George FormbyGarry MarshRoddy McDowallKay Walsh
I See Ice
Medium: film
Year: 1938
Director: Anthony Kimmins
Writer: Anthony Kimmins, Austin Melford
Keywords: comedy, musical
Country: UK
Actor: George Formby, Kay Walsh, Betty Stockfeld, Cyril Ritchard, Garry Marsh, Frederick Burtwell, Ernest Sefton, Gavin Gordon, Ernest Jay, Andreas Malandrinos, Gordon McLeod, Archibald Batty, Ernest Borrow, Meadows White, Esma Cannon, Roddy McDowall
Format: 84 minutes
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 16 June 2010
I loved that! George Formby is one of the greats and this is a strong vehicle for him. It seems to have been comparatively overlooked if you count the number of reviews and references to it online, but I thought it was excellent and a good deal funnier than most comedy films.
To get the obligatory confession out of the way, I watched George Formby films as a child. He's still great, though. Personally I'd put him in the same class as people like Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, except that he's got a northern accent and his films are British rather than American. He's got a delightful screen persona that reminds me a bit of a prototype Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, except that Formby's cheekier, happier, less terrifyingly destructive and only moderately feeble-minded. Other good things: he knows his way around a ukelele. He can act. Obviously he can't sing to save his life, but that's just part of his charm.
I wouldn't mind if he cut back on the catchphrases, but that's the nearest I can get to a nitpick. Basically the guy's terrific and any film he makes is automatically better for having him in it.
This one, as the title suggests, is about ice skating. George can't skate, of course. He'd be a disaster on ice, instead being a portrait photographer who's on the point of getting fired by his boss and for laughs has invented a spy camera in a bow tie. However the girl he likes is a professional ice skater and so the story's taking in both exhibition skating and ice hockey. Her male dance partner in particular seems capable of flitting between the two worlds at will, which for all I know was realistic in the 1930s but still struck me as being like a ballet dancer moonlighting as a rugby player. Well, he's a big guy. Besides, sport was less professional in those days. I'll buy it. The important thing is that it lets the film do one lot of jokes in a refined ballet-like environment and then lots of completely different ones with the sportsmen.
Naturally George ends up on the ice. Twice. This is considerably funnier than even I'd been expecting, with George flailing around like an idiot and crying out "mother". On both occasions it's also a good-sized sequence, with George pretty much destroying the show on his first ice-going venture and then after that getting involved in full-blown stunt action with the hockey. That's something I'd forgotten about his movies. They're action comedies. Most of the time they'll look like any other British movie of their era, but then you hit the set-piece climax and suddenly you realise that the filmmakers had been itching to do dangerous things on camera. Motorcycle chases, daredevil airmen... well, here we've got a hockey game that's going beyond what you'll see on the sports channels. No one's really doing anything out of the ordinary, but the director's doing everything he can to make it memorable. You'll have skaters tripping and sliding into the camera, or even jumping over it. Some of this qualifies as stunt work. I have no interest in ice hockey as a game, but this I thought was great.
This isn't a sophisticated movie, but its comedy works. George in the posh restaurant is a scream. On paper the gags are nothing more than what you're imagining, but it's Formby and his helpful cluelessness that makes them priceless. Similarly the guy's getting laughs out of nowhere from something as simple as talking to a girl.
Here and there it's stretching credibility. There's a sequence where Formby dresses up in drag and people really aren't sure of his gender, although in fairness he's startlingly convincing as a lady. He's got this pointed face that's not classically masculine. There's an actress (Miss Brewster?) in this film who looks more like a man in drag than him. However the castor oil in the chemist's I had trouble believing, even from George. If someone walks into a chemist's shop asking for medicine, you do not pretend to be the proprietor, seize upon a random bottle and make them drink cupfuls from it. Formby comes scarily close to selling it, but no.
The most famous name in the supporting cast these days is a ten-year-old Roddy McDowall. It's only a cameo though, obviously. Meanwhile Formby's girl is being played by Mrs David Lean (number two of six), aka. Kay Walsh. She'd be a significant actress in her own right and for the most part is doing all the right things here, but she's unfortunately forcing some of her reaction shots during the songs. She's nice, though. Broadly speaking, this film is divided on gender lines. There aren't many women, but they're all sweet and sympathetic. (Esme Cannon gets another uncredited cameo, by the way.) The men though include some real bastards of a kind that I'm starting to associate with George Formby films. They're almost not villains. Formby's so gentle and sweet that his perfect antagonist isn't someone who's evil, but someone who's mean. Thus here we have the Cyril Ritchard character, whom you could almost call upright and honourable in a very narrow sense and yet also manages to be an unpleasant piece of work who needs a good kicking. It's rather interesting, actually. It's a point of modest distinction about these movies and I think I like it a lot.
See also, although to a lesser extent, the menacing journalist. He's so far from being a villain that the film doesn't even punish him for his crimes (adultery), but he's certainly someone you wouldn't like to get tangled up with.
The songs are a mixed bag. The first is only okay, although I liked the funny and unexpectedly non-saucy verse about the nudist camp. The second song didn't work for me, especially with George drawing graffiti on the tablecloth. However the third one, Mother What'll I Do Now, is a good 'un... and I note that it's the only one of the three to be co-written by Formby.
This film is lovely, one of those happy films that you're liable to find yourself rewatching time and again. It's got some good lines, charming characters and strong comic set-pieces. Cyril Ritchard's downfall at the end is small potatoes to go with his low-level villainy and yet also a silly and satisfying dose of just desserts. It's got George Formby in it and in the last shot, he kisses the girl. In short, it's perfect.
It's not, of course, but it feels that way.