The Bootleg Files: Bell Bottom George

BOOTLEG FILES 582: “Bell Bottom George” (1944 British comedy starring George Formby).

LAST SEEN: An unauthorized posting is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film and its star are unknown in the U.S.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It has been released on British DVD, but a U.S. release is unlikely.

Very few Americans ever heard of George Formby, but over in Great Britain he is revered as one of the top entertainers of the 1930s and 1940s. With his squeaky Lancashire voice, his toothy grin, his penchant for singing upbeat tunes (many with saucy double meanings) while playing a ukulele or banjolele, and a persona for being a lovable bumbler who somehow manages to save the day, Formby personified what the British refer to as the “cheeky chappie,” but which Americans would recognize as a working-class hero.

Formby’s popularity spanned the rigid British class system of his era, and his fans included the royal family. During World War II, he was the British equivalent of Bob Hope via his tireless efforts to entertain frontline troops. And while only two of his 20 films ever made it across the Atlantic – albeit for barely-seen releases from tiny distributors – at home he was the highest paid star of the wartime film industry.

The 1944 feature “Bell Bottom George” came towards the end of his film career, and Formby biographers unhappily admit that the production does not present him at his peak. But it is a an odd distraction that helped Britain’s weary population enjoy a brief bit of silly escapism from the stress of the seemingly endless war.

In “Bell Bottom George,” Formby is a clumsy waiter at a private London club catering to Royal Navy officers. Formby has tried three times to get into the Royal Navy, but he repeatedly failed the medical exam. “Me heart,” he explains, is “a bit groggy.”

But while Formby is eager to do his patriotic duty, his inability to avoid accidents is also a disqualifying factor. He enters the film crashing his bicycle into a military vehicle, and at his place of employment he crashes a window blackout screen on the heads of several officers and later trips on a bar of soap left on the while carrying a tray of beers. At the end of the day, he retires to a tiny flat over the club and sings a tune called “Swim Little Fish” to his pet, a somewhat large fish named Egbert that lives in a cramped bowl.

Well, you know the old warning about being careful what you wish for? In this case, Formby manages to get into the Royal Navy, but not in the manner he expected. It seems that a sailor friend borrows Formby’s clothing so he can stay out late without getting in trouble with the military police. But this clothing-swapping character gets knocked out and winds up in a hospital. Formby discovers that his pal left behind his uniform, so he puts it on and – yeah, you guessed it – the military police nab him, believing that he is AWOL. Formby takes his pal’s identity and goes into basic training, where he makes a mess of everything: he repeatedly falls out of a hammock, he goofs up his calisthenics training, and includes ladies’ underwear in a display of naval flags.

The one thing that this phony sailor can do is sing: when challenged to perform, he delights the other sailors with “It Serves You Right,” a sharply comic song that scolds men for rushing into service. This performance is so well received that he is recruited to represent his battalion on a radio show with the tune “Bell Bottom George” – and listening to the broadcast is his hospitalized pal, who is furious that Formby is serving in his place.

Oh, there is also a subplot involving Formby’s romantic involvement with a pretty Wren (a member of the Royal Navy’s all-women division) from a higher social level, which allows him to sing yet another tune, “If I Had a Girl Like You.” And there is a second subplot involving Nazi spies operating out of a London taxidermist shop. As any fan of B-grade World War II comedies will expect, these bad guys get tripped up and captured very easily by our awkward comic hero.

Part of the problem with “Bell Bottom George” is that Formby appears to be too old to make this gormless character credible – he was 40 at the time, but looked much older and gives the impression of a middle-aged man behaving stupidly. His attempts at physical slapstick come across as strained, and the climax with Formby and half of the cast in a wild speedboat chase is far from invigorating. His humor is also strange to American ears – when confronted by the military police, he laments, “Oh, what a pity your fathers and mothers had to meet.” Huh?

In recent years, there has been a curious attempt to recast “Bell Bottom George” through a lavender spectrum. British writer David Bret insisted that the film is “a potent exercise in homoeroticism, revered by George’s surprisingly large gay following in wartime Britain.” Historian Baz Kershaw described the “It Serves You Right” number as Formby “surrounded by posing, well-proportioned matelots” while imagining “his large following of closet queens swooning in secret raptures.” Actually, such statements say more about Bret and Kershaw, who are reading far too much into this epicene comedy.

However, journalist Robert Chalmers, in a 1999 essay published in The Independent, complained that watching a Formby film “is to be reminded of how its star’s manic bonhomie has become weird and dislocated with time. Formby is the personification of a kind of naive decency, often exhibited by documentary interviewees from the period, which has virtually disappeared from British life – even in fiction.”

Formby’s persona certainly did not have American appeal. “Bell Bottom George” was produced by the British division of Columbia Pictures, but that studio saw no reason to bring the film stateside. (Formby’s only North American audiences were Canadian – he toured the country in a coast-to-coast tour in 1949, playing in 19 cities.) Even at this late date, none of his films have ever been released in U.S. home entertainment channels – and I am uncertain if his films ever played on U.S. television. An unauthorized posting of “Bell Bottom George” is on YouTube, awaiting the curious Americans who want to find out what kept wartime Britons amused during their darkest years.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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