Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Funny Bones: the Black Comedy of the War… BFI with Cyrus Gabrysch

This was the latest screening from the BFI’s WWI: The View from the Ground aimed at commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. It took a look at the lighter side of war… and indeed there always is one even in the darkest of conflicts.

Very few comedy films from the period survive but what we have illustrates the greatness of Britain: our ability to laugh at and with ourselves in the face of almost unendurable horror. This is often, as Bryony Dixon season curator put it in her notes, “conscript humour”; taking the proverbial whilst not only accepting the possibility that those in charge might possibly have a plan, but steadfastly counting on it. As Bryony says it’s not too far from modern satirical humour: Blackadder with good faith perhaps.

Officers are lampooned but no more than gullible privates, NCOs, land girls, magistrates and even horses: the country that laughed together fought together.

Meet the boys... Splinters (1931)
First up was an extract from proto-It Ain’t Half Hot MumSplinters (1931) an early talkie which was based on an officially-sanctioned morale-boosting wartime stage show featuring leading drag artiste Reg Stone and Hal Jones.  For soldiers starved of anything like female company such reviews were a chance to imagine life back home. In this particular instance two squaddies – Lew Lake and Sydney Howard - are so dulled by fond hearts and beer that they are completely fooled by Mr Stone’s expertise…

I’ve seen this film before and would recommend a full viewing: luckily the BFI are showing the complete film on Monday 12th September – details here.

Violet Hopson and Johnny Butt
Next up was a comedy short Tubby’s Rest Cure (1915) which featured some marital comedy from Johnny Butt as the titular Tubby and his long-suffering missus, Isabelle, played by Violet Hopson.
Tubby goes for his rest in a village seemingly over-flowing with Land Girls who, clearly desperate for male company fawn all over him. He writes to Isabelle complaining of his loneliness only to be caught out when she pays him a visit. What’s good for the goose is quickly adopted by the gander and Tubby’s nose is out of joint as handsome officers entertain Mrs T.

Charming and even-handed in a way that Mr B Hill would struggle with half a century later…

Lupino shows his moves...
More outlandish nomenclature followed with Lupino Lane in Trials of Mr Butterbun (1918). This was truly outrageous and suggested that our judiciary could be bought off with the promise of a few pounds of sugar! Lupino played a magistrate charged with hearing appeals against the draught and had to endure a variety of bribes and excuses in the course of his business at the “Try-on-bunial”.

The magistrate was joined by four others – a Quin-bunial? – and had to resort to a magic ring to convince his fellow judges – one of whom was a Mr Slopsam, sausage maker and horse owner (possible connection inferred). Funniest of the complainants was a conscientious objector who thrashed the tribunal until they gave him an exemption.

On screen and on paper: Old Bill
Lastly… a double helping of Sydney Chaplin along with his brother… Charles I think?

Syd played cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather’s famous ‘Old Bill’ character in a film called The Better ‘Ole (1926) reprising a moustache he initially deployed in Shoulder Arms – like three overgrown Charlies on the one upper lip.

Old Bill is a veterans’ veteran who, as Bryony Dixon put it possesses: “…that comforting old soldier’s instinct for survival and competence at dodging extra duty.” But he can only dodge so much and here he ends up as the front end of a pantomime horse trapped on stage with an unconvincing blacksmith and a German officer who wants him re-shoed for a walk in the Alps. Mayhem ensues as “Black Beauty” gets too close to the furnace and ends up soaking cast, crew and audience.

Only an extract was featured but it’s a film worth seeking out. You can buy it from Warner Archives.

Charlie and Syd entrenched
The same goes in triplicate for the source of this evening’s final sequence, Chaplin the Younger’s Shoulder Arms (1918) – not just the best of the period’s comedies but one of Charlie’s too. Famously it was an attempt to make up for his not signing up – although what purpose could that have served? Mr Chaplin surely did far more good on screen than he could ever have in the trenches and the film clearly showed how far ahead he was of most other performers.

Charlie’s timing and tone is perfect and he is genuinely funny in these Hollywood trenches, sleeping under water, opening wine bottles and lighting cigarettes with German sniper fire and launching an attack using Limburger cheese – why don’t we fight wars with dairy products and not guns as my son’s old teacher used to ask…

My previous experience of Shoulder Arms is detailed here…

Fleet-fingered live piano accompaniment was provided throughout by the eminent Mr Cyrus Gabrysch who’s work can regularly be experienced at the Kennington Bioscope.

The View from the Ground continues through September, further details on the BFI site.

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