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Convict 99 (1938)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Convict 99 (1938)
Directed byMarcel Varnel
Production Co.Gainsborough Pictures
ScenarioVal Guest, Marriot Edgar
StoryCyril Campion
AdaptationRalph Smart, Jack Davis Jr
PhotographyArthur Crabtree

Cast: Will Hay (Dr. Benjamin Twist); Moore Marriott (the mole Jerry); Graham Moffatt (Albert); Googie Withers (Lottie); Dennis Wyndham (head warder)

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A incompetent schoolmaster inadvertently applies for a job in a prison, where he is mistaken firstly for a prisoner, and then the governor.

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Will Hay's schoolmaster character, Dr. Benjamin Twist, is here put in charge of a bunch of tough convicts whom he refers to as "boys" throughout and treats as though they were disobedient pupils. His attempts to remonstrate with them are constantly undermined by his own weakness of character: after confiscating a filled-in football coupon, he sends it off himself; banning women from the prisoners' party, he immediately relents when he sees a pin-up of one of them.

The prison is expertly modelled on the brutal representation of American penitentiaries in Hollywood films of the period, with its riots, beatings and hard labour (there were no British prison films on which to draw). Procedures are amusingly inverted as Twist tells the prisoners, "I want you to look upon these walls not as a device to keep you in but as a barrier to keep the riff-raff out". Where once convicts were forced to hop around the exercise yard in the blazing sun, they now sunbathe in deckchairs, waited on by the guards. The film makes inventive use of such reversals: Twist as prisoner one moment, governor the next; the convicts, dressed as policemen, breaking into a bank to put money back.

The script gives Graham Moffatt as Albert comparatively little to do, but Moore Marriott brings some of the zest and glee of Harpo Marx to his memorable appearance as Jerry the Mole, especially his manic fit in the governor's office and his apparent lechery in carrying the screaming Goldie to a bedroom in the Limehouse episode.

Some of the routines were hardly fresh (an escape tunnel that comes out in the warden's office had been featured in the Laurel and Hardy short, The Second Hundred Years (US, d. Fred Guiol, 1927)) but it is the way in which the conventions of the prison drama are adapted to the comic personas of Will Hay and Moore Marriott that makes Convict 99 an outstanding comedy, while the pattern of mistaken identity and reversals of fortune render it a pungent satire.

Allen Eyles

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Video Clips
1. In the quarry (2:48)
2. The new governor (2:37)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Ask A Policeman (1939)
Goose Steps Out, The (1942)
Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)
Windbag the Sailor (1936)
Guest, Val (1911-2006)
Hay, Will (1888-1949)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Radford, Basil (1897-1952)
Varnel, Marcel (1892-1947)
Withers, Googie (1917-2011)
Will Hay