Friday, June 29, 2007

"'Morning, Mr. Tonks! How's the foot?"

I've saved the best for last. The Great Fire Pole Sequence from Where's That Fire? (1940), Will Hay's sixth and final film with stooges Moffatt and Marriott, is one of the greatest "accumulative chaos" sequences in comedy film history, easily on a par with the Stateroom Scene from A Night At the Opera (and outshining all of the knock-off sequences in the Marx features that followed). It is, in my opinion, Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott's finest hour. Unlike the Marxes, Hay & Co. aren't creating chaos for the sake of chaos, but the trio's bullheadedness and incompetence bring about very similar results. Captain Viking (Hay) and firemen Albert and Harbottle have been ordered by the town council of Bishop's Wallop to shape up and modernize their tumbledown fire station after their blundering allowed the Town Hall to burn to the ground. To this end, Viking decides to install a fire pole, but the twenty-foot pole needs to be turned around so that it can stand on its "thick end", which means that Viking, Albert, and Harbottle will first have to bring it out into the street. Director Marcel Varnel handles this sequence with amazing confidence, covering it with a spectacular variety of camera angles and allowing the laughs to build for more than eleven minutes before reaching the payoff. And not only do Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott each get plenty of their own character gags, the sequence is also peppered with lots of other little character studies; the useless cop and his pad ("Now then! What's going on here?"), Charles Hawtrey's know-it-all schoolboy, put-upon Mr. Tonks with his broken foot, and Wilson Coleman's wonderfully oblivious doctor ("Hello, hello? What's this? New wireless aerial?"). Unfortunately for the structural integrity of Where's That Fire?, The Great Fire Pole Sequence (which could stand alone as a short) comes smack-dab at the mid-point and is so spectacular that the remainder of the film, especially the climax, pales in comparison.

Part One

Part Two

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Blogger East Side said...

Another good one. Great pay-off line, too. Any chance the writer and/or director remembered the pain Laurel & Hardy inflicted on Edgar Kennedy's gouty foot in "The Perfect Day"?

Nice to see the real Charles Hawtrey, whom John Lennon mentions at the beginning of "Two of Us" on the "Let it Be" album.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

"I Dig a Pygmy" by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf-aids! The Beatles were up to their necks in British classic comedy and were never ashamed to admit it. I recall that Paul once said in an interview that it was a good thing that they let the Beatles disband while it still in its prime because he didn't want the group to end up like the Crazy Gang in the 50s.. "varnished" I think he called them.. and it was apparently very true. The Gang was tired by the mid-50s but just kept plugging away until 1960.

6:52 PM  
Blogger paul etcheverry said...

That was great, thanks for posting it!

Something about Harbottle and Albert makes me think of the various "dumb guy" configurations in THE BLACK ADDER, always with Tony Robinson as Baldrick.

11:37 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

The cynical ringleader and the moron sidekick seems to be a grand British tradition. I'd love to hear Harbottle say "I have a cunning plan." at least once.

9:35 AM  

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