Skip to main content

How high can you squirt?

Where’s That Fire?
(1940)

(SPOILERS) Will Hay’s last film with Graham Moffatt (the tubby young impertinent one) and Moore Marriott (the squeaky old put-upon one) in a relationship that had spanned five years and seven films (albeit not always featuring all three of them). After this, Hay would embark on a series of World War II propaganda comedies, partnered by Claude Hulbert. Where’s That Fire? is a so-so goodbye to the line-up, lacking the sheer inventiveness of the previous year’s Ask a Policeman, and heavily reliant on slapstick rather than Hay’s preferred wit. Perfect foils that Moffatt and Marriott were, Hay might have been right to break up the band.


Where’s That Fire? was out of circulation for a long time owing to a rights issue; the BBC unearthed it in 1975, but until recently it wasn’t available on DVD. It’s public domain, and viewable on YouTube. I hadn’t seen it since the ‘80s, and remembered it as something of an interchangeable equal to Ask a Policeman. While Fire escapes the ignominy of never having been remade by Cannon and Ball, it does very much run with the pedestrian premise of “We made the boys rozzers, why not make them firemen now” without having thrashed out a good storyline first.


Hay is Captain Benjamin Viking, accompanied as ever by Jeremiah Harbottle (Marriott) and Albert Brown (Graham Moffatt), manning the antiquated Bishop’s Wallop (great name) Fire Station. Par for the course, they’re an incompetent/ light-fingered trio, and Viking is preoccupied with his inventions in the basement, developing “a scientific formula for putting out fires”. They completely fail to show up to a huge oil factory blaze because (firstly) they didn’t hear the bell (“How long has that sock been there?”; the item of footwear has muffled the bell “Since you had insomnia” last week) and then because they get lost en route. They failed to put out blazes in 17 properties over the previous six months (they claim 16, which still seems like an awful lot for a little village; perhaps writers Marriot Edgar, J.O.C. Cotton and Val Guest – director of the Cannon and Ball The Boys in Blue debacle – should have gone with an evil arsonist plot).


Given one more chance, they visit a London fire station (where they proceed to pinch a load of equipment) before returning with the motivation to upgrade their own. This introduces the most prolonged and successful sequence of the picture, one that takes it up to the half hour mark (still without the plot “proper” introduced). Attempting to install a fireman’s pole (“All we’ve got to do is elevate the pole in the perpendicular”), the trio get into a terrible bother, interrupting traffic, managing to wedge it across the width of the street outside, and finally attempting to lift it through the first floor window and skylight of house where Albert’s dad lies stricken with a broken foot (“Get that parcel out of the way” instructs Viking as he kicks the invalid’s plastered foot). The tiny room ends up jam-packed with people, including the local doctor and Charles Hawtrey’s know-it-all swot Woodley, who informs Viking he could sort it out very quickly, if only he applied Euclidean geometry to the problem. The confined chaos reminded me a little of the increasingly cosy cabin scene in the Marx Bothers’ Monkey Business.


Hawtrey had earlier appeared with Hay in Boys Will Be Boys and Good Morning, Boys and would later grace The Ghost of St Michael’s and The Goose Steps Out, and seems far more invested in his overgrown schoolboy act than his better known Carry On… persona of 20 years later. He’s an effective source of superior antagonism for Hay, something he doesn’t get from his other associates, and Hay inevitably resorts to threats of violence (“”Well, we did intend to put it up in our fire station, but if you don’t push off, we might change our minds”).


Marriott always walks off with scenes in these pictures, much in the way Harpo steals the limelight from Groucho. My favourite Harbottle moment here is prior to this, when he finishes cutting a hole in the floor for Albert. Naturally, Harbottle is kneeling within the circle of the hole and plunges through the floor on top of an unsuspecting Viking. While Moore is usually insolent, Marriott is perpetually downtrodden, here coming out worst when the promise of £30 finds Hay defeating him from taking his share (“You always pick on me. Anyone would think I’m a boy”; Marriott was known for playing above his age, and he was only three years older than Hay).


Viking: Is it a big fire?
Harbottle: No, I’ve only just lit it.

It’s Harbottle who resorts to arson (“If I can’t get paid one way, I’ll take it another”) ill advisedly setting a fire at the petrol statin, which can’t end well (Viking, like David Bowie, ends up trying to put out the fire with gasoline).


So the plot the firemen eventually become embroiled in is a rather perfunctory afterthought. A crew of thieves rent their fire engine (for that £30) because it’s a near double for the one used at the Tower of London; they’re planning to steal the Crown Jewels. All that’s left is for Viking, Harbottle and Albert to go looking for their missing engine and muck about in an enormous array of foam (courtesy of Viking’s lucky/unlucky experiments with homebrew). Harbottle in particular gets smitey with a sceptre. Their overcoming the villains is quite by accident (“This is our fire. We were here first” announces Viking as he engulfs them in foam), and the thieves have cause to issue a suitably Scooby Doo grievance (“We would have got away with them too, if it hadn’t been for this muck”).


Hay’s great crabby, and mercenary, fun of course (charged five shillings for the oats given to their horse, he tells the desk sergeant “You should have given him sawdust. He doesn’t know the difference”) and the three even come out on top this last time, with interest shown in using the fire fighting formula employed during their foam party finale.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.