Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 15: The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942)

While watching this Will Hay-starring comedy, I was reminded of the different release strategies that companies take when releasing British Cinema films on DVD, particularly the decisions made by Studio Canal UK / Optimum Releasing when selecting and packaging the Ealing Studios DVDs I’m currently watching. From the on-screen menus (and some quick internet research) it is clear this disc was originally part of The Will Hay Collection, but has also been subsequently re-packaged in the colours and branding of the Ealing Studios Collection. This slightly schizophrenic double-life appears to be replicated in the film itself, however, which doesn’t feel as coherent as some of the earlier and later Ealing comedies I’ve seen, but equally doesn’t feel completely like a strong ‘Will Hay’ film either.

The film does not, for example, match any of the thematic conventions of the ‘Ealing comedy’ that Charles Barr starts to sketch out: notably issues around quality versus quantity, small being beautiful, large and corporate being ugly. This knockabout comedy, with its South American spy thriller undertones, cross-dressing, slapstick and actorly mugging, is a different beast to the post-war comedies that tend to feature under that studio comedy brand. Indeed, Barr has little time for the pre-1948 comedies, those featuring Will Hay, George Formby and Tommy Trinder, despite this film (and The Goose Steps Out, 1942) being co-directed by Basil Dearden, one of Michael Balcon’s stalwart lieutenants during his time at Ealing. In that sense, these films (particularly those of Formby and Hay) are often seen as star-driven vehicles rather than true ‘Ealing’ films (despite the inherent vagueness and uncertainty over exactly what that term means).

The film is not coy about its star-laden qualities, opening with a ‘Will Hay in...’ title, featuring the star as five different ‘characters’ (in effect, one character who adopts four disguises), and building almost all the set pieces around Hays’ brand of verbal and visual humour. Despite this, however, the film feels too beholden to its mistaken identity-wartime spy plot to give Hay the opportunity to really let rip, and the accompanying ‘trade agreement’ narrative feels very staid and bland, hard to enliven even with Hay’s blustering and an anarchic car chase.

The film is about Davis (Hay), an actor-turned-bad educator, whose pursuit of a broken contract with Jessop (John Mills) leads him to the Ministry of International Commerce where a conference on South American trade is awaiting the arrival of British expert Professor Davys (Henry Hewitt). Davys is kidnapped by enemy agents, and replaced by Crabtree (Felix Aylmer), who intends to sabotage British trade agreements in concert with journalist / spy Costello (Basil Sydney). Following a mistaken identity incident around Davis / Davys, Jessop realises the ‘real’ Prof. Davys has been kidnapped and blackmails Davis into helping him track down and rescue the real professor, thus saving the conference and the country.

It is enjoyable to see a young John Mills caught up in the chaos, essentially playing a straight man to Hay’s mad professor, and bullying Hay into various disguises (Scotland Yard detective, hotel porter, train ticket collector, and female nurse) in their joint pursuit of the Nazi spies who are trying to derail the conference. Mills plays Jessop as young, cocky, and confident – he’s no simple stooge, operating as the main vehicle for pushing the plot forward – and is a nice contrast to the sometimes stuffy Hay. The other characters / supporting actors are solid, but few stand out – although Costello does have a fun recurring joke in that he half-recognises Davis/Hay in all his disguises, but assumes it is some incredibly vast family he keeps running into.

There are nice visual gags scattered through the film (a man helps Hay into his coat and hat, before repossessing the hat stand they were hanging on; the delivery boy who gets so sick of being knocked off his bike during the car chase that he throws his packages on the ground for the spies to drive over) but the slapstick can also feel forced, notably in the lengthy care home sequence where Hay’s cross-dressing as a nurse leads to entirely predictable results (prefiguring Carry on Doctor by almost two decades!), or the lengthy car chase sequence that makes up the final 10-15 minutes of the film (and which ends with a largely unrelated bomb explosion). What makes the final sequence so interesting is it is obviously where the film’s (limited?) budget went, as it is the only section filmed outside – elsewhere, the plot bounces from set to set, using back projection for scenes on a train (and, to be fair, for several of the car chase scenes as well), but here, there is actual outdoor filming at the nursing home, and in many of the car-based chase gags. This is less a criticism (particularly as this is mainly noticeable because of the location-heavy filming I’ve seen in later Ealing films) more an interesting note that might relate to the limited budget such films had to play with in the early 1940s.

The film also features a dramatisation of the rival medium of radio, notably the recording of a BBC Home Service interview where Hay prattles on about economics, unaware he’s been mistaken for the real Professor Davys. This interview is conducted by real BBC presenter Leslie Mitchell, host of BBC TV show Picture Page, but is obviously a set piece for Hay’s bluster and surreal response to questions about economics. What is most curious, apart from a possible dig at the BBC being unprepared, is that both Mitchell and the engineer faint and collapse during the interview, for no apparent reason. (presumably exhausted by Hay's never-ending stream of consciousness chatter)

As is probably obvious, I wasn’t completely convinced by this film – it isn't a strong performance from Hay, and the plot-heavy nature of the film detracts from the occasionally funny verbal back-and-forth and visual routine-based comedy that I think would shine in other situations (the plot is also a little dull, and has a curiously leaden pace). The title is also a little misleading – maybe I was expecting some kind of civil service/governmental slapstick, instead of this wartime spy thriller-comedy.

However, as it would be unfair to dismiss Hay based on this one outing, I’ve decided to go for a Hay double bill: watch out early next week for a post on his earlier Ealing hit, The Ghost of St. Michael’s (1941)...

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