Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

A British-Jewish Film Genre?

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

A British-Jewish Film Genre?

Article excerpt

Consider Gasbags (1941)

In the scholarship dedicated to Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (USA, 1940)1 and the growing body of historiography and criticism on Jewish and Holocaust film,2 there is little comment on the feature-length movie Gasbags (Marcel Varnel, Walter Forde, UK, 1941).3 Conceived and produced in wartime Britain, Gasbags is in many respects comparable to The Great Dictator and, similarly, features a schlemiel posing as Adolf Hitler.4 Gasbags is neither as brilliant nor as influential as The Great Dictator, but it is a reasonably good film that has been bypassed in most assessments and reappraisals of British movies5-despite the British Film Institute's evaluation of Gasbags as one of two 1940 films "so outrageously disrespectful of the Nazi menace" that it retains "a surreal effectiveness."6

In most of the scores of British films that focus on Germans and Nazis over the course of the war, the enemy is depicted as cunning, calculating, and highly competent. In British Intelligence (Terrell Morse, USA, 1940) and Dark Journey (Victor Saville, UK, 1937), Germans are characterized as essentially different from the Allies to the extent that they resort to any means to achieve their goals and are brutal and arrogant in their manner. (Due to its subject, British Intelligence appeared to many viewers to be a British film.) Even hardened Englishmen in British Intelligence concur: "We do not kill women and babies." We shall see that a related way of approaching the Nazis, which showed a pronounced Jewish sensibility, was to treat Hitler and his henchmen as bullies, buffoons, blowhards, and idiots. While there are some moments of wry humor delivered by Vivien Leigh (of Gone with the Wind fame) in Dark Journey, which is set during the German U-boat campaign in World War I, the film would not have elicited more than a subdued snicker or two, as opposed to the outright laughter stimulated by Gasbags. The "surreal" comedic character of certain scenes in Gasbags, which might be described as uncanny, was found in few comparable films while the war was raging, notably Let George Do It! (Marcel Varnel, UK, 1940).7 George Formby, the title character in Let George Do It!, was billed as Britain's answer to Charlie Chaplin (despite the irony that Chaplin was born in London). Similar to Chaplin, Formby's goofy, banjolele-playing character could easily have been identified as a Blackpool-Jewish type by Jewish audiences. The Devil with Hitler (Gordon Douglas, USA, 1942), an apparently British and American concoction, specifically referred to the fate of inmates in concentration camps. A zany Hitler, portrayed as taking advice from a crackpot astrologer, gets hit in the behind by an out-of-control toy airplane and otherwise suffers one painful (comic) mishap after another.

This article argues that Gasbags' approach to Jews, World War II, and Nazism deserves analysis alongside its more famous counterparts and within the broader genre of wartime film in Britain.8 It is hoped that this intervention will prompt further investigation and recognition of British movies (and genres), especially those germane to Jewish history, that have been less explored than films from Continental Europe and America.

One often hears that Jews in Britain are not nearly as expressive in their Jewishness and less open to publicly presenting themselves as Jews than their American cousins. Certainly this contains more than a kernel of truth. Yet the axiom that Anglo-Jewry is always less overtly Jewish needs, in some instances, to be called into question. The "Crazy Gang" genre, of which Gasbags is a part, is at least as Jewish as the films of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Despite the classic Anglo-Jewish credo of "act British, think Yiddish" (variously: "speak British, think Yiddish" or "look British, think Yiddish"), some of the richest British film humor reveals glimmers and even resplendent veins of yiddishkeit.

A fundamental reason why Gasbags is ignored in film and Jewish studies scholarship is because the British comedy troupe starring in the film, "the Crazy Gang,"9 never achieved a broad following in the United States. …

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