Formby follows Function

Matthew Sweet, in his chatty history of marginalized British cinema, Shepperton Babylon, amusingly referred to ’30s-’40s musical comedy star George Formby as looking like ” a human being reflected in a spoon,” which is unkind but not unfair. It implies “like a human being but not a human being,” which is also fair enough. There’s something of the Australopithecus about our George, and no mistake.

Of course, we don’t require comedians to be handsome, nor should we. It can even be a disadvantage: Louise Brooks said that one shot of Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL was so beautiful it took her breath away and left her unable to laugh for the rest of the film. But Keaton tethers his soulful beauty to his earnestness as a comic character, and makes it work for him. Chaplin suppresses his faun-like lustiness with felt mustache, out-of-proportion clothing and funny walk, so it only emerges when he wants it to.

Jerry Lewis, with his child-like and vaguely special-needs persona, “the kid,” is much closer to Formby’s character, who has a child’s love of the smutty and fear of the genuinely sexual. But Jer doesn’t look as genuinely warped as George, it’s merely an effect, or series of effects, which he can produce at will. Jerry is the most protean of comics, in fact, having morphed through at least four completely distinct appearances, without yet assuming the mantle of actual old age. Skinny young television Jerry became the fuller-faced Jerry as solo movie star, advanced into graying and bespectacled middle-aged Jerry, where he still seems to reside, with a brief interval as bloated and leonine Jerry,  a side-effect of the meds he was taking for a life-threatening condition, which he now seems happily quite recovered from. During all those periods except perhaps the ill one, he had a promiscuous range of sub-faces, rubber masks he could stretch and distort out of his facial apparatus, suggesting all kinds of deformity, mutation, funhouse distortion and transdimensional interference.

George, by contrast, is just George, stuck with the face a jesting or maleficent creator inflicted upon him. His body is normal, indeed quite muscular and well-developed, but that just seems part of the gag/tragedy, the human shape crowned with a monkey’s confused head, wondering how it got there. And the voice seems to be George’s own, a Jerry-kid nasal whine pitched at an octave anyone can hear but only dogs want to.

Fred Astaire’s singing voice has been described as “unlikely but effective.” George’s is extremely unlikely indeed, but effective in its perverse way, especially when paired with his banjo ukulele. When it comes to the banjolele I must pronounce myself on the side of Bertie Wooster and against Jeeves, as counter-intuitive as that sounds — I find it a uniquely pleasing instrument, which makes me quite able to enjoy a Formby song despite the shuddersome features gurning at me from the screen. It’s a comedy instrument, I suppose, but it has the edge over the “Jew’s harp” or “swannee whistle” in that it can play a range of actual notes, and at high speed.

What of the films? Here, a fascinating evolution can be seen. BOOTS! BOOTS! from 1934 was George’s first starring part (he was by now well-established as a stage star in his native Lancashire), intended for Northern English audiences and making no effort whatever to reach a wider range of social classes or geographically distributed punters, nor to adapt to the structures and possibilities of the motion-picture medium, except in the minimal sense of allowing lights, camera and microphone to be present while George and co perform their play.

Bert Tracey’s film begins, promisingly, by tracking down a hotel corridor, observing the various items of footwear left out for George the bootblack to work his magic upon. Then the film proper begins, with an almost audible slamming of the door in the face of film language, as Tracey serves up a series of long-shot single-take compositions, where each set seems to come with its own camera set-up, which will never vary no matter how many times we go away and come back.

Long shots like the above go on for minutes at a time, the characters separated from the movie audience by great distances of gray, grainy space, their voices echoing off the four edges of the screen. Whereas great old movies make you wonder at the fact that all the actors in them are now dead, and yet immortally alive and present forever, this one brings home to you just how dead they all are, and makes you say a silent prayer of thanks for the fact.

But George stuck at it, and within a year had made two films, OFF THE DOLE and NO LIMIT, which made great strides forward in terms of cinematic technique. Ie, they allowed it to be present. Soon, George was introduced to dizzying concepts like “the close-up” (not a natural friend to George) and “the edit,” which could be used within scenes and not just as a means of stringing them together. That’s basically about as sophisticated as George’s movies ever got, although the camera might track to introduce a scene or follow movement. Reliable third-tier directors like Monty Banks and Marcel Varnel took charge of the films, and at Ealing the cast might include actual movie talents like Googie Withers, and other credits might include Basil Dearden as writer, Ronald Neame as cinematographer (on LET GEORGE DO IT!) and Robert Hamer as editor (TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN).

Sadly, despite the considerable talents assembled, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone concerned that a Formby vehicle might aspire to, or even benefit from, artistic merit. Everything is crammed in at the minimum standard expected by the average uncritical audience. The exception is the songs, or almost: often they come up with a catchy bit and then just repeat it ad nauseam, but at their best they can be rather pleasing.

There’s much to dislike about George: he made bad film after bad film, he was notoriously mean, although unlike other famously stingy comics he came from a wealthy background and never knew poverty, and he had, it seems, a horrendous wife, Beryl, who was convinced that any woman in proximity to George, especially his co-stars, had designs on her man, seduced by his outlandish allure and powerful miasma of sexual magnetism. Beryl even appears in his first two films, and such was her fame that she is credited solely by one name, “Beryl,” like Arletty, or Pink.

But on the positive side, Formby’s films were unashamedly working class in their appeal and subjects, in an era when British cinema was often tebbly tebby posh. Or else concerned with the antics of unconvincing cock-er-nees. Formby took British cinema north of Watford, and his audiences did not feel patronized by him. (WHISKY GALORE!, an excellent Ealing comedy from 1949, is set on a fictitious Scottish island, but it’s treated very much as foreign turf, which the audience must be carefully introduced to, with an ethnographic flavour, before we can be trusted to feel at home.)

Ealing pictures would look elsewhere to achieve their best successes in the comedy field, films they’re actually remembered for. A new format was assembled, often using an ensemble cast rather than a “leading man,” and seeking to capture some sort of national spirit — and this was effective until the format became more rigid and recognizable. Indeed, the best films from the Ealing school depart either intermittently or completely from the group comedy structure favoured by producer Michael Balcon in PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. In KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, Robert Hamer sought quite consciously to make a film “unlike any attempted before.”

28 Responses to “Formby follows Function”

  1. There’s something in Formby’s toothy smile that reminds me of “Uncle Milty”, Milton Berle, something in his wide-mouthed grin that brings to mind Joe E. Brown. Something in his laugh reminds me of Percy Helton, face too, as he grew older. I happen to own Charles Barr’s book Ealing Studios (Overlook Press, 1977). I initially acquired it because of my interest in their more darkly dramatic films, IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY, FRIEDA, CAGE OF GOLD, etc., but in it they address how the early Ealing comedies constitute the formative origins of what was to come later, those films for which they’re best known, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, WHISKY GALORE, THE LADYKILLERS, to name just a few. I remember the first time I saw a photo of Formby, thought he looked damn weird, had no idea what he had to offer either comedically or musically. Now I know that he sang smutty tunes that in today’s light seem harmless enough, and played the ukelele at least as well as Arthur Godfrey (although George’s instrument looks a great deal more like a banjo), perhaps better. His solos have a real vigor to them. Don’t know if I could sit through one of his films, but I may have to sit through at least one, just to get some insight into the Formby formula. Though I’m in no hurry to do so.

  2. Well, outside of Hitchcock, Korda, Jessie Matthews, and Warner’s Teddington Studios, I have very spotty knowledge of ’30s British sound films (Imagine my seeing Alastair Sim with tufts of hair wildly sprouting from the side of his head, like a pair of cabbages in some ’30s film I saw). I’ve heard of George Formby, but never saw him perform in my life. I’m almost afraid of clicking on the links, with what’s been written the last two days.

  3. Another star of the Formby era who I think is worth another look is Will Hay, not least because there are so many correspondences between the two men even though Hay was considerably older: both from the music halls, worked with Ealing for at least part of their screen careers (Marcel Varnel directed both actors), set their films for the most part outside London. Of course, Hay’s characters are neither working class nor “tebbly tebbly posh,” but rather from that intermediate class – schoolmasters, stationmasters and so forth – and unlike Formby’s vaguely innocent-abroad persona, Hay’s stage/screen persona was pretty mean-spirited, with his characters constantly set up for a fall. I haven’t seen any of them for several years; must see what I can track down.

  4. Uncle Miltie plus Pee Wee Herman.

  5. What a terrifying combo!

    Never saw Uncle Miltie in anything as a kid, so by the time I saw him in movies I’d read sleazy gossip about him being hung like a sandworm and stuff, which put me off a bit. But he was clearly quite a good comic, though a bit unappealing. Rudy Vallee’s autobiography goes in for a lot of score-settling with old Miltie, but it’s more revealing of Rudy’s pettiness.

    I plan on looking at all these British comedy guys (I can tick off Askey, Formby and Trinder) so Hay is next on the agenda. Should’ve done so last year when looking at The Lady Vanishes, as Michael Redgrave impersonates him at one point in that film.

    Click on the links, Mark! Good music, and he doesn’t do much of his dreaded comedy patter.

  6. Ah jeez. Thank you for mentioning Rudy Vallee, insert his name in place of Arthur Godfrey, I was in fact referring to Vallee as the other ukelele player in question.

  7. Vallee was married for a short time to Jane Greer, a May/December match-up that didn’t last long, something Greer did early in her career to spite Howard Hughes, to whom she was under contract. Vallee was a bit of a perv so I’ve read, introducing Jane to his extensive pornography collection and coercing her into dying her hair jet black, so as to more resemble Hedy Lamarr, whom Rudy had quite a fixation on.

  8. Does George Formby bear a slight resemblance to Yves Montand?

  9. ExperimentoFilm Says:

    Another point in George’s favour: I remember (from Bret’s book) that he and Beryl were ahead of their time in their flouting of apartheid.

    For Shadowplayers in the UK, a petition worth signing:

  10. Well now this is embarrassing. I was right the first time, Godfrey was the stateside ukelele plucker. Vallee was also a musician, but ukelele wasn’t part of his repertoire. Just shows how much attention I give to such things.

  11. Vallee was more the sing-into-a-loudhaler kind of crooner, wasn’t he?

    Yes, there’s a Montand-Formby likeness, but Montand could appear handsome. Not sure George had that in his repertoire. He’s like the evolutionary stage before Montand.

  12. Milton Berle, yes, and Yves Montand, also yes. For such a hideous person, he sure looks like a lot of less-hideous people. Makes you think.

  13. I find Milton pretty hideous. I get kind of a bad feeling from him. The strange Anthony Newley atrocity Will Heironymous Merkin Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? makes convincing use of Uncle Miltie’s repellant side.

  14. No, Formby does NOT resemble Yves Montand! And it’s not GF’s face that’s the problem, in any case. It’s the leering salaciousness that’s such a turn-off. I doubt very much that Beryl’s fears about his female co-stars were justified.

    Compared with him, Max Miller (another ukulele-wielding comic with a taste for innuendo) was George Clooney.

  15. Milton Berle’s show is one of my earliest TV memories, and I’m pretty sure I got a bad feeling from him back then. So that I understand.

  16. The Formby numbers remind of what few music hall bits I’ve seen on film. Lotta cuties surround him, I’ll say that. That banjo is a short-scale job that looks much like a ukulele/banjo hybrid. He does look like Uncle Miltie from some angles and that does give me those Berle creeps. Some early TV stars were rather aggressive (Berle, Gleason, Ceasar), which may be why they had early success on the small screen. I don’t know if I could make it through an entire Formby film, but I’d give it a go since I’ve seen so many bad American films.

  17. I need to figure out which is the one that has him attacking Hitler from a balloon and watch that. Because that’s not to be missed, clearly. And does show a kind of demented ambition otherwise lacking in his movies. After looking at his first two flicks I’m very glad he stopped being employed as screenwriter. His version of cross-talk comedy is a long long way below Groucho and Chico.

  18. Milton Berle and Anthony Newley in a film together. Two repellent peas in a pod.

  19. Let’s not forget the glorious Tessie O’Shea:

  20. That Newley extravaganza is just bursting with unpleasantness. George Jessel is pretty hard to look at by that point in his life. Joan Collins adds taste and decorum!

  21. Wait a minute, I’ve watched a Monty Banks-directed picture, so I guess I’ve seen lower-rung British directing already. Who knows, maybe if I see a few of these I’ll start a George Formby fan club! Maybe even Harry Hay, too!

    Amusing thing my mother said when channel-hopping she hit Hobson’s Choice on TCM and said, “This must be a British picture, Americans can’t fake those accents that well”. She saw Laughton at first and didn’t know if it was an American or Brit picture until she heard the dialog.

  22. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Funny you should mention the George Formby Fanclub mmedin because that’s what he always reminds me of.

    At some point when my brother was a nipper he saw a George Formby film on TV and absolutely loved him. He’d mention him at any opportunity till eventually my parents paid for his membership to the fanclub! Wish we still had the magazines and badge that he presumably got.

    That was all before I was even aware there was a television in the room. My own introduction to a more exciting experience of cinema was also musical comedy. I think the Beeb put a whole season of Fred and Ginger films on in around 1987 and my Mum let me stay up late to watch. I remember my surprise on seeing them being interviewed as older people and I’m sure I was aware of who Fred Astaire was when the news said he’d died and being sad.

    I can’t see Yves Montand at all. Yves looks like Uk Tv presenter Nick Knowles to me. I can see the oily Uncle Milt though. The grinning and chuckling makes me look away from the screen, does that make me a sourpuss?

    In the Emperor of Lancashire at the end he says “Bow down everyone” and sounds just the same note as Baldrick’s poem “Boom Boom Boom” in Blackadder Goes Forth. I quite liked the “She’s got two of everything” song, bar the lyrics (I don’t think they even count as double entendres, maybe half an entendre?) it sounds quite bluesy I was just expecting everything to be major-chord-cheery with George. Isn’t it amazing though how much awareness we have of him after all this time though? I’ve always known a few of his songs, and I can’t say the same for Gracie Fields. Maybe that’s just me, because I have that brother.

  23. There’s barely a single image of Formby online where he’s not grinning, so it’s hard to illustrate the Montand connection. Montand, when he grins, does not have buck teeth, but when he just smiles it looks as if he might. Formby is the spoon-reflected Montand.

  24. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Hmm okay, the receding jaw maybe.

  25. ———————–
    Fred Astaire’s singing voice has been described as “unlikely but effective.”
    I’ve always liked Fred’s voice. And he sure knew how to move:

  26. Oh yes. it’s a delightful voice, it’s just unexpected for a leading man.

  27. i grew up late 70’s and 80’s while my friends watched the A-team and Night rider i was watching the great british comedy classics such as george formby,will hay,the crazy gang,old mother riley and frank randell,i think these films teach you respect not like the stuff produced to day,thank goodness for video and DVD as these greats would be just on a shelve some where gavering dust.

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