It's been a while since I last tackled a Will Hay film and I can't say I was optimistic. Nevertheless I braved my DVD player and despite early impressions, ended up laughing a lot.
It took me about forty minutes to start liking the film, though. What's interesting about these Will Hay movies is how busy their stories often are. You'll have a promising comic scenario that could have made an excellent film... and they'll do it in fifteen minutes, then go on to another one. Hollywood today worships at Robert McKee's altar and the three-act movie, but Convict 99 must have a good half a dozen acts. Each one brings a major change in direction for the film. I don't remember noticing that with all of them, but that's what saves the film here since the later acts are significantly stronger than the early ones.
The film starts with Dr Benjamin Twist being fired from his job as headmaster at St. Michaels' School. This surprised me in itself. Will Hay played the same character in all his films anyway, a seedy incompetent in an undeserved position of authority, but for once this is being acknowledged. The Dr Benjamin Twist of Convict 99 is the same one we saw in Good Morning, Boys
the previous year, so maybe it'll be him again in Hey! Hey! USA
(1938). Anyway, Hay's looking for a job, but not hard enough for the liking of his sister-in-law, upon whose hospitality he's imposed himself. He doesn't want to accept anything with a salary lower than what he's accustomed to.
Needless to say, he soon finds himself appointed to a post he's awesomely ill-suited to. In this case it's that of prison governor. He'd have renounced it immediately if it weren't for the money, although it'll take him a good while to have even that much of a clue. You see, this time he doesn't get the job through deception or friends in the right places, but through a genuine misunderstanding. They think he's some big tough Australian, whose name also happens to be Benjamin. Perhaps surprisingly, this was the film's biggest sticking point for me. No one's being cruel or callous, but even so the real chap gets sent away with a flea in his ear, despite having come all the way for Australia for the sake of this job and with nothing for him here but to return. That's another example of the compassion bypass you'll sometimes see in Will Hay films and for me it's one of the biggest reasons why his oeuvre doesn't get much exposure today.
Anyway, the film's first half follows up on this with some merry hi-jinks, with us not being at all sure what Hay's standing is going to be at Blakedown Prison. For a while they think he's a prisoner. At first I assumed that would be the status quo for the whole film and wasn't at all upset, the only downside being that Hay's incarceration hadn't come about through due process of law. I can't fault the script's invention, but I don't really warm to Hay as a person and there wasn't much in the set-up to keep me on the edge of my seat. When he was trying to break out of prison with the help of Jerry the Mole (Moore Marriott), I was hoping the warders would catch them.
Forty minutes in, though, the film took flight. The joke this time isn't just that Hay's seedy and untrustworthy, but that he thinks like a schoolteacher. He calls the inmates "boys" and treats them exactly as he did his pupils at St Michaels. There's a scene late in the film that had me absolutely howling. The prisoners have managed to organise a ball at Blakedown, with everyone looking like toffs and even some women present with their jewels. No, really. Anyway, the inevitable happens and Hay's reaction is priceless. "Oh no, there's nobody here who'd steal anything." The truth soon dawns on even him, whereupon he makes a public announcement as if this were a school assembly. "I've got some very bad news for you. We have a thief in our midst."
He trusts the "boys". He establishes a committee for the better running of the prison, which needless to say walks all over him. I think the film started winning me over when I saw the tea trolley coming past with a choice of tea, coffee and cocoa.
What's interesting about all this is that there was no existing tradition of English prison films for Hay to spoof. It's an American genre and the film does it reasonably well, although I was surprised to see that inmates get a cell to themselves. No bunkbeds or cellmates in Blakedown. Our introduction to the prison is with a riot and some brutal warders, although needless to say Hay will soon do something about that. As a prison movie it's a rather good one, with a fascinating comic twist and some moderately hard-edged inmates. It's only Hay's regular co-stars Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt who let the side down, each being about as threatening as a runaway hamster. You can't accuse Marriott of not hamming it up something rotten, though.
Blakedown's less menacing than some of Hay's schools were, mind you.
Will Hay's merely dodgy in this one, which is nice. He does help the inmates organise a prison break and a bank job, but it's all in a good cause. He didn't even lie or cheat to get the job, although he does go along with the misunderstanding on seeing that it's worth two grand a year. This opens him up to blackmail, which he lets himself be done for. This brings about more comic scenarios.
There are a couple of "did that just happen?" moments, though. The first involves a Chinese stereotype walking past for no reason to talk gibberish, then the other involves Hay calling Marriott a "toothless old faggot". Well, it is 1938.
If nothing else, the remake sounds impressive. Will Hay films often got remade in later decades, sometimes more than once, but in 1960 this one became a Peter Sellers film called Two Way Stretch
, co-starring the likes of Beryl Reid and Bernard Cribbins. I'm thinking of buying it.
This must be one of the more impressively twisty comedies I've seen. The script just keeps building and building, until by the end you've got Will Hay standing on guard during the bank job as he advises a real policeman to go straight and quit crime. It's the fact that he's supposedly the upright respectable one that makes it such a scream. The finale is a bit of a boggler, mind you. They didn't run away after all? Nevertheless there's a solid comic engine to this film and an admirable level of invention. This film succeeds at the important feat of making me laugh at the Will Hay character, which is something that in the past I've found a bit touch and go. He's not merely a git this time, while some of his lines are wonderful.
"That's a criminal offence. Any more of that and I'll have you thrown out of the prison."