Danny Kaye's second-best movie after Court Jester(1956)--and the definitive retelling of Gogol.
The Inspector General(1949) is one of those irrepressible classics that have lasted extremely well. Like To Kill a Mockingbird(1961), it only seems to have dated due to the necessary historical atavism; but this scrumptious fairytale is well worth it. Never remade, even as a Danny Kaye vehicle it's almost perfect just the way it is.
Since the plot and comedy are exposes of 19thC provincial corruption and nepotism (ie "provincialism"), the Hungarian Gypsy music is quintessential, making the film the same kind of shrewd reveal of social clichés that Nikolai Gogol's 1842 classic play had been.
Transposing the locale from Russia to Hungary (to integrate with the Gypsy theme), brand new audiences are introduced to the story of a naïve ("Maybe I can't read or write, but I'm not illiterate!") and pointedly illiterate carnival entertainer mistaken for Napoleon's emissary.
Set in early 1800s, the movie introduces us to the Mayor of Brodny, only just surviving at the epicentre of his relatives' personal idiosynchracies. They, naturally, fill all the local public service jobs. Gene Lockhart plays "Cousin Biro" ("biro" in Hungarian means "judge"), the Mayor, with suitably high-strung, twitching pique. The running gag with the twin postmasters (real twins Sam and Lew Hearn) Izzick and Gizzick just compounds his hilarious put-upon paternalism.
Much of the credit for the authentic provincialism is due to Nestor Pavia's cameo, as the Mayor's(?) "Cousin Gregor", the even more corrupt Mayor of Klimenti. His opening whirlwind panic-ride through Brodny sets the early tone. He'd escaped his own firing squad back in Klimenti to alert his cousin. "I must go! Even now he (the Inspector-General) may be here, in your midst!....Oh, how I envy you to sit here in your clean town and fear no-one", he blurts breathlessly amidst gulps of brandy. You almost feel sorry for him--until you see why his cape bulges.
Biro's reaction is more composed, although his officials are in no less trouble. The incognito technique employed by the mysterious Inspector-General will most likely trap them just the same. Brodny only seems less corrupt; its apparent civil obedience is exacted through institutionalised, class-based petty violence. When the Mayor cruelly slaps the Captain of Police(Alan Hale), Henry Koster's adept direction then has the captain start an unforgettable domino-chain of slappings of his own--down all the way to livestock.
Kovacs (only the second Hungarian name) dispatches his police officers to patrol the roads in all directions for anyone who might conceivably be the Inspector-General. That's how we come to discover Yakov Goury's travelling Gypsy wagon gathering townsfolk with some authentically fabulous Gypsy music. (Although these appropriately crude-looking "peasant" musicians may have invented modern beatboxing(!), my favourite is still their lackadaisical cheerleader, the "Hey" guy.)
As part of the fleeceshow act, Yakov's all-singing/all-dancing Gypsy entertainer Georgi(Danny Kaye) must pretend to be both a living severed head, and, for the second half of their show, a sickly young man with a doctor's prescription for "Rix-zz-gelv-knoobtz-f-f-ss-ch-ch-nn-zelminheltzigner......-Twice a day".
This eventually turns out to be their single product, "Yakov's Golden Elixir".....or, on alternate days, the local furniture polish.
Kaye's wife Sylvia Fine, the talented writer/associate-producer behind his fame, again created Kaye's terrific verbal gymnastics lyrics complementing the Gypsy music so well.
Georgi's only trouble is his conscience--a right nuisance for his more ruthless, "dog-eat-dog world" boss. Yakov(Walter Slezak) is a shifty chameleon who, unlike Georgi, can actually read. But undermined by Georgi's ethics for the last time, Yakov brutally chases his frontman away, after the locals--having overheard Georgi's naïve confession to a desperate old lady ("I'm a fake, Yakov's a fake!")--riot.
Homeless, miserable, and hungry, since Yakov nastily took the one fish he accidentally caught, Georgi takes to the road--with a hole in his boot. He soon finds himself in Brodny, but continues to go hungry for several days, due to the corrupt official indifference. Despite Kovacs' orders, he's dismissed by everyone, even by the shockingly crude and crass police officers as a tramp, relaying Gogol's message that all authority resides in the eye of the beholder.
Georgi's starvation cleverly sets up several plot elements: first, his pathos with the offensive cops and the dog, then the confusion over the "robbery" ("Hey! I'm innocent--ask the horse!"), Georgi's outrageous cries in prison about informing the Emperor, and finally, the classic food-hoarding scene at the Mayor's house--the payoff being the gag of what he's offered to counteract his indigestion.
Georgi's short prison stay proves fateful, allowing the officials to discover the remaining half of Yakov's bogus testimonial for Golden Elixir covering the hole in Georgi's boot. Kovacs picks it up, and his eyes literally bulge as he reads: ".....continue in this fine work to rid our land of the many evils that plague it.....Napoleon". Once the Brodny officials "discover" the "Inspector-General" and attire him (repeatedly) in poor Kovacs' uniform, Georgi finds himself fawned over by everyone, especially the Mayor's sexually frustrated and vapid wife Maria(Elsa Lanchester, never better). Only Maria's maid Leza(Barbara Bates) seems to treat Georgi like a real person.
Miraculously, Yakov too resurfaces at Brodny, gawping in the crowd at Georgi. Stunned, but ever the shifty chameleon, Yakov instantly changes gears, adopting a faithful servant's guise. Correctly sensing an opportunity to fleece the desperate Brodny officials, he "introduces"/reacquaints himself, and presses his old frontman into more permanent service as the imposter.
Suddenly Georgi must figure out how to actually be Napoleon's Inspector-General, when all he wanted was a clean getaway. Afraid that "a tear in the eye is worth two in the bush", Georgi debates whether to "be arrogant, be elegant, or smart" in the mirror.
"Talk and you show your ignorance; Laugh and you show your teeth!", sing one of his acapella fantasies, but "if it doesn't work, whose head will they jerk, whose block will they knock off? Not Yakov's"! So, realising he'd be most likely made the scapegoat, Georgi writes Yakov his touchingly illiterate letter of resignation.
However, he must attend "his" own party. Despite his confusion, Georgi's talents as an entertainer afford him some cover as he sings the Golden Globe(!)-winning Gypsy Drinking Song ("Play Gypsy, Dance Gypsy"). He is so cheered up by his reception that he incorporates some choir-rounding into the song: "Now dis graop here, I vill make for you, 'shtok-shtok'.....Very pret-yie, I laove you to pieces"; although Kaye's accent, name, and manner are all decidedly Russian, not Hungarian (artistic licence accounting for the cultural confusion).
His only ally is Leza, Maria's maid, who comes to admire him greatly after Georgi defends her against the family's petty brutality at dinner. In fact, he quickly captures the long-suffering populace's hopes for justice, making the Brodny officials desperate to get rid of him by any means necessary. These include compounded bribery (each official thinks he's the only one bribing him), hilariously unsuccessful suicide (after the chemist's repeated offers to resign), and attempted--but amazingly literate--(wood)chopper.
One of the funniest scenes belongs to Kovacs rationalising his bribery amongst a roomful of already hidden, similar-intentioned Brodny officials: "You see, my wife is not a contented woman......Ah.....I love my family, but I'd give my six kids to get rid of my wife". This attitude to marriage is the only other one, apart from the crude police brutality, that's so jarringly dated.
In a beat even better-employed 7yrs later in Court Jester(1956), Kaye heads off to a midnight rendezvous to, he thinks, elope, when in fact he goes to his doom. The humour of his illiteracy pays off one last time as he gets his slow-reading prospective assassin to read his "love letter" back to him: "Don't go near the barn; they are going to kill you". Luckily, this is a Danny Kaye movie, and the murderous overtones never really scare anyone.
Gene Lockhart has another terrific line as the Mayor, once the real Inspector-General, unavoidably, shows up: "Your Excellency, he took bribes, drank all my wine.....he made love to" (he means flirted with) ".....my wife; how could I possibly doubt that he was the Inspector-General?".
Moral standards have indeed moved on, and gallows humour no longer seems funny--it fails in Westerns, too--except near the end, as the Inspector-General takes the Mayoral Chain of Office from the complaining Cousin Biro: "-oh, we'll put something else around your neck". Here it's funny, in a fairytale sort of way.
There are a few plot elements, however, which surprisingly do not make sense. The sole rider who overtakes Georgi on the dirt road is actually leftover footage from a cut scene. It used to depict "Cousin Gregor" mid-flight to Brodny, so it no longer makes sense. Another is Georgi's tearing of the fake "Napoleon testimonial" in half, supposedly to cover the hole in his boot. The whole letter would've been better padding, but he throws one half away! (The missing half contributes to his mistaken identity.) Moreover, it's difficult to see how any piece of paper would survive dunking in a creek and constant wear in his boot, to remain legible by anybody!
Nevertheless, the movie is a total classic, not only for Danny Kaye's comedy, but also for its well-mounted social satire, unflagging tone, award-winning score, unobtrusive cinematography, and an easygoing ensemble cast who portray Gogol's provincial clichés perfectly. As a farcical fairytale intended for simpler times and more innocent audiences, The Inspector-General(1949) can't really be faulted.(9/10)