Gasbags (1940) **


Virtually all of Britain’s screen comics were pressed into service during the war years, but on few of them did the uniforms seem as ill fitting as the Crazy Gang, the British Marx Brothers, here seen in fine if not quite peak form.

Never courting the audience’s affection like George Formby, and lacking Will Hay’s ability to sustain a coherent comic narrative, their breathless, iconoclastic style offered little scope for simple flag-waving. Even when placed nominally in real settings, they never truly integrate but are simply let loose, their job to pull rugs, blow raspberries, deflate authority and generally clog the wheels of genteel society.
As airmen, who supplement their pay by running an illegal fish and chips stall attached to a barrage balloon and end up in a concentration camp full of professional Adolf Hitler look-alikes, they make a predictably irreverent contribution to the war effort, typified by Bud’s pronouncement that they will “strike a blow for the Empire, Hippodrome and Palladium!” Later Knox tells the camp guards not to speak in German on our behalf: “They don’t understand that stuff, do you?” he asks us, and a thunderous “No!” is heard off-screen.
The ridiculous plot allows no attempt at a serious evocation of the enemy threat, despite the reminders of the camps (where the Gang are told they will remain for the duration of the war “unless they have another purge”), anti-Semitism (Bud wishes the commandant ‘mazel tov’ on leaving the camp) and the presence of Hitler himself.
These Nazis are as buffoonish and easily outwitted as any of the Gang’s usual foils: “More English lies!” cries one after their stricken chip shop balloon inadvertently carpets Germany with leaflets proclaiming ‘Fried Fish Is Good For You’.

As always, there is considerably more vulgarity than American censorship would pass: while disguised as trees, Charlie proclaims himself a “son of a beech” and a dog relieves itself against Bud; Charlie is swollen with helium and his flatulence used to ignite a gas fire, and later, told that the ‘mechanical mole’ burrows under enemy lines and comes up in their rear, he exclaims “What a horrible death!”
Amidst the corn and some surprisingly grim gallows humour, the melancholy of Flanagan & Allen’s song ‘Yesterday’s Dreams’ seems especially poignant, reflecting as it does a weariness and resignation that stops short of defeatism – but comes closer to it than most wartime numbers.

The team, who always play well with other performers of stature - witness Alistair Sim in Alf's Button Afloat - strike nicely against Moore Marriott in Harbottle mode, and as this is a British film from the first half of the twentieth century, the lovely Wally Patch is present and correct too.