Monday, 30 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 40: Let George Do It (1940)

Way back at film 10 on this challenge (Trouble Brewing) I made the comment that it felt like ‘a live action Wallace & Gromit’ film with ‘action, inane comedy, fun slapstick, and unlikely romantic couplings.’ If that was true of the earlier film, it is doubly true of Let George Do It which features a comic bakery sequence which wouldn’t feel out of place in A Close Shave or A Matter of Loaf and Death. Something about the innocuous and clumsy heroics of Formby’s character, notably the visual gags and slapstick, calls to mind those later British animated heroes – likely because Nic Park knows his cinema history and likes a bit of Formby.

This film may be more famous as “the one where George Formby punches Hitler”, but that reputation arguably conceals a more complex narrative than Come on George, while also revisiting most of the basic concepts seen in Formby’s Ealing films to date: mistaken identity, unconvincing romantic couple, ukulele numbers, and broad slapstick. Here, Formby is George Hepplewhite, a ukulele player in variety act the Dinki-Doo’s, who is mistaken for a British spy (posing as a ukulele player) en route to Norway to uncover a spy ring responsible for passing on convoy information to German U boats. In Bergen, Formby meets up with band leader and Nazi agent Mendez (Garry Marsh), his assistant Slim Selwyn (Romney Brent), and receptionist-cum-undercover British agent Mary Wilson (Phyllis Calvert). Formby agrees to help the war effort, mainly to impress Mary (and his mum), finds the key to decode the secret messages (Morse code hidden in radio broadcasts of the band’s performances) and thwarts Mendez’ plans.
While the wartime premise of later Will Hay comedy The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941) felt forced, here it is integral to the narrative, the characters and the setting of Bergen ‘before the war spread.’ That is most obvious in the infamous dream sequence: having been drugged, and dumped back in his hotel room, George machine guns Mendez and Selwyn, only to reveal swastikas on their underwear; takes off in a one-man barrage balloon for Berlin, and ends up thumping Hitler in the face. It is highly unusual, not so much for the propaganda values (everyone from Batman and Donald Duck to Charlie Chaplin were lining up to fictionally take on Hitler), as for the place of dream sequences in Ealing films. Given the studio’s reputation lies in documentary-realism, few of its films feature anything that could be regarded as fantasy, and dream sequences are particularly infrequent (Dead of Night and The Love Lottery are the most obvious examples here), so to find one in a Formby film is unusual, particularly given the film sticks to the familiar structure and content elsewhere.

The film does feel different in other areas: the cinematography departs from the high key, well-lit approach seen in other Formby films to one comfortable with darker tones, and starker use of lighting. Several of the musical sequences feature spotlights on a dancer, with mobile spotlights following her, and leaving the rest of the room in darkness; while the dock-set scenes of blackout conditions are full of dense shadows and sharp angles of light – a lighting technique that plays into the comic fun the film has with identifying characters by torchlight, and Formby and others grabbing the wrong hands in the dark. Alongside more obvious visual techniques, the use of soundtrack is particularly strong: the music parallels elements of the narrative from the opening titles, with little bursts of morse code worked into the score (which recurs later in the band sequences). Formby’s musical numbers are also worked into a more traditional setting of a hotel band performing at a Bergen hotel.
This sense of pushing beyond existing Formby work does not mean abandoning what makes these films work: Formby’s physical antics. Those are most clearly demonstrated in the bakery sequence mentioned above. Continuing on from a scene where George was searching Mendez’ room (and hiding from Mendez), a camera with images of the secret key falls out of Mendez’s window. Following it, George gets an electric shock from overhead wires, crashes into a bakery and tries to grab the camera: it, and George, move from room to room through the bakery, falling into a vat of flour, being doused with water, mixed by a huge machine, chopped up, dumped onto a conveyor belt, thrust into tins, and put into an oven. While not all of these happen to George, the very mechanical, clockwork nature of the process becomes comical – while not as perfectly timed as the Chaplin routine in Modern Times (or, indeed, the Wallace & Gromit films that it obviously inspired), this is pure Formby physical comedy, and it remains the film’s comic highpoint, well ahead of Fuhrer-punching.
Of course, Formby’s other tics also come out: the character is sexually inexperienced, awkward around women, but somehow the focus of romantic attention. When Iris (Coral Browne) attempts to seduce him, Formby reacts like a little kid, rolling around on the bed, and his interest in Mary appears to be closely related to his desire to impress his mother. While the films only flirt with realism, the idea that an undercover British agent would fall for Formby’s foolishness and risk endangering her cover... well, it is another example of a female character acting uncharacteristically in these films, but by no means the first. It is also noticeable that apart from Calvert’s Mary, the only other speaking parts for women are the unidentified wife of Oscar (Bernard Lee), Iris, and a hotel receptionist. That said, Mary is at least professional and intelligent, even if George has to single-handedly rescue her at the end.
So, with strong physical comedy, interesting creative elements, that dream sequence, and the usual mix of Formby elements, this ranks alongside Trouble Brewing as one of the stronger Ealing Formby films, but probably fails to top Turned Out Nice Again. And perhaps one of the more curious elements the film has to offer is a brief flirtation with what we would now describe as intertextuality (or world building): an advertising bill for ‘Yellow Ochre’ at the Pier Theatre on a pillar in the dock’s waiting room – the play that was at the centre of the recently released Ealing film, Return to Yesterday (1940).
Next time, we bid adieu to Formby, but remain at war, in Dunkirk (1958)...

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