George Formby was the biggest comedian in British films during his era, which was 1934 to 1946. At the height of his popularity (1939), he was Britain's top film star of any kind. As it happened his father had also been a huge music hall star, also working under the name George Formby, and it wasn't until the death of Formby Sr. in 1921 that Formby Jr. started playing the music halls with his father's material. Until then he'd been a jockey. He was apprenticed at the age of seven and rode his first professional race at the age of ten, although that's nothing compared with his father's nightmare childhood (drunken beatings and running away from home aged seven to work in a steel foundry).
Formby Jr.'s stage persona was that of an honest, good-hearted idiot from Lancashire. He also played the ukelele and some of his songs were banned by the BBC for innuendo, although Formby's delivery always made them seem rather endearing. He can't sing to save his life, mind you. He's got a voice like a comb and paper, but that's all part of his charm. He's the opposite of a matinee idol. Photos of the man make him look downright ugly. His smile looks as if it's splitting his face in half, as if he's a deep sea fish or perhaps a chimpanzee. Instead it's his personality that makes him lovable, making you want to keep watching him no matter what stupid things he's done or how silly or trivial the film he's trapped in.
That applies here, by the way. This film was a big hit, but it's also pretty poor. Formby and his co-star Florence Desmond make it work anyway with their charisma, but at times I found it nearly uncomfortable. Formby's playing a motorcycle maniac whose ambition is to ride in the 1935 Isle of Man TT races, but halfway through he takes a fifty pound bribe not to take part. Admittedly he's got his reasons and you don't think any worse of him for it, but you also know he's going to win the race in the end (it's that sort of film) and it's obvious from the beginning that accepting the money was a bloody stupid thing to do. Sure enough, it is. George, you twonk. Personally I wouldn't have taken money from that duo if they'd gift-wrapped it and given it to me on my birthday.
In fact that's how the whole plot works. Formby gets in trouble because he did something stupid (again). A protagonist with a brain would have made for a film that lasted fifteen minutes. He puts all his money in his hat. No, George. Don't do that, George. Having thus lost it all (d'oh), he arrives at the Isle of Man anyway and gets talked into taking a hotel room under false pretences, with no way of paying for it (d'oh). I was cringing, but I hadn't even got to the blackface scene yet. Florence Desmond decides that Formby should earn his rent by performing on the beach as a negro minstrel and handing around a hat. Yikes. I realise that this was perfectly normal in 1935, but so were Nazi swastikas and that doesn't mean today we'd accept one flying from the grandstand at the start of a motorcycle race. (I didn't spot it while I was watching the film, but apparently it's there.) It's the German flag of the time. Fair enough.
Besides, Formby himself was no racist. He and his wife Beryl toured South Africa shortly before apartheid, but refused to play racially segregated venues and managed to get an angry phone call from the National Party opposition leader after George hugged a small black girl who'd given them a box of chocolates. Beryl's reply was apparently, "Why don't you piss off you horrible little man?"
I'm sure other Formby films are better plotted than this, if only because it's hard to imagine them keeping up this level of dependence on stupidity. However there's also plenty here to like. Back in the day, I'm sure what really put bums on seats was the action finale. For a while I thought they'd goofed in doing a motorcycle movie, since this was sure to mean horrible-looking back projection. Up to a point, I was right. It looks as ghastly as always. However this doesn't significantly damage the last fifteen minutes, with its action-packed bike race and lots of stunts carried out by motorcycle racers from the Isle of Man's clubs. Some of it's startling and some of it's just plain daft, but there's some great stuff in here. Towards the end, the motorbike accidents even start killing people! It's been done with enough love and fidelity to its chosen sport that you can easily believe it's one of those films that's still remembered fondly today among both the motor-racing community and the people of the Isle of Man. You can't believe it for a second, mind you. George falls off his motorbike three times, then wins! What is he riding? A speeder bike from Return of the Jedi
? There's also a scene where he has a brief fist fight with Big Scary Thug and wins.
The supporting cast are fun, with my favourite being the Evil Rival figure. What's interesting about him is that for a good while he's likeable. He's perhaps a little arrogant, but he's got a right to be and he's also handsome and charming. Normally the Evil Rival in films like this will be obviously detestable from the get-go, but this one seems like a pretty decent guy until, whoops, he does an unfriendly thing. That wasn't very nice of him, actually. One or two more stunts like that and we've soon changed our minds about him and realised that he's an unpleasant, snooty, underhanded sack of slime. He was a great character. Then there's the girl, played by established star Florence Desmond. She's pretty good, but she has a supercilious mouth and an almost operatic singing voice that doesn't suit the film. With Formby delivering his songs as if he's sawing his voice in half, we didn't need Desmond sounding as if she's auditioning for the Royal Opera House. I still liked her, though. She's fun and has screen presence. She shared top billing here with Formby and also starred in his next film, Keep Your Seats, Please (1936). Incidentally in both films her character was called Florrie, just as Formby almost always played someone called George.
To be honest, I wouldn't have necessarily called this a comedy. It made me laugh here and there, but that felt like Formby just being true to his character rather than actual jokes. "I'm from London." "I can tell by the daft way you speak." That's a great line, but only because it's being delivered in a Lancashire accent that practically needs subtitles. I'm not denigrating the film, I hasten to say, but merely questioning its genre classification. I also like its sense of place, really taking me to the working class North, thirties seaside resorts and the Isle of Man TT races. Those are real, you know. Their name in full is "Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race" and for many years it was the world's most prestigious motorbike race. In some ways this is a pretty shoddy film, to be honest, but Formby's so adorable that he carries it anyway. I went away happy. I can't wait to see what he does with a film that's actually good.