Monday, 23 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 38: Come on George (1939)

Back to more traditional Formby fare here, with a tale of mistaken identity, innocent farcical characters, an underwritten female foil, and a mix of broad verbal and physical comedy. While it could be the law of diminishing returns in action, but this felt less inspired than other Ealing Formby films – lagging behind Trouble Brewing (1939), Turned Out Nice Again (1941) and (as we’ll see next time round) Let George Do It (1940) – but saying that, it still features several fun sequences, songs and ideas.

In a tortuous plot that exists only to get Formby into a series of increasingly unlikely scrapes, George is a race track ice-cream seller who, through various machinations, is mistaken first for a thief and then a pseudo-horse whisperer. As George is the only man who can go near the violent horse Maneater, he is recruited as a jockey by trainer Armstrong (Cyril Raymond) who has been given the chance to tame Maneater by owner Sir Charles Bailey (Joss Ambler) and Bailey’s daughter Monica (Meriel Forbes). To complicate matters further, Armstrong and Monica try to keep Bailey from finding out George is Maneater’s new jockey (Bailey thinks George is a thief), and try to keep George from finding out his new horse friend is the famously violent Maneater (George isn’t aware who the horse is when he first meets it). Throw in local policeman Sergeant Johnson (George Carney), his daughter Ann (Patricia Kirkwood), a local kid called Squib (who is Johnson’s grandson, suggesting Ann is his mother, although it would seem quite progressive / unlikely for Formby’s romantic lead to be a single mother?) and rival trainer Bannerman (George Hayes), and the cast is complete.

Of course, as with most of Formby’s films, the plot is secondary to the series of physically impressive slapstick sequences, a few ukulele performances, and some verbal sparring. Most of the slapstick comes through a series of chase sequences, as Bailey spots George and pursues him in various locations: a train station, Bailey’s own house, through a funfair, and finally back at the race track. Watching these films close together it became clear that many of Formby’s films feature this recurring character type: the slightly older, stuffier character who takes an early dislike to George because he thinks he is an idiot or a thief and who can be called upon to instigate another chase if the plot is lagging. In Spare a Copper it is Sir Robert Dyer (Warburton Gamble), in Trouble Brewing it is AC Brady (Garry Marsh), in Let George Do It, it is Oscar (Bernard Lee), here it is Bailey. The film’s most spectacular physical comedy is the acrobatic sequence where George, inadvertently on stage as the Golden Phantom, is thrown around the stage by acrobats. While ‘George’ is obviously a stuffed dummy at points, much of the stunt work appears authentic (both here, and elsewhere, notably in vehicle-based stunts).
As in Spare a Copper the central romantic relationship is underwritten: Ann seems to like George largely because he is kind to Squib, and riding a horse on which her father has bet their whole life savings. Despite the uncertainty over the parentage of Squib, there is no sense here of the kind of female empowerment or sexuality seen in Turned Out Nice Again. George has a verbal misunderstanding with Sgt Johnson when talking about sex (another recurring feature), and gets flustered when a fair stallholder refers to George and Ann as a couple and gives them a toy baby doll as a prize. The dialogue is not as sharp as Turned Out Nice Again, either, but retreads familiar ground: Formby as a largely asexual figure, an innocent who blunders his way into romance (and a mostly chaste romance at that).

In one sense, watching these films so closely together, they appear to deal with particular ideas of masculinity and masculine interests (even when featuring a star that complicates such ideas): detective stories and beer in Trouble Brewing, police and shipbuilding in Spare a Copper (1940), pigeon-fancying in Turned Out Nice Again (1941). Here, it is horse racing, another field in which George succeeds through luck and bravado, rather than skill (the skill lies in Maneater, to whom George simply clings on). Given George is rarely a protagonist here (things happen to him, rarely because of him), the horse is also anthropomorphised as a silent observer and – at the end – matchmaker for George and Ann.
The film has some decent songs (many of which are performed direct ‘to’ camera – including one where the audience appear to be watching the point-of-view of the horse), a more classic song and dance routine with Formby and Kirkwood, strong location filming around the stables and racetrack... but I can’t shake the feeling throughout that this is lesser Formby. There is one point that stands out – when a doctor ‘cures’ George of his fears (so he can ride again), Formby demonstrates his skills as an actor as well as a performer. For a few minutes, the performance of a fearless George has a straighter back, his shoulders are squared, and Formby loses his more traditional slouched look and gains a cocky, assured manner. It is over quickly, but the sequence shows again that Formby may have been better than the material he was performing in.
Next time, we finish the mini-Formby marathon with Let George Do It (1940)...

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