly between villainy and buffoonery. Celia Johnson, whom Reed had introduced to the screen in A Letter From Home and who had made such an impact in Brief Encounter, is wasted in the lacklustre part of Joanna, a woman waiting for her husband to summon her and their son to join him in South Africa. Neither she nor the Etonian-sounding Ashmore have accents that are appropriate to their milieu. Kossoff, who had enjoyed a number of successes in Jewish parts before Kid, gives the one exemplary performance in Kid among the leading actors. Sensibly, he underplays his warm-hearted, wise old codger, giving it dramatic cogency that could not otherwise have been extracted from Mankowitz’s thin conceptions. Kossoff’s work is all the more remarkable for the fact that he was only in his mid-thirties when he played the part. When we look beyond Kossoff, however, Kid is certainly the low point in Reed’s long string of flawlessly acted films. The deterioration in the calibre of performance that he was able to elicit from his cast is sudden and terribly wrenching.

Production Team

Carol Reed: Director
Wilfred Shingleton: Art Direction
Edward Scaife: Cinematography
Anna Duse: Costume Design
AS Bates: Film Editing
Benjamin Frankel: Music
Carol Reed: Producer
Wolf Mankowitz: Script


Celia Johnson: Joanna
Diana Dors: Sonia
David Kossoff: Kandinsky
Brenda De Banzie: \”Lady\” Ruby
Joe Robinson: Sam
Jonathan Ashmore: Joe
Primo Carnera: Python Macklin
Lou Jacobi: Blackie Isaacs
Sid James: Ice Berg
Meier Leibovitch: Mendel
Irene Handl: Mrs Abramowitz
Danny Green: Bason
Alfie Bass: Alf
Sydney Tafler: Madame Rita

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