The Inspector General

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

based on the play The Inspector General
  (or The Government Inspector) (1836)
  by Nikolai Gogol

Director: Henry Koster
Writers: Nikolai Gogol; Philip Rapp, Harry Kurnitz

  • Danny Kaye — Georgi / "The Inspector General"
  • Barbara Bates — Leza
  • Walter Catlett — Colonel Castine
  • Alan Hale — Kovatch
  • Elsa Lanchester — Maria
  • Gene Lockhart — The Mayor
  • Walter Slezak — Yakov
  • Rhys Williams — The Inspector General

Warner Bros.: 1949

102 minutes February 2012


It is rare in Hollywood to improve upon the writing or plot of an existing story-text as the film-makers convert it to a movie. Indeed, writing seems to be the most deprecated of arts in Hollywood, such that dismayed film-viewers often wonder if the movie folks even read the original story, let alone appreciate what makes that story good. It is exceedingly rare for the screenwriters and director to start with a famous story and adapt it so cleverly that their film is startlingly better than the original. Happily, in The Inspector General we have such a rare joy.

Nikolai Gogol delighted in satirizing Russian society, and especially of quirks in the governing of vast rural Russia in his novel Dead Souls and his play The Inspector General. He asked Alexander Pushkin for a plot, and perhaps was given or lifted this one, variations of which had happened in reality to Pushkin and others in Russia not long before.

This play about a low-level clerk in the Russian government, mistaken by provincial officials for an incognito aristocrat with an Imperial warrant to investigate their town and district, has become the archetype of such misunderstandings. The clerk and his servant provide some dry humor, but the real delight is the panic and scrambling makeshifts of the Mayor and his cronies — in charge of police, school, hospital, and so on — to cover up their lackadaisical incompetence, and talk or bribe their way out of what they foresee as looming Imperial punishment. The Mayor's pretentious wife and their daughter, and some townsfolk, contribute to the colorful confusion.

The film treatment leaves the above plot basically intact, keeping the fearful reactions and petty bustlings of the Mayor and his counsellors. But with a stroke of genius, Gogol's clerk and servant are transformed and reversed: the government-clerk's role becomes in the film a medicine-show juggler and apprentice jack-of-all-trades; while the servant's role is given to the juggler's boss, the proprietor of the gypsy wagon and its business. When the apparent Imperial warrant is discovered in the possession of the good-natured apprentice, he innocently is mistaken for the august Inspector General, traveling most cleverly incognito. The quicker-witted medicine-show proprietor grasps the true situation and pretends to be the Inspector's servant, magnanimously accepting the very pleasant treatment accorded to "inspector and servant", and sensing the bribery income which he can elicit.

With Danny Kaye as the incognito Inspector General, such a reworking of Gogol's plot probably is the only way to showcase him: for Danny Kaye is such a one-man-band of manic comedy — talk and song and dance — that it is difficult to imagine him in a scene, let alone a movie, and not be its star turn. He is perfect for the dual role as innocent gypsy and pretend-official, and propels the action.

In The Inspector General as brought to the screen, the partner-in-deception Yakov the servant also is given an additional dimension, made manager of the deception and a far more interesting character in his own right. Walter Slezak handles this in a fine and crafty manner.

The hinted-at romantic potential in Gogol's play is elevated in the film to a full romance, with Barbara Bates as the Mayor's daughter Leza.

To introduce the transformed "Inspector and servant", the film opens earlier than the play, with scenes before Georgi and Yakov arrive at the town. At the end, the film likewise is extended beyond the play's end, wrapping up the enhanced plot and characters. Gogol ended the play abruptly with a surprise, which he apparently expected to have a stunning effect on audiences. Maybe so for the first audiences in 1836, but the play's fame ensures that not for generations has this surprised anyone but the characters, and even if the filmgoer hasn't heard of the story he's likely to guess the surprise. All this is to the good in the film.

All these enhancements are deftly woven into Gogol's original fabric, enriching it in action, wit, character, color, and substance. Of course "a visit from an inspector / boss / general!" stirs and unsettles its victims in our time and place not unlike it did in Tsarist Russia, and probably not unlike Pharaoh's Egypt, too. The Inspector General is a satiric masterpiece full of great comedy; and please remember the screen adapters who brought so much inspired enhancement to Gogol's clever original.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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