Okay, so I was a bit quick to say that all Formby films were the same. There are obvious similarities between them, but in Turned Out Nice Again the move away from a wartime police/saboteur plot and back to a (presumably pre-war) domestic setting actually revitalises a lot of the Formby shtick. We're knee-deep in comedy cliché mode, however, with this tale of a Northern lad who keeps pigeons, sees Blackpool as the height of vacationing bliss, and has an overbearing mother who belittles him and his girlfriend/wife. But by focusing on the battle between traditional and modern, generational and gender roles, and revolutionary change in the garment industry, the film is interesting in itself, but also feels like an early draft of issues dealt with in The Man in the White Suit (1951).
Here, Formby is George Pearson, who - in a departure from the bumbling and naive figure of his other comedies - is a well-regarded and successful figure at Dawson's Underwear. In fact, as the film opens we see him promoted to overseer at the factory through a display of knowledge and skill, rather than fluke or luck. Buoyed by this success, he marries his sweetheart Lydia (Peggy Bryan) and is headed to London to sell Dawson's wares at an underwear trade show. The film has two narrative strands at this stage - the old-fashioned nature of Dawson's product (which George tries to do something about, buying a new yarn with his own money) and the relationship between newly-weds George and Lydia, and George's mum, Mrs Pearson (Elliot Mason). While both dovetail in the final minutes, they are linked thematically, around generational change and modernity (represented here largely by London society, the antithesis of the authentic 'North'): as Lydia puts it, Dawson's underwear is 'like your mother, twenty years behind the times'.
The figure of the domineering mother (and mother-in-law, from Lydia's perspective) has long been the butt of comedy, and here is no exception. Played as a larger-than-life figure by Mason, who was a semi-regular figure in Ealing's repertory at this stage, she is interfering, constantly underfoot and calculatedly melodramatic. The film has a lot of fun depicting the wedge she finds for herself in George and Lydia's life - an early montage of her on honeymoon with them is strong silent comedy (her squeezing into the wedding car, picking the best seat on the train, chasing after the lover's horse-drawn carriage in a motor car) that ends with the couple triumphant (abandoning her on a train while they get the bus home). That does not last, with Mrs Pearson haranguing Lydia about her cooking, weight, diet, hair at every opportunity.
What is interesting about the triangular relationship that develops between Mrs Pearson, Lydia and George, is that it dramatises incidents in the life of a married couple - an unusual element of any Ealing comedy. It is also good to see Lydia more than hold her own against Mrs Pearson: she is as strong a character and, in the end, saves the day while George remains at home, uncertain of how to act. While the film is all about George, it is Peggy Bryan's Lydia that sticks in the mind, and her portrayal of a young woman who understands the modern world better than any of the Pearson's. She also 'wins' George away from his mother at several times in the film, particularly at the end, where they decide to move to London and embrace modern society.
In that sense, the film turns many precepts about later Ealing comedies on their head: small (here, represented by Dawson's, but also George himself) is still beautiful, but only if small changes in relation to the modern world. Dawson's (the company, and the owners) need to accept that change has happened, and they need to be part of it; George accepts his life has changed and move forward. Small, cosy and traditional is not exemplified and heralded: instead, change, the modern and revolution become central to narrative resolution.
Along with the requisite songs and slapstick (George may be more professional here, but that doesn't stop him being clumsy), the film also enjoys playing with issues of sex. Early on, George and his Uncle Arnold (Edward Chapman) struggle to write a letter about pigeon sex, not knowing the words or expressions; later, he is confused that the words he knows (knickers, bloomers) are being replaced by others (panties, scanties and step-puts). Formby has rarely been a sexualised actor, his persona is more traditionally innocent and virginal, not worldly-wise. Here, accepting modernity can also be seen as accepting a change in female sexuality - the range of modern lingerie and negligees that challenge Dawson's traditional 'cover everything' flannel nighties is about the female body as spectacle (as is clear in a routine at the London trade show where attractive girls model various garments) but, as becomes clear when Lydia becomes a sensation for lingerie made using George's new yarn, also about female ownership of their bodies and their preferred garments.
The film of course, is conflicted about this - modern female sexuality is linked to London, which is also a site where George is distracted by pretty models and champagne, and conned into buying new yarn. Yet it is also the place where Lydia saves their money, and where she convinces George they should go to live. Modern life and the attitudes of the new generation (represented by Lydia, who is also offered a job by Dawson's because of her understanding of the modern female market), wins out in the end.
This domestic focus gives this Formby film a really different feel to the others, and it is a shame that it was his last with Ealing, as it may have offered a new direction for the star and his writers/directors. Then again, if you take the film's apparent message to its extreme, Formby might belong to the traditional generation that needed to be modernised and changed: as Ealing moved forward, the stars of this generation of films (Formby, Trinder, Hay) would eventually be replaced by those of the next.
Next time, the mini-Formby marathon continues with Come on George (1939)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston