George Formby has done rather well when it comes to DVD. Sony have issued a seven-disc collection focussing on his forties’ efforts. DD Video have provided individual releases for his two earliest surviving works, Boots! Boots! and Off the Dole, both made for the Mancunian Film Company. And Optimum Releasing have provided another boxed-set, again a seven-disc affair, plus two other titles as part of their ongoing Ealing Studios set of releases (Keep Your Seats Please and Trouble Brewing). That’s a total of 18 features, meaning that only Keep Fit and Feather Your Nest (both made in 1937) were outstanding. As this review’s existence no doubt attests, Keep Fit has now been added to that list. And it’s a welcome release not only as it leaves only one Formby film remaining, but also because it has been a difficult film to see of late - its last television showing in the UK came 20 years ago.
Of course, all this will mean nothing to those who don’t class themselves as fans of Formby and, indeed, his appeal is one that is difficult to pin down. The sleeve for Keep Fit quotes the Independent: “Our first national comic, the Lancashire Chaplin”. The “first” claim is arguably incorrect as it ignores such silent figures as Pimple (aka Fred Evans) or contemporaries such as Will Hay. Yet the Chaplin element has a ring of truth to it. Both performers traded on a persona of innocence and used it as both a means of gaining audience sympathy and the girl, however unlikely the romance would seem. Similarly, they also had a musical involvement in their films, Chaplin scoring (or re-scoring) a number of his works, whilst Formby of course would get out his ukulele at regular intervals for a self-penned ditty. Moreover, this ukulele became as much a trademark for Formby - alongside that distinctly gormless face - as the ’tache and cane did for the Little Tramp. Even today, almost 60 years after his last feature, he remains a well-known face, in part for the tunes but primarily because he remains so instantly recognisable.
And yet here the similarities end. Though Formby would indulge in slapstick in each and every one of his films, the level of physical comedy was certainly nowhere near Chaplin’s abilities. Rather the humour was much broader, albeit of a type that Formby could easily get away as it seemed to fit the persona. Continually drawing attention to his characters’ flaws - their awkwardness, their nervousness, their inability to stand up to anyone - it seems entirely appropriate that the ability to perform a pratfall should similarly be somehow less than perfect. Indeed, the whole point of Formby was that he was the underdog, a little man with big dreams but without the means to achieve them. Class also plays a part in this make-up as we continually see Formby sneered at and bullied by those better off. Furthermore, such an element no doubt explains a great deal about his appeal: the Northern working class man as everyman, a figure for the masses.
Given that this distinctive persona was interchangeable throughout Formby’s career - he also, with a few exceptions, always played a character by the name of George just to cement the fact - it should come as no surprise to discover that all of his films follow the same basic formula. Put-upon George, working in some lowly position, has aspirations to become something better. Depending on what this aspiration was, the film would supply the appropriate locale. Thus Come On George (Formby as aspiring jockey) is set in the world of horseracing or Bell Bottom George (Formby as aspiring sailor) is set during wartime with attendant propagandist tropes. (This latter element also being key to the star’s success: Let George Do It! went by the alternate title of To Hell With Hitler.) Initially it appears as though such dreams will never be achieved, but a series of mix-ups and run-ins with various spivs, gangsters or corrupt officials - not to mention George overcoming his own shortcomings - allow for a happy ending and the comic getting the girl.
Of course, Keep Fit is no different. In this case Formby plays a lowly barber’s assistant who, in response to the keep fit fad sweeping through Britain at the time, dreams of a better physique as laid out in the catchy ‘Biceps, Muscle and Brawn’. Eventually he will discover that this isn’t quite as unachievable as it seems - all he needs is a girl to love, a case of mistaken identity, a handful of cynical newspaperman and various other authority figures treating him badly. That boxing takes centre stage almost makes this Formby’s Rocky, though really it as interchangeable with any of his other features as Turned Out Nice Again, say, or Much Too Shy. And here, perhaps, lies the crux: if you’ve seen one Formby film, you’ve seen them all. But if Formby appeals - and in my case this is certainly true - then the chance to see one more feature results in typically brisk and perfectly harmless entertainment.
As has been the case with every Formby DVD to date, Keep Fit arrives barebones. Indeed, it has become the case that we no longer expect them, much like a extras-packed Woody Allen release. However, Formby fans can be more than happy with the presentation which offers the film in its original aspect ratio and mono soundtrack with minimal fuss. Both remain crisp and clear throughout, occasionally demonstrating signs of age, but never to the point of distraction. Indeed, given Keep Fit’s age this is arguably as good as we can expect on standard definition and as a result more than deserves a purchase alongside the other Formby discs and collections.