We approach this film with not a little trepidation. After all the hubris we’ve spent the last four-odd years heaping on what, to the untrained eye, is merely a largely-forgotten wartime comedy filler, would we, upon seeing it properly for the first time in over fifteen years, be able to justify the pedestal upon which we’ve ceremonially placed it? Fortunately, all such thoughts go out the window the moment the credits roll, and we’re told the film is adapted “from WA Darlington’s famous farce”. This has to be great, right? We start in a rather bare-looking set that’s standing in for the ancient Middle East, wherein Aladdin, now enfeebled, summons his genie, who appears in a rather impressive fireball zipping through the window to spooky orchestral accompaniment. Alistair Sim, for it is he, plays the genie with no discernible ‘Arabic’ accent, but a sort of camp, unctuous voice rising hopefully at the end of every sentence.
Which, needless to say, works a treat. Sim’s worked with various Gang members before now, first in 1935’s A Fire Has Been Arranged, in which he was foil to Flanagan and Allen’s cockney jewel thieves, who find a shop has been built on the site of their stashed loot while they’ve been languishing in choky (see Peter Rogers’ The Big Job for the definitive version of that hoary old scenario). Anyway, Aladdin’s fading fast, so the long and the short of this establishing scene sees the genie buggering off back into his lamp, and the old man burying the thing. it gets ploughed up, falls into the hands of some nameless sailors, who try and pawn it but finding no takers chuck it on a rag and bone cart, where it heads off to be made into army uniform buttons – cue lots of lovely old factory footage overlaid with Sim – still imprisoned somehow within the metal despite the lamp having been completely flattened – going “Ooh, it’s hot in here!” etc. Eventually he’s sewn into a naval jacket and, well, there’s your set-up. Four minutes tops. if only films these days could get their high concept delivered in such admirably quickfire a manner.
Now we’re up to the present day. While a naval recruitment march proceeds down the street, on a balcony staunch straightman Peter Gawthorne, in full captain’s regalia, is arguing with his daughter, played by Glennis Lorimer, no less than the fan-toting Gainsborough Lady herself! The subject of their consternation is a bit of modelling work she’s picked up – an ad for Collie’s cork-tipped fags. “Daddy doesn’t mind how many Collies I smoke!” runs the improbable caption while Glennis reclines cheekily in the bath. Gawthorne is not amused.
But that’s yet another bit of scene-setting, as we’re quickly transported to street level and – yes! – The Gang’s all here. Merrily busking away, with Jimmy Nervo bashing a broomhandle adorned with cymbals and Charlie Naughton taking lead vocal. The song is Goodbye Little Yellow Bird, best known these days from Angela Lansbury’s over-the-top performance of it in 1945’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, but unlike that actorly, emotional delivery, here the song – about a sparrow coming in from the cold, encountering a canary in a golden cage, falling in love with it but preferring penurious freedom to being a prisoner “in a cage of gold”, you get the mawkish idea – is stripped to the chorus and belted out with all the falsetto gusto Naughton can muster. It’s great.
Not that the bystanders seem that bothered, though – “Not a sausage, for great stuff like that!” moans Bud. (Incidentally, though the Gang are basically going under their own names here as ever, for the record Bud, as lead, is called Alf Higgins, and Jimmy Nervo goes by the name of Cecil, presumably to help differentiate him from Jimmy Gold, and also to give his partner Teddy Knox yet further excuse to exercise his Sylvester the Cat-esque trademark lisp. Oh, and while we’re here, here’s our handy Crazy Gang Ready Reckoner in case you’re still not entirely sure who’s who –
BUD FLANAGAN – Loud, Stanley Hollowayesque cockney with facial overtones of Roy Hudd (and not, despite the best efforts of Royal Variety Performances in the early ’80s, Bernie Winters). Bashed straw boater and fur coats a speciality. He’s normally the one doing all the talking.
CHESNEY ALLEN – Tall, suave, well-groomed and the ‘poshest’ of the lot. He’s normally the one doing all the confused/grumpy expressions while Flanagan’s doing all the talking.
JIMMY NERVO – An impish, constipated-looking chap with a high waistband and a touch of Hugh Lloyd about him. Prone to acting half his age (in physical terms – obviously the entire gang were on about a quarter of their mental years to begin with).
TEDDY KNOX – A Private Walkeresque spivvy look, in the main, with affected lisp and occasional waxed ‘tache oft deployed to humorous effect, eg. he’s usually the first to hop into drag.
CHARLIE NAUGHTON – A sort of short, slightly chunkier Scottish Brian Cant. If that’s possible.
JIMMY GOLD – Also Scottish. Basically a larger format Ian Hislop.
‘MONSEWER’ EDDIE GRAY – Well, that’s easy – enormous, stuck-on handlebar moustache, of course. But then he’s only in Life is a Circus, anyway.)
So. As they’re drowned out by the marching band, Jimmy knocks his cymbals loudly in protest, and a lovely old dear, assuming they’re part of the military outfit, gives them two shillings. Well, the gang don’t need any more encouragement. “We’ll let them do the work!” So they split up and infiltrate the marchers, Charlie heading the parade with his rickety cart full of junk, on which Jimmy hangs various signs to elicit sympathy – “Out of work since birth”, “Three deaf all dumb” etc. – while Bud and the others nick a sweep’s broom for a substitute rifle and pass the hat around the crowd. It’s a charming little scene – the cheery glee on the lads’ faces as they nudge up against the stiffly marching band and happily defraud passers-by of coins of the realm is nothing short of heart-warming. Of course, they pay the price as the march runs right into a naval compound, and the heavy gates close behind them. Whoops!
Now for a bit of fun with one of the best stooges in the business, Oliver Hardy-like sergeant Wally Patch. In a classic example of extended misunderstanding, the Gang assume the naval yard is a labour exchange, and pop in for a medical and their wages, assuming that’s it and they can bugger off home. Patch delights in informing them they’re now fully-paid-up sailors in Her Majesty’s Navy, upon which they all faint in classic music hall style, aside from Charlie Naughton who stands there going “Mummy! Mummy!” in a weird high-pitched voice. Once it’s all sunk in, time for the obligatory square-bashing scene. The shorter Gang members invariably get left behind, while Bud saunters down the line in fine leg-swinging style.
Then, after the obligatory montage of bugles, marching and stew plates, interspersed with patch’s fearsome bellowing mug in close-up, enter dashing young Lieutenant James Carney, who lends a sympathetic ear to the Gang’s woes (Gold: “We’ve marched our feet right off – this is the end of me leg turned up!”) before they’re off to the clothing store (“Treat yer uniforms like yer wives – shake ’em every morning!”) for some trad tailoring demands (Bud: “Cut mine with a dicky-seat… not too tight underneath the arches!”) and a bit of Naughton and Gold business (“Tell me Mr Shorthouse, how do you get this wonderful physique?” “By getting up early in the morning and going straight back to bed!”) A jacket with a dirty button is passed down the line until it ends up with – of course – Bud. Knoxy gets in some great lisping (“If we’re going to shail the sheven sheas I shall be sheashick sheven timesh in sheventy-sheven sheparate shpashms!”) while Nervo braves the saliva torrent as best he can.
Then, in front of a rather impressive battleship backdrop (which we’re assuming is a hanging miniature) we’re reunited with Gawthorne and Carney (and, through a little cutaway to the ‘inside’ of the dirty button, Sim as well, just to tidy everything up before we cast off). In the last bit of double-cross Patch is going to get over on the Gang, he enlists Bud as Carney’s batman. Carney, as flat a romantic lead as the Marx brothers ever found themselves lumbered with, and then some – is twirling Indian clubs in his vest and looking every bits as ridiculous as he was no doubt supposed to seem dishy back in the day. The revelation of that Collie’s fag ad on the inside of his cupboard, however, sets up the inevitable romantic subplot far more succinctly than any of the O-Boys’ pictures managed.
So here we go on the final leg before Sim. In the officer’s mess Bud finds some “Wodka” (“That’s either a drink or furniture polish… nice furniture polish!”) and thus begins an orgy of almost non-stop drunkenness through the rest of the picture. Then, up on deck, polished out of his mind, he finally – twenty minutes in – rubs the button and gets Sim out. “What is thy wish, o master?” “Well, stripe me pink!” And so he does. Going below decks, Bud interrupts the other lads’ high-stakes game of Escalado (“No blowing!”) with his candy-striped fizzog (“I know what it is! His mother was frightened by a Venetian blind!”) plunging the entire ship into quarantine and an enforced mass gargle to ensure the crew’s health, a nice topical gag based on the then-prevalent Ministry of Health campaign to get Britain Gargling in the wake of the ’37 flu epidemic, which Gainsborough Pictures helped publicise with shots of their star Girls (including Glennis) posing in mid-gargle in front of a lavishly-appointed bathroom cabinet.
Inevitably, Bud summons Sim again on his sickbed and demand the stripes be undone, thus necessitating a bit of red ink application when it transpires a team of renowned doctors are boarding the ship to check on the wonder lurgi (“Are we going to lose the best job we’ve had since we’ve been on the dole? No!”) The quacks aren’t impressed, needless to say, but first Charlie Naughton sets up what must be the first instance of a classic sight gag. While fumigating the deck with one of those old-timery powder puffers, he accidentally squirts a doctor full in the face, then apologetically sucks the powder back in (in reverse motion) in exactly the same wise as, for instance, the gag with the dropped breakfast tray in the Blackadder II episode based around (synchronicity ahoy!) Gainsborough melodrama The Wicked Lady. Who says these films aren’t seminal?
After a dull bit of exposition in which Gawthorne finds out Carney’s got the hots for Glennis, it’s on to the big scene where Alf spills all the Gang about Sim (“He’s a Peruvian! Abdullah Jellybags is his name, he used to work for Cinderella!” “We got him out of bed too soon, he’s got delirious trimmings!”) Outraged at the slight on his master’s authority, Sim makes Jimmy Nervo kiss Bud’s foot as punishment (“His foot? Well, it could have been worse!”) Lest any further dramatic entrances give the game away, Knox gets him to “change his signature tune” to a rousing rendition of Colonel Bogey. Then, shrunk to cupboard-dwelling size in an excitingly wobbly bit of superimposition, he fills the room with beer (after an incredibly laboured gag wherein he produces ‘biers’, and Ches has to explain what they are to everyone). Cue another orgy of drunkenness!
To keep their carousing secret, Bud arranges for Sim to keep Carney ‘occupied’ – the cue for Glennis Lorimer to materialise on ship – in a see-through nightie, yet! Nervo gets to lead Lorimer (definitely hailing from the ‘giggle in the voice’ school of girly poshitude) off to the Lieutenant’s cabin, while the lads conjure up a variety of birds for themselves. (“Fancy suggesting such a thing! I’m all for it!”) “Oh, master,” rhapsodises Sim, “I will bring you Huries from the palace of Ming…” And Bud brilliantly jumps in shock at the first syllable of “Huries”. They set about ordering their birds (“I want a bonnie brunette with a beautiful bank balance!” “‘Ere, that’s six penn’orth of mixed!”) while Glennia and Carney get together in a symphony of plummy vowels and bumptious giggling there’s fortunately no need to even bother listening to, so clear is the road this romantic storyline’s going down.
Back to the drunken orgy, which is hidden from a rampaging Patch, though not well enough as bottles of run fall from jacket sleeves and the scene descends into a pissed-up free-for-all, with Naughton in particular pulling off a fine drunk walk through the melee. A potential court martial turns, with a bit of Sim-based help, into a tearful lament over the “drab, empty lives” of the men (“Oh sir, don’t call me Higgins, call me Alfred!”) with the captain ordering an extra shilling a day and a twenty-five-pound bonus. The next big set-piece comes in the shape of a concert party for the visiting Lord Wimbledon. Following a bit of canon-based wordplay with Bud and Ches (“That’s where the barrel’s been rifled!” “I’ll take a ticket!”) it’s hastily established that Carney is strapped for cash and, as he’s the romantic lead, the lads decide to show a bit of “reciprocitocity” and buy the lieutenant’s house off him, with no decent explanation of why they should be arsed helping this chinny oaf at all. But such is the special magic of the romantic subplot.
Cut to the concert party, and a rather neat bit of extended mime to a straight opera soundtrack, with the Gang, aka The Harmonious Jollies. Allen, Knox and Gold enter in tuxedoes, followed by Bud and Jimmy Nervo in pearl-festooned drag – surely the inspiration for Hinge and Bracket? What’s basically a one-gag bit of visual business (although admittedly a brilliantly performed one) is kept fresh with the constant double takes and glances across, particularly between Bud and Jimmy. After some Exciting Plot News in which we learn Gawthorne and Lorimer are off to a hunt at the weekend, and that Carney’s flogged his house to “an oriental gentleman”, Nervo and Knox get Wally Patch up on stage for a final bit of hypnotic humiliation. After Patch inadvertently pisses on Lord Wimbledon’s chips (“Am I married?” “No, you will die a bachelor, like your father before you.”) it’s time for the plot to take a massive lurch forward, as the Gang bugger off the ship entirely and roll up at Carney’s stately pile.
And so to the country house, now a harem (complete with dancing girls who respond to the magic words “Two home and one away!”) in the possession of a huge sheik-type fellow played by Bruce Winston (the second time he’s played this role, also having done the honours in a straighter version of the play in 1930, in which Nervo and Knox also appeared, as cameoing comic relief). Winston goes madly over the top, in a Great Soprendo style, showering Bud and co with coins (“There coins haven’t been used in 10,000 years!” “Are they from Aberdeen?”) Carney turns up, necessitating another great round of disguised daftness, headed up by Teddy Knox as Mr Brown (“Pronounced Brettingham – one of the Brettingham-Browns”) a monocled grandee with a nice line in upper class throat-clearing chuckles. (“I’m just too, too devastatingly pleased to meet you!”) and the rest of the Gang as a variety of turbanned exotics, with Bud taking the part of the Soprendo-voiced one. Carney complains about the antiquated coins (“I knew they wouldn’t take them at the Co-op!”) Jimmy Gold does a fake crystal ball routine, again with the ostensible purpose of getting Carney together with Lorimer (“I see bells ringing, bells chiming, bells tolling…” “That’s a lot of bells!” “All right, see if you can do better!”) after which he’s quickly shown the door (Bud: “Goodbye Mr Hardy, if I don’t see you anymore, hello!”)
Onto the climactic hunt ball, which is of course started off with the lads in hunting regalia making a dash straight for the punchbowls. Following their instructions to go to the pictures and get more up-to-date, Sim turns up in hunting pink and a new, decidedly weird, half-Scottish-half-Chicago accent (“Take a gander at me, bozo, take a gander at me! Swellegant, eh?”) So does everyone else, and all that’s left is a final bit of zaniness (all filmed mainly indoors, of course) with the Gang running about on circus ponies, the police chasing after them for the banknotes Sim’s pinched, and a rampaging bear (liberated from the same circus as the horses) chasing everyone, as the orchestra breaks into the Dick Barton theme. It all ends with horses, coppers and Gang members swarming round the manor as Bud gets the jacket just in time, and Sim puts “everything back to how it was”.
The gang duly wake up alongside that recruitment parade. But a ho-hum cop-out ending is saved by the fact that the romantic leads (plus Gawthorne) were last seen up a tree being pursued by the bear. Along comes a news vendor with the headline “Bear Eats Three in Kent”. So, having achieved the annihilation of the drippy leads – something the Marx Brothers would have given three hardboiled eggs to be able to do – the lads merrily bash and gurn their way into the end credits. “Ah well, the show must go on!” The usual caveat that what we’re seeing is roughly a tenth of the mayhem the Gang could concoct on stage applies, but even this tiny sliver of sauce is a treasure. So you see, it’s much more than just some dusty old sub-Ealing British comedy – it’s inspirational, seminal and scatological in equal measure. It’s bloody wonderful, in short. Now, if only they’d show it on the telly…