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The Bootleg Files: The Box

BOOTLEG FILES 718: “The Box” (1981 short film starring Terry Jones and Michael Palin, directed by Micky Dolenz).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It seems to have fallen through the proverbial cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.

Terry Jones’ death on January 22 brought forth a wave of warm and cherished memories of the Welsh funnyman’s classic moments with Monty Python. Jones’ passing also encouraged some die-hard Python fans to unearth a genuine rarity: a little-seen short film that Jones and fellow Python Michael Palin co-wrote and co-starred together under the direction of ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz. One could imagine these three distinctive talents would have created something truly remarkable, but they strangely came up with a weird little bore.

In 1976, Jones and Palin collaborated on a pair of one-act, one-hour plays gathered under the title “Their Finest Hours.” The first, “Underhill’s Finest Hour,” involved a woman trying to give birth in a hospital while her obstetrician is more interested in listening to a cricket match on the radio. The second, “Buchanan’s Finest Hour,” involved a former Member of Parliament who agrees to be sealed and mailed in a “burst-proof box” for a new package manufacturer as part of a marketing stunt, only to wind up trapped inside as the box when the delivery process goes awry.

“Their Finest Hours” premiered at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England. Audiences weren’t particularly impressed with the works, which felt like overlong and undercooked Python sketches. “Their Finest Hours” never made it to London’s West End and was quickly forgotten after its brief run.

In 1981, however, “Buchanan’s Finest Hour” was dusted off to be made as a short film, with a generic title called “The Box.” Micky Dolenz, who relocated to England in the 1970s to work as a director after his post-Monkees acting and music career flatlined, was tapped to direct the work. The experience obviously didn’t make much of an impression on Dolenz, who briefly acknowledged the job in his 2004 autobiography without offering any anecdotes or insights on the production and his Python collaborators. But when watching “The Box,” it is easy to understand why Dolenz chose not to dwell on it.

The visual focus of “The Box” is the title object, a large shipping crate that is first seen sitting on a pallet in an empty dockside warehouse. The soundtrack initially consists of Sir Clive (voiced by Charles McKeown), who is sealed in the box that is awaiting delivery from London to Newcastle. The box is supposed to be indestructible and airtight, with Sir Clive’s occupancy as part of marketing stunt to highlight the strength of the British-made object. But as the film starts, Sir Clive is starting to panic at being entombed in the dark space. His assistant Harrington (voiced by Terry Jones) is supposed to be positioned outside of the box in case there is a problem and Sir Clive needs to be extracted ahead of schedule. Alas, there was a problem: Harrington somehow wound up in the box with Sir Clive, and there is no one outside to free them.

While the soundtrack is filled with the irritated Sir Clive and the apologetic Harrington bemoaning their predicament, the viewer watches as the box is taken on a forklift and placed on the back of a truck, where it is driven to a pier. Oddly, neither Sir Clive nor Harrington are aware that they are in motion – and they are initially unaware that the box also includes a French escape artist who is tightly bound up (voiced by Michael Palin in an exaggerated French accent) and the decapitated body of his girlfriend.

“What if she does smell?” Palin’s Frenchman insists about his beloved’s corpse. “She’s beautiful to me.”

On the pier, a shipping label marked “Shanghai” is plastered over the Newcastle address and the box is loaded on a freighter. However, the freighter explodes while at sea. It seems to only surviving element of the freighter is the box, which washes up on the beach of a deserted island. But Sir Clive hears someone outside of his packaged prison – a vaguely Italian voice. Alas, this stranger is no help – he is a papal emissary who is sealed in another crate marked “Pope in a Box” with a silent Holy Father locked inside with him.

The film ends with the reveal that everything being shown was actually a film. A sign reading “Buchanans International Promotions” is in front of the screen and a man in a business suit is watching the film. He then turns to the camera and admits the situation included “casualties” from the incident, although he adds that “a lot of folks died that year, anyway.”

“The Box” is a unique part of Jones’ and Palin’s career in that it is painfully boring and thoroughly unfunny. For a 23-minute film, it drags on miserably as the talk between the three trapped men – and, belatedly, the Italian in the other box – goes absolutely nowhere. Maybe they were trying for a Pythonesque spin on Samuel Beckett’s territory or a riff on Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” with a slightly kinky twist via the trussed-up Frenchman. When Sir Clive keeps reminding his fellow prisoners that they are running short on oxygen, it is not funny. And the dull visuals that Dolenz captured make a dreary situation much, much worse. Mercifully, the film version is much shorter than the one-hour theatrical edition – talk about too much of a bad thing!

I am unaware of any U.S. theatrical or television exhibition for “The Box,” nor does it seem to have been released on U.S. home video. The closest Americans came to this work was a brief 1990 staging of “Buchanan’s Finest Hour” at Second City E.T.C. in Chicago – nearly all of Jones’ obituaries failed to mention the play or the film.

A muddy print of “The Box” is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting, but even dedicated Python fans would be advised to pretend it’s not there.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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