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Looking over gags in cold print often fails to amuse. How loved would
the Marx Brothers be if their classic routines had only appeared in
print and not on film? As Tommy Handley said in ITMA, this was written
with a hairpin on the back of a piece of fried bread; commenting on the
merits of ITMA generations later was not dreamed about.
Handley was one of Britain's best-loved Variety comedians, and helped create WW2 morale boosting ITMA, on BBC radio 1939-1949 - most of the cast are present and most of their catch phrases are reproduced here. It was probably the War that led to so many of these phrases becoming part of the national consciousness, providing a crazy sub-language with which ordinary people could communicate in dire times. Although this also happened in Britain in the 50's with the Goon Show - and their film attempts were on the poor side too. ITMA and THEGS were manic radio shows creating ridiculous mental pictures for the listeners, giving the characters substance in pictures did not help. When he died suddenly in '49 it was a Death of John Lennon type cataclysm for my grandmother! Millions of people (including the Windsors at Buckingham Palace) had listened to the radio show, and thousands were at his funeral.
As a film ITMA stands up pretty well overall, fast and furious gags and routines abound, but then it gets bogged down with songs and partial adherence to a script: the usual problem for comedy of this kind. Even "Hellzapoppin" was hamstrung in this manner; ITMA is also hamstrung by contriving to get every single catchphrase in before the end. None of which I'm going to quote for the a/m reason!
However, you certainly will have to appreciate pre-Rock & Roll British humour to enjoy this to the same extent as I do.
Tommy Handley was supremely talented in rapid fire delivery and in making scripted humour sound spontaneous. Listening to his work on the Radio in ITMA or his work on record with Ronald Frankau (Murgatroyd and Winterbottom, or in earlier days North and South) you will marvel at the sheer speed of delivery matched to clarity of diction. He was a broadcast comedian who had started with the BBC as early as 1922 but it was with ITMA that he truly became a national icon. The problem with ITMA is that like most really good comedy it was very topical and what was recognised in 1943 might need research by 1948 to even understand. When translated to film radio comedy is doubly hampered by the need for a plot which a show that depended on catchphrases fast delivery and topical humour simply didn't need on its home turf. This applies to most radio comedy, as has been remarked on with the Goons, and films like Bandwaggon (where Big and Stinker... Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch.... end up running a pirate TV station). Yet ITMA holds up. Handley's character as the rascally mayor of Foaming at the Mouth is a joy to watch as he keeps extracting himself from trouble only to get caught with his own trick at the very end of the film. Don't like ancient radio comedy actors? Go watch something modern! But comparing the verbal dexterity of Tommy Handley to the slapstick antics of the Three Stooges? That's like comparing steak to sea bass... both delicious but nothing like each other.
Where did the comedians of vaudeville go when the talkies came to the
cinema? Well most of them retired gracefully and vaudeville ceased to
- but a few made the jump from stage to screen. The period around the
and even later nurtured a crop of famous movie comedians like W C Fields,
Laurel & Hardy and the Three Stooges. They amused millions with low
based on slapstick, vulgarity and absurdist banter.
There were others across the Atlantic who are not so well known to us now, including Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley. Some of the movies of these lesser lights still stand up well today, like Askey's `The Ghost Train'(1941).
Sorry to say that's where the flattery ends in this review. Tommy Handley should have stayed on BBC radio where he was apparently popular. This movie is crass and painfully unfunny. Perhaps we are victims of changing tastes in humor, but if you get your laughs from such gems as `Well, push me into the pit with a poleaxe!' or `There's something amiss, Miss!', then you'd be a rare person indeed. Handley races through the flimsy script in manic style relying on little more than funny voices and fast delivery to bamboozle us into thinking that something amusing is happening. It isn't. Even if you have an affection for vaudeville, don't bother with this woeful effort which will leave you feeling depressed. Watch something intellectual by the Three Stooges instead.
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