A GUIDE TO CLASSIC
BRITISH FILM COMEDY

by Mark Ashley

This is a brief guide, not comprehensive, and is very much a personal journey, but as I notice that no classic British comedy made it to the CineScene 100 I thought I'd attempt to bring some enlightenment to the masses.


Oh, Mr. Porter!

Where to start? Not at the beginning, no one ever starts at the beginning (well some do, but, after all, God is rather unique). I will start with Will Hay, a comedian with a classic music hall style, very slick fast-paced routines not unlike Abbot and Costello, although Hay didn't go in for slapstick quite so much. He was traditionally accompanied by Graham Moffatt as a cheeky fat boy and Moore Marriott as a sometimes deaf crotchety old man with a long white beard. The funniest routines always involved these two.
His best films are Good Morning, Boys (Marcel Varnel, 1937) - one of the first British school comedies - and Oh, Mr. Porter! (Varnel, '37) - a variation on the old comedy-thriller The Ghost Train. Hay may not have been the first of the great British comedy actors - Arthur Askey and The Crazy Gang were probably before him and were possibly more popular, but for me he was the first and opened the door into the classics of the 40s, 50s and early 60s.

Next comes Alastair Sim, not necessarily chronologically but notionally. Sim was a darker character, and not just a comedy actor, yet he is the figurehead of some real classics. Again the comedy is very school based, the best examples being The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950), about a boarding school for boys that is accidentally forced to share its premises with a girls school, and the legendary The Belles of St. Trinian's (Launder, '54), a tale of the life and crimes of the worst girls school in the whole of Great Britain, and the first in a series of increasingly anarchic comedies. Sim plays the headmistress, and her unstable brother - he's funny, and practically flawless in both roles.


The Belles of St. Trinian's


The Happiest Days
of Your Life

Kenneth More was another essentially straight actor who had a significant impact on the classic British comedy. His bright, lively rakish playboy character waltzed his way through a number of films, the most memorable of which are Genevieve (Henry Cornelius, 1953) - the story of a group of friends taking part in the London to Brighton vintage car rally, and Doctor in the House (Ralph Thomas, 1954) - episode one of the antics of a group of medical students. The film created a recurring role for the up and coming star Dirk Bogarde.


Genevieve

Doctor in the House
Michael Balcon's family-owned Ealing Studios produced some of the wittiest postwar comedies of any country. Ealing's stable of directors - including Charles Crichton, Alexander Mackendrick, Robert Hamer, Henry Cornelius, and Basil Dearden - was top notch, and still under-appreciated today.


Kind Hearts
and Coronets


The Lavender Hill Mob


The Man in the White Suit


Many of the best Ealing comedies starred Alec Guinness, a major player at the peak of the British comedy era . In the wickedly funny Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer, '49), he plays all seven members of the D'Ascoyne family, who are successively killed off by Dennis Price's hopeful inheritor. The Lavender Hill Mob (Crichton, '51) is a droll heist comedy in which Guinness plays a prim and proper bank clerk who, with the help of Stanley Holloway, plans the perfect robbery of his own bank. The Man in the White Suit (Mackendrick, '51) is a darker than average satire about a chemist (Guinness) who invents an invulnerable material and ends up on the garment industry's hit list. Alec is a classic bumbling boffin, well meaning but stupid. The Ladykillers (Mackendrick, '55) is the story of a bank job gone wrong, in which a gang of criminals can't cope with their landlady, a sweet and utterly oblivious little old lady. Guinness, with grotesque false teeth, does his best impression of Alastair Sim. (He never seemed comfortable without strange makeup or wigs, or some kind of geographically vague accent.) The gang includes Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, and Peter Sellers. Mackendrick found an actual little old lady named Katie Johnson to play Mrs. Wilberforce. She steals the picture.


The Ladykillers

 

 


The Smallest Show on Earth




I'm All Right, Jack




The Wrong Arm
of the Law

The king of British comedy was Peter Sellers, an excellent character actor and comic genius appearing in arguably the best films at the height of the postwar comedy era. The Smallest Show on Earth (Basil Dearden, 1957) tells the story of a run-down cinema on its last legs in which Sellers plays the elderly alcoholic projectionist. In The Mouse that Roared (Jack Arnold, 1959) a tiny and impoverished country in Europe declares war on the United States in order to lose and therefore receive foreign aid. Sellers plays multiple roles, including the nation's Grand Duchess. I'm All Right, Jack (John Boulting, 1959) is possibly the best of the best, a class struggle comedy in which Sellers plays an aging and bitter union official in conflict with the bosses and his naive lodger. It's very funny, yet its social critique has rare depth. Two Way Stretch (Robert Day, 1960) is a prison comedy in which Sellers masterminds a robbery that he breaks out of jail to commit. The Wrong Arm of the Law (Cliff Owen, 1962) is another crime caper in which gang boss Sellers find himself the victim of a new gang who go around impersonating police officers. In Heavens Above! (John & Roy Boulting, 1963), Sellers plays a forward-thinking vicar who moves into an old parish that is very set in its ways. After this choice selection of excellent comedies, Peter Sellers went on to play the infamous Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther ('63), subsequently left Britain for sunnier climes in the U. S., and was never quite so funny again.

 

 


The Mouse That Roared



 


Heavens Above!

There are two more films that stand out without being associated with the actors I've mentioned. The first is Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick, 1949), the story of a remote Scottish island during the Second World War (and rationing) that suddenly find its beaches littered with the flotsam of a wrecked cargo ship carrying whisky. The islanders fight and evade the authorities in order to consume their treasure unmolested. The second film, Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius, 1949), also concerns rationing, although it takes place just after the war has finished. While cleaning up the aftermath of their bombed neighborhood, the residents of Pimlico discover an ancient document that proves they are actually part of Burgundy, and therefore not subject to rationing restrictions. This is another tale involving the struggle between a local community and the authorities, with a great deal of humor deriving from the eccentric characters, including the great Margaret Rutherford as a history professor who substantiates the document. Both films play on the Dunkirk spirit of the British during WWII, mixing satire with genuine affection.


Passport to Pimlico

There you have it. I hope this brief introduction inspires you to seek out some of the treasures of classic British film comedy.

©2001 Mark Ashley
CineScene