Wow. I'm astonished. My first Will Hay film
left me bored and disliking its main lead, but this is fantastic. I'm not just talking about some degree of improvement, but something that in its own way is one of the most striking comedy films I've ever seen.
What's interesting is that Hay's still playing the same cheating no-good lowlife he always does. As a private individual, he'd be seedy and unpleasant, but here he's a teacher. He's in authority. This man is the guardian of our nation's youth and in a position of trust and responsibility. You can see the comic possibilities already. Just by putting a mortar board on his head, pretty much everything he says or does suddenly becomes funny. Mind you, it helps that he's comparatively likeable this time, by virtue of spending less of his time on stupid self-destructive lies, betraying his daughter and getting people fired. For Will Hay, that's halfway to sainthood. Naturally he's still an appalling rogue who won't admit when he doesn't know what he's talking about, even when he's up in front of a class, but that's the joke. Hay occasionally does things here you wouldn't even see from Great Teacher Onizuka
. I am in awe.
The other secret ingredient is that everyone else is even worse. Hay isn't swindling innocents this time, oh no. When we first see him, he's applying for the position of headmaster at Narkover School, a notorious institution among the law-enforcement fraternity. Narkovians are known for stealing, gambling, extortion and all those other jolly pranks that tend to get the perpetrators clapped in jail. Schoolboys openly threaten teachers and basically operate as an underworld rather than a school. St Trinians, eat your heart out. The film that tends to get called the precursor to the St Trinians series is The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), but supposedly it's "charming". I'm sure I'll be struck by the parallels when it eventually comes out on DVD and I get around to seeing it, but for openly shameless criminality I find it hard to imagine a closer match than this. The St Trinians girls are more organised and violent, but the Narkovians have better criminal connections.
It doesn't end there either. The cast also includes Old Narkovians, including one jolly fellow who ends up having a blackmail hold over Hay. He's just got out of prison and looks a good bet to get back inside in record time. I enjoyed the warm-up for the Old Boys' rugby match. "We're only playing a bunch of kids, see, so no kicking in the face." Then there's Colonel Crableigh, the vice-chairman of the Board of Governors and a pompous git who wanted the headmastership for his retarded rabbit-loving brother. Despite being superficially respectable, he manages to be the most villainous character in the film.
This is a formidable line-up of antagonists. Hay is of course an idiot and it looks as if they're going to eat him alive, but it turns out to be a surprisingly fair fight. He's almost as bad as they are!
The only good and noble character in the film is Lady Dorking, played by Norma Varden, who'd appear in quite a few Will Hay films and does impressive work in a deceptively thankless role. Lady Dorking could easily have come across as too chuckleheaded to care about, but Varden always remains sweet and dignified even when the script's making her look like an airhead. The cast's strong all round, incidentally, including the schoolboys. No Moffatt or Marriott, but it's still 1935. The casting director took some liberties, mind you. Some of those "boys" must be 35 if they're a day, but I can live with that in an environment where all the other rules are being broken so gleefully. Maybe they're undercover agents or on the run from the police or something.
I was surprised by the ending, which I'd been assuming would return to the promise of the beginning. My mistake. Happy endings all around, it seems. However this being a Hay film, they're pushing the material a little further than would even be comfortable today. There's a sight gag that today would have got the Hay character lynched, while things get edgy when Lady Dorking's diamond necklace gets into the plot. One wants Hay to do the decent thing immediately and hand it straight back, but in fairness that's what he wants to do and it's hard to argue with the reasons why he can't.
There are musical numbers, as you'd expect in this era. Well, it does have its roots in the music halls. The boys are supposedly just signing the Narkovian school anthem, but they're impressive enough that you're surprised they're not rich just from the record deals.
I'd like to pick out a few details. Narkover School is a dangerous place, but it's nice to see that violence doesn't always work. I laughed at the letter substitution scene and at Hay's misappropriation of the word "gimp". The criminals never cease to be amusing, but I didn't believe that you could squeeze a diamond necklace into a football. Oh, and they're playing rugby, but they call it a football. Eh? You learn something new every day.
Incidentally this was the first screen appearance of an uncredited Clive Dunn, aged fifteen.
Narkover School wasn't invented for this film, for what it's worth. Instead it came from a long-running comedy column in the Daily Express, written by various authors under the name of Beachcomber. This was an enormous, uncontrollable exercise in surrealism that jumped around all over the place, but one of its many recurring characters was Dr. Smart-Allick, Narkover's silly and criminal headmaster. That's why Hay's playing a character called Dr Alec Smart. Normally his characters in the 1930s were called Benjamin, then in the 1940s, William. However having said that, playing a teacher would end up being something of a Hay trademark, be it in music hall, film and radio. Even by this point, it was a well-established stage persona of his. In later years, a young Charles Hawtrey would be one of the pupils.
Overall: great film. I'm gobsmacked. If the rest of Will Hay's output can even match this, let alone surpass it, I'll be very surprised indeed. Yet they say the best of them is Oh, Mr. Porter!