Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 10: Trouble Brewing (1939)

Reaching this mini-milestone (the 10th blog post) deserves a little treat: and what better treat than my first full George Formby film? Not the first time I’ve seen George Formby in film – I’ve seen clips of most of his ukulele-ful exploits from various mid-30s to mid-40s films – but definitely the first full 83 minutes in his company. Obviously, this won’t be my last, given the presence on the GEFC list of Come on George, Let George Do It and others. In many ways, sliding this disc into the DVD player felt like a British cinema initiation that’s up there with your first Will Hays, Tommy Trinder, Gracie Fields or Carry On film.

I have no way of knowing (yet) whether Trouble Brewing is a strong or weak entry in the Formby oeuvre, but the highest recommendation I can offer is that it feels like a live-action Wallace & Gromit film, although (presumably) without the postmodern commentary. There is action, inane comedy, fun slapstick, and unlikely romantic couplings: most notably the notion that Mary Brown (Googie Withers) would fall for George Gullip (Formby). And, yes, a bit of ukulele action, in three routines that are entertaining, even if they have little or no relevance to the actual plot (the third song, Fanlight Fanny, about “the nightclub queen,” is particularly guilty here).
The plot, for other Formby virgins, is solid and well written, given it exists purely to showcase the star. Formby is a printer at newspaper The Daily Sun, who is more interested in deduction and Withers than his actual job. When he and friend Bill (Gus McNaughton) win big at the races, they’re ripped off by crooks passing counterfeit notes; George, intent on capturing the crooks (largely because he fancies himself a detective; Bill is in it for the cash reward), pursues them through a wrestling match, upper class soiree, detective’s home, and finally to the crook’s hideout (a brewery, hence the film’s title). Withers’ secretary, the Sun’s proprietor and editor, and a police detective all get drawn into the plot, largely as foils for Formby’s brand of slapstick and chaos.
On the evidence here, Formby fits nicely in the earnest fool model of British cinema stardom: there are shades of Tommy Trinder (though not as cocky or streetwise), Kenneth Williams (though nowhere near as intelligent or snide), or Eric Morecambe (though without the straight man of Ernie Wise to play off). However, I think Wallace (from the Wallace & Gromit films) might be the best comparison: Formby is constantly getting into unlikely scrapes, most of his own making (although often geed on by mate Bill), but succeeding through sheer athleticism and dumb luck. The final chase and slapstick scenes in the brewery are beautifully staged and performed here, and recalled nothing more than the end of A Close Shave (1995).
While on the subject of the production, the film features a lot of British cinema talent early in their careers: alongside Formby and Withers on the acting side, this is filmed by Ronald Neame (cinematographer for Powell & Pressburger and David Lean, then director of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and, in 1972, The Poseidon Adventure), directed by Anthony Kimmins (who would go on to direct David Niven in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and Alec Guinness in The Captain’s Paradise in 1953), and co-written by Angus McPhail, scriptwriter for over twenty Ealing films including Fiddlers Three (1944), Dead of Night (1945) and Whisky Galore! (1949). An impressive team for this small comedy.
There is little that is showy about the film, but it has a precision about it that is impressive. The musical sequences aren’t complex, but rather than static images of Formby and ukulele, there is subtle camera movement to follow him through a room, or allowing him to move forward and backward in frame. True, the ukulele solos tend to be in static mid-shots (and visibly mimed to a backing track in places), but they show off the film’s strong editing skills, cutting between images (often Googie Withers’ watching Formby admiringly) and keeping the rhythm of the scene going.
The best example of that isn’t the musical numbers, but the final sequence at the brewery. Building nicely from some initial physical gags, the sequence is an exercise in economical filming and continuity editing: from our initial introduction to the first brewery set (where George and Bill hide behind crates of beer) to the final denouement as George and Mary collapse into a vat of beer, the film races through seven or eight different sets and set-ups but never confuses the viewer or contradicts its internal logic. The filmmakers introduce each space quickly, as Formby and Withers run up stairs (throwing bottles and crates to stop the pursuing crooks) – we follow them to the roof, where Withers is lowered to the ground. Formby, unable to lower himself, then revisits the same sets in reverse, before ending up in the vat room where more slapstick violence and chaos ensures. Yet at no point is the film chaotic: it sets out the spaces of this ‘building’ and the physical relationships between those spaces.
But what of Formby the star? Well, as noted above, his image seems to based around the meek accidental fool that is central here, blown around by plot contrivance and into sillier and sillier scrapes. Slightly camp and feminised in places (there is a scene in a swimming pool / wrestling arena with him using a flotation aid that appears to give him breasts), he’s a prototype geek figure in many ways – he invents a new form of fingerprint ink, likes detective fiction, and playing an obscure musical instrument (there are also hints of a Harold Lloyd influence, in his inching around the outside of a building, many stories up – all done via some shaky matte work). The relationship between him and Withers, supposedly romantic, never feels likely, partly because Formby appears both feminised and immature, while Withers appears to be strong and mature: a big sister rather than a romantic opposite. Despite a maid referring to Formby as ‘beautiful’ at one stage, it never seems a likely match.
Withers is one of only two central female characters (the other is a vamp-ish European Madame Berdi (played by Martita Hunt) whose short appearance relies on stereotypical notions of sexualisation) but rarely gets to play anything beyond secretarial or damsel in distress. At one point, a character says to Withers’ boss ‘You’ve got your typewriter with you’ – a reference to Withers presence – and it is a shame the film doesn’t give her more to do. Towards the end, when she discovers the real crook, and gets involved in the slapstick brewery chase, it is better material for her, but the film remains focused on Formby.
All in all, this is a broad comedy with nicely judged slapstick, performances, and solid production skills: it has made me eager to see how well it matches up with the other Ealing / Formby films...
Next time: we jump forward to 1950s and The Magnet (1950)

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