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The Crazy Gang followed THE FROZEN LIMITS (1939) with this, their take on Nazi Germany; it’s a fairly inspired comedy on a serious subject, though one couldn’t sensibly compare it to Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) – or, for that matter, Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942).
The film starts with them as billeted soldiers who still manage a clandestine fish-and-chip business on the side; caught by their superior officer, the balloon advertising their activity flies off into the air in the ensuing frenzy, taking with it the entire stall – and the Gang itself! After climbing on top of the balloon, Naughton falls inside and inhales all of its air – causing them to land in a foreign country (one of the film’s brightest gags occurs here as four members of the Gang pump the physically inflated Naughton in order to take the air out of him, with which Flanagan is able to light a stove on which to cook their breakfast!) which they first take to be Ireland because of the greenery, then France when they meet a group of French soldiers. However, their rash decision to join the French army turns out to be unwise – because it transpires that the latter are, in fact, P.O.W.s (GASBAGS was certainly at the forefront in depicting a concentration camp)!
Being one of the first films to poke fun at the Nazis, its attack is merciless: for instance, the Gang’s balloon lands in a field, and Allen says there must be some prime manure under their feet – just then, we pan down to the reveal the Nazi headquarters below the surface!; later on, during a dinner engagement – in which Knox (who sports a moustache) is made to pass off as Hitler, he can’t understand why nobody around him is eating – to which one of the others snaps, “They’re all waiting for you, you twerp!” Just as in THE FROZEN LIMITS, Moore Marriott lends invaluable support – even if the somewhat overbearing Naughton is, once again, often the center of attention; however, we do get a charming song here from Flanagan and Allen.
Other great gags in the camp include: the way the Gang are continuously deposed from their bunks by the mass of other P.O.W.s; the side-splitting appearance of Hitler at their window – it then transpires that the Hitler impersonators of Germany have gone on strike in tandem, and they’ve been sent to the camp as punishment! Hence, when a plot is hatched to ‘assassinate’ the Fuhrer to deceive the Allies and a double is needed, the Gestapo settle on Knox (still, it was improbable to allow the entire Gang to take part in the ‘mission’, the others offering themselves up as bodyguards – plus Marriott, who has a map tattooed on his back indicating the site of a secret weapon that could win the war for the side which lays its hand on it). The various attempts on Hitler’s life, of course, all go hilariously awry – a booby-trap flower arrangement, cannon-fire, poison, acid, a platform gives out under him during a speech to the crowd (with Knox mimicking the words of the real Fuhrer, speaking safely from his headquarters).
The last third of the film finds the Gang attempting to retrieve the secret weapon while dodging pursuit by the Gestapo (at one point, they even disguise themselves as forest trees!); when our heroes find the shuttle-like burrowing device, it takes them via earth and water to safety back home – where they emerge through the floor of their own barracks, much to the consternation of the Gang’s superior officer! While the quality of the audio throughout the film on the Network DVD is slightly better than was the case with THE FROZEN LIMITS, the print here is rather dark. GASBAGS, then, is a good vehicle for this wacky (and unfairly neglected) comedy team – though I tend to prefer its predecessor overall; incidentally, the only other major WWII British comedy made during this time was Basil Dearden’s THE GOOSE STEPS OUT (1942) – Will Hay’s penultimate film, which he also co-directed.
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