DVD review: Captain Bill (1935

Another rare British comedy released by Network DVD…

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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.

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