Watching this in close proximity to Sailors Three (1940), and given that some of the crew remain the same – noteably screenwriters Angus Macphail and John Dighton – it is clear that Ealing never felt the need to move too far from a popular pattern. Here, the mistaken identity plot from The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942) is mixed with the reluctant spy elements of Let George Do It (1940) and a scattering of the mischievous schoolboy aspects of The Ghost of St Michaels (1941). However, while Sailors Three was solid but unmemorable, this film combines comic sequences with more dramatic concepts to add to its humour – however, it also remains frustratingly incomplete on DVD...
When British Military Intelligence realise William Potts (Will Hay) is the double of German spy Mueller, Potts reluctantly agrees to take on Mueller’s identity and position at the German university where inventor Professor Hoffman (Frank Pettingell) is working on a secret new bomb. At the university, it is Hay’s usual comic business: schoolmaster Potts attempts to mislead a class of young German spies, including Max (Charles Hawtrey), Krauss (Peter Ustinov), and Kurt (Barry Morse); he befriends Hoffman so as to learn about the bomb, annoys the officious Schmidt (Raymond Lovell), and meets important General von Glotz (Julien Mitchell). Stealing one of Hoffman’s new gas-fire bombs (which Glotz intends to use in the attack on Britain), Potts is helped by several of his students – Austrian students who allege their country has been enslaved by Germany – the film ends in a series of comic set-pieces, first on a train and then a plane spiralling out-of-control towards Britain.
Given the DVD I watched clocked in at a very swift 65 minutes, it appeared as though the film had no fat on it whatsoever, skipping quickly from scene to scene, and not really lingering on any element – but that was not the original length or intention of the film (although not the most reliable of measures, both IMDb and Lovefilm list it at 79 minutes). If ignorant of that fact, the film isn’t noticeably reduced by the cuts – it still makes sense, even if the transitions are a little clunky in places – but the clips of some of the missing sections available on YouTube do reveal some of the strong verbal wordplay that Hay was known for – a cut from the classroom discussion on pronouncing English place names (‘Sluff’ and ‘Slough’), and another from the train discussion about Panzer-pincer movement. From my brief research, the reasons for these cuts (or, indeed, when they occurred) still appear unknown – it could be like the DVD release of Whisky Galore!, where an American print was used (British films were often slimmed down to B-picture lengths of 60-65 minutes for U.S. distribution).
Perhaps the most interesting point here is that I didn’t initially think I had seen an incomplete film in terms of missing pieces of existing scenes (as happened); rather, I suspected that several promising sub-plots had been dropped along the way: Hay rarely gets any romantic interest in his films, so the removal of his spy contact Lena Shuven (Anne Firth) is hardly a surprise; but the lack of a subplot where the ‘real’ Mueller reappears seems an unlikely oversight simply because of its ubiquity in such plots; the disappearance of both Schmidt and Hoffman from the final third of the film is also noticeable; while the final escape feels too easy, with Hay and his students successfully (if haphazardly) flying their plane back to Britain.
Either due to its topic or production context (still at an uncertain point of the war for Britain), the tone of the film can be schizophrenic. There are moments – most obviously when Potts is stealing a bomb from Hoffman’s laboratory – that rely heavily on thriller tenets as much as comic ones. While Hay stumbling around in a protective padded suit is inherently comic, it is used for dramatic purposes as well – he is trapped in the building, alarms going off, the suit making him easy to locate for the pursuing soldiers. In most cases, any inherent drama is undercut by humour: here, Hoffman (in a similar suit) is mistakenly ambushed by the soldiers, allowing Potts to escape; while the final plane-out-of-control sequence (featuring strong special effects model work) is counterpointed with more comic music to reduce any real tension.
As noted above (and similar to Sailors Three) the ‘good’ Germanic type – the Austrian – becomes a key feature, with Potts’ students desperate to escape to Britain. Comedy German stereotypes are also out in force: beer drinking, officiousness, excessive saluting, precision, marching... yet the film still finds time to gently mock English stereotypes (the German students think everyone speaks in upper class accents, Hay’s approach to undercover work is to get blind drunk, and Hay remains a buffoon, supported by cleverer Austrian students). Of course, British behaviour wins out in these debates – the Germans are unaware what a two-fingered salute really means (particularly when directed at an image of Hitler) – but it is another sign that Ealing didn’t always fit into the obvious good/bad binaries we expect from war films.
Given the strong performance from Hay, good supporting work from Hawtrey, and a plot that creates fun and dramatic set-pieces, this has all the pieces that should build a strong film: the absence of all the key scenes, however, mean that the full experience is currently lacking.
Next time, the blog hits the halfway point with - what else - The Halfway House (1944)!