Walter Greenwood and George Formby

Walter Greenwood and George Formby have two obvious things in common – they came from impoverished working-class Lancashire backgrounds, and they both made a name (and good livings) for themselves in their respective creative fields. They also worked on two films together, the well-remembered No Limit (1935), and the less-remembered Much Too Shy (1942). Both starred Formby, and the first was based on a story by Greenwood, while the second had a screenplay by Greenwood adapted from a story by the comic entertainer, Ronald Frankau (1894-1951). (1) Though Greenwood often developed friendships with creative partners, I do not get much sense that he and Formby knew each other well, though in addition to the two realised film projects, a third film by the two was announced by the press. On the 17th January 1936, the Liverpool Echo reported that there was to be a ‘New George Formby Film’:

Mr, Walter Greenwood, the Salford author of Love on the Dole, the play that brought him fame in a night, has signed a contract with Mr. Basil Dean to write a film story for the Lancashire comedian, Mr. George Formby, at present playing in the Liverpool Empire pantomime. Mr. Formby will be seen as nervous young Lancashire Territorial. who gets into amusing difficulties at camp. Permission will be sought to film scenes at a camp during Whit Week. Mr. Formby’s first film No Limit is being shown in the Isle of Man, where most of it was made, and will shortly be seen in Lancashire (p.8).

The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette added a helpful detail: ‘It will deal with a young Lancashire Pacifist who in error joins the Territorials’ (‘Love on the Dole Writer Busy’, 17/1/1936, p.8). However, the film itself was clearly not made. I am not certain how promising this scenario sounds, though one can imagine Formby’s film persona responding with suitable business and perhaps making something of it. The offer of a contract from Basil Dean as the producer suggests that he was pleased with Greenwood’s work on No Limit, which the Liverpool paper describes as Formby’s first film. As we shall see, the key relationship in this film work with Formby was more between Basil Dean as producer and Greenwood as writer than between the star and writer.

In fact, despite the Liverpool Echo’s perception, there were two earlier Formby films, Boots, Boots! from 1934, and (ironically, given the future Greenwood connection) Off the Dole from 1935. Both were produced and financed by John E. Blakeley, and the first was directed by Arthur E. Metz, the second by Bert Tracey. They were low-budget affairs, and both featured not Formby’s later film-character, but a version of his earlier music-hall character ‘John Willie’, which he had taken over from his father, George Formby Senior’s, stage act. One of Formby’s biographers, David Bret, describes the John Willie character as:

The then archetypal Lancashire lad [,] gormless, but not entirely stupid, dry-humoured, inarticulate, well intentioned, the sort of character working-class people adored and readily identified with, because this odd little man … always found a way of seeing the funny side of misery and destitution. (2)

George Formby’s developed film persona did have some things in common with John Willie, but with a ukulele added to his armoury against misery. Neither Boots Boots! nor Off the Dole were conventional feature films, but rather had revue-style formats with schematic plot-lines. David Brett called Boots, Boots! ‘George’s first thrown together enterprise’ (3). Jo Botting in her BFI Screen-online entry for the first films says:

The wafer-thin plot is almost incidental, and the film is constructed round a series of comic turns by Formby and some song and dance routines performed by the stars and other artists. The denouement is hurried and unclear … the critics were less than impressed with Formby’s screen debut; audiences, apparently flocked to it (see: BFI Screenonline: Boots! Boots! (1934) ).

Formby’s second film was based on a successful revue which had been appearing in variety theatres in the north since 1926. On 26th May 1926, the Burnley News noted that:

Off the Dole which will be at the Empire next week, bids fair to attain the enviable fame which was achieved by its predecessor On the Dole. That likeable personality, Bob E. Bayes, has charge of the comedy department and he is prominent in several witty sketches in addition to his individual appearances. Off the Dole is described as being ‘off the beaten track’ and this will be admitted by those who see the production. Bob E. Bayes is supported by a large cast including the Cosmo Jazz Band. One of the members of the cast, W. Harrison-Viney, who submits a smart musical turn, is a well-known Burnley man (p.15). (4)

The film seems also to have been well-received at least in the north, where its distributors advertised it as ‘a merry-go-round of laughter and melody’ (for example in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 25/9/1935, p.2).

After the unexpected regional success of his first two films, Formby was signed up by the theatre and film producer Basil Dean (1888-1978) to his much better-financed Associated Talking Pictures Ltd, based at Ealing Studios. The Formby biographer John Fisher says that at the time Dean was ‘desperately searching for another personality to match the appeal of Gracie Fields, George’s spiritual sister, at the box office’ (Fields already had a film contract with Dean at ATP). (5)

Basil Herbert Dean by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1942; © National Portrait Gallery and reproduced with their kind permission under a Creative Commons licence

Dean agreed a contract with Formby ‘under which he would make eleven films between 1936 and 1941’, of which No Limit was to be the first. (6) It was directed by Monty Banks who in the same year also directed the Gracie Fields’ film, Queen of Hearts, for ATP. No Limit was Formby’s first really successful film, and his first proper feature film with a full story-line. It made him into a star and was a commercial success, so the contribution of the story by Greenwood may be seen as significant. The story is about George Shuttleworth (played by Formby), a chimney-sweep whose leisure-time obsession is motorcycle racing. His greatest wish is to ride in the world-famous Isle of Man TT (Time Trial) Races, but he fails to persuade the (fictional) Rainbow motorcycle company to sponsor him as one of their official competitors, and so instead has to rebuild an old Rainbow machine into what he names the Shuttleworth Snap. George Shuttleworth makes his way to the Isle of Man on borrowed money and after a series of misadventures (including being knocked overboard on the Manx ferry, a criminal gang’s attempt at race-fixing, faulty brakes, and engine failure just before the finish line) triumphs over his sponsored rivals in the race, wins the heart of the secretary of the Rainbow Motorcycle company, Florrie Dibney, played by Florence Desmond, and becomes the Rainbow official rider. (7)

A Cigarette Card featuring Formby as George Shuttleworth and Florence Desmond as Florrie Dibney (from a South African Max cigarette set, Cinema Cavalcade – no.176 of 250, issued in 1940). Scanned from card in author’s collection.

This does not seem on the face of it a very typical Greenwood story. Indeed, before his success with Love on the Dole, he had in the early thirties told a magazine editor who asked if he could write sports stories (or football stories to be exact) that he could not write these because his heart would not be in them. (8) However, when it came to film opportunities, Greenwood seems to have been able to overcome this lack of enthusiasm for, as the sports historian Professor Tony Collins has shown, his first movie-scenario was for a film about rugby league (and horse-racing), Where’s George? (director, Jack Raymond, British and Dominions Film Corporation, 1935). (9) In fact, Basil Dean’s autobiography makes it clear that Greenwood did not choose the story topic, but was commissioned to write it to suit Dean’s sense of what would work for a Formby film for ATP:

George [Formby’s] passion was for speed, the more the merrier, expressed by his ownership of ever-faster motor-cars. Clearly speed in some form or other must be the theme of his first [ATP] film.

The choice of author for the story was extremely important. An initial mistake might be fatal for future prospects. We needed someone who understood North Country character, for Formby was a Lancashire lad … To appreciate to the full the special qualities of Lancashire folk, their particular brand of humour and. above all, their uninhibited approach to life, it is necessary to have lived and worked among them … Our choice fell upon Walter Greenwood, author of Love on the Dole and other North Country stories. He was a realist with sympathies set firmly in the tradition of the Manchester School of Drama (Houghton, Brighouse, Monkhouse). The T.T. races in the Isle of Man were chosen as background to the story … (10)

However, there were aspects of the story Greenwood might readily have sympathised with, including the rags-to-riches story which paralleled his own – as Ben Harker points out in an article on the play adaptation of Love on the Dole (11)

No Limit was greeted with enthusiasm, and not just in the North. The Herefordshire paper, the Kington Times, for example, saw the film as a very good match for the British cinema public’s entertainment needs:

George Formby is the biggest screen discovery in British films this year. Here is a comedian who has what the public wants and no mistake. In No Limit he has a splendid opportunity of getting over that particular style of comedy beloved by all, that of a character who is always getting into trouble and ends up at the top of the heap. There is a twenty-minute motor-bike racing sequence at the end of this film which is among the funniest ever put into a picture and it is a safe bet that this comic fellow from Lancashire will make you hold you sides with mirth long before the film ends (‘Your Picture Diary For What to See and When to See it’, 28/11/1936, p.10).

Dean did not himself particularly care for Formby (as his autobiography makes plain: ‘Like many music-hall personalities of that day, George Formby was a simple, uncomplicated person of limited talent’, p.212), but he knew after No Limit that in terms of film potential, he had found something like a male equivalent to Gracie Fields.

After the territorial army film fell through in 1936, Dean and Greenwood presumably lost contact, and when Formby’s ATP contract concluded in 1941, he made no attempt to renew it, partly because he (and his wife the formidable Beryl) and Dean had had a number of fallings out, and partly because he had a number of other offers. In the same year he signed up with the US film company, British Columbia Pictures, in a deal for his next six films, worth some £500,000. (12) Much Too Shy was Formby’s second Columbia picture, and for some reason Greenwood was again called up to write the screenplay, after an interval of six years since No Limit. By this time, Greenwood had the experience of writing the screenplay for Love on the Dole, so perhaps that made him a sensible proposition, but the contrast between the films could not be greater.

A handyman (George Andy, played by Formby) is also an amateur artist, though he only draws heads, and cannot do bodies. In an attempt to learn how to draw and paint the human body, George tries to enrol in a commercial art school in London, but accidentally wanders into an art school proper, where all the students are working on surrealist pieces. Overall, the film is mildly amusing and competent enough, but the art school scene is my favourite part. When the Art School professor sees the canvas George has brought with him, bearing three portrait heads of local women, he exclaims, ‘He’s a realist! A realist in my studio! Get him out!’ I never thought I would hear the lines ‘He’s a realist’ in a thirties British comedy. I hope and trust they were Greenwood’s work. While George is being thrown out of the studio, the art students (including one played by Charles Hawtrey) mischievously add (relatively realist) naked bodies to George’s three portrait heads. In a series of mix-ups George’s amended painting ends up in the hands of an advertising agency, which bases a nationwide poster-campaign on it. The rest of the film is about George getting himself out of this trouble and features a scene where local women set fire to the caravan where he lives, and a final court-scene where he defends his innocence. It is a film which never misses a chance for innuendo and vulgarity, things not usually to Greenwood’s taste. Much Too Shy was, says David Bret, ‘not well-received by the critics [but] the fans loved it, and it made a huge profit for Columbia’ (13).

That was the end of Greenwood’s association with Formby, which brought him closest to the music-hall traditions on which his own writing in many ways drew. The commission developed his interest in working in film, something which he remained keen on for the rest of his writing career (for more on his film work see: Walter Greenwood and Film. From Formby’s point of view the well-crafted story of No Limit as well as his own trademark performance launched his career as a star. It seems quite surprising that no newspapers did anything much with these two ‘Lancashire Lads’ working together, given that both Walter and George were generally newsworthy in the mid-thirties. However, one gets the sense that Formby was not especially clubbable in real life, and certainly Greenwood had a closer relationship with the other Lancashire star whose career paralleled his own – Gracie Fields (see: Walter Greenwood and Gracie Fields – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole).

NOTES

Note 1. Ronald Frankau was a member of the Frankau literary family, and brother of the novelist Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952). However, though Ronald Frankau did publish some comic verse, he was not mainly a writer, but a comic singer and then broadcaster on BBC radio. His humour was often risqué, and some of his songs were banned by the BBC. This kind of humour is reflected in aspects of the story for Much Too Shy. As far as I can tell, Frankau’s story was written as the basis of the film, rather than published in its own right, though Greenwood was then commissioned to adapt it for screen, presumably writing the actual dialogue and screenplay. For an introduction to Ronald Frankau, see: Ronald Frankau – Wikipedia

Note 2. David Bret, George Formby: the Biography (revised edition printed by Amazon, 2016, p.7; first published by Robson Books as George Formby: a Troubled Genius, 1999).

Note 3. Bret, George Formby: the Biography, p.41.

Note 4. On the Dole was advertised as early as 27th August 1924, when the Burnley News announced that ‘Thomas F. Convery’s comedy Revue ON THE DOLE in nine scenes’ would be shown ‘twice nightly’. Convery was a theatrical producer who was active from the nineteen-twenties until at least the late nineteen-forties, when he was touring pantomimes in season (the Eastbourne Gazette advertised his ‘spectacular Red Riding Hood with 40 artistes in 15 beautiful & Lavish Scenes’ at the Royal Hippodrome’, on 25/12/1948, p.3). The Tyne and Wear Archives have Convery’s business records, including contracts, scripts and posters, from 1926 until 1930: see Thomas F Convery Enterprises Ltd, theatrical agents | The National Archives .

Note 5. George Fisher, George Formby (in the Entertainers series), Woburn-Futura, London, 1975, p.49.

Note 6. George Fisher, George Formby, p.49.

Note 7. For an introduction to her career see: Florence Desmond – Wikipedia

Note 8. ‘Author’s Preface’, The Cleft Stick, Selwyn & Blount, 1937, p.9.

Note 9. For more about this film see Tony Collins’ rugby league history site and the film’s Wikipedia entry: ‘Where’s George?’: League’s Forgotten Feature Film — Tony Collins (squarespace.com); Where’s George? (film) – Wikipedia

Note 10. Basil Dean, Mind’s Eye – An Autobiography 1927-1972, Hutchinson, 1973, p.212.

Note 11. Harker, Ben, ‘Adapting to the Conjuncture – Walter Greenwood, History and Love on the Dole’, Keywords – a Journal of Cultural Materialism, vol. 7. 2009, pp. 55–72, p.65.

Note 12. David Bret, George Formby, p.121.

Note 13. David Bret, George Formby, p.134.