My Learned Friend (1943), Will Hay’s last film, is an unusual one. It perhaps signalled something of a change of direction for the comedian, towards darker, more adult territory. Made at Ealing, sharply scripted by Angus MacPhaill and John Dighton, and co-directed by Hay and Basil Dearden, it’s a jet black comedy that – in its cheerfully callous, cold-blooded approach to murder and violence – foreshadows later Ealing productions like The Ladykillers (1955).
Hay plays debarred solicitor William Fitch, who teams up with useless solicitor Claude Babbington (the underrated ‘silly ass’ comic Claude Hulbert) against dastardly Arthur Grimshaw (Mervyn Johns), a homicidal maniac with a sense of humour. Emerging from prison, Grimshaw cheerfully informs Fitch that he plans to murder all those who were responsible for his incarceration. The hapless Fitch, who once defended him, has the honour of being last on his list.
An entertainingly morbid cat and mouse game ensues, with Grimshaw gleefully providing clues to his upcoming murders, which he carries out with imagination and vigour. There is a real sense of menace about Grimshaw, and Hay is in fine sniffy, twitchy, anxious form as Fitch throughout. Johns is such an excellent villain, and Hay and Hulbert make such a splendidly panicky duo, that you can almost forget Hay’s previous comic satellites, Graham Moffatt (immortal as the insolent fat boy) and Moore Marriott (forever the daft old duffer).
Never was a Hay film so darkly, savagely, ominously comic. And, in contrast to the seedy incompetent he’d made famous in his films for the Gainsborough Studio, Hay’s screen character was no longer as much of a buffoon. The ignorant bluffer living on his wits had become a cynical shyster living from his wits. This small but highly effective alteration made his character more intelligent and, consequently, more plausible.
It was a risky strategy which might have alienated his family audience. I remember, watching the film on television as a child, feeling a slight confusion when I first saw the ‘new’ Hay; he wasn’t quite as silly as before – and seemed more serious. But, in the long run, the change would surely have given his character a new adult dimension, and the potential for development.
Given that My Learned Friend signalled a change of direction of this sort, towards drier, less obvious humour, it’s ironic perhaps that its best-known scene features the familiar ‘old’ Hay getting stuck into some simple, no-nonsense, old-fashioned slapstick.
It’s a famous climax: silent-movie-style organ music plays while Will and Claude, dressed as beefeaters, clamber about the face of Big Ben, trying to stop a bomb going off when the clock strikes. Meanwhile, Grimshaw gleefully has at them with his razor-sharp pikestaff. It’s funny stuff – as Hulbert burbles and Hay loses his knickerbockers – but it’s more akin to the scene in Oh Mr Porter! (1937) where Hay and his old comedy cohorts Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt dangle on the sails of a spooky windmill than it is to Hay’s ‘new direction’.
But elsewhere the ‘new direction’ did pay dividends, and viewers will notice some other less familiar but no less satisfying highlights. The opening courtroom scene is a tour de force which sees the smarter Hay in the dock, expertly answering 23 charges of writing begging letters, triumphantly demolishing the case for the prosecution and winning himself an acquittal.
Another brief but inspired scene, set in a seedy Stepney nightclub, is a superb comedy of manners, with Hay and Hulbert making uncomfortable attempts to politely mingle with the regulars. Incidentally, Hulbert shines in an amusing scene of his own (something that Moffatt and Marriott, arguably, couldn’t quite manage) when he is forced to jitterbug with a gangster’s moll against his will.
Not everything works. An uncomfortable scene set in a ‘mental retreat’, which sees our heroes hiding under a table pretending to be dogs, punctures the plausibility and diminishes the laughter somewhat, to say the least. However, it’s soon over, things pick up again, and the brisk 70-minute running time ensures this is a film that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
A largely successful comic experiment, it hits more often than it misses, and tantalisingly hints at the direction Hay might have taken had he made more films. Alas, ill health was to plague him for his remaining years, and he never did.