The few online reviews of this one aren't particularly favourable, calling it one of Will Hay's weaker efforts. Personally I liked it. Taking him to America hadn't looked like a particularly good idea on the face of it, but in the event I thought it turned out surprisingly well.
What's good about this movie is that it does nothing wrong. No, really. I didn't hate Hay's character at all, although he's painful to watch at times when making himself look like an idiot. I don't have much stomach for that kind of comedy. It's the same kind of pain you get with Fawlty Towers. However this time for once Hay didn't hurt or cheat anyone in the process of attaining his latest undeserved position, on the contrary doing his best to tell all to the ship's captain as soon as he finds out about it. An American gangster drugged him and took his identity, you see. It wasn't as if it was a particularly salubrious identity, but the reason Hay doesn't come clean about him having mysteriously become one Professor Tavistock for once isn't the money or the position, but the fact that there's another gangster on board who thinks he's identified an ally and isn't particularly scrupulous in how he stops his new friend from an inconvenient attack of honesty.
What's more, the plot that spins off from there has an impressive sense of danger. It's not so strong on the wilder kind of comic invention you'll sometimes get with Will Hay, but at least you'll always be taking it seriously. I like gangster movies and that's what this is. Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson could have walked through the door. Maybe it's just because I'm English, but I found these American thugs more menacing than the Cockney criminals that Hay's more normally pitted up against. They carry guns and use them. There's a fairly lengthy period in the second half of the film where Hay's the unwitting partner of a gangster who's trying to kill Tavistock and hasn't realised that that's really Hay. I believed in the violent world that's being portrayed here, despite the occasionally dodgy American accents from a British actor or two.
So Hay's in danger from people who'd shoot him as soon as look at him. That's a good start. However he's in danger when associating with high society as well. Pretending to be Professor Tavistock leads him to a teaching position, a dinner party in his honour and even a live broadcast for the Broadcasting Company of Chicago. Naturally Hay is sufficiently incompetent at all of these that you'll actually be frightened for him. His usual schtick of the idiot schoolmaster gets an additional twist when his pupil turns out to be unexpectedly well-educated, whereupon it becomes a live possibility that the lad's going to realise he's a fraud and tell his parents. Then there's the dinner in Hay's honour, at which he's pretending to be an intellectual and yet spouting waffle that's not just absurd but at times actually offensive. This film surprised me in a good way with its Little Englander dialogue, in which the joke is that Hay's making himself look ridiculous yet again and it's another measure of his cluelessness that he's capable of saying lines like that at all.
"We're not talking about American history. We're talking about English history. Real history."
Hay's usual co-stars are absent in this one. There's no Graham Moffat and Moore Marriott, but instead we have Edgar Kennedy, who'd done nearly three hundred films and worked with both the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy. His usual role was that of a harassed husband in lots of short comedy films, but I liked him here too. He's playing a gangster who means business, but is also both dense and vaguely lovable. In the end he goes flamboyantly crazy when the police catch him, which is a scene that probably should have been laughable (in a bad way), but Kennedy makes it work. I believed that he'd have killed Hay if he caught him when that was what the plot demanded, but I also believed in his convenient imperviousness to the obvious. It takes a particular kind of skill to get away with portraying that kind of stupidity without losing the audience and Kennedy does it.
An interesting minor player is Charlie Hall, the British-born actor who did nearly fifty Laurel and Hardy movies. For once he's doing a British film.
The downside of the plot (for some people) would be that you won't care about its MacGuffin. The gangsters want to kidnap an unlikeable brat whom Hay pulls around a corner and hits in their first scene together. You've got to love a protagonist who hits children. The father buys Hay a drink as soon as he hears about it, but to his credit he doesn't gib at coughing up fifty thousand dollars when the ransom note arrives. I think he's so rich that as far as he's concerned, that's not a significant amount of money. The film would be sunk if it depended on us caring about the brat, but fortunately we don't. No, what's important here is the money and the gangsters.
I find the plot interesting. By modern standards it's only loosely structured, but I found that gave it a greater capacity for surprise. These Hay films are perfectly capable of abandoning what looks like the plot of the rest of the film and going off in a completely different direction. There's nothing here as extreme as, say, Convict 99
, but even so there was a chunk of the early part of the film where I didn't even know into which genre the film was going to jump. The plot clarified itself soon enough, but I like the feeling one gets here that no one is safe. Imagine it as gonzo filmmaking, if I've got the right word there.
There's an "oh my God" bit towards the end of the film in which all the characters get themselves covered in soot and mixed up in a black emancipation march. I was cringing, but in the event the only dubious bit is Hay's brief attempt at doing the accent. It's still a not entirely comfortable scene, but let's not forget that it could have made the film unwatchable. Crucially there are no Stepin Fetchit stereotypes on display, with the black people all carrying themselves with dignity than the stupid white folks who've pushed their way in among them.
What comes closer to making the film unwatchable, unfortunately, is the quality of the print. Maybe it's just in need of restoration or something, but the picture often looks bleached and the sound can be poor too. Maybe that's part of why even fewer people today have seen this than is usual for Will Hay? It's particularly unfortunate that the first of these bleached segments occurred shortly after a dream sequence in which everyone's wearing white, so I briefly assumed that this was meant to be another fantasy of the Hay character rather than something that was really happening.
This is the third of Hay's Dr. Benjamin Twist movies, by the way, but you might not realise. I'm not even sure if the name is mentioned, since it doesn't take him long to become Professor Tavistock. He's clearly playing the same character though, wanting to start a school and regarding himself as an academic despite the fact that when the film begins he's a ship's porter.
I liked this film. It's perhaps a little stronger on plot than on comic set-pieces, but that's only compared with other Will Hay films and personally I found it funny. Besides, the plot works. I also like the way in which the end manages not to be quite as glib as usual. Of course the good guys still win and the bad guys get arrested, but normally these films all but tie it up with a ribbon.
It's a 1930s American gangster movie with Will Hay and it's funny. If you can forgive a couple of accent glitches, that sounds like a winner to me.