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Anarchy in the UK: The Comic Genius of Will Hay, Moore Marriott, and Graham Moffatt

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Hollywood in the 1930s had the Three Zanies – British cinema had its Three Idiots. England’s equivalent of the Marx Brothers (fourth man Zeppo being un-zany) was the team of Will Hay, Moore Marriott, and Graham Moffatt, who appeared together in six classics made by Gainsborough Pictures between 1936 and 1939. Gainsborough may be better remembered for its school of lurid, sexy “Gothic” melodramas (three were released on DVD by Criterion in October), but in the music-hall star Hay and his ill-assorted sidekicks the studio had a fount of comic genius.

Though not Dadaist insurrectionists like the Marxes, the Brit Gang of Three similarly mocked authority and disrupted institutions, often from within. Hay, the pince-nez-wearing star, played officious incompetents in leadership roles – schoolmaster, ship’s captain, prison governor, police sergeant, fire chief – whose bumbling efforts were invariably undermined by his shifty assistants, Marriott’s truculent geezer and Moffatt’s insolent “fat boy.” Always out of their depth, Hay’s characters responded to predicaments they couldn’t solve with a sniff, an evasion, or a pulling of rank. Though the films involved physical comedy, they were essentially comedies of manners.

This winter, the Tulsa-based DVD distributor VCI Entertainment, which also has on its roster the ribald Brit “Carry On” comedies and those starring the beloved “little man” Norman Wisdom, is issuing three pairs of Hay’s movies, though only half of the trio’s collaborations are represented.

Volume 1, already out, features William Beaudine’s “Boys Will Be Boys” (1935) and “Where There’s a Will” (1936, with Moffatt); Volume 2, arriving February 5, features Beaudine’s “Windbag the Sailor” (1936, with both sidekicks) and Charles Varnel’s “Good Morning Boys” (1937, with Moffatt); and Volume 3, arriving February 19, features Varnel’s “Oh! Mr. Porter” (1937) and “Convict 99” (1938), both co-starring Marriott and Moffatt.

Varnel also directed Hay, Moffatt, and Marriott in three 1939 films that VCI will hopefully release in the future: “Old Bones of the River,” “Ask a Policeman,” and “Where’s That Fire?” (which was lost until 1975). On the completion of the latter, Hay switched from Gainsborough to Ealing Studios, jettisoning Moffatt and Marriott. His teaming with the irascible American comedy star Edgar Kennedy in Varnel’s “Hey! Hey! USA” was an early indication that he wanted to work with other actors.

Hay’s move to Ealing was akin to the Marxes moving from Paramount to MGM after their first five triumphs, culminating in “Duck Soup” (1933). They were never as good again – nor was Hay without the dotard and the youth (who stayed at Ealing to work with Arthur Askey, another music-hall favorite).

Though “Windbag the Sailor” – starring Hay as a bragging “mariner” who has only captained a barge – is especially delightful nautical nonsense, the threesome’s masterpiece was “Oh! Mr. Porter.” Here, Hay’s eponymous station master, sent to run a haunted, decrepit Irish branch-line halt, is reliably hindered by the thieving, lazy Albert (Moffatt) and Harbottle (Marriott), whose snapped greeting – “Next train’s gone!” – is one of the greatest British one-liners.

Gun-runners complicate the plot and the picture ends with an improbable high-speed journey on a Victorian locomotive. But it’s the interaction between Porter and his terminally frustrating staff that makes the movie a joy: it’s a testament to the way pretentious English middle-management types set themselves up to be punctured over and over again by recalcitrant underlings. There’s a direct path from Hay, Marriott, and Moffatt’s escapades to socially aware landmark UK sitcoms like “Dad’s Army” and “The Office.”

When the critic Raymond Durgnat wrote of the Hay persona’s “Dickensian fruitiness and Greeneian seediness…[his] amoral and weary indomitability at once truly proletarian and truly shabby-genteel,” he nailed the pathetic aspirational yearning that made Hay so recognizable to his countrymen – and a huge domestic box-office star.

Update: On  January 11, VCI announced it would release “Hey! Hey! USA,” “Old Bones of the River,” and “Ask a Policeman” on Volume 4 of the Will Hay Collection on March 5.

Image: (l-r) Graham Moffatt, Will Hay, and Moore Marriott in “Oh! Mr. Porter”/Still via Youtube

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