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Thursday, 24 November 2016

THE GHOST OF ST MICHAEL'S (1941)

(Abridged, web-only draft)

Will Hay had been disparaging about the cinema in his early life. His first films for Elstree Studios didn’t catch on and it wasn’t until he transferred himself to Gainborough Pictures and his schoolteacher sketch persona to celluloid that he struck gold in Boys Will be Boys (1935). Although his dabbling in a comedy-horror hybrid was yet to happen, it was at this studio that he started fruitful collaborations with two future horror genre notables: writer (and later Quatermass helmer) Val Guest and director William Beaudine. Guest came to write for Gainsborough as an ex-actor cum film reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter who after criticising director Marcel Varnel’s work was challenged by him to do better. He did well enough for both men to continue together (thus benefitting Hay with Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) and Ask a Policeman (1939). Beaudine had already directed Will twice for other studios, yet Boys Will be Boys opened a string of four Gainsborough hits for their partnership. Sadly, though Beaudine made at least 350 films, he earned the waggish nick-name ‘one take’ for his less-than-perfectionist shooting style with real horror dive-bombers like Lugosi’s The Ape Man (1943) and 1944’s Voodoo Man (shot in just seven days).  We will meet him again in the rowdy company of the Bowery Boys…

The most visibly successful team-up making Hay, as it were, was with Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott whose respective young and old employees endlessly pricked his pompous bubble. Their combative chemistry with their boss was a winning combination. However, echoing Tony Hancock’s future self-sabotage, Hay’s ego could not accept that their great support was a vital part of his box-office formula (only George Formby could beat his popularity around 1940).  Whilst Moore Marriott carried on as old Harbottle in Arthur Askey movies, over at Ealing Studios now Will Hay drafted in Claude Hulbert as his new wing-man for The Ghost of St Michaels (1941). While it might suggest a departure for Hay in experimenting with spook-fuelled chuckles, this has much more in common with Ealing’s gentle comedies and Hay’s established schoolmaster ones, being bereft of any ghosts or chills at all.

Hay plays Mr Lamb, the new teacher at the commandered St Michael’s school (Dunbain Castle) on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. They may seem safe from Germany’s aerial bombing, but Lamb isn’t from the campaign of schoolboy practical joking begun as soon as he sits on the crossing boat. The ring-leader is future Carry On company man Charles Hawtrey who was by now very much a mid-20s man having already played similar teen terrors in Hay’s Boys will be Boys (1935), Good Morning Boys (1937) and Where’s That Fire (1940).  Hawtrey is Thorne, an apt name for one very much in Lamb’s side to begin with, forcing him to trudge the eight miles to the castle. Lamb arrives to be immediately ‘greeted’ by Jamie the janitor, Dad’s Army’s famous doom-bringer John Laurie. Before Lamb can even unpack his case, the Caledonian Cassandra warns him of the legend of the McKinnons whose family head committed suicide eight hundred years when his bride-to-be perished whilst traversing the loch. Lamb dismisses Jamie’s story and the supposed phantom bag-pipes foretelling an imminent death with the walls.

The boys in his charge aren’t Lamb’s only obstacles to an easy time. The Headmaster is the imperious Felix Aylmer, and fellow teacher Humphries (The Ghost Train’s Raymond Huntley) threatens to unmask Lamb’s fudged credentials from their shared former school. He does at least make a fast friend in Claude Hulbert’s Hilary Tisdale, the Old Etonian games teacher, an affable upper-class good egg.

Lamb goes to the slaughter in his first scene as teacher, allowing Hay to slot with ease back into the besieged schoolmaster pomposity that had made his name since the 1920s. He attempts to blag his lack of educational knowledge before his pupils, while they subvert and expose him with entertaining back-talk: “Suppose you tell us how much science YOU know?” They get the better of him that night as well by persuading him to into drunkenness instead of reprimanding them for a midnight dorm feast. Suddenly the sound of supernatural bag-pipes cuts through the Billy Bunter machinations and the Headmaster is found dead in the Great Bedchamber he occupied of the accursed old McKinnon.

 At this half-way point, the tone switches more to murder-mystery intrigue as Hay, Hawtrey and Hulbert become an amateur sleuth team led by Thorne’s pulp novel-fuelled boffinry. The contents of an apparent suicide note left by the Head vaporise due to being written in invisible ink. The threesome suspect Humphries but the evidence must be played out officially in court. This is a cue for a tonal shift back into comfortable Ealing eccentricity when tradition demands that a makeshift court-room be staged in a local farmer’s barn. Proceeding are farcically undertaken amidst horses, ducks and pigs with Lamb giving his testimony holding a piglet. He is not above trying his luck in adding some verbal bamboozlement of the Prosecution: “Listen, if you’re trying to say that I wouldn’t have said what I said I’d say if you’d said what you said YOU would have said-“. Despite Tisdale over-playing his hand as character witness by claiming Lamb invented Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the verdict is murder by persons unknown.

One peculiar yet welcome gag comes courtesy of Tisdale being offered the almost literally poisoned chalice of the new Headmaster-ship. There’s a chuckle to be had as he rehearses the maiden speech he’d present to the boys. He turns to the camera and asks us: “I’ll give you three guesses as to what I am”.

Lamb is not out of the woods of jeopardy yet. He and his friends stumble upon a plot by Elliot Mason’s Mrs Wigmore to use the battlements for signalling in German submarine spies. Before they can connect the dots to her though, the trio are almost squashed by a spiked ceiling in a tense sequence that makes up somewhat for the total lack of ghoulish thrills elsewhere.

As I’ve said, The Ghost of St Michael’s belies its title yet squeaks by as an amiable, rainy Sunday afternoon’s worth of family entertainment. The playing is energetic by the principal three and director Marcel Varnel keeps it moving ably enough. Hay was supported again by Hawtrey as a Hitler Youth student in the Nazi-doubling The Goose Steps Out (1942) and with Claude Hulbert in the legal comedy My Learned Friend (1943). We shall see Hawtrey again in the much more horror-centric spoof Carry on Screaming (1966)

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