5 December 2006 | music-room
The writing is on the wall for Formby fans.
It doesn't bode too well when the opening scene of Formby's 1942 film involves a set that is so rickety and artificial looking that the slightest breeze will blow it over, and dear Kathleen Harrison (by then fifty years of age, and destined to live to 103)is the closest to a young female lead. Indeed, it is odd to relate that this is the first Formby film not to have a young female co - star to 'mother' the helpless Formby. Perhaps, after having cast a beady eye over the likes of Polly Ward, Phyllis Calvert and Dorothy Hyson, Formby's delectable co - stars in former hit films, George's over protective wife and manager, Beryl, blocked her husband's usual young female interest, supplanting such gorgeous beauties with diminutive, twenty year old Jimmy Clitheroe. Poor Jimmy - he was destined to have a glittering variety career, and a seminal radio series, 'The Clitheroe Kid', which ran for fifteen years, and a successful TV series, 'Just Jimmy', with Molly Sugden; but here, in an early film entry, he struggles in his relationship with George : is he George's son, or brother? Why is he there, living in a run down caravan, and not at school? Or perhaps he's an evacuee with a Lancashire accent.
Clitheroe's character is not the only weak piece of characterisation: other character actors, normally so reliable, struggle as well. Hilda Bayley, magnificent as Marie Lohr's dotty sister in 'Went the Day Well'?, made in the same year, and a wonderfully acerbic gossip in 'My Brother Jonathan', is almost in a daydream here; Joss Ambler huffs and puffs to no good effect, Gibb LcLaughlin, a far cry from his superb funeral director in Ealing's definitive 'Oliver Twist', is the stereotypical vicar, whose aristocratic family has probably sent the fool of the family into the church, (compare with Christopher Steele's beautifully drawn incumbent in the much better 'Tawny Pipit', two years later) and Peter Gawthorne adds another unsympathetic authority figure to his portfolio. (But with no sign of Will Hay). Frederick Burtwell, as the post master, is as wooden as those curious shutters that are removed from the front of the shop every morning, impervious to the attentions of a besotted Kathleen Harrison, even when the flimsy plot unfolds, in which he has seen a risqué portrait of her, allegedly drawn by George Andy (Formby).
Formby's successful films and smash hit songs had relied on innuendo, amazingly suggestive for the 1940s, but they were always subtle and funny. Here, the scenario of Formby's character painting semi nude portraits of local women is clumsy, silly and, quite frankly, not very funny. There was another problem - this was Formby's 16th film in eight years, and he had used up all his greatest songs. The result is new material, and I am afraid that 'Andy the handy man', 'Talking to the moon about you' and 'Delivering the morning milk' do not sit well beside the legendary songs of former films, 'Fanlight Fanny', 'My grandad's flannelet shirt' and 'Our sergeant major', to name but three.
Director Marcel Varnel does his best to raise the level of interest, in a scene where angry locals surround Formby's caravan and push it down a hill.. if only the film had ended there! Instead, it limps on, lamely, as our star gets on with the exciting task of delivering the morning milk. And that's another problem - the lack of action, as dictated by the setting. In former films, action and excitement are an integral part of the film, such as in 'TT Races', 'Spare a Copper', the RAF setting of 'It's in the Air', and the exciting spy at sea setting of 'Let George do it', which had a superb band backing Formby's songs.
Perhaps the whole conception of 'Much too shy' (what is the significance of the title, anyway?) lies in an escape to the country, far away from the bombs and deprivation of London and the major cities in war time, a theme that is handled expertly in the aforementioned 'Went the Day Well?' (1942) and the underrated 'Tawny Pipit' (1944). However, in 'Much too Shy' the caricatures are simplistic, not helped by an unimaginative and plodding script. Formby soon returned to the 'war' scenario in 'Get Cracking' (1943), but the writing was on the wall, if not on the portraits themselves.. Formby's film career was almost over, after a glittering twelve year period, and he was soon to be overtaken by another great star who would hold our screens for a similar twelve year period - Norman Wisdom (1953 - 65). Unless you are a Formby connoisseur, or you suffer from insomnia, don't bother with this film. After sitting stoically through this offering, I reached for Formby's 'Trouble Brewing' (1939), and my faith was restored. For the first time, George could never say 'turned out nice again' about one of his films.