2 October 2007 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
'Keep Your Seats, Please' is based on the same Russian novel that inspired both Mel Brooks's film 'The Twelve Chairs' and Fred Allen's most hilarious movie 'It's in the Bag!'. The latter was largely written by none other than Alma Reville (Mrs Alfred Hitchcock), who must surely have been familiar with the earlier 'Keep Your Seats, Please'.
This hilarious George Formby vehicle has a couple of interesting "degrees of separation", due to the film's leading lady and director. Florence Desmond was the only actress to work with both George Formby AND Will Rogers, two very different comedians. Monty Banks, who helmed this film, was the only person ever to direct a George Formby movie AND a Laurel and Hardy movie. Banks had an amazing career: he attained near-stardom as an actor in American silent films before moving to Britain and marrying none other than our Gracie Fields. A native of Italy, he was interned as an 'enemy alien' during the war.
In 'Keep Your Seats, Please', Formby's character is named George Withers (any relation to Googie?). He plays his usual chancer, skint and gormless with it ... except that, this time round, he has an eccentric aunt who's wealthy. George is her favourite nephew, but she has a squadron of other relations who are eager to grab her estate. So, Aunt Georgina Withers sews £90,000 worth of jewellery and bonds into the cushion of a chair to keep them safe for George. Wait a minute: couldn't she just GIVE him the dosh? Perhaps she's afraid that her other relations will contest the gift. Anyway, don't look for logic in this film. The chair is one of an identical set. It's bang obvious what will happen: the chairs get sent to different locations, and George must track down each one to find the fortune. (Which of course is in the very last chair ... or is it?) A certain irrelevant character keeps turning up everyplace, so it's obvious that this irrelevant character will become important at the climax.
Florence Desmond was a beautiful comedienne and impressionist, but she's given very little to do here. In Britain at this time, she had a popular comedy recording -- 'Hollywood Party' -- in which Desmond imitated several British and American movie stars. It's a shame she's given no real chance to shine in this movie, despite singing one dull song. Given far too much chance to shine here (and too little talent to shine it with) is little Binkie Stuart, who was known in the 1930s as "Britain's Shirley Temple". Binkie is indeed very nearly a lookalike for Shirley, and has a very similar screen presence while speaking dialogue. The resemblance ends when Binkie attempts to sing and dance. As a singer and dancer, Binkie Stuart makes Shirley Temple look like Ginger Rogers.
There's a fine supporting cast here, headed by Gus McNaughton in a role that reminded me of Leon Errol. Alastair Sim was a unique performer who never imitated anyone (although Alec Guinness imitated Sim in 'The Ladykillers'), yet here -- as a vaguely Dickensian lawyer -- Sim reminds me of the American character actors John Brown and Fred Clark. George Formby typically played a coward on-screen, so here it's a real pleasure to see him deliberately punch Sim. Harry Tate is a bit too 'busy' here as an auctioneer, although Enid Stamp-Taylor is good as an elocution teacher ... trilling her lines in the voice and accent that Billie Burke spent her entire career trying to develop!
Although comedian Formby always got the girl in his movies, he had to do so very chastely: Formby's real-life wife Beryl (the Peril) was a termagant, who constantly hovered on the sets of his films to make sure that George and his leading lady never kissed, even in character! Considering the enforced chasteness of Formby's movies, 'Keep Your Seats, Please' is surprisingly erotic. George and Florence 'meet cute' by waking up in the same bedroom (in separate twin beds); each one having kipped since the previous night without knowing that the other was there. In another scene, Tom Payne comes home to find his wife and Sim 'asleep' in bed together ... actually they've both been knocked unconscious, but Payne's reaction is hilarious.
Near the film's climax, Alastair Sim passes up a chance for a "spit-take": his character is startled while supping a drink, but he merely drops the glass. Perhaps British exhibitors in 1936 felt that a spit-take would have been too vulgar.
George Formby is not for all tastes: not even for all British tastes. He speaks in an 'oop North' dialect: for instance, in this movie he says 'you and all' rather than 'you too'. But, during an early scene in 'Keep Your Seats, Please', I shuddered in nostalgic pleasure at an achingly authentic shot of a milkie calling his morning rounds in a pre-Blitz English street. 'Keep Your Seats, Please' is Formby at his finest, and I'll rate this fast-paced comedy 8 out of 10.