“It’s Turned Out Nice Again!”
1904 – 1961
It seems incredible now that, for 4 years, Britain’s #1 box office attraction was a ukulele player with, to quote one of his films, “a face like a horse and a row of teeth like a graveyard”. Yet, from 1938 until 1942, George Formby was the number 1 star in films of any genre in the U.K, and remained among the top money-makers for even longer! It’s even more implausible when you consider that Formby (born in Wigan, Lancashire) spoke with a thick provincial accent at a time when anyone failing to speak the Queen’s English was considered hopelessly hick.
Formby was technically George Formby, Jr, the son of famous music hall comedian George Formby, Sr. The elder Formby had been a famous provincial star; as his son would after him, he made much of his Northern England roots. Playing a gormless working class type, one of his trademarks became the hacking cough of a miner, accompanied by the plaintive catchphrase, “I’m coughing better tonight!” The cough was genuine, an early symptom of the Tuberculosis that killed him in 1921.
Formby Jr initially trained as a jockey, before carrying on the family trade after his father’s death. Starting out as a sketchy recreation of his father’s act, he later came to learn the ukulele and began incorporating it into his act. This proved a much greater hit, and became his unique selling point.
By the early 1930s, he had become a very different entertainer to his father. Accompanied by the bouncy rhythm of his ukulele-banjo, he became the happy-go-lucky flipside to his father’s gritty pathos; often he wore smart tuxedoes in contrast to his father’s slap-shoed miner costume. He had also taken to singing cheeky little ditties with risqué lyrics. The catchy, bouncy tunes and George’s cheeky, naughty boy-style delivery helped him to get away with murder in some racy lines:
“I wonder who’s under her balcony now,
Who’s kissing my girl?
Will she kiss him under the nose, or underneath the archway where her sweet William grows?”
As a new father, in ‘My Ukelele’:
“My heart, it filled with joy.
I could see it was a boy,
For he had a ukulele in his hand!”
Or, most famously
“She pulls her hair all down behind,
Then pulls down her – never mind
Then finally pulls down the blind,
When I’m Cleaning Windows.”
All pretty mild stuff now, but in po-faced ‘30s Britain, too near the knuckle for comfort! The last song was even banned by the BBC! Formby’s songs are his most lasting legacy today, re-recorded, pastiched and parodied continuously, often mercilessly, since his heyday.
In fact, Formby is often reduced to a bit of a running joke in British culture. Yet, he still has legions of admirers who gather to sing and play his songs. Although he undoubtedly seems a little quaint and dated today, the charisma in his singing and playing, and his seaside postcard humour, have somehow withstood changing times in a way that few other ‘30s comedians have.
Meanwhile, however, his films tend to take a backseat to his songs. They are often forgotten entirely, or dismissed as populist, lightweight fluff not worthy of attention. While it’s true that they were pretty straightforward and often formulaic films, they were slickly made comedies with an infectious sense of fun. This article is an attempt to view George Formby’s films as comedies in their own right, rather than through the lens of his musical or wider showbiz career. In fact, these films fit ‘THE LOST LAUGH’S remit very nicely indeed. Of course influenced by Formby’s heritage in music hall and Variety, they also bore a clear stylistic influence from classic silent comedy features, especially the works of Harold Lloyd or Monty Banks. The nearest contemporary comparison was probably Joe E Brown; Brown and Formby stayed in the “classic fool” mode notwithstanding film comedy’s metamorphosis into slick dialogue and screwball situations.
Yet, Formby’s first few films were far from this template. In fact, his celluloid baptism had been at a callow eleven years old, in a horse-racing drama called ‘BY THE SHORTEST OF HEADS’ (1915). Formby Jr’s showbiz connections and prowess as a jockey helped win him the role, but no more films resulted and we cannot judge now as the film appears to be lost. A gap of almost two decades followed before his next appearance, by which time he had achieved success as a variety and recording artist.
By the early 1930s, Formby was keen to get involved in film-making, but discovered that his regional success meant little to London studios. As he later recalled in 1960, “I wrote my own script with [his wife] Beryl and a chap called Arthur Mertz, and off we went ‘round the studios, but no-one had heard of George Formby. They didn’t even want to hear about him!”
Finally, he garnered some interest:
“Later, in a place called Warrington, a man called John E Blakeley came up to me and said “I’d like to make pictures with you”. I nearly grabbed his hand off!”
Mr Blakeley was John E. Blakeley, president of Britain’s first regional film company, Mancunian Films. Mancunian specialised in picking up popular Northern Variety stars and filming their sketches. Formby was making big waves in the provinces, and it was natural that Mancunian would snap him up. However, this was hardly MGM; ‘BOOTS! BOOTS!’, Formby’s first effort, had a budget of £2,000. As you might expect, it showed, right from the first day of production…
George: “So down we went to the studio.. Huh, studio! Two rooms over a garage in Albany Street! And when we wanted to start filming we’d have to press a button and it’d ring a bell downstairs. Then the men would stop working so we could film!”
George’s summary of the finished film was wonderfully offhand: “Ooh, it was a lousy picture!” In a cinematic sense, he was absolutely right; ‘BOOTS BOOTS’ is a patchwork of badly filmed and edited scenes where cardboard sets rattle and unknown actors stumble about, mumbling stilted dialogue. On another level, however, it is absolutely fascinating as a cultural artefact. As little more than a series of sketches tied together by a loose plot about a show in a hotel, it gives us a good idea of what George was up to on stage at the time. Secondly, we can see that the on-screen charisma and talent are shining through this early in George’s film career. To save money (and probably to keep him away from leading ladies), George’s legendarily domineering wife Beryl appears as his romantic interest. There is a great chemistry between them, and plenty of songs (plus some tap dance from Beryl) that pull the film above its lowly status. George’s star potential and reputation ensured that the film packed out box offices across the north of England. The success of the similar follow-up, ‘OFF THE DOLE’, was pretty much guaranteed.
In ‘BOOTS, BOOTS’ and ‘OFF THE DOLE’, Formby is far from the character he would eventually play. Much like the early Stan Laurel, he is cocky, almost aggressive. In ‘BOOTS, BOOTS’, he slaps about a midget co-worker, and mocks a stereotypically limp-wristed character, while OFF THE DOLE sees him as a workshy layabout haranguing the superiors who try to make him find a job. He even banters with a policeman, mimicking his bobbing movements. This self assured George, cocking-the-snook at authority and the middle classes, is firmly in the mould of the Northern music hall raconteur. He is much closer to his father, or the anarchic Frank Randle, than the pleasant everyman he would come to portray. While this was lapped up by regional audiences, it was hardly the key to nationwide success.
Basil Dean, from Associated Talking Pictures (later Ealing Studios), recognised the box office potential of Formby and proposed a contract. However, Dean also recognised that, to transfer to nationwide success, there would have to be changes. To be accepted outside the provinces, a working class northern comedian had to be sympathetic rather than a non-conformist threat to polite society. The policeman-baiting and midget-slapping were out, doggedly trying to achieve goals through hard work was in. The only threats the new George character posed were through his naïve bumbling and slapstick carelessness. He would also be made more sympathetic through the provision of a more glamorous leading lady to moon over; this would invariably be an impossibly upper class girl called Mary or Anne. Out went the baggy pants costume, and he began dressing more like a respectable white collar worker. Finally, the biggest obstacle to acceptance in Middle England were the nudge-nudge, wink-wink aspects of his character, associated with the innuendos of his songs. Of course, George would still sing his songs in the films, but his character at ATP was far from the Northern lothario of his songs like ‘The Lancashire Toreador’ or ‘The Window Cleaner’; instead he was bashful, naïve and totally in awe of girls. A parallel might be made with Harold Lloyd’s character in ‘GIRL SHY’. In that film, Harold writes a book about the ways to woo women and recalls his many fictional affairs, although in actuality he is cripplingly shy. George’s risqué songs perhaps fit into his new character best if thought of in this way, an outlet for the frustrations of a virginal young man unable to garner the confidence with women that he dreams of. As his song ‘I DON’T LIKE’, put it:
“I’ve never loved a girl before,I’d take you home and lock the door, but I don’t like!”
In fact, George would often be placed in situations where he was improbably seduced, or caught in ladies’ bedrooms, his panic contrasting comically with the sly bravado of his songs. In this way, the risqué elements of his persona and songs were skilfully subverted to become harmless comic fantasy, George’s default mode now naïve clumsiness and bashfulness.
Awkwardness became a Formby specialty. Not just in sexual matters, either; he was hilariously awkward at, well, everything! The Formby comic specialty became a rising panic akin to a distressed hen seeing a fox, enabling him to yell his catchphrase, “Ooooh, Mother!”
‘NO LIMIT!’ was his first film for ATP, and shows the Dean formula being implemented for the first time. To smooth the transition, the film has a provincial setting and story written by Northern author Walter Greenwood, who had just seen success with the realist novel ‘LOVE ON THE DOLE’. Greenwood came up with a realistic story, with chimney sweep George dreaming of success as a motorcyclist in the Isle of Man’s TT races. While Greenwood provided the familiar elements for George’s northern audiences, ATP added the polish to make the film a wider success, including casting established comedienne Florence Desmond* as his leading lady. Brought in to direct was silent comedian Monty Banks. Banks was an ideal fit for the Lloyd-inspired comedy vehicle, having made a run of his own Lloyd-esque silent comedies matching laughs with thrills. The most famous of these was ‘PLAY SAFE’ (1927), with an epic train chase. Banks’ knack with speed and thrills would be crucial to this motorbiking film.
George is intent on taking his own homemade bike “The Shuttleworth Snap” to the races, but dreams of being sponsored by the Rainbow Motorbike company. On the Manx Ferry, George saves the life of Florrie (Desmond), a secretary for the Rainbow company who is involved with boorish biker Tyldesley (Jack Hobbs). In the race trials, George’s throttle breaks, causing him to ride faster and faster and into a giant crash. By this fluke, he breaks speed records, and while he recuperates, Florrie is able to persuade her boss to give him a Rainbow contract. However, the crash has left George with a motorbike phobia, and he announces that he will never get on a bike again.
Meanwhile, Tyldesley has been replaced by George and vows revenge. He signs with a rival company, and sets about conning George into accepting a bribe not to ride. Now the comedy begins picking up speed, as George sets about dodging the Rainbow boss wanting him to ride, the hoods wanting him to smash up his bike, his landlady pestering for the rent, and his newly arrived mother and Grandfather! Eventually, the truth comes out, and George faces his fears for the love of Florrie, arriving at the race track just in time to begin.
The climactic race sequences are the highlight of NO LIMIT, filmed on location around the TT races track. Banks’ direction injects speed and thrills into the proceedings, as well as an array of gags. The results are excellent, a genuinely exciting finale to the film, showing the influence of Banks as well as Harold Lloyd. Motorbikes were a genuine passion of Formby’s, and he does much of the stunt riding himself, further adding to the effectiveness.
The sunny atmosphere and chemistry in the film are even more remarkable considering that Formby and Desmond loathed each other, and Beryl Formby allegedly alienated everyone on the film with her domineering ways. Nevertheless, NO LIMIT!’ broke records and the team of Formby, Desmond and Banks was reassembled for a follow-up.
‘KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE’ abandoned the speed and thrills of motorcycle chases for out-and-out comedy. An episodic structure equally reminiscent of silent comedies took its place, in this adaptation of Ilf and Petrov’s Russian play, ‘THE TWELVE CHAIRS’. George’s Aunt leaves a fortune sewn into one of a set of 6 dining chairs to avoid her money-grabbing relatives getting their hands on it. As George is the only relative not to have scrounged money from her, she leaves him a note to tip him off. Unfortunately, the chairs have been sent for auction and George does not have the money to buy the set. When the set is split, he must go chasing after each chair, trying to examine its contents. Gormless George seeks help about his plight, attracting conman Gus McNaughton to “help” him, and his Aunt’s lawyer (a young Alastair Sim) to try and beat him to it. Along the way he also picks up Florence Desmond and her orphaned niece (Binkie Stewart).
The episodic structure allowed plenty of opportunities for some great character actors to stand up and play their part, adding to the fun. Gus McNaughton plays the first of several similar roles as an opportunist who befriends George; Alastair Sim is wonderful as the slimeball lawyer; Hal Gordon essays a drunken sailor, and music hall legend Harry Tate a raucous auctioneer.
The comedy scenes themselves are fast-moving and action-packed. Poor George suffers here perhaps more than in any other film he made! Variously, he is chased by a matronly nurse who is trying to undress him, attacked by a vicious duck as part of a magician’s act, mauled by a jealous husband and ends up carrying a goat on a bus! All the while, his conman friend Gus is squeezing in for a greater percentage of his fortune, to George’s unwitting pleasure. His gleeful innocence in this film is almost Langdonesque, as he is abused at every twist and turn. The contrast between this and the harsh opportunism of those around him, as well as the strong cast, make for some great comedy and ‘KEEP YOUR SEATS, PLEASE’ is one of Formby’s funniest.
Despite the success of this vehicle, the template was changed for his next vehicle; firstly, there was a change of personnel. Formby was now a big enough success to do without Desmond, and both of them were happy to part company. Director Monty Banks was also out, allegedly due to his hatred of Beryl Formby and her domineering ways. His replacement was the affable American William Beaudine, also a veteran of silent comedy. After the manic fantasy of ‘KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE’, Beaudine’s ‘FEATHER YOUR NEST’ is a more down-to-earth domestic comedy, returning to the humble settings of ‘NO LIMIT’. The story of young mortgage holders struggling to get by is somewhat flat, and Beaudine’s journeyman direction doesn’t really help matters; FEATHER YOUR NEST remains a lesser Formby effort. George does, however, get to sing one of his signature songs, ‘LEANING ON A LAMPPOST’. Ironically, though, he only gets to sing it second-hand in the film, to cover up for his smashing a gramophone recording of the song by a big star.
Up until now, there had been some experimentation with finding a format that suited George’s character. Results had been from middling to excellent, but a strong, consistent theme emerged with the appointment of a new director. Anthony Kimmins would be responsible for streamlining the Formby films into a formula that smashed box office records. These were pleasant, if unremarkable, love triangle stories, usually factoring in a current craze, often a sport, for George to succeed at against adversity. Of course, he also won the girl at the fade-out, uttering his other catchphrase, “Turned Out Nice Again, hasn’t it?”. Along the way, there was room for George’s songs, the ukulele suddenly appearing in ever more contrived circumstances. As George said, “I always felt the films came to a halt for the songs, then we could get back on with the fun!”. As randomly inserted as they were, the songs of course add greatly to the films’ appeal.
Although the stories wouldn’t win any Oscars for originality, the ingredients of the films make them somewhat greater than the sum of their parts. Kimmins’ direction was snappy, especially in the quirkily made ‘KEEP FIT’, which abounds in curious camera angles and cute linking devices between scenes. Kimmins’ run of 5 films remain some of George’s freshest, most fun films, and ‘KEEP FIT’ is typical of the template. George is a lowly barber’s assistant in love with a manicurist (Kay Walsh, another of his impossibly upper class leading ladies). Kay is more interested in burly, bullying Hector Kent from the sporting department, denizen of the keep fit movement. George bemoans his lack of strength in the song ‘BICEPS, MUSCLES AND BRAWN’, but his friend Ernie encourages him to enter the keep fit trials. George fails totally, and is snapped by a newspaper photographer; his exhausted, slack shouldered profile becomes the ‘BEFORE’ image to Kent’s barrel-chested ‘AFTER’ photo on a poster for the keep fit campaign. However, as Kent mocks George by the poster, George accidentally knocks him out. A rival newspaper photographer seizes his chance, and snaps the reversed image. The two newspapers back a grudge match in the boxing ring between George and Kent, and George begins training. Despite various setbacks, including a failed attempt to impress Kay as a hero, and being framed in a robbery by Kent, George emerges triumphant in the ring.
Despite the various plot contrivances and complications, KEEP FIT was essentially a well-made, humorous love triangle story. With slight adaptation, it became the model for ‘I SEE ICE’; Here, George is a photographer’s assistant who is secretly working on his own spy camera. He meets Kay Walsh again, but she is more interested in her burly ice skating partner (Cyril Ritchard). When George is sacked, Kay persuades Cyril to take him on as their prop man, but George makes a mess of the whole thing. George takes photos of Kay and attempts to sell them to a newspaper man (Garry Marsh, who became a regular Formby foil). However, Marsh thinks he is trying to blackmail him, as he appears with the editor’s wife in the background of one of them! After more complications, George ends up facing (and defeating) Cyril in an ice hockey match.
‘IT’S IN THE AIR’ is the first of several Formby comedies to feature him in the services. He accidentally finds himself stuck in a borrowed uniform at an aerodrome, and ends up aboard an aeroplane test flight. Jam-packed with incident and amusing characters, it also benefits from Kimmins’ effective direction and some tight editing. The “comedian-let-loose-in-an-aeroplane” finale has always been one of my least favourite aspects of old comedies, but the example here is actually pretty good, intercutting swiftly between George’s peril, some genuine aerial shots and scenes on the ground, rather than dwelling on back projection. Along the way, there are some excellent gags involving George’s run-ins with his beleaguered Sergeant Major. There is an especially good sequence integrating his songs into the action for a change; George has been caught singing his mocking character assassination song ’OUR SERGEANT MAJOR’. When the furious Sergeant calls before the commanders to repeat the song, George thinks on his feet and changes the words to be a glowing character reference, leaving the sergeant red-faced.
‘COME ON GEORGE’ is essentially ‘NO LIMIT’, with a horse substituted for the motorcycle, giving Formby the chance to show off his considerable real life jockey skills. Although a lesser effort overall, it is noticeable for giving Formby a brief moment to play a different variation on his character. As in the earlier film, he has been frightened out of racing, and is taken to a therapist to cure him. This works rather too well, and soon he is strutting around with his chest puffed up, on some precarious scaffolding, proclaiming “In the rational human mind, there is no such thing as fear!”. His new found fearlessness extends to arguing with a policeman and smashing window panes with a hammer! It only lasts for a few minutes, but briefly we see that Formby was capable of much more than mere comic gormlessness. In fact, his performing skill is often taken for granted. George always showed great verve and his timing remained excellent. These facets of his performing skill tend to be overlooked when assessing his films.
Another facet similarly overlooked is his physical ability. The sporting plots of his films not only gave interest by following current crazes, but also gave George the chance to do some great stunts in exciting climactic scenes. Again in common with the silent clowns, he insisted on doing risky stunts himself. Though these weren’t quite the extremes Keaton and Lloyd went to, he takes some tricky pratfalls from horses, motorbikes and down stairs across his film career. As John Fisher put it, “apart from Harry Langdon, no other performer so unathletic in appearance proved in fact to be so spry”.
Continuing the Langdon reference, the undervaluing of Formby is concomitant with what we might term ‘Harry Langdon Syndrome’, namely people being unable to distinguish between the performer and the performance. Just as Langdon has been viewed as a naïve innocent incapable of managing his own destiny, so too the real Formby is often considered to be the exact goofy Northern halfwit he played in his films. This is unfair. After all, we don’t assume that Chaplin really was a tramp, that Stan Laurel cried all the time, or that Snub Pollard had a fetish for ridiculous facial hair! It’s hard to believe that Formby could function in the high pressure worlds of variety, recording studio and film studio simultaneously if he was a directionless goofball.
Of course George, like many great comics, did use some elements of himself in his character; the homespun, unpretentious nature, or elements of his Northern upbringing, for instance. This is only comparable to W.C Fields presenting a caricatured view of his dipsomaniac, cynical side, or Tony Hancock’s ingrained British pessimism fuelling his comedy. Just as Chaplin used his roots on the streets of London to form the backdrop for his tramp, so Formby played on his upbringing amongst the smoke stacks and fore ale bars of the industrial North. While I’m not claiming that Formby was in any way the creative equal of these three, he was a talented enough individual to take aspects of himself and exaggerate them for comic effect. George had a down-to-earth view of life, happily seeing himself as “a bit daft”, and later saying “I wasn’t much good but I had something the public seemed to want.” In fact, the evidence for the real George Formby points to a canny and hard-nosed individual, not a helpless simpleton. Not wanting to be carried on his father’s coat tails, he had doggedly worked his way up the showbiz ladder under his birth name George Hoy. Originally, he only learned his signature ukulele for a bet, and he was certainly tight with his pennies, pulling the strings on deals he wanted. Moreover, his live appearances reveal him playing the audience like a Stradivarius. This is especially true of his farewell appearance on ‘THE FRIDAY SHOW’, downplaying his considerable achievements to fit the ‘Gormless George’ image and win the audience’s sympathy. How much of George’s perceived gormlessness was modesty, and how much was playing up to a popular image?
Anyway, off the soapbox and back to the films! 1939’s TROUBLE BREWING is maybe the best of all the Kimmins films. It has a strong cast, good plot, a measure of suspense and some great, original gags. George’s understated athleticism is showcased beautifully in the opening gag: called down from the top of a flight of stairs, George swings his legs over the railings, sliding down gracefully, his motion slowed only by the open newspaper of a man reading on the bottom stair, which George whisks away as he passes.
The whole film is full of great set-pieces, reminiscent in style of ’KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE’. Further echoing the earlier film is the presence of Gus MacNaughton, revived as George’s partner. The pair are amateur detectives on the trail of some money forgers. George (“Sherlock Holmes and Sexton Blake rolled into one!”) has invented a fingerprint detector, and is determined to prove its use. After adventures marking and trying to spy on a variety of suspects, the pair stumble on the real culprits, whose operation is masked by a brewery. The final scenes are a magnificent slapstick free-for-all around said brewery, ending with George embracing Googie Withers in a giant vat of beer. This is one of the rare occasions he actually got to kiss a leading lady, and Mrs Formby apparently hit the roof!
‘TROUBLE BREWING’ is typical of George’s carefree and (in this case, literally) frothy 30’s vehicles. However, the storm clouds of war were brewing and The outbreak of WW2 would prove pivotal to George’s career. Changes were afoot in his film career, too. Anthony Kimmins was called up for service in the Navy and George required a new director. Britain’s number 1 comedy director by this time was Marcel Varnel, fresh from a run of brilliant comedies with Will Hay and the Crazy Gang. Varnel’s first film with George, ‘LET GEORGE DO IT’ is still generally regarded as his best. Significantly, this first wartime Formby film takes its inspiration from the conflict, and is a tale of espionage and saboteurs.
‘LET GEORGE DO IT’ begins in the offices of MI5; it seems that the orchestra leader Mendez (Garry Marsh) is sending out some sort of code to U-boats in his broadcasts from Bergen. British agent Bill Norman is sent to infiltrate his orchestra posing as a ukulele player, and is told he will be briefed and given tickets at Dover Docks. We move to Dover station, in the blackout. The ‘Dinky Do’s’ concert party, including Our George, are also awaiting briefing, for an engagement in Blackpool. Of course, there is confusion in the darkness, and George ends up on his way to Bergen, expecting to see Blackpool! When he gets there, beautiful agent Phyllis Calvert persuades the reluctant George to stay, and soon he is infiltrating the hidden code, which is cleverly relayed by musical tempos and flourishes hidden in the broadcasts. The villainous Mendez gets wise to George, and drugs him with a truth serum to get a confession out of him. This leads into a fantastically lysergic dream sequence, as George hallucinates a journey to Berlin via hot air balloon to personally plant a knuckle sandwich on the Führer!
Waking up, he finds that Mary has been recalled and left for the troop ship heading back to England; she has left a note for George to join her. George, however, is aware that Mendez is planning to have the Macauley blown up in his next broadcast. Stowing away in a U-boat, he tries to intermittently sabotage the U-boat whilst sending distress signals on the radio. Unfortunately, the only signal he can receive on his wireless is a radio station blasting out Opera music, giving away his position. Ultimately, he gets through to Mary, alerting her of the U-boat’s position and saving the day. George, however, manages to get locked inside one of the torpedo tubes. The captured Mendez tries to enact one last revenge and fires the torpedo tube; George hurtles through the air, landing in an awning on the ship and falling into Mary’s arms. Turned out nice again!
‘LET GEORGE DO IT’ is action packed. Although there is plenty of story to contend with, there is also room for a variety of comic and musical set pieces, all of which fit perfectly and never seem superfluous. Early on we have fun scenes on-board ship, dealing with George’s seasickness and accidental intrusion into a lady’s cabin. Later on, we have a superbly choreographed sequence of just-missed encounters as George sneaks around Mendez’s room looking for his secret code. He manages to photograph it, but drops his camera out of the window and through the skylight of a bakery. This leads to a great sequence wherein George searches for the camera in the bakery, ending up being mixed in with the vat of the dough.
Even the normally arbitrary musical numbers slot neatly into the plot. George has a reason to sing and play as part of Mendez’s band, and gets to perform some of his very best songs. Special mention needs to go to his performance of ‘OH DON’T THE WIND BLOW COLD’, which comes at the point where Mendez has rumbled him. George is trying to edge his way towards the exit doors of the theatre while playing, but as he reaches each exit point, Mendez has arranged for brass players to surprise him with a musical flourish, blocking his way. Cornered on the theatre’s balcony, he takes a risky leap onto a chandelier that crashes to the floor at the song’s close, allowing his to escape in the chaos. This scene masterfully mixes musical interlude with narrative, and George’s timing is spot-on to arrive at each door in time for the conclusion of each verse.
In fact, throughout the film, Formby’s performance is just right. He matches his gormless cheer with convincingly portrayed fear, and ultimately determination, not to mention some risky stunting along the way. This is the first film of his career to pit his character against more than suburban villains and love rats. The peril George faces is very real, making his setbacks and triumph pack more of a punch. The move from happy-go-lucky pre-war capers to a scenario filled with real danger only heightens the contrast of George versus hostile world and makes him more appealing, a parallel to what the real Formby was undergoing at the time. A very potent moment in ‘LET GEORGE DO IT’ occurs when he is discovered on the U-boat. Rather than shouting ‘OOH Mother!” and running, George defiantly grins at his enemy with the greeting ‘Turned out nice again hasn’t it?” and elects to fight. Suddenly, that giant cheery, tooth-filled grin was a giant two-fingers to the Nazis’ attempts to destroy hope, and he was transformed from a lightweight jester to a national icon, an embodiment of his song ’COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS AND SMILE’. This was echoed in the real Formby’s equally perilous wartime exploits, fearlessly entertaining troops on the front lines, or folks at home sheltering in the bowels of the London Underground. The dark days of the Blitz were made that bit more bearable by George’s homespun optimism, and it is arguably this that secured his place as national treasure more than any of his films or songs.
While Formby busied himself with boosting morale, preparations were underway for his next film. Unfortunately, Marcel Varnel was unavailable for SPARE A COPPER. His replacement was John Paddy Carstairs, who later helmed the film career of Formby’s successor, Norman Wisdom. Carstairs was a poor substitute indeed for experienced comedy director Varnel, or even for Anthony Kimmins. A giant step backwards from the sparkling ‘LET GEORGE DO IT’, ‘SPARE A COPPER’ is riddled with some of the most inept expositions and terribly faked stunts in all of Formby’s films. Furthermore, the story of reserve policeman Formby thwarting saboteurs was similar to the earlier film, but without situations or directorial flair to match, it compares very badly.
Happily, Varnel returned for the next film. Perhaps realising that the Formby films ran the risk of becoming formulaic, the new effort was based on an existing play with a story not tailor-made to the innocent Formby character. In a change of direction, it also made no mention of the ongoing hostilities. ‘AS YOU ARE’ was a play about the Northern textile industries, and specifically, the micro-drama of a newly wed couple playing out against that background. With some adaptation and a rechristening with his catchphrase, it became TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN.
Although not his funniest comedy, this might just be Formby’s best overall film. Much less a broad comedy, it is a well-directed, down-to-earth realist piece, allowing George to flesh out his character. He has officially grown up, having won the girl already and married her in the opening reel, and soon after getting a promotion at work. His relationship with his wife Lydia (Peggy Bryan) is much more fleshed out too, a genuinely loving relationship with ups and downs, rather than the bland hero worship usually afforded his leading ladies. There’s less slapstick and far-fetched plot contrivance in this tale of millworker George’s attempts to find a new yarn for the mill, whilst trying to juggle his wife and mother-in-law’s squabbling and keep up his furniture payments, not to mention coping with his uncle’s troublesome pigeons! More than any of George’s films for Ealing, this points to the direction the studio was taking towards its later famous comedies. Indeed, there is more than a hint of 1951’s ‘THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT’ in that textile-based plot. It would be interesting to see the direction that Ealing and Formby might have continued to take together, but this turned out to be his last film for the studio.
George now signed a 5 year contract with Columbia-British. These later films have been somewhat lesser seen than the ATP/Ealing efforts, and have tended to get a pretty bad rap. While, as a group, it’s true they don’t match up in quality, the blanket assessment is hardly fair. Though they lack the freshness and exuberance of his earlier work, there are some very interesting and funny films amongst George’s seven efforts for the studio. Marcel Varnel was on hand too, to add his directorial polish.
Part of the problem was that the Formby formula was beginning to grow stale. Accordingly, the Columbia films that followed the tried and true “Gormless George gets the girl” plots fell flat. ‘MUCH TOO SHY’ has some interesting ideas, especially teaming George with diminutive comedian Jimmy Clitheroe, but it ultimately lacks something. ‘BELL BOTTOM GEORGE’ is ok, but the service comedy had been done before and better at Ealing.
Perhaps realising that things were in need of a shake up, Columbia alternated the warmed over plots with some new ideas, to varying degrees of success. ‘SOUTH AMERICAN GEORGE’, Formby’s first Columbia, has him in a dual role; he plays his normal character and, implausibly, a South American Opera singer! This was not a successful experiment, however, being overlong and short of genuine fun. ‘I DIDN’T DO IT’ is a surprisingly dark story of a boarding house murder, with George planted as suspect number one. It’s a slickly made film, and as an attempt to put George in a new genre, works quite well. However, while it is a good whodunit, there isn’t a whole lot of comedy to be had.
There were three of the Columbia films that did successfully pull off some new ideas, reaching close to the high standards of his earlier work. Significantly, they went less for gimmicky plots than ones adapted to an adjusted George screen presence, if not character. As we have seen, buoyed on by that right hook to Herr Hitler, Wartime was transforming him from a gormless clown into a folk hero and voice of the common man. The most effective later films embraced this rather than stifling his old naïve character in warmed-over 1938 films. This unifying power is seen in ‘HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER’, and also in ‘GET CRACKING’.
‘HE SNOOPS TO CONQUER’ for years had a poor reputation, partly down to existing only in splicey, Dutch-subtitled prints. A superior copy has recently been released to DVD. It also had a topical bent, being concerned with the British new towns scheme of the 1940s. A George Formby comedy about town planning doesn’t exactly sound like a riot, but this is actually a really fun story of a little man up against bureaucracy.
George is a dogsbody for an indifferent town council who are more interested in their own vested interests than improving conditions for the many slum-dwelling residents. To pay lip service to public demand, George is ordered to carry out a housing survey, the results he is told to destroy when they incriminate the council. In disposing of them, he accidentally litters the papers everywhere, causing the angry townsfolk to turn on him when they discover they are being ignored. George takes refuge in the house of eccentric recluse inventor Sir Timothy Strawbridge (the wonderful character actor Robertson Hare). After exploring the bizarre inventions, George is persuaded by Sir Timothy’s daughter to stand as mayor, and he ultimately wins over the town, ensuring that new houses are built.
With many entertaining scenes and a compelling story of little people winning through, ‘HE SNOOPS…’ is a most watchable effort, wholly undeserving of its negative reputation.
‘GET CRACKING’ is something of a forerunner of the beloved sitcom ‘DAD’S ARMY’, following as it does the misadventures of George in the home guard. This is probably the most accurate depiction pf the wartime Formby on film. While still prone to slapstick calamities, he is from the outset more self-assured and confident; he already has the girl at the outset of the film, and has worked his way up to being a corporal. He is responsible enough to be looking after an evacuee and is even resourceful enough to be designing his own home-made tank!
The film kicks off with an interesting sequence, showcasing this new, assured George. A po-faced, BBC-voiced narrator intones about the dark days of the Second World War, in what seems to be a typical example of war film exposition. As the narration goes on to introduce Minor Wallop’s home guard, however, it becomes apparent that this is not the case at all; George begins to break the fourth wall and banter with the narrator, including references to several Formby songs. The narrator eventually tells George that he’s in for a delivery of new uniforms; when George asks how he knows, the narrator replies that he is reading the script! He then goes on to exert his unseen power by freezing the frame of film when the platoon makes a dash for their new outfits. Such self-referential moments are a surprise indeed, belonging more to The Goons, or later hip 60’s comedies like ‘HELP!’ or ‘THE MONKEES’ than an unfashionable little Formby film.
While the rest of the film is more conventional, it moves smoothly, the rivalries between George’s home guard and that of the next village making for some good, human comedy. The comically futile DIY aspects of the Home Guard, later such a crucial part of DAD’S ARMY, are here too. There is a private with a domineering mother, platoon members are absent from parade because they are at the pictures, and there is this classic exchange between George and Irene Handl:
GEORGE: We need your Ben here on Wednesday! We’re fighting the invasion!
IRENE: What, with two of you?
GEORGE (exasperated): No, there’ll be six of us!
Formby’s more assured, almost cocky demeanour also adds greatly to the realistic feel of the film, making it one of the best of his later efforts.
A similar direction proved profitable in ‘GEORGE IN CIVVY STREET’. This was the last, and in many ways the best, of George’s Columbia films. As a soldier returning from the war, he is again a more mature, assured man, far from the helpless, gormless young man of the ‘30s. Returning to his old family pub The Unicorn with pickpocket Army buddy Fingers (Ronald Shiner), he finds that it is gone to rack and ruin. Not only that, but George’s only remaining customer is an artist who pays for his beer with paintings. It seems that rival pub The Lion is taking all the business. The Lion was formerly owned by George’s sweetheart, but is being controlled by some shady characters. A war develops between the two pubs, with some dastardly plots to spike the beer and put George out of business. All ends happily when the crooks are thwarted, and the artists’ paintings are proclaimed masterpieces, allowing George to sell them for a small fortune.
Deftly directed by Marcel Varnel, this film again tried some new ideas. Drifting off to sleep whilst reading ‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’, George’s slumbers lead him into a bizarre dream where the characters in the film become characters from Wonderland. After singing ‘THE MAD MARCH HARE’, George watches as the Unicorn symbolically tackles a lion in a boxing ring, knocking it cold as George comes to. Hated by some Formby fans, I personally find this sequence wonderfully kooky, and a refreshing attempt to try something different. The bizarre sight of George dressed in a hare costume is worth the price of admission alone! What a shame that original plans to film this sequence in Technicolor never came about.
‘GEORGE IN CIVVY STREET’ had moved some distance from the simple love triangle plots of his earlier, silent comedy-based films. It’s parochial plotline of a quirky little business up against villainous competition from modernising forces is at once nostalgic, yet also forward-looking to a new era of Britsh cinema. Similar plotlines would fuel some of the most beloved Ealing comedies, such as ’THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT’ and ’THE MAGGIE’. ‘CIVVY STREET’ signalled the almost completed transformation of Brtish films from a silent comedy influence to the nascent Ealing style. Star comedies were now becoming a thing of the past in Britain. Will Hay, Jack Hulbert and Max Miller had retired from films and Tommy Trinder’s celluloid career was winding down. Now the trend moved toward ensemble comedies with more subtle comic types based in realism. Formby now dropped from being the number 1 star as audiences tried to put the war years behind them. Ability-wise, there’s no reason why Formby couldn’t have adapted to the new style of films, having proved his down-to-earth charm in films like ‘TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN’ and ‘GEORGE IN CIVVY STREET’. The slapstick and songs would have probably needed phasing out, but it’s easy to imagine him in avuncular comic supporting roles, especially as he got older and paunchier.
However, this would have been a clear step down, and Formby always stubbornly clung to his own path. Showing signs of career slippage in films, he preferred to jump ship than carry on to lesser budgets. Besides which, the end of wartime travel restrictions now allowed him to play to rapturous audiences around the commonwealth. He spent the next few years touring Canada, Australia and South Africa, the latter of which caused controversy as he spoke out against apartheid and played illegal concerts to all-black audiences.
In these years, there were tentative plans for a return to the screen, most intriguingly in an unnamed Swedish project. According to David Bret’s Formby biography, director Alf Sjöberg, who had recently made the drama FRÖKEN JULIE, had picked up on Formby’s likeness to the silent clowns and traditional tragicomic mimes. He proposed a film that would break the Formby formula, presenting him in an almost completely silent role, allowing him to showcase his deeper talent. Such a change of pace would have proved a fascinating chance for Formby to prove his colours, but sadly the film never was made. Bret alleges that Sjöberg’s desire for a closed set alienated the omnipresent Beryl Formby, but whether this is true or not remains unknown. It’s a great shame that we never got to see Formby tackle a deeper role of this kind. Co-star Irene Handl once expressed the belief that Formby had “something very delicate, like a very fragile glass” inside him, a magical talent that needed coaxing out. The Danish project could have been just the thing to achieve this, but we can only wonder now.
There were still successes to be had, most notably a West End stage show, ‘ZIP GOES A MILLION,’ Less far out, this was based on popular standard ‘BREWSTER’S MILLIONS’ adapted into an ideal vehicle for the traditional Formby character. This was a smash hit throughout 1951, and it’s likely that a film version could have been made, had George not suffered the first of several heart attacks. He continued to perform on TV and in summer shows for the next few years, but his best years were now behind him. He made what he intended to be his farewell appearance on ‘THE FRIDAY SHOW’ in December 1960. In it, he held the audience captive with songs, stories, home truths and jokes, opening up with unprecedented honesty about his life. In many ways, this was a greater performance than any of his films, and is actually a good way to begin your introduction to George Formby if you’re unfamiliar with his work.
Sadly, Formby was not to get the retirement he wanted; he died 3 short months later, on 6th March 1961, aged just 56. Yet the songs are still sung, and the films still remain. Sure, they were often formulaic, light on plot and lacking technical brilliance. Yet, there is a down-to-earth charm about them, and Formby’s performances are much better than he is given credit for. The missing link between silent comedy and Ealing comedy, the Formby comedies exude the warmth and charm of a bygone era. It is almost obligatory to end a George Formby article with his catchphrase. Maybe it’s a cliché, but the sense of infectious fun he created, and the warmth he still leaves behind, make it somehow still seem appropriate. Turned out nice again, hasn’t it?