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In their final starring vehicle together, British film and stage stalwarts Cicely Courtneidge and husband Jack Hulbert give a grand tour of the kind of pre-war comedy played at break-neck pacing which permeated British film comedies and simply pleased the people before the sublime literacy of the Pascal Shaw films, Noel Coward and the Ealing comedies set a world standard for a more literate amusement.
With war clouds gathering in Europe (the film would not be released until a few months after Hitler marched into Poland), the free passage of British citizens to the south of France (here in the service of the kind of light espionage plot the U.S. Charlie Chan films had exploited in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS a few years earlier) still must have seemed normal during the "phony war" before the Nazi invasion of France and Dunkirk.
That the "missing secret carburetor" should be found in a light training plane testifies to the slight budget of the comedy, but is more than contradicted by the lavish musical numbers which the film owes to its origin as a musical stage hit.
Cicely Courtneidge (later Dame Cicely) has little American equivalent, although a more refined Joan Davis might come close, and writer/husband Jack Hulbert may remind some as a cross between a funnier Ray Bolger and a less suave Fred Astaire. They played together as perfectly British a comedy couple (and musical to boot!) as Nick and Nora Charles were a distinctly American twosome with or without the mystery or music as underpinning to their comedy through a dozen successful if not quite classic pre-war comedies together and apart before their style comedy was relegated back to the stage from whence it came by the perception that wartime movie audiences wanted something more profound - and yet modern audiences will see some of their comic heritage in the "modern' work of John Cleese and the Monte Python generation. That their work is so seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic is our loss and makes a serious hole in any true understanding of our theatrical and comedic heritage.
UNDER YOUR HAT was enough of a hit to lend a semblance of its title to Hulbert & Courtneidge's postwar stage hit based on the black market, UNDER THE COUNTER, which played over a year in London and another in OZ (but barely held out a month on Broadway separated as it was by a profoundly different wartime experience and five years of OKLAHOMA's progeny). The pair soldiered on as the institutions they had become long after (I was lucky enough to see them two years before Hulbert's passing in a 1976 Guildford tryout of a biographical revue called ONCE MORE WITH MUSIC, and it was clear that they could still hold stage with the best of "modern" talents for any comedy, drama or musical demands).
Audiences expecting a MY FAIR LADY of musical construction and already well known songs are not looking for UNDER YOUR HAT, but as a historically interesting diversion that still holds the attention and sports music that is surprisingly fresh and tuneful will not be disappointed.
Well worth a look.
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