Reviewing George Formby films is a tricky business, not least because the ones I have seen have a strong familiarity and repetition to them. Even though Spare a Copper is a new film to me, the echoes of Trouble Brewing (1939) suggest the Formby films might stick to a basic narrative and thematic structure. That’s not to say the film is bad, because the combination of naive comedy from Formby and obvious dramatic and musical set-ups remains strong, it’s just that the tropes could become wearing after a while (which is a concern for me, given there are at least three more Formby films on the list!)
Formby is, obviously, the star of the show, and his innocent/accidental/bumbling persona is put to good use in this story of George Carter, a trainee policeman who tries to prevent the sabotage of HMS Hercules at the Brittanic shipyard, but ends up as on the run as the police’s main suspect. Arrayed against him are a series of saboteurs led by amusement park owner Brewster (George Merritt), Shaw (John Warwick) and Jake (Bernard Lee), as well as Sir Robert Dyer’s (Warburton Gamble) Liverpool police force.
Various set-pieces stand out: the musical numbers are strong, including a Pied Piper-style routine in a music shop, and an unlikely romantic number between George and Jane Grey (Dorothy Hyson) that seems to be performed on a set from another film entirely (a countryside scene with water wheel), a police obstacle course where George has to take on Shaw to get a place on the Flying Squad, and a nice climax where George rides around in a tiny car sabotaging the saboteur’s lair and ends up fighting with Shaw (again) round a wall of death (one of the few times the back projection works in aid of the story).
Director John Paddy Carstairs keeps things moving at a fair pace, but does so with an often uneven balance of strong visual moments (there is a nice visual gag about photographs of all George’s male relatives in police uniform that cuts to an image of him in uniform – as the camera pulls back to reveal its on a ‘Wanted’ poster) and unfortunate special effects work (notably bad back projection, sped-up images, footage run backwards and painted backdrops). The film also ends with an extended location-work sequence of an unlikely chase down a series of country lanes and town streets – many of the gags and ideas here would be revisited two years later in The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942), but they feel fresher here, most likely because of the quicker editing pace and shorter sequence.
This Ealing challenge is now at a stage where films are either creeping into one another, or I’m spotting unlikely crossovers: as well as the Will Hay film above, the focus on a ship launching at the end of this film (albeit a destroyer not an aircraft carrier) could lead straight into Ships with Wings, which came out a year later (and which, I’m sure, shared several of the same special effects team, given the similarity of launch sequences)
The physical comedy remains strong – there is a nice moment where Formby, thinking he is off the hook, walks through a police station full of stunned coppers, realises he is still a wanted man, and then runs, blunders, jumps and careens his way back out onto the street. Equally, an acrobatic chase that leads from one side of a theatre stage to the other (and back again) taking in a trampoline and a Chinese juggler, is impressive.
But overall, this feels like a lesser effort from Formby: the banter between him and Jane isn’t at the level of the Formby-Withers routines in Trouble Brewing, many of the smaller routines feel forced (and the effects can’t always support the gag), and the songs feel tagged on in places.
Next time, does the Formby formula continue in Turned Out Nice Again (1941)...?