Monday, October 28, 2013

Band Waggon (Gaumont-British/Gainsborough, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d recently downloaded off Band Waggon [sic], a 1940 Gaumont-British/Gainsborough production based on a then-popular radio show on the BBC starring comedians Arthur Askey and Richard “Stinker” Murdoch. It’s a wild, zany comedy that proves that the no-holds-barred style of British laugh-making did not begin with Monty Python, as a lot of U.S. Python fans assume, but if anything it was a tradition that ended, or at least culminated, with the Pythons. The opening of Band Waggon is an engaging satire of the BBC’s monopsony power (for those of you who missed Econ 102, a “monopoly” is a single seller and a “monopsony” is a single buyer) — if you were a British entertainer and you wanted to get on the radio, until the advent of commercial broadcasting in the U.K. in the early 1950’s the BBC was the only game in town. And in this movie the gatekeeper to the golden airwaves is Claude Pilkington (Peter Gawthorne), a sour old man who dictates a memo lecturing a sportscaster who used “can’t” instead of “cannot” three times in broadcasting a football game (soccer to us) — of course, he himself says “can’t” while dictating his memo — and is being inundated with over 500 bands demanding auditions for the BBC even though Pilkington can’t stand music. The plot of Band Waggon, to the extent it has one, deals with the sheer desperation with which Askey, Murdoch and Jack Hylton’s band (they play themselves and Hylton not only leads his famous orchestra — he was deservedly called the “British Paul Whiteman” — but even sings on a few of the film’s 14 songs) seek an audition. Askey and Murdoch actually camp out on the roof of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s famous headquarters in London, and live there for three months, subsisting on eggs laid by their own chickens and stringing a clothesline between the BBC’s two transmission towers so they can hang their washing. They’re caught when a pair of their long johns gets blown off the line and lands in Pilkington’s face, and later when they lower a can containing water and eggs into the fireplace of a BBC conference room to boil them — and they’re discovered in the middle of a staff meeting. Hylton’s band strings glass across the roadway Pilkington and his driver use every day so his car will develop a flat tire and he’ll be forced to wait while it’s repaired in the roadhouse where the band regularly performs.

Eventually Askey and Murdoch are forced to load all their stuff into a tiny Morris car — and they end up renting a cottage in the country that, unbeknownst either to them or the people who rent it to them, is also the headquarters for a German fifth-column effort that seeks to commandeer the BBC’s experimental TV outlet and use it to broadcast German propaganda. Our Heroes stumble on the TV equipment and use it to produce a show which they intend to jam onto the BBC’s airwaves and thereby get noticed — and hired — at last, and it all ends with a free-for-all in which Askey’s and Murdoch’s pet goat ends up with the Germans’ time bomb (they were planning an act of sabotage somewhere or other) blowing the house to smithereens, providing a spectacular end to the movie as Askey and Murdoch emerge from the rubble and Askey tells the audience, “And that’s how Band Waggon got on the air.” Band Waggon is an appealingly loony comedy that looks backwards and forwards — Charles said Askey and Murdoch as a comedy team sometimes seemed like Abbott and Costello and sometimes like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz; I was thinking more along the lines of Wheeler and Woolsey (if only because Askey wears the same sort of round glasses Woolsey did), and like Wheeler and Woolsey and the half-British Laurel and Hardy, they frequently played around with sexual identity: though neither Askey nor Murdoch does drag in this movie (as both Stan Laurel and Bert Wheeler often did), certainly the opening scenes showing them living together in a disused BBC rehearsal hall as well as on the building’s roof look like a domestic comedy (which was probably what had Charles thinking of Lucy and Desi as the Ricardos). Band Waggon is a pretty trivial movie but it’s good fun, and sometimes better than that; it was also nice to see Hylton’s female singer, Patricia Kirkwood (who, like most of the people in this movie, used her own name for her character), because though she’s not homely she’s clearly a woman “of size” and, like the modern singer Adele, seems quite at ease in her body and unwilling to starve herself to concentration-camp-inmate proportions to satisfy the U.S. idea of female attractiveness then or now. She’s also got a quite comfortable and pleasant voice that’s a joy to listen to. Directed by Marcel Varnel (odd that something this thoroughgoingly British would be helmed by a French émigré!) from a script written by the usual committee (no fewer than eight writers are credited), Band Waggon is a minor but very funny little gem that deserves to be better known — even though there were probably a lot of topical references in the script that sail over a modern viewer’s head!