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  Keep Fit Battling Barber
Year: 1937
Director: Anthony Kimmins
Stars: George Formby, Kay Walsh, Guy Middleton, Gus McNaughton, George Benson, Evelyn Roberts, C. Denier Warren, Hal Walters, Leo Franklyn, Hal Gordon, Aubrey Mallalieu
Genre: Musical, ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: There's a newspaper battle going on for the attentions of the public, and one is winning with its cookery campaign, so its rival must spring into action and counter that - but with what? How about a fitness drive? Their editor has it all worked out: encourage Britain to look after its health, and they can create a boom in their circulation, but what of the man in the street, men like George Green (George Formby)? He works as a lowly barber in a department store where there is no question he is not at the top of the management tree, unlike his personal rival Hector Kent (Guy Middleton), who is wooing Joan Allen (Kay Walsh), much to George's chagrin. Will keeping fit improve things?

Keep Fit was a two word catchphrase devised by the British authorities in the nineteen-thirties to encourage the common man and woman to do something about the state of the national health (though not the National Health Service, that arrived next decade). Various events were staged, but perhaps the highest profile star to get involved was the man with the ukulele, George Formby, who appeared in a film inspired by this campaign, which proved to be one of his biggest hits, and certainly the effort that kicked off a run of success that installed him as Britain's biggest homegrown movie celebrity. Something that lasted for almost ten years, whereupon he largely retired.

From the screen at least, but it is perhaps difficult now to grasp what a massive deal Formby was at the time of his heyday given he was so much part of a different era. Someone that famous cannot fail to have residual fame carry over to the next century, and his saucy songs accompanied by his uke still pop up on television, radio and even film decades after his passing. The resurgence of the ukulele as a popular instrument has elevated George to status of a legend, as has his coyly innocent way with a double entendre that remains quite charming - and of course, double entendres have only increased in popularity as the years have gone by, allowing some of his songs to reach utter filth status.

Therefore there was a feeling that Formby was getting away with something with his success (though radio would often ban his songs - the censor has the dirtiest mind of all, let's not forget) that has many warming to him and his style that can best be described as gormless. Yet watch him here and he's not a complete idiot by any means, he's more clumsy and ungainly, and his Lancashire origins give him a working class savvy that was much appreciated by his legions of fans in the thirties and forties, both on film and in the music hall. Not bad for a man who could not read or write and had to have his scripts and tunes drilled into him by his controlling wife Beryl, who not coincidentally would make life difficult for his romantic leads out of sheer jealousy. Walsh was different, mind you, and supposedly she and George enjoyed a brief affair.

Beryl reasserted herself, however, by the end of the production - after all, George could not really live without her guiding hand, or indeed strongarm tactics. Nevertheless, there is some chemistry to be seen on the screen, as Walsh genuinely seems amused by her co-star as his character attempts to win her over. He is meant to be playing a total wimp, but as with Buster Keaton who also ended a film with a comedy boxing match, you can tell Formby is in very good shape: he sings how he would like biceps, muscle and brawn at one point, but as far as you can see he is not lacking in definition, possibly because he had taken the government message to heart. The path of true love does not run smooth, so there are obstacles in our hero's journey to attaining romantic contentment, including trying subterfuge which naturally puts Joan's nose out of joint, but throughout you're comfortable in the knowledge that all will work out in the end. That's why these relatively simple films endure, they're daft and reassuring all at once.

[A trailer and an image gallery are the extras on Network's Blu-ray release, impeccably restored.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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