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.”