Friday, 4 March 2011

Let George Do It

37. Let George Do It (1940)
Dir: Marcel Varnel


The British Music Hall tradition is one which has been retrospectively devalued in many quarters. Edmund Blackadder, in the essential TV event that was 'Blackadder Goes Forth' (1989), famously dismissed it as "two men with incredibly unconvincing cockney accents, going "What's up with you then?", "What's up with me then?"" It's impossible to deny the accuracy of this brilliant parody. Musical Hall cannot help but seem utterly twee and corny by modern standards. But, as the hugely enjoyable Ealing period comedy 'Champagne Charly' (1944) illustrates, Music Hall was very much about the atmosphere and experience of being there, which explains why so many attempts to bring its stars to the screen have failed or else dated beyond comprehension.

But there are acts who stemmed from this tradition who are worthy of rediscovering. You'll find few Greatest Film lists out there that even make a passing reference to the screen work of George Formby but between 1934 and 1946 he was one of the most popular performers in Britain. The twenty films he turned out during this period feature surprisingly few really weak efforts. Ultra-light-hearted comedies with occasional musical interludes, Formby's films are generally fast-paced, innocently charming and sometimes genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a part in my love of Formby's work, since I grew up watching these films (I should mention at this point that I am only 28) but I also grew up watching other British institutions such as Will Hay or the Carry-On series and I now find it hard to sit through those in their entirety so Formby's films must have something special, at least where I'm concerned.

Due to the period they were made, the Formby films are significantly less smutty than, say, the Norman Wisdom films that received the baton of popularity from them. George (whose surname changes in every film but whose first name and character remains the same) is a shy, good-natured character who loves and respects women to the point of fear! So the raunchier innuendos are saved for the lyrics to his songs, designed to elicit roars of laughter from crowds of servicemen, while Formby's pursuit of women is largely chaste and confined to one specific love interest. Even his songs feel the need to censor shocking words such as 'bloomers', 'knickers' and, in one extreme case, 'belly'! The sexual politics may seem naive but, in a way, seem far less dated than the lascivious sexism of their 50s, 60s and 70s equivalents.

One of the most important factors in furthering Formby's popularity and excellence was the advent of World War 2. The rousing spirit of togetherness and defiance that characterised the Music Hall tradition was rarely more appreciated than during wartime and Formby became a crucial factor in keeping up the morale of the troops and their families back home. The arrival of the war sparked the most fertile run of brilliance in Formby's career. The run of six films he made between 1938 and 1941 (beginning with 'It's in the Air' (1938) and ending with 'Turned Out Nice Again' (1941)) constitute the Lancashire comedians best and most cinematic outings (along with 1935's superb 'No Limit'). Crucial in this leap in quality was the tightening up of plots, which largely became thrillers, often with a wartime theme. Right in the middle of this period came Formby's best and most historically significant film of all; 'Let George Do It'.

'Let George Do It' follows the adventures of George Hepplewhite, a member of travelling concert band The Dinky Doos who is accidentally mistaken for a British undercover agent and thrust into the world of espionage. Employed in a hotel as a ukelele player with a big band whose conductor is a secret Nazi, George swallows his reservations for the sake of his country and, more importantly, to impress the beautiful Mary Wilson (Phyllis Calvert). 'Let George Do It' gets to grips with the war effort like no other film Formby ever made. While he had previously battled against gruff Sergeant Majors and counterfeiters, this time George takes on the Nazis themselves.

Undoubtedly the most famous moment in 'Let George Do It' is a dream sequence in which George flies to Germany on a barrage balloon where he invades a Nazi rally and punches Hitler in the face. One can imagine the cheers of delight from wartime audiences at seeing their shy hero dishing out the knuckle sandwich all of England were longing to serve up themselves. This remarkably forceful image was potent enough to inspire the international release of the very British 'Let George Do It'. It became a huge hit in the USSR under the revised title 'Dinky Doo' but even the rebranding of the film with the on-the-nose name 'To Hell With Hitler' was not enough to break Formby in America.

This famous sequence aside, there are several more elements that make 'Let George Do It' a cut above the other Formby films. The tightening up of plot keeps the film more focused than its predecessors, which employed a more episodic structure culminating in a big set piece to finish. 'Let George Do It' feels more expansive. There's some unrelated silliness aboard a ship at the beginning of the film but after that the events of the film all feel like pieces of the same puzzle rather than stand-alone sketches. Even the superfluous sequence involving attempts to retrieve a lost camera from a bakery feels in keeping with the action-packed plot, the elevated importance of the pursued prize heightening the suspense.

Also improved upon is the supporting cast. Generally speaking, all anyone cared about in a George Formby film was George Formby, the other characters being plummily-accented cardboard cut-outs. The obligatory love interest and bully boy were usually bland pawns being stiffly moved to whatever positon the story required them to appear in. But 'Let George Do It' ups the ante. George's object of desire, Mary Wilson, is not just a simpering, sweet-natured woman who stands by and watches the action but a prominent British agent who is crucial to the plot and initiates George into his adventure. Phillis Calvert plays the role assertively and is quite the most beautiful of all the Formby heroines. Garry Marsh, meanwhile, makes an imposing villain. Having proved himself worthy of the role in a similarly menacing turn in another Formby classic, 1939's 'Trouble Brewing', Marsh's Mendez combines the homely threat of a stuffy authority figure with the rather more frightening force of a Nazi saboteur. With strong support, Formby ups his game too. Although he largely sticks to his recognised and beloved shtik, the material gives him more room to experiment. The Hitler-punching scene allows him to play the cocky hero for a change, while an extended sequence in which he appears alone and talks aloud to himself as he goes about his ablutions constitutes some of his best work.

One of the most pleasing improvements in 'Let George Do It' is the superior quality of the music. Formby's musical asides are always some of the high points of his films but there is usually a clear stand-out amongst the songs, with at least one weak effort. 'Let George Do It' features no less than four excellent songs. 'Grandad's Flannelette Nightshirt' sees Formby performing to a bar full of enthusiastic servicemen, giving us a glimpse of his well-known stints entertaining the troops. 'Oh Don't the Wind Blow Cold' is a traditionally innuendo-laden piece which occurs simultaneously alongside a great action sequence as George uses the song to distract from his escape attempts. 'Mr Wu's a Window Cleaner Now' combines elements of two of Formby's most popular songs, the very famous 'When I'm Cleaning Windows' and the stereotypical but racially benign 'Chinese Laundry Blues'. But the stand out is the show-stopping number 'Count Your Blessings and Smile', a rousing tune which is used as a theme throughout the film while also acting as a cleverly woven-in plot-point.

Once the most popular entertainer in the country, George Formby is now more commonly mocked and his act unfairly reduced to a series of catchphrases. Time-travelling sitcom 'Goodnight Sweetheart' (1993-1999) is just one example of a modern source which regularly portrayed Formby as an intollerable proposition to a modern audience. When he is defended and celebrated, there can be an unfortunate tendency to go too far the other way. The Independent, for example, admiringly described Formby as "the Lancashire Chaplin", an artist whom Formby bears no comparison with in terms of either style or quality. It is much better to appreciate Formby for exactly what he was; a unique, lovable screen presence whose films have undeniably dated in terms of content but remain extraordinarily enjoyable nonetheless. In such an ouevre, there is usually a standout example of the subject at their best and such is the case with 'Let George Do It', the ideal answer to those who too readily write off George Formby as a relic of a bygone era.

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