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Old Bones of the River (1938)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Old Bones of the River (1938)
35mm, black and white, 90 mins
DirectorMarcel Varnel
Production CompanyGainsborough Pictures
ProducerEdward Black
ScenarioJ.O.C. Orton
DialogueVal Guest, Marriott Edgar
Based on stories byEdgar Wallace
PhotographyArthur Crabtree

Cast: Will Hay (Professor Benjamin Tibbetts), Graham Moffatt (Albert), Moore Marriott (Harbottle), Robert Adams (Bosambo), Jack London (M'Bapi), Wyndham Goldie (Commissioner Sanders)

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A professor is forced to collect taxes and administer an African colony while the commissioner is on leave and his deputy ill.

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The bumbling schoolmaster figure which Will Hay had initially made famous on stage and in a number of earlier films is revived in the form of Professor Benjamin Tibbetts, while Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat effortlessly re-enact their customary roles as lazy, garrulous and guileful stooges. Marcel Varnel, whom producer Basil Wright deemed "Britain's only pure comedy director", was at the helm for this, his fifth Hay vehicle for Gainsborough. Highly rated by the studios for his ability to deliver quality films at low budgets, Varnel instinctively played to Hay's strengths, although Old Bones appears unusually sluggish at times, lacking the helter-skelter action of Oh, Mr Porter! (1937), the tightness of the later Ask a Policeman (1939) or the charm of Varnel's Formby comedy, Let George Do It (1940).

Although the credits cite Edgar Wallace as the source, the film is essentially a parody of Sanders of the River (Zoltan Korda, 1935), the popular movie based on Wallace's breakthrough novel of 1911. Old Bones surprisingly rejects many of the racial stereotypes perpetuated by pre-war cinema, such as the notion that black characters should be stupid or beholden to white men, and although the majority of the film's native African characters lead simple lives they are clearly no fools. The tribesmen easily bamboozle Tibbetts over taxes, for example, and the native Africans at the garrison are infinitely more adept at administration than the English schoolteacher.

Several crass clich├ęs are in evidence, however. The African wanting independence for his tribe is shown to be a villainous egomaniac, while his brother, an unabashed admirer of the British, is carefully portrayed as the wiser, more caring man. Certainly, the more credible images of the continent emerging in movies of the 1950s, are nowhere in evidence. This is Will Hay's Africa, as eccentric, unthreatening and unrealistic as Oh Mr Porter!'s Buggleskelly.

Veteran art director Alex Vetchinsky created an effective native village and convincing interiors, although when the boat Zaire travels along the African river there is little to disguise the fact that these sequences were shot on the Thames.

Although Hay fashions some classic moments, most notably the scene in which he 'instructs' Africans about the mysteries of taxation, Old Bones of the River ultimately emerges as a mildly disappointing but passable 'filler'. The three leads approach their roles with gusto, but it's simply not enough to overcome a weak and wandering screenplay.

Gavin Collinson

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Video Clips
1. A proper TWIRP (2:24)
2. Hailing the Zaire (3:45)
3. No taxes! (2:35)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Crabtree, Arthur (1900-75)
Guest, Val (1911-2006)
Hay, Will (1888-1949)
Roome, Alfred (1908-1997)
Varnel, Marcel (1892-1947)
British African Stories