Everyone seems to think this is Will Hay's best movie, although I see it wasn't his most commercially successful. Its director Marcel Varnel thought it was one of his best, Barry Norman ranked it among his 100 best of all time and the British Film Institute included it in their 360 Classic Feature Films list. You might want to bear in mind that I'm being outvoted when I say that I wasn't particularly taken with it.
What's odd about it is that Hay's being a little un-Hay-like. You can't even blame that on this being one of his earlier films. He'd been in the movies for a few years by now and in any case his comic persona came from the music halls anyway. He's brilliant in Boys Will Be Boys
(1935) and more or less evil in Where There's A Will
(1936), so you can't say that this film isn't in some way a step back. The standard Will Hay character is self-important, shifty, lying, untrustworthy and basically criminal. His best films for me have been are the ones which manage to do something interesting with that, such as Ask a Policeman
or Convict 99
Not here, though. In this one, he could almost have been anyone. He's great at the beginning when his sister and brother-in-law are trying to prove that despite appearances he's not completely unemployable, but once he's become the stationmaster at Buggleskelly, he's actually trying to do his job properly. Moffatt and Marriott are as usual incorrigible, but Hay's going by the book. Of course circumstances often overtake him and he's still fully capable of insulting or indeed destroying everything around him, but there's no malice in it and the comedy for once here comes from nothing more than a self-important authority figure with unrealistic ideas. Jimmy Perry has said that this film was an inspiration in creating Captain Mainwaring, Corporal Jones and Private Pike in Dad's Army. What's more, I can see it. Will Hay is most respects the absolute opposite of Mainwaring, but here for once they've got the same motivation. It's just that Hay's deeply and profoundly broken when it comes to tact, competence and social skills, that's all.
My problem with all this is that I didn't believe it. It feels out of character. After seeing Hay's criminal antics in all his other films, it's a bit rich to see him get affronted about pigs, cows and tomatoes. I'd have probably done better to watch this cold, before I'd sampled the rest of his filmography. Then on top of that, I wasn't interested in his efforts to get the station up and running because they're so obviously doomed. You can see before he starts that it's wasted effort. He organises a special train and goes down to the pub to sell tickets. Congratulations. Ten out of ten for effort. However has he even the slightest chance of selling any? Of course not. You don't need to watch the scene to know how that'll turn out. Admittedly after a fashion he does, so to speak, but those aren't passengers he'll be transporting.
Oh, and the Gladstone joke falls flat now because to these callow 21st century eyes, a spanking new train in 1937 looks the same as an antiquated train in 1937. However on the upside this film has some great one-liners and quite a few of these routines managed to amuse me even though I wasn't on board with the film's basic premise. The scene where he's holding two simultaneous phone conversations is excellent ("I'm talking to the old fool now") and there's plenty more where that came from.
The start of the film I loved, though. Of all the ways I've seen Hay shoehorned into some unlikely form of employment, so far this is my favourite. Hay's sister insists that her husband find him a better job, or else he's moving in with them. This strikes horror into the beloved marital doormat and so he sets out to find something that they haven't already tried (and failed) to set Hay up with. Eventually they find a vacancy for a stationmaster in the arse end of nowhere, i.e. an Irish village called Buggleskelly. They've gone through five stationmasters in the past twelve months there, with the most recent resignation letter being signed Napoleon Bonaparte. The locals all say it's haunted and won't go out after dark. This is a kick-arse setup for both Hay and Buggleskelly, which one naturally assumes will pay off in a clash of the moral midgets. There's dirty doings going on down there, you see. In any other Will Hay film, it wouldn't be impossible that our hero would simply want his cut.
At the other end of the film, the action finale impressed me too. The windmill stuff perhaps goes on a bit long, but it certainly looks dangerous. After that we embark on one of the best train chases I can remember, despite the fact that it's not technically a train chase at all since there's no pursuer. The problem with cinematic train chases (e.g. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
) is the fact that they run on tracks. Each train can only follow the next like a duckling and you can't play around with overtaking, ramming, dodging and so on as you can with cars, trucks and speeder bikes. However this film is understandably steeped in railway technicalities like signals, points and so on, so has a few good ideas on how to liven things up. In addition, since there's only one train involved, the cinematography and editing can be simpler and faster-moving. Its energy reminded me of chase scenes from the silent era, actually.
You might be wondering about the Irishness. Marriott and Moffatt aren't even attempting the accent, with Moffatt clearly being a Londoner, but you'll hear some allegedly Irish voices from their co-stars. I can't vouch for their authenticity since I'm no authority on Ireland today, let alone seventy years ago, but following that dialogue sometimes took a bit of effort.
The film has a song, incidentally. This is unusual for Will Hay, but in fact it's an old music hall song that they're simply playing over the opening credits. It's about a girl 'going too far' although I didn't notice any innuendo here, it was written in 1893 by George LeBrunn and Marie Lloyd used to sing it. It's quite good, for whatever that's worth. The movie also has further heritage in that it apparently owes a debt to The Ghost Train (1931) and seems to have been later recycled by its co-writer Val Guest for a 1958 Peter Sellers film, Up The Creek. That even got a sequel, Further Up the Creek, although I presume there's a reason why both have been all but forgotten today. Oh, and five reels of picture and two reels of soundtrack are all that's left today of The Ghost Train. Bob Monkhouse used to own a complete copy of the film, but it was seized and destroyed on copyright grounds after a raid on his home by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise.
Frankly I didn't find this film particularly funny. It has good bits, but they don't hang together. It seems I'm not alone in this opinion, but embarrassingly many of my fellows are making themselves look like retards ("stick to modern movies like I do"). I don't think it's a great fit with the rest of Will Hay's work, although for exactly that reason I can imagine it having a broader appeal. It stars a toned-down version of the Hay character and it's got two parallel plots going on, one terrific (the ghosts) and one obviously going nowhere (Hay trying to get his station up and running). I can see why it's been so popular with many people over the years, but for me as Will Hay films go, it ranks about half-way.
It certainly doesn't have shock value, which is something you'll get with the comedians I regard as the most remarkable of this era (Will Hay at his peak, the Marx Brothers). Imagine Hay meets Enid Blyton and you won't be far wrong.