Monday, December 03, 2007

Springtime For Duggie

by Geoff Collins

Oh to be in England. A while ago (January 2006; check out our Archive) we lamented the scarcity of information on Duggie Wakefield and the apparent unavailability of any of his films, despite the fact that the intrepid little Yorkshireman had made the trip to Hollywood in 1933 and worked briefly for Hal Roach, no less. Now, at last, at long last, one of Duggie's movies, The Penny Pool, has been released on DVD in Great Britain by Odeon Entertainment - and it's a beauty.

.... unlike Duggie, bless his little cloth cap. Having finally studied him in action I have to say he's one of the oddest-looking comedians I've ever seen, and, I'm pleased to announce, one of the greatest. Duggie Wakefield - almost always billed as Douglas - is the physical and comedic missing link between George Formby and Frank Randle. At face value he's a gormless, snub-nosed twerp with a penchant for invading the space of his superiors by fixing them with a close-range open-mouthed stare from slightly below eye-level, like a Cocker Spaniel waiting for the stick to be thrown. But Duggie's gormlessness is by choice; there's a manipulative, disruptive force at work. He's all things to all men. With his betters he can assume a Wisdom-like helplessness, but this apparent vulnerability is an act, purely for his own benefit; he's actually subversive, gleefully messing up the system from the inside. He's adept at sarcastic one-liners, and he's not averse to slapping his stooges around.

Stooges? Yes, readers, it gets better. The best news ever: Duggie Wakefield works with stooges. The most effective member of Duggie's "Gang", apart from our hero himself, of course, is chubby little Billy Nelson. Billy is "Curly" to Duggie's "Healy" and receives most of the slaps; he also appears to have been the closest to Duggie as he accompanied him to Hollywood. Photos reproduced in our earlier article show him with the American version of Duggie's Gang (the All-Star Trio) and on the set of Sons of the Desert (although he's not actually in the movie - and I had to sit through it again just to make sure. Not a problem!) Billy's an appealing little knockabout Second Banana.

As for Duggie's other stooges: Chuck O'Neil is a tall, skinny, quiet bowler-hatted oaf with glasses; and little Jack Butler is almost the invisible man, not memorable at all apart from the awful foghorny voice he produces when the Gang do their turn as singing waiters.

More good news: The Penny Pool has its own little gang of self-contained funny routines, most of them gems of knockabout and verbal comedy. If there is any bad news, it's this: the film was made by cheapo Northern unit Mancunian and it's their usual meandering mixed bag of romantic sub-plot and comedy scenes. You could almost call it A Day At the Factory, as the running time is filled out with some of the worst variety acts I've ever encountered. The worst. As you listen to the ungodly fart-like cacophony that is Macari and His Dutch Serenaders, you ask yourself: how did these people make a living? Did audiences at some point think this was good? It's all accordions and patchy baggy pants and whistling and, ohhh God, yodelling. Please don't ask me to elaborate further. And yes, there are some awful singers too. Yet, after some barely-endurable musical horror, Duggie and the Gang get the film back on track with a piece of inspired comedy - and miraculously, it all works, almost like a 1930s Max Bialystock production that's deliberately bad but ultimately a triumph because it's hugely enjoyable in all the wrong ways.

In the earlier article we also commented on the lack of biographical information about Duggie. This situation hasn't changed much, but by trawling Google and specifically, we can ascertain that he was born on August 28, 1899 and died on April 14, 1951. Far too young, Duggie. What happened? And indeed, what was he doing after about 1940? So far the trail is still cold. His other Mancunian, Calling All Crooks, is a Lost Film (a big fire in 1960 wiped out most of the studio's archive) but as we've mentioned he's in at least four 1933-34 Roach two-reelers, and, no doubt partly due to the fact that he married Gracie Fields' sister, he's quite prominent in two of Gracie's pictures, This Week of Grace and Look Up and Laugh. This latter film is one I'd love to see, even though Gracie herself gives me the shivers; apart from an early ingenue role for Vivien Leigh it's packed with great music-hall stars like Harry Tate, Robb Wilton, and Gracie's brother Tommy Fields. May I use the word nepotism at this point? Gracie, Tommy, Duggie and Billy perform a quartet in the movie that was considered worthy of issue on a commercial 78 record: "Anna From Annacapresi". Readers: find us a copy!

Back to the good news: Tommy Fields is the "romantic lead" in The Penny Pool and he's not bad at all. Commendably he plays it fairly straight but with a twinkle. Tall, slim and good-looking, he's like the Northern cousin of Richard "Stinker" Murdoch - and actually the resemblance is quite striking. He has the same rapport with Duggie that Stinker has with Arthur Askey, a mix of superiority and affection. After all, Duggie was his brother-in-law. What was that word again? Nepotism?

Duggie's first appearance in The Penny Pool is startling. In a faithful re-creation of their "New Garage" stage sketch, as featured in the 1931 Royal Variety Performance, Duggie's Gang are loafing about in the garage forecourt, reading the sports pages and hoping that no work will come their way. Duggie's in the office and Billy calls him: "Duggie! Duggie! Come 'ere!" First shock: a close-up of Duggie's smiling face at the office window, like Chaney's Phantom in a cloth cap and overalls. Second shock: his smile changes to a frown as he says to Billy "Stand up!" Billy obeys and gets a resounding slap from Duggie: "Mister Duggie to you! [and addressing the others] And you. And you!" So much for audience sympathy! Ted Healy would have been proud of him - or furious if he'd written all this first.

The Gang go on to discuss their football pools and then treat an increasingly irascible elderly customer to a studied display of ignorance and indifference. Then Duggie, tiring of his "victim" role, turns it around. "Pardon me sir - have you read the notice?" Close-up of big sign: POSITIVELY NO-SMOKING [sic]. The old gent, suddenly humbled, says "Sorry" and throws his cigarette-end on the floor. All four of the Gang leap on it and Duggie gets it. "Huh - I should say so!" he mutters - after all, he's their "leader" - then he says to the old boy "Have you a match?" The old geezer provides a match and lights his own discarded dog-end, which Duggie nonchalently smokes as he carries on with the conversation. It's a perfect example of Duggie's irreverent persona, insolent total awareness and control disguised as cheerful innocence. As the sketch progresses, Billy pipes up with some advice: "Yer big end's gone!" only to receive another wallop from Duggie: "So will yours if yer don't shut up!" Sounds familiar? Will Hay and Moore Marriott: one fool in charge of another.

Other sketches in the film involve the boys performing horribly yet hilariously as singing waiters, undergoing an army medical that develops into a mock-ballet, and playing in a brass band, a messy slapstick routine culminating in Duggie singing with great panache: "What Lancashire thinks today, all England thinks tomorrow!!!" A local worthy congratulates him: "Champion! Which part of Lancashire do you come from?" to which Duggie replies with beaming menace: "Yorkshire!" Some of our rarer Third Bananas have been fortunate enough to display their full range within the framework of just one movie: Soup To Nuts, Follow the Leader, Rain Or Shine, Whoopee. To this impressive list we can now add a modest little British effort: The Penny Pool. Find it!

Trivia Point No. 1: the Comedy Notes Booklet for The Penny Pool DVD was written by Professor C. P. Lee of www.itsahotun. He insists that the man on the trampoline during the "Keep Fit" number is "a young Frank Randle making his filmic debut". While we respect Professor Lee, his superb website, his devotion to Randle (quite justified) and his efforts in putting these fascinating films back into circulation, I'm afraid it's a case of wishful thinking, because (a) by early 1937 Randle was a big star, on tour in his own show, so why would he come all the way down south to little Highbury Studios for a bit part? and (b) the man on the trampoline doesn't look anything like Frank Randle. I'm guilty of this sort of thing too, "wishing" Dan Leno into The Big Swallow; but the truth must be faced. That wasn't Dan and this isn't Frank!

Trivia Point No. 2: there's a bonus film on the DVD; and it's the recently-recovered, chopped-up, retitled (Stick 'Em Up) reissue version of Let's Have a Murder, starring Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss. It stinks and so do they. Historical interest only.

Clearly the intention of Mancunian boss John E Blakeley was to build Duggie into another George Formby. Blakeley had produced George's first two movies but then lost him to Basil Dean at Ealing Studios. History repeated itself; having proved his worth in his two Mancunian quickies, Duggie went on to play his only starring role in a mainstream feature film: Spy For a Day, directed by Mario Zampi. Rumour has it that this is a slick and very funny movie, but it was another dead-end for Duggie. While World War Two audiences were devouring silly knockabout comedy - including the three ageing double-acts who constituted the Crazy Gang - Duggie's movie career just stopped. And why didn't he make the most of his time in Hollywood? Billy Nelson went back a few years later and stayed. I suspect there were family reasons for Duggie's return home - he was probably just happier in England - but in "comedy legend" terms, it's a pity. Having seen just one of his movies, I'd quite easily place him in the Third Banana all-time Top Ten. He really is that good.

The Penny Pool (1937), excerpt one

The Penny Pool, excerpt two

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Detroiter said...

At the Roach Studios, Douglas Wakefield appeared in Crook's Tour (1933), Twin Screws (1933), Mixed Nuts (1934), Next Week-End (1934), The Caretaker's Daughter (1934) and Movie Daze (1934) in the All Star Comedies series and had a featured role in I’ll Be Suing You (1934) with Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly.

Billy Nelson appeared in all of these films as well (except perhaps The Caretaker's Daughter), and also had roles in Apples to You (1934) and Duke for a Day (1934) in the Hal Roach Musicals series and Maid in Hollywood (1934) with Todd and Kelly.

F Flood

6:41 AM  
Blogger paul etcheverry said...

The tophatted ape (dubbed) with an English accent in Charley Chase's 1933 short Nature In The Wrong - a masterpiece of absurdist comedy - sure sounds like Douglas Wakefield.

12:36 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home