Another boring one as far as I'm concerned, I'm afraid. The odd thing about that is that it could almost be a sequel to Will Hay's similar schoolmaster comedy, Boys Will Be Boys
(1935), which is astonishingly good. I think I'm just going to have to accept that Will Hay appreciation is subjective, even from film to film. Some people will buy into the basic set-up of this movie and some won't. Me, I didn't.
The thing about Hay is that he's playing a lying, cheating scoundrel who lacks many of the generally accepted moral boundaries and can easily be bullied across most of the remainder. No problem so far. Unfortunately his films don't always bother to give us a reason to care about what happens to him. Boys Will Be Boys
set up its story superbly, with Hay having clear antagonists and plot goals. This one doesn't. It doesn't feel like a movie so much as a string of music-hall routines, at least one of which (Watt = What) I've already more-or-less seen in this series despite only being on my third of these films. Stuff happens, but generally as a result of plot convenience rather than because characters were trying to achieve something. This is a short film, but even so I was dismayed at the 40-minute mark to see that I had another half-hour to go.
We begin with a dress rehearsal of thieves in Paris who want to steal the Mona Lisa. That was good, but it's also a red herring. After that, we move across to England and the world of Will Hay, an idiot teacher who can't handle his pupils. These boys are appalling. They openly do whatever they like, even in front of the teachers, and are mostly interested in cards, gambling and smoking. They're perhaps less criminally inclined than their counterparts in Boys Will Be Boys
, but we're talking here about the difference between crocodiles and alligators. It's a gender-reversed St Trinians, except that these "boys" are often played by actors who look well into their thirties. This is a set-up full of comic potential, but unfortunately these characters are introduced in a scene that's brimming with gags and yet not funny in the slightest. It's just another worthless day at school. Nothing's at stake. Hay doesn't care about teaching. The boys don't care about learning. They need discipline and he needs sacking. Everyone's just randomly abusing each other, in ways which might have been inventive and outrageous had they been in a proper film.
A new governor soon turns up, sees Hay's classroom and wants the man fired. That's a very reasonable reaction and he'd have had my vote. Eventually, around the 20 minute mark, Hay gets given an ultimatum... get eight schoolboys through a certain exam, or else get sacked. Aha, I thought. The plot begins! Imagine my surprise when they sit the exam fifteen minutes later, after which all such plot threads are dropped like an irritated skunk and the film shoots off to France. The boys did well in the exam, you see, and the French government wants to meet them.
The exam is mildly interesting for the presence of a young Charles Hawtrey, by the way. The boys (and Hay) have some ingenious cheating methods, but I have to admit I didn't particularly enjoy the way they set out to ruin the Hawtrey character's chances. What had he done to them, eh?
A curious thing about the film is how innocent it is, once you've got past the basic joke of "lying, cheating and breaking the rules is funny". Paris is full of beautiful women, the most important of whom (Lilli Palmer) would go on to have a far longer film career than Hay himself. Her accent goes on safari when she's singing, mind you. The film's vaguely aware that carousing with a certain kind of woman is disreputable for some reason, but no one seems to have communicated this information to its supposedly scummy protagonists. Here we have evil schoolboys on the loose in Paris, going off to nightclubs when their teacher's back is turned... and yet none of them are skirt-chasing. Meanwhile Lilli Palmer all but throws herself at Will Hay and he doesn't realise! When asked if he's had any other women, he thinks she's talking about cooks.
Similarly there seems to be some kind of distinction between villainous crooks (who steal Mona Lisas) and mere rapscallions whom we're supposed to be cheering on (our heroes). Meanwhile this time Hay's not actually repulsive. When faced with serious lawbreaking, he keeps wanting to do the decent thing. It's just that he's easily threatened, in addition of course to being pig-ignorant and dishonest. I just rolled my eyes when he started lying. In such scenes I wanted him to sod off and die, but at least that's better than wanting that throughout the entire film. That's an improvement on Where There's A Will
There are fewer Will Hay regulars here than one might expect. The Norma Varden role is being taken for once by Martita Hunt, whom I remember best as Baroness Meinster from Hammer's The Brides of Dracula
. Graham Moffatt shows up as Albert, but there's no Moore Marriott. The main curiosity you'll get from looking down the cast list is the fact that the Will Hay character here is called Dr Benjamin Twist. The next year he'd make two more films in which he played a character of the same name, Convict 99
and Hey! Hey! USA
. Perhaps they're sequels, but then again the Hay character was generally the same in all his films anyway. In the 1930s, they were almost all called Benjamin.
Perhaps surprisingly, I quite like Will Hay. I can see why some people love his work, but equally I can see why he's vanished off the radar these days to such an extent that I'd never even heard of him. He also appears to have been influential, at least if you look at how many of his films got remade in later decades. Charles Hawtrey used to say he was a genius. However in watching my way through his catalogue, I've found one film out of three (so far) to be astonishingly good, but the other two boring. It could so easily have been another classic, but there's more to making a film than just running through your music-hall routines.