by Allan Fish
(UK 1943 73m) not on DVD
All games played in this club are for amusement only
p Michael Balcon d Basil Dearden, Will Hay w John Dighton, Angus MacPhail ph Wilkie Cooper ed Charles Hasse m Ernest Irving art Michael Relph
Will Hay (William Fitch), Claude Hulbert (Claude Babbington), Mervyn Johns (Arthur Grimshaw), Charles Victor (Safety Wilson), Lawrence Hanray (Sir Norman), Derna Hazell (Gloria), Lloyd Pearson (Col.Chudleigh), Maudie Edwards (Aladdin), Ernest Thesiger (Ferris), Aubrey Mallalieu (magistrate), Gibb MacLaughlin (butler),
A simple question for a film buff, or so one might have thought, would be “name the first Ealing comedy.” The average person who only knows of them, not their chronology, might pick Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Lavender Hill Mob, a more shrewd individual might plump for Hue and Cry from 1946. However, in actual fact, Ealing had been making comedies for years before that, and the jewel of these years was their association with Will Hay through his last handful of films. Of the films that came out of that partnership, My Learned Friend is unquestionably the best, and least typical.
William Fitch is a disbarred barrister who now obtains money by false pretences. Found out and brought up before the local magistrate he has a stroke of luck in that the barrister prosecuting him is a prototype upper class twit, and he gets off thanks to the bumbler’s incompetence. Later on they meet up for a drink at a nearby pub, but also meeting them there is another onlooker, a recently released offender who reminds Fitch of his inability to defend him and proclaims his nefarious intentions to gain revenge on all those people who put him in prison, including his counsel for the defence.
When one looks back over Hay’s career, it can be very neatly split in two, the Gainsborough years with Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt and the later Ealing years, with numerous stooges, ranging from John Mills and Charles Hawtrey to silly ass Claude Hulbert. In Hulbert he had another ideal foil, even more so in that besides Hulbert, Hay’s incompetence looks entirely intelligent. Hay’s later films have a much darker tone than the earlier, more whimsical pieces – The Goose Steps Out satirised the Nazis, The Black Sheep of Whitehall was a spy drama, while my selection is a dark comedy. Its script is especially effective, with numerous laugh out loud lines (“I have had nothing to eat for three days…” Hulbert reads from Hay’s letter begging for money, to which Hay replies “quite right, I was living off stout at the time“) and some truly magically timed sequences (which Hay co-directed and, given Basil Dearden’s general reputation towards the journeyman, was probably the real creative force). These include the two bumblers totally destroying a performance of a panto using very effective rhyming dialogue, an extended sequence in the Maybury Court Mental Retreat (the sign for which is accompanied by two calls from a cuckoo), the opening courtroom farce, a magnificently choreographed barroom brawl at the wonderfully named ‘Jimmy’s Dive’ and, last but not least, a finale of which Harold Lloyd would be proud, with our heroes climbing the face of Big Ben to stop the hand striking twelve and thus setting off the villain’s explosive device.
As for the cast, it’s safe to say they’re hand picked, with Hay giving one of his greatest comic turns as the rascally Fitch, Hulbert peerless as Babbington, Thesiger has a priceless cameo in the mental home, murmuring “this place is becoming a mad house!“, and last but not least, the incomparably barmy Mervyn Johns, once again proving how overlooked he is as the accommodating psycho with a gift for cryptic clues. More than anything, however, Friend fills us with regret, as we know now it was Hay’s last film – illness would force his retirement at fifty-four to his beloved observatory (he was also a recognised astronomer) and deny us further ventures into comic darkness. Even more of a loss is the knowledge that he should have made it to the golden era of Ealing, and indeed, British comedy (imagine him in The Ladykillers, The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Happiest Days of Your Life). To have seen Hay with Guinness, Holloway, Sim and Rutherford, that would have been cherished indeed.