My first Will Hay film. I deliberately didn't begin with Oh, Mr. Porter!
. I was looking forward to this, since I'm always interested in discovering new things and until recently I'd never even heard of Will Hay. Having seen this film, I now know why.
Frankly, the film bored me. It's because of the Will Hay character. The man's a lying no-good toerag of a solicitor, rightly hounded by his creditors and basically human flotsam. He gets invited to his brother-in-law's house, cons the (teetotal) butler into getting drunk with him and thus gets the poor man fired. He'd previously done the same with the butler's two predecessors. He can't even do the right thing by his daughter. On top of all that, he doesn't even have the intelligence to tell the truth when his lies are clearly going to get him into ever-deeper trouble. This man would cut off his leg to tell a lie. In particular his behaviour towards the police beggars all imagination.
This isn't an anti-hero or some kind of cheeky chappie. The man's simply a failure. However of course this is merely my subjective reaction, while there are good things to say about him too. He may be untrustworthy, but he's not an outright criminal like the American gangsters who show up at the 25 minute mark. At least he's horrified by outright bank robbery and will (eventually) stop the criminals.
Furthermore, Will Hay is very good in the role. Incidentally it sounds as if in real life he was extraordinarily clever, having been a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who discovered a spot on Saturn and measured comets with a micrometer he'd designed and built himself. He wrote a book called Through My Telescope in 1935. He was one of Britain's first private pilots, giving lessons to Amy Johnson. He was a translator, fluent in French, German, Latin, Italian, Norwegian and Afrikaans. Oh, and as well as being a film star, he's credited on several of his films as writer or director. His screen persona had been polished over many years in the music halls and if you've seen enough of his work to become a fan, I dare say you'd enjoy watching this particular bunch of misadventures.
However even leaving aside one's reaction to the protagonist, I'm still not convinced. Admittedly there's a lively story going on here, with Will Hay up against those aforementioned Americans. There's some good stuff in this film, especially the last ten minutes. It's always nice when a film ends well. The way they juggle the characters' comings and goings is also structurally sound. Nevertheless this is a film so deeply rooted in stupid behaviour that the term "idiot plot" hardly even begins to cover it. Yes, I realise it's a comedy. The idiocy is the point. Nevertheless Will Hay is so stupid as to be downright self-destructive, while I also couldn't say much for the climactic moment where the chief gangster tries to hold about fifty witnesses at gunpoint despite the presence nearby of eight or nine policemen. He could have feigned innocence and walked away, but no. It's the end of the film. He's got to be caught, even if it takes a brainfart to make it happen.
Furthermore, like a lot of comedy of the time, the film will often abandon the plot entirely for comic routines. Personally I didn't find these funny. The plot-driven scenes were much more effective for me, but unfortunately I had to sit through 25 minutes of Will Hay barely functioning as a human being before anything really happened.
The supporting cast are okay. I couldn't call them memorable, but they include several performers who'd appear in other Will Hay films. The most important of them, to my surprise, is the sullen office boy. Yes, a child actor. He's called Graham Moffatt and this was the first of his several appearances opposite Hay, albeit for once not playing a character called Albert. Another significant co-star of theirs would apparently be a chap called Moore Marriott, but he's not in this film. A number of the other actors here can be seen in other Will Hay movies, especially the same year's Windbag the Sailor
Admittedly there are little things I liked. I like the way Lady Wimpleton isn't jealous. I enjoyed the finale. I also laughed when the gangster turned up at his own hotel room, even if I'd been rolling my eyes at Hay's ridiculous stream of lies that led up to it. Nevertheless for me this is a film that doesn't take flight. It's not all Hay's character, either. I was bored by the American floozy chatting up Sir Roger, for instance. I just didn't care about most of what was going on. Nonetheless oddly I'm still optimistic about the other Will Hay films in my collection. For a start, I've seen it said that his funniest films tended to be directed by Marcel Varnel and written by Marriott Edgar and Val Guest, none of whom worked on this film. I can also see that Hay's a good performer with a strong comic persona... it's just that I reacted badly to him in this story. In a setting more suited to his particular brand of crooked idiocy, I'm sure he'd come across much better.
However I think the last word belongs to Mr Stuart Douglas:
"Though Hay's main character does get slightly brighter and less venal in other movies, he's never really pleasant and if you don't engage with that then you're unlikely ever to love Hay's movies. Someone once said that only W.C. Fields was more unpleasant than the Hay character. That said, the early scenes with Moffatt as the cheeky office boy are the funniest bit of the movie and are a taster for the inspired lunacy of the later movies (the trio of Moffatt/Hay/Marriott did 8 movies together) and then the blacker comedy of the war years. I do hope you watch some others and report back what you think - Hay is a peculiarly forgotten British comic."