George FormbyGibb McLaughlinC. Denier WarrenSyd Crossley
Come on George!
Medium: film
Year: 1939
Director: Anthony Kimmins
Writer: Anthony Kimmins, Leslie Arliss, Val Valentine
Keywords: comedy, musical
Country: UK
Actor: George Formby, Patricia Kirkwood, Joss Ambler, Meriel Forbes, Cyril Raymond, George Hayes, George Carney, Ronald Shiner, Gibb McLaughlin, Hal Gordon, Davy Burnaby, C. Denier Warren, James Hayter, Syd Crossley
Format: 88 minutes
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 22 July 2010
Yes, it's the winner of the "dodgiest movie title of 1939" award! The lack of a comma even makes the dirty meaning more correct grammatically than the intended one.
It's a film of two halves. The first half isn't very good. George Formby is great, as always, but I wasn't that impressed with the mediocre film around him. However the story picks up as it moves along until by the end, it's a charming little romp that made me laugh and made me happy.
This is the one in which George starts out as an ice cream salesman and ends up with a new career as a jockey, winning a big horse race on a famously violent powerhouse called Maneater. Everyone else is terrified of the brute, but of course it loves George and will do whatever he asks of it, so suddenly he's indispensible to the stable (and a threat to its rivals). That probably sounds stupid, but the script's actually come up with a clever reason that makes you believe it. It's because George hadn't known about the horse's reputation when they first met. He didn't know to be frightened of it, so he wasn't and the two of them now get along famously. You can imagine the rest.
There isn't one standout problem with the early stuff, but just a niggling feeling that it's all a bit sub-standard. Some of the acting is a bit telegraphed. The slapstick isn't funny. The train stunt sequence should have been impressive, but unfortunately the back-projected shots are letting it down. George lurches into his first song without having any set-up or a reason to start singing. None of that is good, but more of a problem for me was the fact that it felt mean-spirited. The plot's built on lies, with even the good guys stringing George along with a load of horseshit because he seems to have a knack with Maneater. If he'd got his neck broken because he hadn't known the horse was dangerous... well, whoops. Sorry. Theoretically this film contains a good trainer and a bad trainer, but you'll be hard-pressed to tell any difference between them and the only thing we learn about how well they do their jobs is that Bad Trainer believes that jockeys should use their whips.
Oh, and there's also a character called Sir Charles who's unpleasant and stupid. It's not just his pursuit of George for being a thief, but the way in which he randomly threatens to move his entire string of horses from one stable to another on what's practically a whim.
Formby kept making me laugh, though. He's delightful in drag, I loved his reaction to "I rather like you" and he gets full value from lines like "you mind your own interference". Even when there's so much lying and dishonesty going on that it's become an actual theme, George Formby will always be the cheeky chappie who's trying to do right by everyone. When a boy tells a white lie to get George out of trouble, George at first tries to stop him and then later sneaks up to the boy's room to apologise for the situation and bring a peace offering. He's just likeable. You know, right now I can't think of anyone more lovable in world cinema than Formby. I must be missing a thousand obvious names, but I really can't. He even manages to remain adorable when he's been hypnotised by a doctor into being an arrogant psycho who goes around breaking windows, stamping on people's feet and being a git, which probably counts as having acting superpowers or something.
I wasn't kidding about the theme, though. It drifts away towards the end, but there's so much deception in this film that even George ends up being part of it. He's found himself a place to stay... but unbeknownst to him, it's the local police station and he's in a prison cell. (That's funny in itself.) In other words, he's being employed by a man who's trying to have him arrested as a thief, while lodging with the policeman who's been charged with doing the arresting.
However the story improves as the film goes on. The policeman and his family are great. The little boy's probably the film's most important mover and shaker, while his older sister (Patricia Kirkwood) is gorgeous and sweet. Best of all of them though is the policeman himself (George Carney), who becomes a surprisingly rich character because of all the different plot roles he's filling simultaneously. He's the copper who's chasing George on Sir Charles's orders, but also George's landlord and the father of the girl. He's the local representative of law and order, but he's also retiring in a few weeks and furthermore is a gambling addict, which can lead him into carrying out actions that are stupid, dodgy or financially insane. The more I saw of him, the more fun he became. By the time we reach the scene with the tent pegs and the mallet, he's downright awesome.
Kirkwood's character is wonderful too, mostly because of the bit at the end where she's trying to help George do what he wants even though it's going to ruin her family. Formby's wife Beryl was jealous of Kirkwood, by the way, and did things like vetoing a George-Kirkwood duet and giving her an unflattering hairstyle and costumes. However the production team managed to shoot the final kiss scene by calling away Beryl with a telephone call.
Note also the Scottish Bela Lugosi who shows up as the hypnotist. That's Gibb McLaughlin, later to appear in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Hancock's Half Hour.
By the end of the film, I'd been won over completely and was entirely behind the movie. I wasn't even put off by a final race nearly as unrealistic as the one in No Limit, in which Formby wins despite (a) not noticing at first that the race had begun, then (b) getting thrown into water and having to call Maneater back so that he can climb on again. Is the latter even legal? Is he riding a horse or a cheetah? Was everyone else on donkeys? Besides, the film's being the usual Formby action movie, so you've got a scene with a troupe of circus acrobats (who are cool) and then daredevil car stunts as George tries to make it to the races in the first place. There's even a cut-down version of James Bond's bridge jump from The Man with the Golden Gun. Admittedly the car doesn't spin on its axis as it flies through the air, but even so.
The songs aren't bad, by the way. They're innocently filthy, but that's the whole point from Formby and my favourite was I'm Making Headway Now. There are also no fewer than two in-joke references to When I'm Cleaning Windows.
In the end this is a lovely little film, but for a while I didn't really like it. It just seemed randomly mean, for instance to the performing flea guy. However the story really picks up later and of course it should be a legal requirement to have to watch George Formby, with for instance his "twelve sisters" conversation being brilliant. It's quite a tight script. Incidentally Formby had been a jockey before becoming a movie star, so he didn't have any stunt doubles for the horseriding in this film. It's all him. The only shame is that movie-making technology of the time wasn't good enough to communicate this to the audience. His other 1939 release, Trouble Brewing, is also set in the world of horseracing, by the way. Its inconsistency means that this can't be called Formby's best film, but it would have been in with a shot had the whole thing had been up to the level of the second half. If nothing else, it has character.