Will Hay and the Comedy Divide: an Ugly American's Perspective
Thanks to the endless wonder that is the Electromatic Interweb, I've now seen the (near) entirety of Will Hay's film oeuvre (an early short was missing from the DVD set and may be missing in general). We've mentioned Hay at least a few times here but haven't yet truly given the man his due, partly because poor old Will Hay exists in some shadowy netherworld between proper comedy stardom and true Third Banana status. In Britain, he remains the home-grown icon of 30s film comedy. On this side of the Atlantic, Will Hay remains an obscurity.. a bit surprising given not only his accessibility as a comedian, but the decidedly "American" tone of his best work. As an official Hawaiian shirt-wearing Ugly American, I must bestow upon poor Will Hay the Third Banana tag. Who da heck is dis Will Hay, anyway??
If there's any term I would use to describe the bulk of British film comedy of the 1930s, it would be "self-conscious". A deep-rooted sense of tradition is one of the hallmarks of the British music halls, and I believe that this awareness of purpose may have been a factor behind the rather perfunctory air that so much British comedy of the 30s and 40s suffers from. This is not always a refection on the comedians themselves. Arthur Askey is a wonderful, sprightly ultra-comic who makes a huge, obscene joke out of the very act of cracking jokes. The team of Flanagan and Allen, the "Oi!" comedians, engage in mindbending doubletalk routines that sound like Abbott and Costello on speed and then turn around and sing lilting songs that gush sincerity. But for every Bud Flanagan, you have a Charlie Naughton.. maybe two.. maybe more. Comedians who had been called upon to repeat the same routines for so long that they can no longer feel it. They're no longer comedians at that stage. They're performers playing comedians. And, most unfortunately, this self-consciouness seeps into the films, no matter how good the starring comedians may be, manifesting as a kind of tightly-controlled zaniness. Even the best British comics, such as the wonderful George Formby, fought an uphill battle against the rote nature of their film vehicles to no avail. To American eyes and ears, all this self-consciousness violates one of our key expectations from comedy. In America, then as today, entertainers were seen as largely inseparable from the individual. If comics wore a mask when they entertained, it was a slightly caricatured one that revealed some basic truths about the very real person who wore it (Eddie Cantor went one step further by blurring the line between the entertainer's private life and his performances). There was little room for tradition in a world of self-defined iconoclasts. And if the entertainer was seen as inseparable from the entertainer, the entertainer was to be inseparable from the films they appeared in. After the Marx Brothers moved to Hollywood, the scripts for their films became, for a time, free-for-all workshops for some of the nation's finest humorists. The end results bore little resemblance to anything preceding them; they are, undeniably Marx Brothers Movies to the core (and is it any wonder that their least successful comedies, Love Happy and Room Service, weren't originally written as "Marx Brothers Movies"?). The upshoot of this comedy divide was that, in the 30s, American comedies exported to the UK with more ease than vice versa. British audiences simply embraced the artistry of those American acts they liked. As many successful American acts in the UK discovered, this appreciation for skill translated into an overwhelming preference for repetition of that skill. Burns and Allen, for instance, were called upon to repeat the same material endlessly by doting audiences. In America, however, it was as though British comedy did not exist. There wasn't a blanket ban on British imports, but there might as well have been. Most American studios had affiliates, if not wholly-owned subsidiaries, in the UK churning out product tailored to native tastes so it would have been a simple matter to import those films. One must imagine that the studios at least test-screened some of these comedies for select audiences. After all, it would have been within the studios' interests to turn as much of a profit as possible on films that, in many cases, they owned outright. But, ultimately, the studios must have realized the problems posed by the comedy divide. Even when not hopelessly self-aware, the rather gentle nature of most British comedies would have held little appeal to audiences with a taste for the extreme, and those British comedies that aspired to the extreme were the most self-conscious of all, bordering on neurotic. And so it was that Joe E. Brown was a household name in the UK, while George Formby was about as well-known in the US as the guy who cleaned the toilets at the Conoco station down the street.
But Will Hay was a different matter.. or he should have been. One of his films, Hey, Hey, USA! (1938) co-stars Edgar "Slow Burn" Kennedy and was certainly made with the American market in mind. Another, Where's That Fire? (1940) was produced by 20th Century Fox (the only surviving print was found in that studio's film vault in the 1970s). There's also evidence that a few of Hay's films received limited US distribution. What set Hay apart from all those acts that had no hope of entering the US market? To start with, Hay's comedy skills were so great as to override the self-consciousness that make acts like Nervo and Knox, talented as they were, seem so packaged. His natural comic's sensibilities are apparent in his impeccable sense of timing and pantomime, but unlike American comics such as Ted Healy, whose screen characters are reflections of their true personalities (frighteningly enough), Hay's doddering, shifty persona is pure performance. In this regard, Hay's methods are much like those of fellow Karno alumnus Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin whose instantly recognizable characters are similarly a matter of skillful performance rather than channeled behavioral tendencies. Thus there is no more self-consciousness about Hay's comic performances than there is about, say, Jimmy Stewart's dramatic ones. Hay performances "read" as sincere. Just as importantly, Hay's finest movies are wild and, atypically for British comedies of the 30s (but not for American ones), rather ruthless. Although Hay began his film career often playing mild characters in equally mild (to say nothing of mechanical) farces, he soon found his footing as an hilariously amoral opportunist in comedies that rivaled the Marxes in pure anarchic abandon. Hay, who bears a resemblance to Boris Karloff, is all bluff, cringing from those with more power and bullying those with less. He's a fount of ignorance, willing to talk at length about things of which he has absolutely no understanding, and if you call him on it, he'll simply shout you down or give you the Dreaded Glare. He's a tin-pot schemer, wheedling his way into places he has no business being and reaping the whirlwind as a result. Sounds awful, doesn't he? Beware! Hay makes you like and sympathize with the crusty old sod, and not by exposing his character's "wounded inner-child" or whatever, either. You want to see Hay come out on top because, dammit, he's a real person; more real than the plastic nobodies or summer stock villains who own and operate the terribly capricious world he lives in. He represents flawed humanity's inalienable right to be flawed.
Furthering the American similarities, in his best comedies Hay is aided and abetted by two stooges, Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott. The Crazy Gang has often been described as the UK's answer to the Marx Brothers, but that's a pack of dirty lies! LIES! Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott are the UK's answer to the Marx Brothers, and they have the dignity to go about their business as though the question were never asked. Graham Moffatt had been playing comic choir boys, page boys, and office boys in films from the tender age of 14 and, in Hay's comedies, he blossomed into a rotund, lazy, squeaky-voiced conniver, on a mission from Hell to make misery for his elders. There was no elder more elder than his unlikely partner Moore Marriott, a toothless, foolish old fossil played to the hilt by a man in his early fifties (who was, admittedly, toothless). The trio, with Hay as ringleader, were vehicles for a brand of slapstick anarchy that Hay seemed incapable of as a solo. As policemen, firemen, sailors, or railway station porters, Hay, Moffatt and Marriott are models of dimwitted graft and inefficiency, engaged in an eternal corruption competition, but pulling together in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the temperamental Hay began to fear that he was simply becoming one third of a comedy team. He made a concerted effort to shake off Moffatt and Marriott in 1938 before finally succeeding by switching studios from Gainsborough to Ealing in 1941. But new stooges like Charles Hawtry and Claude Hulbert did little to compliment Hay's style, and, as far as I'm concerned, neither did Ealing where he spent the brief remainder of his career. Moffatt and Marriott remained at Gainsborough, stooging for such comedians as Arthur Askey.
That Will Hay remains an obscurity in the US remains a mystery, and it seems he's overdue for discovery here. Granted, the entire purpose of The Third Banana is to bring to light comedians who we feel have been unjustly forgotten, but we also understand the limited appeal of many comics no matter how much we may love them. But Will Hay represents a rather extreme case of Third Banana-itis. There was certainly little chance for success for Hay's films in the US during the 30s when there was scarce opportunity for Hay to engage in the kind of promotion that would have brought him to the American public's attention. As an unknown quantity, it would have taken a leap of faith on the part of any studio to build up Hay as a comedy star in the first place, no matter the quality of his films. But today, in our ever dwindling world, one would think that some enterprising soul would give Hay's films an official stateside release, or at least a little airplay on TCM. Who knows? It may happen yet.
And what about the Great Comedy Divide? World War Two caused seismic shifts in British comedy tastes. The horror of war on the homefront was followed by years of rationing and going without. The love of the predictable was soon supplanted by a growing preference for the unexpected. They received it in the form of the Goons who, molded and inspired by their war experiences, established a new trend in British comedy with their anarchistic and original BBC radio series. The iconoclasts had finally taken over, ultimately giving birth to such institutions as Monty Python and The Beatles. Air-conditioned and freshly mowed post-War America, meanwhile, discovered a taste for the domestic and learned to eschew innovation in favor of focus groups.
Anyway, for those who care, here are my top Will Hay picks:
Windbag the Sailor (1936): Directed by the infamous William Beaudine, who even gets an additional dialogue credit (for which lines?)! Hay is a former canal barge skipper whose tall tales of the sea secure him an unwanted job as captain on a boat, the owner of which intends to scuttle. Hay is teamed for the first time with both Moffatt and Marriott, whose regular screen characters haven't yet quite gelled (Marriott, in particular, plays Harbottle as rather sharp-tongued here, a trait that would be quickly dropped). Features a very funny scene in which all three try to chart the ship's location using some decidedly twisted logic.
Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937): Considered by most to be Will Hay's masterpiece, and it may well be, although I find Ask a Policeman and Where's That Fire? funnier. Oh, Mr. Porter! is beyond doubt the best-looking and best-directed of Hay's features. Hay plays a ne'er-do-well railway "wheel-tapper" who is promoted to stationmaster of the tiny Irish town of Buggleskelly. Moffatt and Marriott are the station's wildly unprincipled regular staff, living off the food they steal from deliveries, and are not at all keen on Hay's attempts to make the station respectable. Hay and co. foil a gang of gun runners using a local ghost story as a cover for their activities.
Ask a Policeman (1939): A great anti-establishment film that features Hay, Moffatt and Marriott as thoroughly corrupt policemen in the tiny town of Turnbotham Round. Sergeant Dudfoot (Hay) hasn't bothered to make an arrest in years, giving the town an extremely false reputation as one of the most law-abiding in the nation. In fact, he's made his job, and those of officers Albert and Harbottle (Moffatt and Marriott) superfluous, and they find they must invent crimes and create false evidence in order to save their careers. Eventually Hay and co. foil a gang of smugglers using a local ghost story as a cover for their activities. Hmm. More wonderfully twisted logic in the sequence in which they set up a speed trap and try to deduce how fast a driver was traveling.
Where's That Fire? (1940): My personal favorite. Hay, Moffatt and Marriott are incompetent firemen in the town of Bishops Wallop who are ordered by the city to improve their antiquated station after they accidentally permit the Town Hall to burn to the ground. After visiting a modern London fire station for inspiration (and pocketing a few loose items, such as an alarm and a fire axe), the boys decide to install a pole. The Great Fire Pole Sequence features Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott blocking traffic and smashing up a china shop across the street as they attempt to maneuver the pole into place, giving scant regard to the chaos they're causing. Probably the greatest sustained comedy sequence of Hay's film career. The film concludes with Hay and co. foiling a gang of crooks who are using their station's antique engine, a duplicate of the one at the Tower of London, to steal the Crown Jewels.
Hey, Hey, USA! (1938): Will Hay attempts to enter the American market and replace Moffatt and Marriott in one go and fails on both counts. After a series of misadventures, Hay, a ship's porter, ends up posing as a noted professor on a voyage to the US and is quickly employed by a rich American passenger as a tutor for his bratty son. Meanwhile, stowaway Edgar Kennedy is a member of a gang who intends to kidnap the boy for ransom. Grating farce follows. Kennedy reacts to Hay's mildly dotty malapropisms and misunderstandings as though Hay were Harpo Marx or Bert Wheeler. His extreme overreactions can be extremely funny, but Hay is far too mild here to warrant them making Kennedy seem more than a little unbalanced. In fact, at the close out, he literally goes mad and is carted away! Ironically, Hay would have had a much better chance at entering the US market with Oh, Mr. Porter!.
The Ghost of St. Michaels (1941): Hay's first film for Ealing features him in his famous music hall schoolmaster role, but Charles Hawtry and Claude Hulbert, as a pupil and fellow teacher respectively, are no substitutes for Moffatt and Marriott. Moreover, the screenplay is pure B-movie hash, spending far more time on the inanities of the thin "mystery" plot than on comic set pieces. What comedy sequences we do get are strangely off-putting. Hay's victimization at the hands of his pupils comes across as more cruel than funny, especially as Hay is here at his most innocuous. Hay's breaking of the "fourth wall" at the end when he addresses the audience is charming, though.