Although Will Hay’s film career spanned less than a decade (1934-1943), it can be separated into several distinct “periods.” After some early oddities, he hit his stride when teamed with director Marcel Varnel in Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), though he’d actually already appeared several times with sidekicks Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt in films directed by American import William Beaudine. This phase of his career ended with Where’s That Fire? (1940—Varnel and Hay worked together once more in The Ghost of St. Michaels, 1941, without Marriott or Moore). Hay’s three final feature films were directed in collaboration with Basil Dearden; in each of these, he was paired with different actors (John Mills in The Black Sheep of Whitehall and Claude Hulbert in My Learned Friend, for example), but Hay remained the clear center of attention. Ill-health forced his retirement and he died in 1949, at the relatively early age of 61.
The Black Sheep of Whitehall is cobbled together out of various bits and pieces of the Hay canon and is familiar stuff, but consistently amusing. The last section of the movie is an extended slapstick car chase, elaborately done, although today’s viewers may be put off slightly by the obvious back-projection and the very visible stunt double used for Hay in numerous shots. While a wartime picture (as might be expected, 4 of the star’s last five movies, made in 1940-43, were war-oriented), The Black Sheep of Whitehall isn’t really propaganda, and the script could easily have been re-tooled to change the villains from Axis agents to “regular” criminals.
Hay plays one of his stock characters, a pompous, shady teacher—in this case, Professor Davis, the entire “faculty” of the bankrupt Harrow Correspondence school, an institution so impoverished that Davis makes a personal visit to collect back tuition from Jessop, who works at the Ministry of International Economics. Davis is mistaken for Professor Davys, an economist hired to evaluate the Anglo-South American trade pact (Davys has been abducted by Nazi agents and taken to an isolated mental hospital in the countryside). After a botched radio interview proves Davis knows nothing of economics, another “Davys” appears (an Axis impostor out to sabotage the treaty). Davis and Jessop realise the man isn’t the real Davys; following one of the spies, they infiltrate the hospital—Jessop posing as an amnesiac patient, Davis (in drag) as his nurse. After various shenanigans, they free Davys—who thinks they are the Nazis and has to be tied in a bath chair and towed behind their car as they speed back to London—enemy agents hot on their heels—to prevent the signing of the altered treaty.
A bit reminiscent of The 39 Steps (going from London to the countryside and back again, in pursuit of a gang of spies), The Black Sheep of Whitehall gives Will Hay free rein to perform various “bits,” including concocting a math problem, delivering a nonsense economics lecture cum advertisement for his school on the BBC, impersonating a Scotland Yard detective (complete with bowler hat), a hotel cleaner (who wears a gas mask that makes rude “raspberry” noises as he breathes), an elderly railway conductor (possibly an homage to Moore Marriott), and the aforementioned nurse (he’s embarassed to share a bedroom with a talkative real nurse, averting his eyes in a gentlemanly fashion as she undresses). These disguises are explained away as tricks learned in the Professor’s former career as a music-hall artiste.
As noted above, this was a wartime film and there are a number of minor visual and dialogue references to the conflict—in addition to the major plot point of the Germans’ desire to alter the Anglo-South American pact so the British can’t obtain valuable mineral concessions—but there are only two really pointed gags which are directly related to World War Two, both coming in the film’s final moments. Arriving in London, Davis, Jessop, and Davys drive down a barricaded street to get to the Ministry, ignoring an “Unexploded Bomb” sign. Sure enough, a German bomb can be seen in a crater in the road, and it explodes, blackening their faces and shredding their clothes, but causing no serious harm. The Black Sheep of Whitehall concludes with Professor Davis receiving a “highly placed” government job as a reward for his spy-busting activities: he’s stationed on a rooftop during the Blitz, spotting fires caused by enemy bombs!
Hay is in fine form here, and while none of the supporting cast can compare with Marriott or Moffatt, the players (including John Mills, Felix Aylmer, Thora Hird and other familiar faces—even Katie Johnson of The Ladykillers can be spotted in a bit part) all provide strong support. The production values are excellent.
Not bad, but I do miss ”Harbottle” and “Albert!”