One of the most enduring tropes in fiction has been the idea of the ‘body-swap’, where people change places with each other, usually with the outcome where each party has learnt a valuable life lesson, and come to be able to see things from a different perspective after walking a metaphorical mile in someone else’s shoes.
It has featured in TV series like Community, with the episode ‘Basic Human Anatomy’ seeing Troy and Abed doing the old presto chango routine, as well as Doctor Who, where there were multiple switches taking place in the story ‘New Earth’. The notion has also been at the core of films such as Freaky Friday, It’s A Boy Girl Thing, The Change-Up, 18 Again, and even Shrek The Third. Yes, the switcheroo of souls has been something of a hardy perennial.
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Quite how hardy might come as a surprise to many, as one of the very earliest examples of the genre is the 1882 novel Vice Versa; or A Lesson To Fathers, by F. Anstey. There have been a number of adaptations of the book, with the most recent of them being the 1988 picture which was based very loosely on the source material – Vice Versa, which stars Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage as the father-and-son pair who just happen to undergo the mysterious transmigration.
In all, there have been a total of four adaptations of Anstey’s work, with the most noteworthy of all probably being 1948’s production written and directed by Peter Ustinov. The story of Vice Versa takes place in Victorian England, and sees Paul Bultitude (Roger Livesey) being gifted a magical stone which was stolen by his ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Marmaduke Paradine (David Hutcheson) during his time spent overseas during the British Raj.
The thief of the stone is reportedly cursed with bad luck, so in order to try and dodge the consequences, Paradine gives the stone to Paul. With the mystical rock having her power to grant its possessor one wish, Paul inadvertently sets things in motion by reminiscing about his school days, following his son Dick’s (Anthony Newley) expressed reluctance to return to the awful boarding school he has been attending. Without realising the repercussions, Paul wishes aloud he could take Dick’s place, which the stone makes happen.
After Paul transforms into a perfect lookalike of his son, Dick uses his wish to take his father’s place, and so transmogrifies into the spitting image of his pater familias. Dick then sends Paul off to the boarding school, making him have to confront the fearsome Dr. Grimstone (James Robertson Justice), head of the institution and bane of Dick’s existence. Both of them soon learn an invaluable lesson about being careful what you wish for, as events begin to get away from the pair, and they have to try and find a way to revert back.
Ustinov manages to assemble an impressive cast, with the young Anthony Newley in particular shining, as he mimics the performance of Livesey as Paul, perfectly portraying an old soul trapped in a young body. Given Newley’s rise in the coming years ahead, with his career going from strength to strength, you can see signs of his early promise. Livesey also does a wonderful job of playing the childlike Dick who finds himself trying to get to grips with adult life, and has such a charming naivete.
Roaring up the place with his huge screen presence here is the wonderful James Robertson Justice, who cornered the market in bullish, intimidating figures of authority like no-one else. He simply commands your attention whenever he is present, and as such a sheer force of nature is just perfect as Dr. Grimstone. Playing his daughter Dulcie, many years before she first went ‘Downtown’, is future pop sensation Petula Clark. It does seem like such a shock to the system to realise that her career goes all the way back to World War II, and included many acting roles, like this one.
Although for the most part good, clean, wholesome fun, it does start to get a bit dicey in the opening scenes, when we see the theft of the stone from the Indian idol. Let’s just say that time has not been kind to the depiction of the various citizens of the subcontinent, which seems cringeworthy to say the least, as it has a strong air of ‘prevailing attitudes’. Luckily, this awkwardness passes quickly, and you can then just sit back and enjoy the rest of the film.
Network Distributing’s Blu-ray serves us up a remastered version of the main feature, along with an image gallery. As far as other extras go, there is nothing else on here which is actually about Vice Versa itself, but instead focuses on one of the film’s stars – Anthony Newley – and gives Network a chance to stick on some of the assets that are already in the company’s archives, and which have been used by them on other releases.
The first episode of Newley’s superlative 1960 surrealist ATV comedy The Strange World Of Gurney Slade turns up, acting as a nice little sampler for anyone who might not have been exposed to it before, and an incentive to pick up a copy of the Network 2020 Blu-ray release of the series. We also get an episode of a variety show from the same year which starred Newley, and featured guests including Peter Sellers. It does illustrate Newley’s versatility, and just how far he had come in the 12 years since Vice Versa’s release.
Vice Versa is certainly a fun little romp, and this release by Network does it – as well as Anthony Newley – proud.
Vice Versa is out now on Blu-ray from Network Distributing.