Month: December 2015

DVD review: Captain Bill (1935

Another rare British comedy released by Network DVD…

image.jpg

CAPTAIN BILL.

Directed by RALPH CEDER. Starring LESLIE FULLER, with Georgie Harris and Hal Gordon.Released November 1935.

In the 30s class schism in comedy, rubber-faced Leslie Fuller found himself firmly on the working class side. Finding his fame in concert parties, especially in the seaside town of Margate where he made his home. His usual character, Bill, is well-meaning, if a bit gauche and clumsy, occasionally prone to gruffness and ready for a fight. In fact, he gives the impression of being an everyday Cockney bloke, the type who might spend his holidays at Margate, for instance. Perhaps no other performer better reflected his audience, and in holding up the mirror to them, Fuller won huge stardom. He was even described as “Elstree Studio’s answer to Clark Gable!”. That’s pushing it a bit, but there is certainly something charming and realistic about him, and while ‘Bill’ seems fairly effortless, I suspect he actually took much greater skill to play.

Much the same homespun, effortlessness went into his film career: Fuller churned out films in seemingly less time than it takes some people to digest meals. ‘Captain Bill’ was one of three comedies he made in 1935. Inevitably, it shows. It is the only Fuller film I’ve yet seen, although I reckon it’s fairly typical of his vehicles.

As the title suggests, Bill is plonked into a boat setting, running a barge on the Thames. Again, it’s something any of his audience could relate to – in his own way Fuller was as regionally minded as any of the Northern performers like Frank Randle. He has an inept crew of cabin boy Georgie Harris (a regular sidekick) and droopy old sad-sack D.J. Williams. In a way, the trio are a ragged foreshadow of the films soon to be made teaming Will Hay with Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt. Although far less amusing, they certainly have their moments.

The first scenes are strung together with little consequence; few of them seem to take much responsibility for forwarding the plot. It’s more like a day in the life of Captain Bill, detailing the crew’s slapstick misadventures on board the ship, Fuller’s rivalry with fellow captain Hal Gordon, a fire on the barge, and a musical interlude. These scenes are all rather claustrophobic, taking place on the small barge with the camera struggling to take it all in. However, the location shooting adds quite a bit of charm to these seemingly off the cuff scenes. There’s something of a silent comedy feel here, especially in a good scene with the crew’s frantic efforts to bail out their sinking barge. Director Ralph Ceder was actually a Hal Roach veteran, who directed Snub Pollard, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (though only in separate films). Accordingly, the work-based slapstick routines here recall Laurel’s solo films like ‘The Noon Whistle’, ‘Oranges and Lemons’ or ‘Save the Ship’. Incidentally, the film is produced by Joe Rock, who had also produced solo films with Laurel.

The second half of the film involves Bill blagging a job as a yacht captain, and gets bogged down in a plot about gun-runners. Of course, all ends happily, but ‘Captain Bill’ never really lives up to its potential. With a less rushed production, stronger direction and some background music, it could have been a winner. As it is, it’s not without charm or humour, but doesn’t really inspire me to collect all of Fuller’s films.

Advertisements

DVD review: Aldwych Farces, vols 1 & 2

I’m working through a Christmas haul of DVDs, including several from Network DVD’s superb series, ‘The British Film’.

 

Long unavailable on VHS or DVD, the appearance of The Aldwych Farces is a much overdue treat. These were the first real comic successes of 30’s British cinema, based on a long-running series of comic plays written by playwright Ben Travers, and staged at the Aldwych theatre by Tom Walls. Beginning in 1930, they transferred to the screen and continued to be filmed through to the mid-30s, becoming a much-loved series. Most of the films nucleated around three comic actors. Tom Walls usually played a devious reprobate, well-to-do but sly and planning some kind of scheme. Ideal foils were provided by monocled silly-ass Ralph Lynn (pronounced Rafe Lynn), and bald, timid, bird-like Robertson Hare, who inevitably found himself mixed up in the middle of things, wailing “Oh Calamity!” In addition, many other regulars added to the fun: French Yvonne Arnaud, old harridan Mary Brough, or the superb, dithering Claude Hulbert.

Aldwych-Farces-Volume-1-37208_1

The core of the farces: Tom Walls, Robertson Hare and Ralph Lynn.

Unlike some of the surprisingly dynamic comedies in the British Film series, the Aldwych Farces wear their heart on their sleeve as stage adaptations. Tom Walls directed the films, and has been accused of directing the actors in a stage play and then pointing the camera at them. Some of the films certainly do suffer from this, and there are some rather long scenes that need a bit more pep, closer to the stodgy, theatrical style we tend to associate with 30s films. However, this is certainly not true of all of them, and in a way this is part of their charm.  In any case, the Aldwych films mostly survive their limitations to remain pleasant and entertaining examples of a bygone form of entertainment. The scripts contain many funny lines, wordplay and situations, and the performers have honed wonderful timing through their years of association. Their stock company of intrinsically British types are masterfully played, and the ensemble comedy points the way to Ealing Studios’ later comedies.

Thematically, this is very much the frothy pre-war world familiar to readers of P G Wodehouse; a world of country houses, suspicious wives and relatives. There’s nothing controversial and lots that is stereotypical, but it’s all in good fun. Even better, the films come two to the volume (one later effort, ‘STORMY WEATHER’ was also released singly a few years ago). So far, they are a mixture of some better known and lesser efforts. Hopefully, the most celebrated efforts ‘THARK’ and ‘TONS OF MONEY’ will also come along on future DVDs.

Volume 1 features ‘A CUCKOO IN THE NEST’ and ‘ TURKEY TIME’. ‘CUCKOO..’ centres around Ralph Lynn accidentally being forced to spend the night at a country inn with an old flame (Yvonne Arnaud) after they both miss their train, hire a car together and become stuck in the rain. To satisfy the suspicious, god-fearing harridan of a landlady (Mary Brough) they pose as a married couple. Unfortunately, Lynn’s wife has witnessed them going off together and followed, in tow with her dreadful mother and alcoholic old fruit of a father (Tom Walls). Naturally, Yvonne’s husband also turns up on the scene, leading to lots of awkward moments for Ralph. Lynn carries much of the comedy scenes, sneaking in and out to avoid the landlady, struggling to bed down on the floor, retrieving  a dog in the rain, or rehearsing his excuses. However, it’s Tom Walls’ drunken old reprobate who provides the best laughs, forever searching for a drink or a pretty girl before being beckoned by his wife’s call. As a director, Walls lives up to his reputation, though. ‘A CUCKOO IN THE NEST’ moves with the viscosity of treacle. With a bit more pep, it could have been a classic, but just misses the mark despite some funny moments.

‘TURKEY TIME’ boasts much better direction, including the interesting idea of giving each character a little vignette to introduce themselves in the opening credit sequence. It takes place at Christmas, with Walls and Lynn joined by Robertson Hare in the main nucleus of characters. Walls is a pugnacious chap, whose fights land him in bother, especially with his fiancé when he defends the honour of a showgirl on the pier. Lynn is a jolly chap who tags along with Walls, and has fallen in love with the showgirl . Their antics to help her out constantly land henpecked Robertson Hare in trouble with his wife. This one is lots of fun.

Volume 2 contains two of the best farces. ‘A CUP OF KINDNESS’  benefits from the additional  presence of Claude Hulbert, who I always find irresistible. It’s a modern day Romeo and Juliet story in suburbia:  neighbours, the pompous Walls and uptight Hare constantly do battle, while Ralph Lynn and Dorothy Hyson are their star-crossed offspring. Lynn and Hulbert are both hopeless at holding down jobsm but get mixed up in some dodgy shares that threaten to throw the family into disgrace. Things get a bit slow toward the end, but there are many funny sequences, including a dotty fantasy sequence that sends the whole cast back to the Stone Age.

Aldwych-Farces-Volume-3-37904_3

Robertson Hare, Gordon Harker and Ralph Lynn in DIRTY WORK.

DIRTY WORK stands slightly apart from the other farces in that Tom Walls doesn’t appear , though he still directs. In his place is the superb comic character Gordon Harker, who brings his rough-edged posh cockney (“Oh yerrrrrrs”) to the table. Harker is the doorman at Cecil Parker’s jewellery store, where Ralph Lynn and Robertson Hare also work. Thieves are targeting the store; Lynn and Harker attempt to set a trap for them, roping the reluctant Hare in to pose as a burglar. Meanwhile, the thieves have plans of their own to frame the trio for the robbery…

This one starts slowly, with lots of talk-heavy scenes in the jewellery store, but gets going at a good clip once the plans are hatched. The comic break-in scenes are excellent and this turns into maybe the funniest of all the films on the two discs. The highlight is undoubtedly Robertson Hare’s horror at being forced to shave his moustache and try on wigs to disguise himself as the burglar!

The Aldwych Farces are undeniably dated, and sometimes just a bit too polite. But, they offer plenty of smiles and even the odd belly laugh, and point a clear way to the later character ensembles of Ealing and the Boulting Brothers. As an influential part of British comedy cinemas, they’re more than worth revisiting.

Forgotten British Comedies: gems from Network DVD

Network DVD is currently releasing a magnificent series on DVD, ‘THE BRITISH FILM’. These long-forgotten comedies, dramas and thrillers have been unseen in decades, leaving their stars little more than nebulous names in history books.  There’s a tendency to think of 30s British films as all stodgy, talk-heavy films, or ramshackle music hall vehicles. Well, ok, there are a fair few that fall into those categories, but certainly not all. The lack of availability has led to a lazy blanket assessment of what was actually a very diverse, often entertaining and creative bunch of films.

Best of all, Network is having a sale for 2 more days on their British Film series; you can get 40% off most titles at networkonair.com until the 7th.

I’ve partaken myself, and I’ll be reviewing some of these forgotten gems as I work through my glut of purchases.

First up, one of a series, ‘BRITISH COMEDIES OF THE 1930S’. Vol 2 features two films, ‘OH! WHAT A DUCHESS!’ (1933) and ‘IT’S A BET!’ (1935).

british-comedies-of-the-1930s-vol-2-it-s-a-bet-oh-what-a-duchess

‘OH! WHAT A DUCHESS!’ boasts an interesting pedigree. George Lacy, the star, was the most celebrated pantomime dame of the era. The film was originally trumpeted as an adaptation of Fred Karno’s famous ‘show-within-a-show’ sketch ‘Mumming Birds’, which was Charlie Chaplin’s breakthrough stage role. Enlisted to direct was silent comedian Lupino Lane, who had made his own version of ‘Mumming Birds’ as the great silent short ‘ONLY ME’.

However, little of this is left in the finished product, beyond a vague resemblance in a sequence in which Lacy accidentally wrecks a show taking place on stage. If something of a let down for the Karno enthusiast,  ‘OH! WHAT A DUCHESS!’ actually stands up pretty well on its own. Lacy is incompetent lacky to a lousy theatre troupe, but dreams of becoming an actor. The troupe are invited to dinner by a butler at one of the audiences, who really has his eye on one of the actresses. With his employers, the Duke and Duchess of Stonehenge, away, the butler declares open house, but a  visiting American film producer demands to see the house, leading to Lacy impersonating the duchess.

Some reviewers of the time, perhaps expecting something more in the Mother Goose idiom, complained that “Lacy is given not much to do”. In fact, this is a fine film, rich in the music hall tradition, and snappily directed by Lane.  The slapstick of the stage-wrecking scenes is done well, if not terribly original. Performances in the film are good, too, especially that of Lacy. He is excellent both as his bumbling, enthusiastic character, and in drag as the ‘duchess’.  It’s easy to see why his dames were considered the best; as director Lane himself observed in his book, ‘HOW TO BE A COMEDIAN’, “this type of comedy looks fairly easy, but there is more to it than you would think. […] The stance of the female species is totally different to the male”.

Lacy is a master of this. He is able to remain convincingly feminine with just the right degree of eccentricity to be funny, but not  grotesque.  As with many music-hall based films, the momentum is lost as he replicates (presumably) a stage sketch, an eccentric song and dance version of ‘The Pipes of Pan’. It’s funny stuff though,  if unnecessary to the plot, and this film as a whole is great fun. On the basis of the evidence here, it’s curious that Lacy made no more films after this one. Lane always had the ambition of making a film version of a pantomime, and he could have fitted right in.

Nevertheless, Lacy’s career can hardly be said to have fizzled out. He went on playing Mother Goose on stage for another 50 years after completing this film, making his last performance in Southsea at the age of 80.

Lacy1

 

big_10056050_0_190-303

‘IT’S A BET!’  finds itself surprisingly topical; the setup is uncannily similar to recent TV series ‘THE HUNT’. If you haven’t seen that show, it involves several member s of the public going on the lam for a month to see if they can evade capture by the police and MI5 in our world of constant surveillance. Remove the modern CCTV technology, add in dapper stage star Gene Gerrard, and you essentially have this film. Gerrard looks rather like Harold Lloyd did when he removed his glasses, and that’s actually a pretty good analogy: he’s good looking and charming, but without any particular feature to make him stand out. Our star is a journalist who bets a friend he can go into hiding for a month and not be found by anyone. Things are complicated when his car is stolen and used In a robbery, with a result that the manhunt for him becomes a national race. It’s a good story that has more excitement than the usual kind of bland light comedies made by stars like Gerrard. The story also aids the pace of the film, which moves along smoothly. It also provides opportunity for lots of nice location work, including nice scenes of St Leonard’s Pier. The finished result is a film with a sunny atmosphere and a feeling of constant motion. It lacks any standout comic set pieces, but remains engaging all the way through as an amiable time-passer.

The two films on this disc very much belie the notion that British comedies of the 1930s are all stodgy, hoary old relics. Both seem fresh and entertaining, if undeniably dated. Both come in sparkling new transfers from original elements, and are well worth taking a look at.