"It's done with mirrors!"
Have I mentioned recently how much I love Flanagan and Allen? A pity that more of their solo films aren't available as they are at a marked disadvantage in the more widely-seen Crazy Gang films. Acknowledged at the time, they're a world apart from the likes of Naughton, Gold, Nervo, and Knox, the true and original Gang, who reportedly considered F&A interlopers, and their rapid-fire exchanges unwelcome interruptions of the worst kind. Their comedy informed more by Bud's experience in American vaudeville than British Panto, Flanagan and Allen as a team are rather squandered in films that rely hugely upon broad clowning and visual gags. Although Bud alone, by dint of his strong and engaging personality, becomes the focal point of the films (and ultimately of the Gang itself), Ches is simply left to waste whenever not called upon for musical numbers or proper F&A routines. On their own, however, Bud and Ches get to stretch out and display the skills that made them, for almost three decades, Britain's most popular comedy team.
A Fire Has Been Arranged was their third film appearance and their second feature. Released in 1935 in the depths of the depression, Flanagan and Allen are cast not as the affable hard-luck tramps of their hit songs, but as out-and-out criminals. They lie, cheat, and steal, and, moreover, they get away with it. At a time when the general public's respect for the Powers That Be must have been at a very low ebb, the sight of Flanagan and Allen directly and unequivocally flouting the law was apparently embraced in much the same way as the Marx Brothers' antisocial antics were stateside. Certainly, they're no less likable for it. The plot, in brief: Bud, Ches, and Hal Walters hide a valise of stolen jewelry in a hole in a field and, when released from prison a decade later, are horrified to find that a department store has been constructed on the spot. Ultimately, they are hired by the store's crooked manager (Alastair Sim in a juicy early role) to burn the place to the ground so he can collect the insurance. Lots of classic Flanagan and Allen here, most notably the much-celebrated "Whistle" routine. Note how much this routine relies upon Chesney as much as it does Bud. Ches's animated interplay with Bud is a far cry from the more understated support that Bud Abbott gave Lou Costello, but is no less skilled and, as far as I'm concerned, more fun to watch. Flanagan's rising sense of victimization is a riot.
Another brilliant moment for the team. Ches gets to display his easy-going yet mildly eccentric charm in this perfectly believable con. I wouldn't be half surprised to learn that F&A pulled this one off in real life. It seems much like the kind of schemes that Bud used to survive while traveling the US (on boxcars, no less) in the 'teens.
Just for the hell of it, here's Bud and Ches singing "Yesterday's Dreams" from the Crazy Gang feature Gasbags (1941). Yes, that's former Will Hay stooge Moore Marriott as the toothless old codger.