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The Getting of Wisdom

norman cropped

It’s always fun to speculate about the reasons some comedians travel and others don’t. American comics seem to be born with a passport good for every country in the world, while a major talent like Jean Dujardin can only escape the French domestic market through the elaborate ruse of hiding his accent in a pseudo-silent movie (“The Artist,” for those of us who have already forgotten what won last year’s Oscar). Would Chaplin have made it in American movies if we’d been able to hear his voice and identify his otherness? On the other hand, an English accent didn’t hurt Stan Laurel, whose voice turned out to be added value when he and Oliver Hardy made the transition to sound.

Comedy, like politics, is perhaps most effective when it is practiced locally. A culture’s particular comic tradition is one thing that Hollywood can’t simply co-opt, and local comedy is the one genre keeping many national cinemas alive in the face of overwhelming American competition. (One reliable way of identifying the leading comedians are in any given territory is to see who’s dubbing the Pixar and DreamWorks animated films.)

VCI Entertainment, the Oklahoma-based budget label that has lately been importing a great deal of British commercial cinema, has just brought out double-feature discs devoted to two of the most beloved British comedians of the last century, Will Hay and Norman Wisdom. The dyspeptic Hay roughly corresponds to W.C. Fields as a beleaguered social striver; Wisdom is something of an English Jerry Lewis, combining aggressive, anarchic slapstick with a frighteningly transparent need to be loved. Both men seem to me highly gifted, for reasons I try to outline in this week’s New York Times column, but neither gained any traction in the US, even as their films were breaking box office records at home. Is it because we already had domestic versions of their comic personalities, or because (more likely, I think) neither Hay nor Wisdom offered the snob appeal Americans seem to require from British entertainment? It’s Oxbridge we want — not the music halls.

45 comments to The Getting of Wisdom

  • Thanks for the piece, Dave. I agree that comedy is definitely the one genre that travels worst of all. But I would like to submit to you that, in my experience, modern American comedy is included in that statement; it does not have – or no longer has – a valid passport abroad. In Portugal, at least, the current trend of Apatowian comedy has generally met with great indifference and disinterest, despite the occasional hit; regardless of quality of the films, Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and their ilk do not resonate with general audiences, and I’d say a good half of their vehicles go straight to DVD. They seem to be recognised and emulated by the comedy professionals themselves, but as far as popularity goes, neither distributors nor audiences seem willing to give them a chance. (I don’t think it’s a Portuguese exclusive, either; I think the magnificent “Talladega Nights”, a bomb here, didn’t even get a French release).

  • Barry Putterman

    Was it because we had our own versions or snob appeal. Or maybe a mixture of both.

    Take the case of Reginald Denny; established as an All-American striver starring in (mostly) William A. Seiter films during the 20s, only to have the bottom drop out and be quickly relegated to supporting roles after sound revealed his British accent. Still, British music hall is fine by Americans as long as you are willing to play sidekicks and character parts like Clyde Cook (yes I know Gregg, he’s Australian), Billy Bevan (him too) or Lupino Lane in THE LOVE PARADE.

    So, it would seem that if you are British you could do high comedy and be high class or you could do low comedy and be low class. You just can’t play it down the middle since that is how we identify ourselves as American.

  • Ehsan Khoshbakht

    Interestingly, Norman Wisdom became hugely successful in Iran and Albania, in both cases thanks to dubbing which in the former country tended to be a meta-commentary or an attempt to adapt comedy to national traits.

  • Myself, I note with interest how much broad comedy there is amongst France’s biggest box-office successes: Welcome to the Sticks, La Grande Vadrouille (whose admissions record stood for decades), Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, Les Visiteurs and Le Corniaud all show up in the country’s all-time top ten.

  • skelly

    Leveraging our host’s Dany Boon reference, another example comes to mind – the LES BOYS series of hockey related comedies that were a smash hit in Quebec (provincial box office records) did, I believe, very limted business in other Canadian provinces.

    There was an article in last month’s Vanity Fair (the Judd Apatow edited comedy issue) that attempted to distinguish American comedy from British comedy. The same issue also had a short article on the difference between American and Canadian comedy. Didn’t find either very instructive or persuasive; but they are out there for those interested.

    I see the people at Criterion are releasing a number of films from French comedian Pierre Etaix, someone I’m completely unfamiar with. I wonder if he travels.

  • Steve elworth

    Most of the British comedy that I am familiar with was thanks to the idiosyncratic taste of Bill Everson. So I have watched and laughed to the films of Will Hay, Alastair Sim and yes, Carry on Up the Jungle. The only Wisdom film that I remember seeing anywhere was his one American film, the Night that They Raided Minsky’s. I am drawing a blank about his performance. I do want to see his starting vehicles. And his last name is Pitkin as in the street in Brooklyn. Pitkin, Pupkin? Hmmm. Has Scorsese seen everything?

  • Shawn Stone

    Late 30s UK comedies starring the Crazy Gang are probably too obscure to get a video release here, but I found ALF’S BUTTON AFLOAT kind of funny. Never seen any of the Hay or Wisdom films, though, so I look forward to checking them out.

  • Johan Andreasson

    British comedy has always been big in Sweden, probably even more popular than American. The downstairs variety caught on first, and the more intellectual comedians were initially met with some suspicion (which soon broke down). The first debate in the newspapers that I followed with interest occurred in the early 70s (when I was 12 or 13 years old), and the question was who was the funniest: the highbrow Marty Feldman or the lowbrow Tommy Cooper. As a kid I preferred Feldman, but now I would probably be in the Cooper camp.

    Norman Wisdom was on Swedish television when I was a kid, and I watched his show with interest, but not with the same enthusiasm as the old George Formby movies that I could see around the same time and seemed to offer the same kind of humor, but funnier. Oddly enough Will Hay has never fond an audience here. I’ve seen only one of his films, ASK A POLICEMAN, which I liked a lot, and I would gladly see more.

  • IA

    I’m not sure I understand Dave’s theory that neither Wisdom nor Hay were popular in the U.S. due to Americans preferring snob appeal British comedians. The films Dave refers to in his Times article were released between 1935 and 1955–nearly two decades before Monty Python became popular in the U.S. During the 40s and 50s, Americans did not take to Wisdom or Hay, but they did welcome the Ealing comedies, and those don’t seem to have relied on snob appeal. It wasn’t until the 60s that Oxbridge comedians really took off in the U.S.

    Beyond the Fringe, the first Oxbridge team to make it big here., owed a large part of its appeal to the 60s satire boom, and while there were several great American stand-up satirists (Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce), I don’t think there were stage shows comparable to the Fringe. As for Python, in 1974/5 I don’t think there was anything as surreal on American television (perhaps aside from the Python-inspired Saturday Night Live).
    The biggest influence on the Python probably was the Goons, who all hailed from working class backgrounds. None of them made it big in the states, aside from Peter Sellers, but no other late 50s British radio shows seem to have cracked the American market either.

  • Thanks for the column on British comedy, Dave. I do like Will Hay a lot, and have seen maybe five of his films. I don’t think any attempt was made to import his work into the US in the 1930s, with the possible exception of HEY! HEY! USA (Marcel Varnel, 1938), which co-starred the All-American Edgar Kennedy, as a gangster with the All-American name “Bugs Leary.” I haven’t seen this particular film, and I see by checking the Wikipedia entry that it’s discussed in Anthony Slide’s book “‘Banned in the USA’: British Films in the United States and their Censorship, 1933-1960,” so maybe the Will (no relation) Hays Office found the gangster too gangstery.

    Barry, never mind Reginald Denny, who at least continued to work for decades. Consider the fate of poor Mario Bianchi, who as Monty Banks was a third tier Hollywood slapstick star in the 1920s, only to have his career abruptly curtailed by sound. He rallied to marry the British star Gracie Fields, directed her in several films, and then directed Laurel & Hardy in their first (bad) post-Hal Roach feature, GREAT GUNS. Two footnotes: the Brit actor Tom Hollander won an award for playing Banks in a 2009 BBC drama on Gracie Fields (which I have not seen), and Fields is parodied quite hilariously in Peter Capaldi’s THE CRICKETWOOD GREATS (2011) — a spoof on Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries — which I have seen.

    Norman Wisdom’s British films played regularly on American tv in the 1960s/70s, at least in Los Angeles.

  • IA

    On the subject of Monty Banks, I should note that two films of his recently rediscovered in New Zealand—OIL’S WELL! (1922) and BRILLIANTINO THE BULLFIGHTER (1922)—can be viewed online at the NFPF’s website (

  • IA, I would argue precisely that the Ealing Comedies had all the snob appeal that Wisdom, Hay et al do not — as witness Pauline Kael’s glowing reviews of them. These were sold as droll, sophisticated comedies for an elite audience of anglophiles, hardly the public that Wisdom was chasing. When Republic released “Trouble in Store” (an almost perfect commercial comedy, in my opinion) in the US in 1955, the always reliable Bosley Crowther utterly demolished it, dismissing it as, effectively, crude slapstick for the masses. And that was the end of Wisdom’s American career. I’d also suggest that you have a look at Ernie Kovacs for pre-Python surrealism on American television.

  • Jorge, I am actually very encouraged by what you say about the fate of Apatow and Co. in Europe! From what I’ve been seeing from France lately, the commercial cinema there has so thoroughly assimilated the current US style of comedy that there’s no need to import the real thing. Apparently, the same thing is true in Germany though I haven’t seen any of those movies.

    Who are the great Portuguese comedians? The only name that comes to mind is Joao Cesar Monteiro, though I doubt he had much of a popular following.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, I expect that Monty Banks found directing Gracie Fields preferable to becoming the road company Henry Armetta and directing Laurel & Hardy preferable to being placed in a British internment camp.

    By the way, there are well produced box sets devoted to the films of Will Hay, Gracie Fields, Arthur Askey and other British comedy stars of the 30s and 40s available in England for anybody interested in taking the plunge. They may or may not be to your liking, but at least nobody will be able to accuse you of being a snob.

  • IA, thanks for the links. Just the other night I watched Banks in CHASING CHOO-CHOOS, a cut-down version of his 1927 feature PLAY SAFE that’s widely available. As I recall some reviewers in 1927 preferred it to THE GENERAL, but while there are some great train gags in CHOO-CHOOS, many stuntsare accomplished by “cheating” throughcuts and camera angles, all absent from Keaton’s film. Walter Kerr and others have written about Banks’ likeable but anonymous screen persona (I’d give him the edge over Billy Bevan, myself).

    Watched Will Hay in William Beaudine’s WHERE THERE’S A WILL last night. I think I spy some Beaudine influence on Hay in this (they co-wrote the script), as many of the situations (Hay as a down-at-the-
    heels attorney who dotes on his grown daughter) is very W C Fieldsian (and Beaudine, as Dave notes, had just directed Fields in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY). There’s also a pool table routine, and Hay has a yearning for alcohol not as strongly emphasized in the other Hay films I’ve seen. WHERE THERE’S A WILL does feature my favorite Hay supporting player, the sullen, cheeky “fat boy” played by Graham Moffatt, who’s in several of Hay’s films (usually partnered with a cranky old man, Moore Marriott).

  • mike schlesinger

    Perhaps my all-time favorite line from a review came from John Simon, who wrote, “If this is Norman Wisdom, I’ll take Saxon folly.” Mean, yes, but pretty snazzy from a guy whose first language wasn’t English.

    I’ve been a huge Will Hay fan for years, and during the year Sony had distribution rights to the UA library, I located the negatives of OH! MR. PORTER and ASK A POLICEMAN in London, had the dust blown off, and made new 35s, both of which ran at Cinecon (the former with a Q&A with Val Guest). They both killed. Kudos to VCI!

  • Tony Williams

    Norman Wisdom was very popular in England during his heyday and a good essay is devoted to him in BRITISH CINEMA COMEDY. However, many of my UK friends can not stand him due to his excessive use of pathos and self-pity that Chaplin never fell into over-indulgent use of. With his ill-fitting costume and self-pity, my guess is that American audiences may not have taken to him because they saw him as imitation Chaplin allowing for Bosely Crowther’s damning review and the snob appeal you mention.

    On the other side, I remember seeing Sid Caesar’s debut on BBC TV which was a dismal flop in the late 50s. When I saw some Caesar shows a few decades later in American I realized he had toned down his unique style of comedy doing the same type of thing that Stan Laurel advised Tony Hancock to do if he wanted a transatlantic audience. Hancock’s British films were not all that great either. I did not see Mort Sahl’s debut on BBC TV but I read his comments after adverse reaction where he just dismissed British audiences as morons.

    Some comedy works across borders; others do not but once one understands the cultural traditions and techniques then one appreciates them more. Bourvil is a case in point. I wonder how many people know him outside Melville’s LE CERCLE ROUGE.

    On a final note, Frank Randall (the dark side of George Fromby) never appealed to audiences outside the north of England but he made films for Mancunion Studios in Manchester and most of them have survived. By contrast, the surviving films featuring Max Miller, the “cheeky chappie” are pale versions of his music hall comic technique that would be ruthlessly censored on film. I remember the decline of Max Wall having seen him perform a “risque” line on UK TV once and how he returned to fame after appearing in the Edinburgh Festival and living on to be a respected comedian and character actor once the cultural climate changed.

  • Alex

    mike schlesinger

    “John Simon, who wrote, ‘If this is Norman Wisdom, I’ll take Saxon folly.’ Mean, yes, but pretty snazzy from a guy whose first language wasn’t English.”

    Not exactly Conrad or Nabokov, but in that tradition of virtuoso masters of a foreign tongue, stylistically a kind of cross between Maugham’s Elliott Templeton, LAURA’s Waldo Lydecker. and Shaw’s Zoltan Karpathy, (Substantively, more at home in the snootier airs of lit and theater critics but not without his moments of cinematic acuity, as on Chabrol’s great “La femme infidèle.”)

  • Barry Putterman

    Tony, I’d be interested to know what it was that Sid Caesar did on the BBC and why it was that it didn’t connect with the British audience. On American TV he was known for doing quite a number of things: pantomime, dialect characters, movie spoofs, husband and wife comedy sketches, etc. Although my personal responses to them are quite different, I would say that he worked in many of the same areas that Danny Kaye did, and I understand that Danny Kaye was quite popular in England.

    On the other hand, Mort Sahl has dismissed quite a number of groups and individuals as morons in his time and the British audience will just have to stand in the quene.

  • Tony Williams

    Barry, This goes back over 50 years and my memory is vague. But I do remember that he did not do the variety of things you mentioned but there was more domestic comedy with Imogen Coca who came over for this one-off show. Danny Kaye was popular in England both in his films and his US TV show that also ran on BBC TV along with THE PERRY COMO SHOW which was taken off eventually because it became too expensive. Kaye appeared in Royal Command Theatre performances and Como had his annual Christmas specials before he died.

    If anyone is interested in following up Mancunion films, a good web site exists moderated by C.P. Lee, a Salford Professor formerly of Alberto y los trios Paranoias in the late 60s, who later moved on to become an expert on Northern comedy. During the 1950s, many old vaudeville comedians did appear on BBC TV in their own shows such as Norman Evans or were later re-discovered in the 60s such as Clarkson Rose. I remember seeing a one-off BBC show NATS IN THE BELFRY with Nat Jackley who appears as “Nat the Rubber Man” in THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR and complained that the Beatles removed most of his scenes. Peter Chelsom’s FUNNY BONES is an interesting film exploring links between British and American comedy co-starring Jerry Lewis with then upcoming comedian Lee Evans. A DVD in the UK exists with C.P. Lee hosting a selection of Northern comedian performances.

    Finally, Wisdom’s earlier films teamed him with “straight man” Jerry Desmonde who represented the establishment and this may be one reason for his popularity in Hoxa’s Albania showing the little man successfully battling authority though this is common to many other films. Similarly, Arthur Askey also formed a comic duo with Richard “Stinker” Murdoch in several films, the latter of whom often ended his radio shows performing a number “Much Binding in the Marsh” that referred to topical events like TONIGHT show hosts. I remember one mentioning a popular character and then bringing in the line – “Perhaps he’s gone to Moscow with Burgess and Maclean. Oh, Much Binding in the Marsh”

  • Robert Garrick

    In the “pre-Python surrealism on American television” category, let us not forget “Green Acres,” which aired from 1965 to 1971. The Monkees (TV show: 1966-1968) also made heavy use of surrealistic humour, even more in the movie “Head” (Rafelson, 1968) than in the TV show.

    Dave mentioned Kovacs, though of course he was long gone (and mostly forgotten) by 1975, which was IA’s point of reference. But “Laugh-In” (1968-1973) was fresh in the memory, and “Hee Haw” (1969-1992) was still on the air. If you look up the Wikipedia entry for Junior Samples, his name is mentioned in connection with surrealism.

    I’m guessing that’s the first time that Junior Samples has been mentioned on this site.

  • Tony Williams

    One of Wisdom’s brief but highly funny routines (I forget which film) was his reponse to his master who told him “Stay close to me.” He attached himself to his “better” like a Siamese twin and walked with him in like manner.

  • Barry Putterman

    Oddly, or possibly not so oddly, enough; PBS ran a series of six Ernie Kovacs compilation shows at just about the same time that they began running Monty Python. I believe that the PBS Kovacs series is (or at least at some time was) available on DVD.

    Surrealism is another one of those terms that gets bandied about without very clear-cut definitions attached to it. Do we want to make distictions between the Kovacs-Python-“Laugh-In” format of free association and the George Burns-Jack Benny narrative subversion tradition that “Green Acres” is part of?

    Possibly somebody who as steeped in surrealism as Junko is would care to comment.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘Surrealism is another one of those terms that gets bandied about without very clear-cut definitions attached to it.’

    I cannot comment on all examples because I have not seen them. I will give English language definition translation from Andre Breton: ‘Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.’

    Tenets of Surrealism can be applied in any circumstance of life, and not restricted to artistic realm. Luis Buñuel said, “For me Surrealism was not an aesthetic, just another avant-garde movement; it was something to which I committed myself in a moral and spiritual way. You can’t imagine the loyalty Surrealism demanded in all aspects of life.”

    Context of Surrealist art is important. Authentic popular Surrealism is accidental, not trying to be surreal. I have seen some TV shows mentioned, MONTY PYTHON and LAUGH-IN, but these is more like music hall review adapted to medium of TV. HEAD is psychedelic, not Surreal, Monkees TV show is imitating Richard Lester HARD DAY’S NIGHT (maybe there is connection to British comedy in this movie.)Ernie Kovacs TV show Surreal because is is like dream, no explanation.

    For me authentic popular Surrealism is from silent era of comedy, Keaton, Arbuckle, Harry Langdon and from sound period W.C. Fileds and Marx Brothers because of erotic energy of Harpo. Erotic is vital part of Surrealism.

    Horror movie can be Surreal because it is like dream showing masochistic and sadistic component of sex. Since Lew Landers had been mentioned, ‘The Raven’ (1935)is popular Surrealism showing erotic obsession expressed sadistically.

  • jbryant

    “I’m guessing that’s the first time that Junior Samples has been mentioned on this site.”

    Robert, I’d been waiting for the right moment, but you beat me to it. I’ll over-compensate by mentioning Lulu Roman, Gordie Tapp, the Hager Twins and Beauregard the Wonder Dog.

    I suppose now I’ve lost all credibility here, but I was born and raised in Kentucky, where HEE HAW viewing was mandatory by law.

  • Barry Putterman

    Junko, if erotic is a vital part of Surrealism, then that let’s out “Green Acres” (and quite possibly Beauregard the Wonder Dog). In many respects, Richard Lester’s RUNNING, JUMPING AND STANDING STILL FILM adapts elements of what you would call Surrealism in silent comedy. He then adapted elements of that film for A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and “The Monkees” TV show adapts some (but not as many as is commonly understood) elements of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

    So, could we say that there are works that we could call actual examples of Surrealism and works which adapt aspects of Surrealism into themselves?

  • skelly

    Saw Lester’s THE BED SITTING ROOM for the first time a few weeks back which seemed “surreal” (more so than Lester’s more modish Beatles films and THE KNACK) and certainly pre-Python (it features the Goon Show’s Spike Milligan and Beyond the Fringe’s Peter Cook and Dudley Moore). Given Breton’s rather helpful definition (by way of Junko) I think there’s likely too much satire and deliberateness in the film to truly reflect Surrealism. Strange film in any event.

  • Junko, if the erotic is vital part of surrealism, then is there, do you think, any overlap between surrealism and Japan’s ero-guro-nansensu tradition?

  • As usual, the comments section is a treasure trove of fun and games and suggestions.

    Skelly, I’d say Etaix travels as well as Tati (with whom he briefly worked) does. Being a mostly dialogue-free, visual kind of storytelling, though eschewing the traditional gag structure, it’s the sort of work that, while French in sensibility, does not require a deep knowledge of French society to work.

    Dave, João César Monteiro has certainly never been considered a humorist in the sense of Jerry Lewis or the SNL guys; he was always seen more as a rarefied, auteur-ist director. I’d say that the key comedians of Portuguese cinema, in fact, are all long dead: actors like Vasco Santana and António Silva, who came from the stage and were the leads in a series of 1940s and 1950s popular comedies that I’d hardly think could travel at all, being so locally-specific. In a more satirical, acid mode, there was the late Artur Semedo, who directed a series of films in the 1960s and 1970s that were technically passable but pushed the envelope of what was thought as comedy. The role of comedy in Portugal has entirely shifted to the small screen, and arguably the most innovative and popular of them, Herman José, who became huge in the early 1980s with a conversationally absurd, Python-influenced style, only tried film once (with Semedo); the results were disappointing. Most of the current generation of TV comedians take their inspiration from British folk such as Ricky Gervais and work more in the absurdist/uncomfortable mode, but it’s a sensibility that has never transferred to the movies.

    Actually, on that note, something else: it’s not just US comedy that fails to transfer to Portugal, though since it has the backing of the major studios it’s the most obvious. The Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedies, for instance, and a lot of British comedy, weren’t even released here (“Shaun of the Dead” went straight to DVD and “Hot Fuzz” bombed), despite the fact that British TV comedy has a big following and is regularly shown on TV and cable. It seems as if people will not get out of the house to see them in the theatre, though they’ll be happy to see them at home. On the other hand, something like “Welcome to the Sticks” will do great business here, surprisingly, and many French comedies do moderate business.

  • patrick henry

    This is somewhat off-topic but I have a question about a movie I’m sure someone here can answer. I used to have a video of a German comedy about a goofy hippie, about 19, who somehow gets into a big, swanky Munich advertising agency and his crazy and surreal ideas for ad campaigns are accepted by clients tired of the same old thing. They install him as their new advertising genius, and an older ad man, their previous “genius,” has to take a back seat to him and more or less sits at his feet waiting for his pearls of wisdom. I long ago lost this video but I wanted to recommend the film to a friend; very funny and elegantly directed. Can anyone here tell me the title?

  • Foster Grimm

    The Will Hay films seem to have been a beginning for people who went farther on in British films (at Gainsborough and other studios) – Leslie Arliss, Sydney Gilliat, Val Guest, Anthony Kimmons, and Arthur Crabtree. Not too shabby.

  • Foster — not to mention actors like John Mills and Googie Withers.

    Re Norman Wisdom: does anybody see him in line with another 1930s Britcom star whose popularity didn’t translate beyond England (for that matter, beyond the north of England)? That’d be the working class hero George Formby.

    THE BED SITTING ROOM, a long time favorite of mine, is pure distilled Lester: it’s visually striking and very witty, without ever being really funny. Setting aside the absurdist satire, it plays like a Keaton film, slowed down and minus all the gags. And minus Keaton: his actors lack the stamina of the Keaton hero. I keep mentioning him as I think Lester learned his command of landscapes from studying Keaton’s films (as THE NAVIGATOR in particular can be seen influencing Tati). Lester makes this clear when he quotes Keaton’s stance against the horizon in a quick shot introducing him in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.

  • Johan Andreasson

    George Formby’s popularity translated excellently to Sweden – I loved his films as a kid! Yes, there is a similarity to Wisdom (who was also on Swedish television in the early 70s), but I liked Formby much more.

  • Rick K.

    It was during the early/mid 70’s, around the time there was a big Chaplin revival (when he got his honorary Academy Award), and when the Harold Lloyd films were starting to re-emerge too, that a few adventurous film society programmers were attempting to introduce British comics like Will Hay to American audiences. I believe OH MR PORTER was the only Hay film in distribution here (thru Janus Films), usually double-billed with Jack Hulbert’s BULLDOG JACK. There WAS interest in these films, touted as British equivalents of Fields and Lloyd, but few among the audience when I attended found either film outstanding or especially engaging. Both of them had their moments (Hulbert’s film featured Ralph Richardson as the villain, and Fay Wray as a lady in distress), but otherwise unremarkable.

    Personally, I wanted to see more, but it wasn’t until years later that I stumbled upon CONVICT 99 on a cable tv station, which is when I became a frustrated fan (frustrated because it was SO HARD to actually see the Will Hay films in the U.S.). Years later, I purchased the British DVD set, and must say that, from my own standpoint, I feel CONVICT 99, along with WHERE’S THAT FIRE and MY LEARNED FRIEND, are the best films to introduce Hay to American audiences … FIRE with its accent on clever and methodical (as opposed to mechanical) visual gags and the feisty camaraderie with co-stars Moore and Marriott, LEARNED FRIEND with its accent on black comedy (Hay the victim of a mad assassin). Those films seem to transcend regional differences … and once accustomed to Hay mannerisms and modus operandi, the other films became much easier to appreciate. As with almost any comedian, familiarity can serve to provide reference points for gags and character traits, and enhance our rapport with their particular brand of whimsy.

    A lot of film comics have been referenced in this thread, and I’m intrigued by the thought of comparing Sid Caesar to Danny Kaye … there are indeed some noteworthy parallels, tho it seems to me that Kaye was far more graceful and fluid in his use of comic techniques, while Caesar was heavy and bombastic. Caesar’s overdrive could be supremely effective, especially on a small screen (and during the 50’s, TV screens were not only small, but not terribly clear either!), but perhaps not ideal for the big screen … I believe Caesar TRIED to make the transition to movies, but found that niche incompatible (his starring vehicles were weak, tho he seemed to fit well overall into the brash IT’S A MAD MAD WORLD ensemble cast).

    On the occasion of Kaye’s centennial, Turner Classic Movies devoted a day to his films and, within the lineup, included an episode from his TV variety show of the early 60’s. I’ve always considered Kaye an acquired taste which I’ve never totally acquired, but must say that he was so relaxed, warm and genial on his show, that I would have gladly made it a weekly habit … included on that episode was a duet with guest Gene Kelly (no props, just stage and lighting), which was so utterly simple, utterly professional (rehearsed but designed to appear spontaneous), and so wholly entertaining, to make you realize that talents such as these (of this calibre) simply cannot be found in the entertainment landscape of today.

  • Alex

    Sure, it’s “Oxbridge we want — not the music halls.” However, the Ealing comedies are sure more a halfway house between the former and the latter than simply one or the other. Moreover, their links to the highly literate theater of Wilde, Shaw and Coward and correlate crisp acting styles and perfomers were surely aids to popularity not only because of their considerable familiarity and aa well as their snooty rewards. (s)

    And Wisdom, alas, evokes not only some of the charmes of music hall but some of that hard heavy deadness of British working class culture — not to speak of the absence of Youth Culture — to which Robert Plant and Eric Claton have attributed some of the powerful, transformative appeal of the ’50 arrival in Britain of U.S. R&B (and the like) and the great 60s and 70s waves of U.K. working class creativity behind the British Invasion.

  • Barry Putterman

    I would say that in both the Formby-Wisdom and Caesar-Kaye comparisons it was the all consuming self absorption projected by the second named personality that made them more difficult to deal with. The Chaplin influence can be a deadly trap unless you have some analytical perspective on it.

    George Formby may or may not have transcended the north of England as a comedian, my observation on repeated London visits is that he is well remembered throughout the country. But his name and fame does live on as a musician. I have a friend who plays the ukulele (but not the saxophone) and she tells me of The George Formby Society which honors and studies his work on that instrument and on the banjo.

    But Jack Hulbert (and Cicely Courtneage)! Now THAT’S what I call funny!

  • Tony Williams

    I saw my first George Formby film LET GEORGE DO IT! (1939) when it was on a double bill with BEAT GIRL (1960) in a Rotterdam movie theater in 1961. It contained the famous WW2 scene where George in a dream landed in the middle of the Nuremberg rally and began punching the Fuhrer to the delight of his captive SS audience who began dancing with joy.

    Not even Tarantino can top that!

    Anyway, these Hay films were also in circulation on 16mm by film rental companies during the 60s and 70s and then went on to VHS in the late 80s and 90s who eventually died and their families decided not to continue the business. I remember some great rarities of Will Hay, Formby, and the Crazy Gang being on offer.

    Anyway, there is an interesting transatlantic connection since BRITISH CINEMA COMEDY has a still of Laurel and Hardy visiting Mancunion Films in the 1930s where a Lancashire comedian who worked in Hollywood in the silent era was now there. Also, some work needs to be done on the Northern comedian Dougie Wakefield who was the brother of Gracie Fields. C.P. Lee also sent me a card showing Cary Grant at the Midland Hotel in the late 50s seated with Mancunion Films head John Blakely and his family. Finally, remember the music hall routine performed by Jimmy Porter and Cliff (sic?) in the stage version of LOOK BACK IN ANGER.

  • Foster Grimm

    Several Hay films are available at Internet Archive, in decent prints, including the ones mentioned. (Is it okay to mention
    If one does a Will Hay search in “Movies” the bottom listing is I THANK YOU starring Arthur Askey and featuring some of the Hay supporting players.
    (Askey sorta resembles Walter Catlett physically.) Marcel Varnel, who directed the Hay pictures after Beaudine, directed. (And Varnel would probably deserve investigation.) Anyway, to make a long story long, just watch the opening musical number in I THANK YOU. Brilliant.

    Cheers, I hope.

  • Tony Williams

    I think Formby’s association with Ealing after beginning with two Mancunion Studios films may have helped him transcend the North-South divide. The same was not true of Frank Randall even if he had wanted to reach a posh audience if only to offend them, unlike Formby.

    Some two years before he died Formby appeared in a BBC TV special (which is available on VHS somewhere) where he played a recording of his father George Formby Snr and even performed his version of a rock n’ roll number. This may have been an attempt to resurrect his career at a time when many British music hall stars appeared on TV. But either Beryl Formby or ill-health may have prevented him continuing this.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘ if the erotic is vital part of surrealism, then is there, do you think, any overlap between surrealism and Japan’s ero-guro-nansensu tradition?’

    For these movies eroticism was only titillation, not obsession. These movies was satire of mores, not coming from dream, more like American burlesque sketch.

  • alex

    ALthough it ‘s hard to. Imagine surealism without disruptions of the unconscious into the conscious world and hard to imagine these free of the erotic, might terror &/or death suffice?

  • alex

    On the other hand, there are varieties of madcap comedy – absurdism, DADA, pataphysics in general, slapstick – thatcan be viewed quite apart from surrealismor the septic.

    When Jarry traced pataphysics to schoolboy pranks and anarchism might he have been referring to pre-adolescent, and thus asexual, impulses?

  • Brian N

    A month or so back I was reading Fragments of Fear in which the writer made the surprising assertion that the Will Hay film “Oh Mr Porter (1937)is possibly the funniest film ever made”. Having never heard of the film or the actor I thought that it needed checking out. But living here in Thailand I suspected that would not be easy but it turned out that Youtube had the film and a few of his others. It had its moments but saying it was the funniest film ever is a bit of an overreach. Hay is kind of impenetrable as a personality, an inert mass in which the comedy is all round him but not of him. Even so I went on to ASK A POLICEMAN and found that a little faster paced and enjoyable. It’s not only that it is English, but also that it seems targeted to class and region that makes the comedy a little inaccessible to me.

    Regarding comedy that does not travel well, give a Thai comedy a spin sometime and you will wonder if we are the same species or of the same time.

  • Robert Garrick

    As a public service I’d like to mention that TCM will be airing the relatively rare (and wonderfully named) “Guns, Girls, and Gangsters” (Edward L. Cahn, 1958) late tomorrow night. It’s scheduled for 2:00 AM Central Time Wednesday morning, but check your local listings.

    Cahn was the subject of a particularly entertaining “Further Research” column by Dave Kehr. This film–which is representative of Cahn’s best work–stars Gerald Mohr (ersatz Bogart), Mamie Van Doren (ersatz Monroe), and Lee Van Cleef (former accountant), and it will consume only about 70 minutes of your time.

    I saw a stunning 35mm print a few years ago (with Mamie Van Doren seated nearby) and I was surprised by the quality of this film, which I’d never heard of until that evening.

    It follows Richard Fleischer’s great “Armored Car Robbery” (1950) on the TCM schedule. Most readers here have probably seen that one, but if not, make it a double-bill.

  • Barry Putterman

    While it is not technically incorrect to say that Gerald Mohr is ersatz Bogart as there are indeed a number of physical and behavioral similarities, those of us who highly admire his work feel that it can stand on its own merits. Indeed, he can also be seen as the fulcrum of a progression from Bogart in the 40s, to Mohr in the 50s, to James Coburn in the 60s. Which, of course, leads into this week’s lively and enthusiastic discussion of OUR MAN FLINT.