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Topping the Music Hall Bill

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released
Not released

Ninety years ago, British cinema was struggling to find an identity. Talkies were all the rage, but audiences preferred Hollywood to homemade pictures. Then, someone had the bright idea of putting the country's leading music hall stars on the screen. Cinema Paradiso salutes those at the top of the bill.

Music hall had been entertaining all strands of British society since the 1850s, with King George V establishing the Royal Variety Performance in 1912. Stars like Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno, Vesta Tilley, Little Tich and Harry Lauder were household names and, as phonograph cylinders gave way to gramophone records, their songs became popular in parlours and saloons alike.

Many had appeared in motion pictures, as selections of short films had formed part of music hall programmes until features became the norm after the Great War. Among the comics to prosper on the screen was Fred Evans, whose Pimple character dominated British slapstick until he was supplanted by fellow Londoner Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp.

Few Pimple comedies have survived, although Cinema Paradiso users can enjoy the two-reelers that Chaplin made at Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National. Famously, of course, Chaplin remained silent long after the talkies had taken over. Music hall stars had featured in some of the earliest experiments with screen sound in the 1920s. But another decade was to pass before the likes of Will Hay, Gracie Fields and George Formby - who had all started out on the boards - became British cinema's most popular names.

Where There's a Will

Although he only made a handful of films, Will Hay will always rank among Britain's comic greats. Born in Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham on 6 December 1888, he was raised in the Suffolk resort of Lowestoft, where he became an accomplished linguist, aviator and astronomer. However, having seen the American vaudeville and future film legend W.C. Fields juggling on a Manchester stage, Hay decided his future lay in show business.

Having spent four years with the Fred Karno troupe that had nurtured the talents of Chaplin and Stan Laurel, Hay developed an act based on his teacher sister Eppie's classroom stories. Initially, he donned drag, but soon resorted to playing a schoolmaster whose credentials were forever being challenged by his pupils.

With his wife, Gladys, playing Harbottle (a grizzled old coot who was too dim to graduate), Hay toured 'The Fourth Form At St Michael's' around the world. However, as he didn't want to fritter his material on the screen, he resisted offers to recreate the character on camera. Consequently, when he debuted alongside M'lita Dolores in the short, Playmates (1922), he played a schoolboy obsessed with mechanical toys. Indeed, when he was coaxed into signing to British International Pictures, Hay opted to appear in adaptations of two plays by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero rather than overexpose his stage shtick. Reworked from The Magistrate, Thomas Bentley's Those Were the Days (1934) sees Brutus Poskett come to the conclusion that his wife has lied about her age because stepson Bobby (John Mills) is so precocious. This pompous pillar of the community was followed by William Beaudine's Dandy Dick (1935), in which prim vicar Richard Jedd finds a way to repair the church steeple after discovering he owns a share in a racehorse.

Released between the Pineros, Arthur B. Woods's Radio Parade of 1935 (1934) cast Hay as William Garland, the Director General of the National Broadcasting Group, who seeks to staunch the complaints about his output by promoting Jimmy Clare (Clifford Mollison) from Head of Complaints to Director of Programming. All three roles allowed Hay to dissemble and bluster. But new employers, Gainsborough Pictures,

wanted him to play a character closer to his stage persona and Hay finally relented in agreeing to play Dr Alec Smart in Boys Will Be Boys (1935).

A still from The Birth of a Nation (1915) With Henry B. Walthall And Alma Rubens
A still from The Birth of a Nation (1915) With Henry B. Walthall And Alma Rubens

Four years younger than Hay, director William Beaudine had assisted D.W. Griffith on The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) before finding his way into comedy with the W.C. Fields game, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934). Following his stint in Blighty, Beaudine returned to Hollywood, where he became a prolific B-Hive director and later handled some of Bruce Lee's episodes in The Green Hornet (1966-67). Appreciating Hay's sensitivity, Beaudine allowed him to work on the screenplay with Robert Edmunds and J.B. Morton (aka Beachcomber), whose 'Narkover School' stories served as the basis for the screenplay.

A template for numerous British school comedies, Boys Will Be Boys pitted Hay's barely competent headmaster against raucous students who quickly called his bluff. In this instance, head boy Cyril (Jimmy Hanley), just happens to be the son of Faker Brown (Gordon Harker), an old lag who has designs on the jewels of school governor, Lady Dorking (Norma Varden).

Criminality is also at the heart of Where There's a Will (1936), which sees inept solicitor Benjamin Stubbins agree to trace some Scottish ancestors for a crook who wants to use his office to crack a safe in the premises below. Beaudine directed again, while Norma Varden returned as Lady Margaret Wimpleton, seemingly in a bid by producer Michael Balcon to replicate Groucho Marx's comic rapport with Margaret Dumont in The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935).

However, Hay struck up an even more effective partnership with former studio gopher Graham Moffat, who proved unafraid to show up Stubbins's flaws as Willie the office boy. Indeed, Balcon was so impressed that he retained Moffat for Beaudine's Windbag the Sailor (1936) and recruited Moore Marriott to play opposite him as the Harbottle character from Hay's music hall act. They find themselves adrift on the open sea after Ben Cutlet's boast that he's a master mariner proves to be anything but the truth.

Hay truly hit his stride, however, in Frenchman Marcel Varnel's Good Morning, Boys (1937), as Dr Benjamin Twist, the seedy head of a boarding school that sets greater store by the results of horse races than exams. Thanks to Twist, however, students Albert (Moffatt) and Septimus (Charles Hawtrey) win a trip to Paris, where they thwart a crooked parent in his bid to steal the Mona Lisa. Scripted by Leslie Arliss and Marriott Edgar, this seems a clear influence on the Ronald Searle stories that Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat would bring to the screen in The Belles of St Trinian's (1954).

A still from Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937)
A still from Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937)

Moore Marriott returned for Varnel's Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), which many regard as Hay's best picture. He plays William Porter, who winds up as stationmaster at the remote halt of Buggleskelly on the Northern Irish border. Accustomed to an easy life, Albert and Harbottle hope that he lasts as short a time as his predecessors. But Porter is too dimwitted to be unnerved by the legend of One-Eyed Joe, the phantom miller who haunts the line.

The story draws heavily on The Ghost Train, a 1923 play by Arnold Ridley, who went on to play Private Godfrey in Dad's Army (1968-77). This is ironic, as co-creator Jimmy Perry revealed that Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) was a variation on Hay's posturing authority figures, while Corporal Jones (Clive Dunn) and Private Pike (Ian Lavender) were inspired by Harbottle and Albert. Co-writer Val Guest, who went on to become one of Britain's most versatile directors, fondly called Hay, Moffatt and Marriott 'the three idiots'. But Hay was beginning to resent becoming part of a triple act and had to be persuaded into a reunion on Varnel's Convict 99 (1938).

Hay's most satirical outing sees him reprise the role of Benjamin Twist, who accidentally becomes the governor of a prison in Devon. His efforts to improve the lot of the inmates backfire, however, as the villains take advantage of the new regime. One even steals a cheque that he forges to empty the prison's bank account. But Jerry the Mole (Marriott) joins forces with Albert the warder (Moffatt) to break out for a Limehouse showdown.

Proving every bit as devious as his charges, Hay offers a subversive insight into the way the Establishment operates, which would have gone down well with audiences off the back of the Depression and the Abdication Crisis. However, he next turned his attention Stateside, as he persuaded Balcon to let him ditch Moffatt and Marriott and team with veteran comic Edgar Kennedy on Marcel Varnel's Hey! Hey! USA (1938). Once again cast as Benjamin Twist, Hay finds himself on a transatlantic liner while working as a porter during the school holiday. He is mistaken for Professor Phineas Tavistock, who has been engaged to teach the son of a millionaire. However, he's been targeted by mobsters seeking a ransom, including stowaway Bugs Leary.

The badinage between Hay and Kennedy is decent enough, with the latter being a master of the double take. But the script betrays its eagerness to sell Hay to American audiences, with the result that it failed to find favour on either side of the pond. Perhaps that was Balcon's plan all along, as Hay had little option but to renew acquaintance with Moffatt and Marriott on Varnel's Old Bones of the River (1938).

Given that the aim was to lampoon pompous imperial paeans like Zoltan Korda's Sanders of the River (1935), this is nowhere near as unenlightened as most British pre-war pictures about the African colonies. The members of the Ochori tribe, for example, are far more worldly when it comes to taxation than Professor Benjamin Tibbetts, a missionary from the Teaching & Welfare Institution for the Reformation of Pagans (or TWIRP) who becomes acting commissioner when the incumbent falls ill. As the crew of the paddle steamer Zaire, Albert and Harbottle help Tibbetts thwart a coup. But depiction of the brothers competing for the throne is patronising in the extreme and, despite the best efforts of Hay to ridicule the notion of 'the white man's burden', this is less a comedy than a case study of outdated attitudes.

Released the weekend before the Second World War broke out, Varnel's Ask a Policeman (1939) was situated on safer ground. But events in Turnbotham Round rather echo those in Buggleskelly, as Sergeant Samuel Dudfoot and sidekicks Albert and Harbottle stumble across some smugglers while trying to fake a crime wave in a bid to prevent the Chief Constable from closing their police station because everyone's too honest. Co-writer Val Guest would later recycle the idea for Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball in The Boys in Blue (1982), while echoes can also be heard in Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz (2007), the middle segment of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, which also contains Shaun of the Dead (2004) and The World's End (2013).

The trio remained in uniform for their last hurrah, Where's That Fire? (1940), which was directed by Marcel Varnel for 20th Century-Fox. Despite centring on a crook's bid to use Captain Benjamin Viking's fire engine to steal the Crown Jewels, this landmark in Hay's career has never been released in any home entertainment format after long being presumed lost. So, for once, Cinema Paradiso can only shrug and move on.

A still from The Ghost of St. Michael's (1941)
A still from The Ghost of St. Michael's (1941)

Frustrated by the fact that the films were incorporating more slapstick, Hay decided to break up what he called 'a three legged stool' and follow Michael Balcon to Ealing. As would later be the case with Tony Hancock and Sid James, there was a touch of insecurity behind the decision, as Hay felt Marriott was getting too many belly laughs. However, he found himself paired with another adept scene-stealer in Claude Hulbert when he headlined Varnel's The Ghost of St Michael's (1941).

Scripted by John Dighton and Angus MacPhail, the scenario dispatches William Lamb to the Isle of Skye to teach science at a school that had been evacuated to Dunbain Castle. However, he learns from Hilary Tisdale (Hulbert) that staff members have been dying after bagpipes are heard in the night. Lamb is suspected when the headmaster and a sneering colleague (the ever-excellent Felix Aylmer and Raymond Huntley) are bumped off. But know-all student Percy Thorne (Charles Hawtrey) suspects a Nazi spy ring is operating in the vicinity.

Despite having a familiar feel, this was a slick old dark house comedy. But Hay wanted more control and asked Balcon to allow him to co-direct The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1941) with Basil Dearden (whose career has been covered in one of Cinema Paradiso's popular Instant Expert Guides ). John Mills returned to the fold as the sole student of a correspondence school run by Professor Will Davis. Several twists of fate result in Davis being mistaken for an eminent economist advising the government on wartime relations with Latin America before further confusions lead to a confrontation with a nest of Fifth Columnists.

With the outcome of the conflict still very much in doubt, the studios felt compelled to boost the war effort. However, audiences were beginning to tire of entertainments that were essentially veiled propaganda. As we shall see with George Formby, stars were keen to do their bit and Hay would make cameo appearances in Charles Frend's The Big Blockade and Walter Forde's Ministry of Information short, Go to Blazes (both 1942). But The Goose Steps Out (1942) would his last word on the struggle against Fascism.

Collaborating again with Dearden, Hay took the dual role of William Potts and his lookalike, Muller, who just happens to be a spy. When Muller is captured, Potts is smuggled into the university where he had been teaching young Nazis and ordered to discover details about a new secret weapon. Fortunately, Max (Charles Hawtrey) is an Austrian keen to overthrow the Third Reich and his pals help Potts in his search.

Of course, the result is never in doubt. But there are comic highlights, with a debuting Peter Ustinov cueing up one of Hay's most famous gags when he asks about British forms of 'ceremonial salutation' and learns a variation on Winston Churchill's 'V For Victory' sign. Yet, while this remains a rousing romp, the gags and byplay devised by MacPhail and Dighton lacked the erstwhile edge. They rectified the situation, however, with what transpired to be Hay's last and darkest feature, My Learned Friend (1943).

Joining forces with Claude Babbington (Claude Hulbert) after he botches a fraud prosection against him, shifty ex-barrister William Fitch learns that he is on the chopping list compiled by Arthur Grimshaw (Mervyn Johns), who has sworn vengeance on everyone who helped put him behind bars. Seeking to protect himself by preserving others, Fitch flits between East End dives, theatres and asylums before he finds himself hanging off the hands of Big Ben to prevent a bomb blowing up the House of Lords.

A still from Safety Last! (1923)
A still from Safety Last! (1923)

Coming between Harold Lloyd in Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor's Safety Last! (1923) and Robert Powell in Don Sharp's The 39 Steps (1978), Hay makes an unlikely high-rise hero. But he revelled in the bleakness of the situation and it would have been interesting to see how his career might have developed. However, a cancer diagnosis led to the cancellation of Bob's Your Uncle and he never made another film, even though he recovered well enough to work on radio. Hay's plans to direct were confounded by a series of strokes and he died aged 60 (the compulsory retirement age for teachers) on 18 April 1949.

In addition to the films he left behind, Hay's legacy extends to the achievements of such admirers as Ronnie Barker, Tommy Cooper, Eric Morecambe and Ken Dodd. His influence can also be seen in the sketches of Harry Enfield, who similarly credits his audience with intelligence. It's about time somebody celebrated his genius in a documentary, as there is quite a tale to tell. Which other film star, for example, gave Amy Johnson flying lessons or detected a white spot on the surface of Saturn?

Turned Out Nice Again

If Hay has exerted a major influence on successive generations of comedians, George Formby can point to the impact he made on popular music. Owing much to the music hall tradition, his innuendo-strewn brand of song is still copied by sketch and stand-up comedians today. But it was his virtuoso ukulele playing that made Beatle George Harrison a lifelong fan. Not bad going for a fellow who, to quote one of his own films, had 'a face like a horse and a row of teeth like a graveyard'.

George Hoy Booth was born in Wigan on 26 May 1904, the son of music hall star George Formby. Young George didn't get to enjoy the trappings of his success, however, as his father wanted him to become a jockey. Consequently, his education was sacrificed at the age of seven (hence his enduring struggles with literacy) so that he could become a stable boy. When he was just 10, George became and remains the youngest professional jockey in British racing history and continued riding for six years, even though he never won a race. He did beat the field, however, in Bert Haldane's long-lost thriller, By the Shortest of Heads (1915), in which his stablehand also outwits a gang of crooks.

As he was away from home for long periods, George never got to see Formby, Sr. play Lancashire likely lad John Willie, whose patter included jokes ('coughing better tonight') about the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1921. However, his mother, Eliza was determined that he should inherit her husband's act after she caught another comic performing it and used cylinder recordings to teach him the songs. She also exploited the family's connection with theatre managers across the country to get George bookings under her maiden name, Hoy, while he learned stagecraft.

It took a couple of years for George to find his style and Eliza had to subsidise him. Things changed, however, when he took up the ukulele. Despite being unable to read music and only able to play in one key, George developed such a distinctive style that he ditched his father's material and started billing himself as George Formby the Lancashire Toreador. It was around this time that he met and married champion clog dancer Beryl Ingham, who became his manager and made herself deeply unpopular for the way in which she handled every aspect of her husband's career. Both seemingly had affairs, even though Beryl forbade Formby from fraternising with his female co-stars. Yet, shortly before she died, he claimed in a 1960 television special that he owed her everything.

In 1926, Formby made is first recordings and would go on to sing some 200 songs, almost half of which were written by Fred Cliffe and Harry Gifford. His success was still largely confined to the north, however, and his first two features were made for Mancunian Films, a company formed by John E. Blakely on the advice of Stan Laurel to specialise in low-budget vehicles for music hall and variety stars. Directed by Bert Tracy at a cost of £2000, Boots! Boots! (1934) teamed George and Beryl as John Willie and Snooky, a boot boy and a scullery maid whose uncle is a wealthy hotelier. It's patchy in the extreme and there's little chemistry between the married leads. But 'Why Don't Women Like Me' is a gem and Beryl can be seen dancing to the tune of George's first hit, 'Chinese Laundry Blues'.

They were paired again in Arthur Mertz's Off the Dole (1935), in which the workshy John Willie is denied unemployment benefit for moonlighting and agrees to work for his uncle's private detective agency. In essence, this is a string of sketches interspersed with songs. But classics like 'With My Little Ukulele in My Hand' helped make it a hit and persuaded Beryl to quit acting and focus on management.

She remained a fierce negotiator, however, and Basil Dean, the head of Associated Talking Pictures who had turned Formby down in 1934, was coerced into offering him a seven-year contract. He also oversaw a reworking of Formby's screen persona, as the snook-cocking John Willie was replaced by the cheekily meek George, whom he would play for the next 12 years.

A still from The Twelve Chairs (1970)
A still from The Twelve Chairs (1970)

The first incarnation, Wigan chimney sweep George Shuttleworth, appeared in Monty Banks's No Limit (1935), which was co-written by Walter Greenwood, whose epochal novel, Love on the Dole, would be filmed by John Baxter in 1941. Modelled on the Harold Lloyd silent, Girl Shy (1924), the story sees George cross to the Isle of Man to compete in the TT Races and win the heart of Florence Desmond, who works as a secretary for a rival rider. A motorbike enthusiast, Formby did many of own stunts. But the real drama took place behind the scenes, as Banks took exception to Beryl's attempts to micro-manage the shoot. Nevertheless, the picture proved such a hit that Dean reunited Formby, Desmond and Banks on Keep Your Seats, Please (1936), which reworked the same novel by the comic Russian writers Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov that Mel Brooks would adapt as The Twelve Chairs (1970).

The pursuit of six antique chairs, one of which contains a fortune in jewels, took up much of George's time. But, between encounters with Gus McNaughton, Alastair Sim and child star Binkie Stuart, he does get to sing 'When I'm Cleaning Windows', which remains among his trademark tunes. He also has his work cut out evading a duck and disguising a goat. Audiences loved it, but the ATP suits decided to break up a winning team and entrust Formby to Will Hay's old director, William Beaudine, for Feather Your Nest (1937).

Despite containing 'Leaning on a Lampost', the story of a record company technician who becomes a star after replacing a star singer's voice with his own isn't currently available on disc. This is a shame, as Formby was paired with Marie Lloyd's niece, Polly Ward. However, he was even more effectively teamed with Kay Walsh in Keep Fit (1937), which started a five-film run with director Anthony Kimmins. Threatening to come between barber's assistant George Green and manicurist Joan Allen, however, is sporty type, Hector Kent (Guy Middleton), and George has to master the art of boxing to win the day.

Formby and Walsh had a fling in Beryl's absence, but Basil Dean insisted on casting the twosome in I See Ice (1938), which contained the saucy ditty, 'In My Little Snapshot Album'. Feeling sorry for aspiring photographer George Bright, skater Judy Gaye gets him a job with her ice ballet company. However, partner Paul Martine (Cyril Ritchard) gets jealous, while a newspaper editor (Garry Marsh) becomes convinced that George is trying to blackmail him.

It's lively fun, with George playing ice hockey and dressing as a Cossack. But Beryl wouldn't contemplate a third reunion with Walsh and Polly Ward returned for It's in the Air (1938), which sees George don uniform for the first time, as war clouds started to gather over Europe. Naturally, George Brown is mistaken for an RAF dispatch rider and winds up a hero after landing a plane single handed. But there's also time for him to fall out with Ward's father (Julien Mitchell), who just happens to be a sergeant major.

Away from films, Beryl kept her husband busy recording and performing live. By the time he made Trouble Brewing (1939), Formby was earning £100,000 a year and was one of the country's biggest stars. He plays George Gullip in this comedy whodunit, in which a humble newpaper print setter invents a technique to fingerprint the brewery-based forgers passing off bogus banknotes. Once again, Gus McNaughton proves a willing foil, while 19 year-old Googie Withers had the distinction of becoming the first actress Beryl allowed George to kiss on screen (after herself, of course) at the bottom of a giant beer vat.

Withers later complained that Formby had been anything but gentlemanly during the shooting of the scene, but the public image of the harmless chump remained untarnished. Indeed, as Britain entered the Phoney War, Formby was there to rally morale with his final Kimmins collaboration, Come On George! (1939). This time, he plays a stable boy who unknowingly forms a relationship with a temperamental horse named 'Maneater'. It's only when he accepts the chance to ride the creature he calls 'The Lamn' in the big race that the truth emerges and George has to hang on for dear life.

Pat Kirkwood cheered George on, while he strummed through jolly tunes like 'I'm Making Headway Now'. But the pair barely exchanged a word off camera and Formby probably didn't notice a young hopeful by the name of Dirk Bogarde among the extras. However, he quickly packed up his troubles in his old kit bag and set forth for France to entertain the troops as part of an ENSA concert party arranged by Basil Dean. Formby would prove tireless during the conflict, performing in Europe, North Africa and the Far East and always insisting that the officers sat at the back. In all, three million service personnel saw him play.

Formby was also aware of his value on the homefront and Marcel Varnel's Let George Do It! (1940) contains a scene in which he descends from a hot air balloon to biff Adolf Hitler on the nose, as he delivers a speech at a Nuremberg rally. This isn't his sole act of heroism, however, as ukulele player George Hepplewhite is mistakenly sent to Bergen instead of Blackpool and his helped by spy-cum-receptionist Mary Wilson (Phyllis Calvert) to prove that bandleader Mark Mendez (Garry Marsh) has been sending musical messages to the Nazis during his radio broadcasts.

With 'Mr Wu's a Window Cleaner Now', 'Grandad's Flannelette Nightshirt' and 'Count Your Blessings and Smile' among Formby's best-remembered songs, this was one of the most commercially successful flagwavers of the entire war. It was also a huge hit in New York, where the staging of 'Oh Don't the Wind Blow Cold' was much admired. But Formby merely kept calm and carried on, as he joined the Home Guard and served as a dispatch rider whenever his diary would allow.

With Varnel otherwise engaged, John Paddy Carstairs (who would later make six comedies with Norman Wisdom - tap his name into the Cinema Paradiso searchline to find out more) was hired for Spare a Copper (1941), Set on Merseyside, the story has War Reserve police officer George Carter (by chance, Dennis Waterman's name in The Sweeney, 1975-78) stumble across a gang of Nazi spies intent on destroying the propellor for a new battleship. Enlivened by songs like 'I'm the Ukulele Man', this was a slick, if familiar wartime diversion. But Formby was aware of the drop in standard and Beryl ensured that Marcel Varnel's Turned Out Nice Again (1941) would be his last outing for ATP. As Michael Balcon had never been a great Formby fans and had never enjoyed dealing with Beryl, he was content to let them leave.

He certainly went out on a musical high note, as 'Auntie Maggie's Remedy', 'You Can't Go Wrong in These' and 'The Emperor of Lancashire' are among his best film songs. The narrative also gave Formby the chance to do some straight acting, as textile worker George Pearson invents a new lingerie material and has to referee the slanging matches between his mother (Elliott Mason) and new wife (Peggy Bryan). Frustratingly, nothing he did for the Hollywood outfit, Columbia Pictures, provided a similar challenge. However, he did pocket £500,000 for the six-film deal (making him better paid than Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and Bette Davis) and set up Hillcrest Productions to distribute them in the UK.

One can only presume that Columbia saw Formby as a British equivalent of Joe E. Brown, who was known for playing innocents abroad before Billy Wilder gave him the best last line in screen history in Some Like It Hot (1959). Yet, while they tried not to interfere and surrounded Formby with familiar faces, his final seven features are less lauded by critics and aficionados alike.

A still from South American George (1941)
A still from South American George (1941)

That's not to say there isn't much to enjoy - indeed, every one of the 100,000 titles in the Cinema Paradiso catalogue has something to recommend it. Marcel Varnel's South American George (1941), for example, has two Formbys for the price of one, as George Butters is asked to pose as an opera star with laryngitis because he's a dead ringer for the absconded Gilli Vanetti. But Jacques Brown's apoplectic impresario and Ronald Shiner and Alf Goddard's bungling hitmen impart some comic sheen.

Having been on another goodwill tour, Formby produced Philip Brandon's Vera Lynn vehicle, We'll Meet Again, before embarking upon Marcel Varnel's Much Too Shy (both 1942). It's a surprise to find Walter Greenwood among the writers of a story that lands handyman George Andy in hot water after the portraits he has painted of several prominent women are acquired by an advertising company that appends some naked bodies. It's always a pleasure to watch Kathleen Harrison and the notion of casting Jimmy Clitheroe as Formby's younger brother almost pays off. But this feels rather sniggeringly smutty eight decades on, despite the inclusion of the delightful 'Talking to the Moon About You'.

A whiff of personal experience informs Varnel's Get Cracking (1943), as Formby had volunteered for the Home Guard. He's as keen as mustard as Lance Corporal George Singleton, but he keeps losing his stripe in his eagerness to get one over on Everett Manley (Ronald Shiner) in the rivalry between the Major and Minor Wallop platoons. Filmed in a hurry to allow Formby to go on another ENSA tour, this will amuse fans of both Norman Cohen's Dad's Army feature and Oliver Parker's unnecessary 2016 retool, as he devises a home-made tank to win a war game. He also anticipates the surreal brand of comedy perfected by Spike Milligan, when he breaches the Fourth Wall to chat with the narrator.

Although reviewers pined for the old ATP days, Formby remained a box-office draw and Varnel's Bell-Bottom George (1943) did brisk business, even though its plotline was rapidly becoming old hat. Waiter George Blake finds himself bound up in another case of mistaken identity after his sailor pal borrows his suit and he's arrested by a shore patrol. However, he manages to slip away and, with the help of a Wren named Pat (Anne Firth), he uncovers a spy ring using a London taxidermist's shop as a front for a sabotage attack on a secret submarine.

Intriguingly, the title track and 'Swim Little Fish' and 'If I Had a Girl Like You' were investigated by the BBC's Dance Music Policy Committee after it had been tipped off that the lyrics might prove helpful to the enemy. Undaunted, Formby (who was personal friends with Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and was among the first to give an ENSA in Normandy after D-Day) bashed on with Varnel's He Snoops to Conquer (1945), which looked forward to the postwar period of reconstruction by satirising the town planning schemes being proposed to ensure Britain became a land fit for heroes.

A forerunner of Norman Pitkin, George Gribble is a handyman who is treated as a dolt by Oxford (Claude Bailey), the corrupt leader of Tangleton council. However, when he messes up an order to destroy some incriminating documents, the story hits the headlines. With Aldwych farceur Robertson Hare proving a splendid sidekick, as inventor Sir Timothy Strawbridge, this is an underrated late entry in the Formby canon and Cinema Paradiso users are urged to get clicking.

A still from I Didn't Do It (1945)
A still from I Didn't Do It (1945)

A hint of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Murderer Lives At 21 (1942) can be felt in Varnel's I Didn't Do It (1945), which shares a boarding-house setting and a macabre sense of humour. Formby plays George Trotter, a stagestruck hopeful who moves into threatrical digs in the hope of getting his big break. However, he is framed for the murder of an acrobat and has to rely on his unsuspected smarts to prove his innocence.

Any thoughts that he might have gone down the same route as Charles Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947) or Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in the likes of Charles Barton's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) were quickly set aside, however. Indeed, Formby had decided that Varnel's George in Civvy Street (1946) would be his last picture. It took five writers to cobble the storyline, which sees demobbed George Harper returning home to find The Unicorn public house in the midst of a beer war with The Lion. As his sole customer is an artist who pays for his drinks with paintings and someone has spiked his stock, George needs Forces pal Fingers (Ronald Shiner) to help him fight back.

Any comments the script might have made about life in Austerity Britain were as mild as the smiles raised by songs like 'You Don't Need a License For That'. Formby gives it his all, as he always did, and even commits to a bizarre Alice in Wonderland fantasy sequence. There's also a Romeo and Juliet element in George's crush on Rosalyn Boulter's rival barmaid, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that the world depicted had already gone and would never return.

A still from Torment (1944)
A still from Torment (1944)

Although he had to be treated for depression on realising that his screen career was over, Formby had the sense to realise that cinema had moved on in his 11 years at the top. Consequently, he turned down offers to sign new contracts or make one-off pictures with the likes of Swedish director Alf Sjöberg, who had made Torment (1944) from a script by the young Ingmar Bergman.

He told one interviewer, 'when I look back on some of the films I've done in the past it makes me want to cringe. I'm afraid the days of being a clown are gone. From now on I'm only going to do variety.' But he wasn't just any old entertainer and his refusal to play to segregated audiences in pre-apartheid South Africa resulted in him being thrown out of the country, even before Beryl insulted National Party leader Daniel François Malan by calling him 'a horrible little man'.

Battling ill health, Formby continued to tour, record and appear in stage shows until the late 1950s. His poignant 1960 swan song on The Friday Show is available from Cinema Paradiso on George Formby: Formby's Farewell (1960), while his achievement is celebrated in the documentaries, George Formby: Life and Wartimes (1967) and

George Formby: Ukulele Man (1971). Timothy Spall hinted at a darker side in his parodic impersonation in Stephen Cookson's Stanley: Man of Variety (2016). Indeed, to many, Formby and Gracie Fields embodied the spirit of the provinces that would crack the deferential veneer that was shattered by the 'angry young men' of the 1950s. Some have even dubbed him Britain's first pop star. There's been no like him since and, luckily, he left behind hours of happy memories on record and film.

Pride of Our Alley

Gracie Fields was the Adele of her day. Born Grace Stansfield above a Rochdale chip shop on 9 January 1898, she started performing at the age of five with the stage troupes, Haley's Garden of Girls and The Nine Dainty Dots. When she was 12, she made her professional bow and quit her part-time job at a mill. From the outset, Fields set great store by her humble origins and broad Lancashire accent and this ordariness and sincerity enabled her to appeal to audiences from across the class spectrum.

In tandem with comedian-cum-impresario Archie Pitt, Fields made an immediate impact on the halls and proved just as comfortable in London's Theatreland. In addition to revues and recordings, Fields also demonstrated an aptitude for drama and was cast as Sally Winch in Sally in Our Alley (1931), Maurice Elvey's adaptation of Charles McEvoy's stage hit, The Likes of Her. Produced by Basil Dean for Associated Talking Pictures, the story has Sally believing that soldier boyfriend George Miles (Ian Hunter) has been killed during the Great War. However, he has been so badly wounded that he can't believe that Sally would still love him.

Laced with laughs and featuring Fields's signature tune, 'Sally', this sentimental dramedy rang a ball with audiences still coming to terms with the senseless slaughter of the trenches. It also commented on the current social situation, as did Dean's Looking on the Bright Side (1932), in which manicurist Gracie and hairdresser Laurie (Richard Dolman) form a musical double act. However, his head is turned by star Josie Joy (Wyn Richmond) and Gracie winds up having to join the police force after he dumps her.

Once again, Fields made a winning heroine, as she fights back from disappointment to stand on her own two feet. Such messages were inspirational to British women during the Depression and Fields bounced back from adversity again in Elvey's This Week of Grace (1933). This time factory girl Grace Milroy finds work as a servant at Swinford Castle and not only wins over the snooty staff, but also wins the heart of Lord Clive Swinford (Henry Kendall). True love couldn't be allowed to run smoothly, of course, and Grace decides to run away and become a chorus girl.

Long thought to be lost, this least known of Gracie's features is available from Cinema Paradiso and reveals how keen producers were to show class unity during the dark days of economic strife. However, the line had to be drawn somewhere and publican's daughter Nellie Gwynn finds in Elvey's Love, Life and Laughter (1934) that the class barriers are harder to break down in the Mitteleuropean duchy of Granau, after she falls in love with heir to the throne, Prince Charles (John Loder).

Featuring a rare screen turn by the inimitable Robb Wilton as a bumbling magistrate and a debuting George Sanders as a pub singer, this lively fairytale is full of amusing historical allusions and the odd episode that anticipates the 1936 Abdication Crisis, which was chronicled by Madonna in her rare directorial outing, W.E. (2011). Such is the mildness of the political commentary supplied by novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley for Dean's Sing As We Go (1934) that one would be forgiven for believing that a truce had ended the class war. But this tale of an unemployed mill worker who takes on a variety of jobs in Blackpool until her old boss lands a deal for a miracle yarn is much more than a morale-boosting piece of escapism for beleagueured audiences.

A still from They Came to a City (1944)
A still from They Came to a City (1944)

This is a pioneering example of might be called 'populist realism', as Dean took his camera out of the studio and on location in order to capture the unique atmosphere of Blackpool and its attractions. As Fields is such a natural performer, Gracie Platt becomes an everywoman with whom female and male viewers alike could identify. The optimistic tone was also infectious and Priestley (who is best known today for Basil Dearden's They Came to a City, 1944 and Guy Hamilton's An Inspector Calls, 1954) was rehired to work with Gordon Wellesley on Dean's Look Up and Laugh (1935).

Revue stars Gracie Pearson turns down a West End show when she learns that Belfer (Alfred Drayton) wants to tear down the market in her home town of Flamborough and replace it with a department store. Such is Gracie's dynamism in organising a sit-in that Belfer's daughter, Marjorie (Vivien Leigh), joins the protest. Rabble-rousing with practicality, a smile and a jaunty tune, Fields is simply splendid and it's easy to see why the entire nation regarded her as 'Our Gracie'. A young Kenneth More can be seen debuting as a piano shifter.

Long divorced from Pitt, Fields met the next great love of her life when Italian Monty Banks was asked to direct Queen of Hearts (1936). Having worked with George Formby, he knew exactly what was expected of the tale of Grace Perkins, a seamstress who helps stage idol Derek Cooper (John Loder) avoid a scandal and is mistaken for a patron of the arts who has the funds to back a show. But Basil Dean was eager for Fields to break into the American market and he insists on glamourising her, with the result that her typically ebullient shtick loses some of its authenticity.

Dean avoided making the same mistake in The Show Goes On (1937), which draws on Gracie's relationship with Archie Pitt in showing how composer Martin Fraser (Owen Nares) makes a star out of mill girl Sally Scowcroft. This occasionally mawkish melodrama can be rented from Cinema Paradiso as part of The Gracie Fields Collection (2008). However, this is where the DVD trail goes cold, as she left ATP to sign a deal with 20th Century-Fox and none of We're Going to Be Rich, Keep Smiling (both 1938) or Shipyard Sally (1939) is available to rent.

Sadly, around this time, Fields suffered from two bouts of serious ill health and she travelled to her home in Capri to recuperate. As war broke out while she was away, Fields took the decision to remain abroad to prevent Banks (whom she would marry in 1940) from being interned as an enemy alien. As both

Michael Ferguson's Pride of Our Alley (1983) and Brian Percival's Gracie! (2009) reveal, the public turned on Fields (who is respectively played by Polly Hemingway and Jane Horrocks) for remaining on enemy territory rather than returning home to do her bit.

In fact, despite being unwell, Fields made ENSA appearances in France and left for Hollywood with Winston Churchill's blessing to make friends and dollars for the war effort. She took a cameo in Frank Borzage's all-star revue, Stage Door Canteen (1943), to sing 'The Machine Gun Song' and 'The Lord's Prayer'. Fox also teamed her twice with Monty Woolley as a painter and his wife in John M. Stahl's Holy Matrimony (1943) and as a parliamentary candidate and his housekeeper in Lewis Seiler's Molly and Me (1945).

Fields and Woolley suited each other nicely, but they weren't paired again, as Gracie decided to quit films after playing Emmeline Quayle opposite Constance Bennett's Kitty de Mornay in Gregory Ratoff's Paris Underground (1945), which centres on the exploits of an Anglo-American pair who are trapped in the French capital during the Occupation and try to help Allied airmen cross the Channel.

Although she chose to remain on Capri after Banks died in 1950, Fields made up with the British public. She continued to record and hosted her own radio show before becoming a familiar guest on TV chat and variety shows. Married to Romanian radio repairmnan Boris Alperovici, she also took the odd acting role on American television. In 1956, she became the first screen incarnation of Miss Marple in an adaptation of Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced (remade with Joan Hickson in 1985 and Geraldine McEwan in 2004 ) while she also took the lead in a 1958 small-screen take on Paul Gallico's Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris, which was subsequently filmed with Angela Lansbury and Lesley Manville, whose 2022 version will hit UK cinemas at the end of September.

Seven months before her death, Fields was made a dame. She died on 27 September 1979 at the age of 81. Four decades later, she still gets name checks in films as different as David Leland's Wish You Were Here (1987), Philip Goodhew's Intimate Relations (1996) and Nicholas Hytner's The History Boys (2006). And, like Hay and Formby before her, she remains one of the legends of British entertainment who made the step from the music hall era to the multi-media age.

A still from Intimate Relations (1996)
A still from Intimate Relations (1996)
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