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Varnel, Marcel (1892-1947)


Main image of Varnel, Marcel (1892-1947)

Marcel Varnel, born Marcel Hyacinth le Bozec in Paris on 16 October 1892, came to England with experience and gifts that set him apart from most British film directors at work in comedy in the 1930s and 40s. Educated at the College Chapdal, Paris, and Charterhouse public school in England, he began in the business as a juvenile actor and graduated to direction in 1920, specialising in operettas and musical comedies. Five years later he moved to America and the Shubert brothers' stage productions; light entertainment again predominated, with occasional excursions elsewhere, including Pirandello's As You Desire Me. In 1931 he signed a Hollywood contract with Fox. Devotees of bad fantasy adventures may be grateful for Chandu the Magician (1932), co-directed with William Cameron Menzies, but Varnel found pleasure in neither his assignments nor the Fox factory environment, and after four minor films he relocated to London.

By February 1934 he was at work at British International Pictures, Elstree, shooting a lively comedy-adventure, Freedom of the Seas. Comedy dominated Varnel's British output from the beginning, and once he joined Gainsborough in 1936 the studio's chief roster of comic stars all came his way: Will Hay, the Crazy Gang, and later Arthur Askey. Their background lay in variety and radio; script material leaned heavily on cross-talk routines, topical references, and puns. Varnel conquered the obvious obstacles by giving even the wildest slapstick sequences an organic shape, using a free-ranging directing technique far removed from the rigid alternation of long shots and mid shots that imprisoned many British directors.

His first Hay vehicle was Good Morning, Boys! (1936); seven others followed, none better than Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) in the balance struck between narrative momentum, comic routines, and the interplay between Hay's sniffing incompetents and the capering stooges of Moore Marriott's decrepit old timers and lazy youth Graham Moffat. A fast worker on the set, Varnel maintained plenty of speed inside the films, supplementing formal scripting with improvisation to catch the spontaneity of stage routines. Memorable set-pieces included Hay's class of schoolboys running amok in a Paris nightclub in Good Morning, Boys! and the trio's attempt to manoeuvre a firemen's pole in Where's That Fire?. The Crazy Gang - hydra-headed, more anarchic - proved less amenable to film treatment, though in his four films with the team Varnel still had his victories, especially in the Gold Rush fantasy The Frozen Limits (1939), famously greeted by Graham Greene as a film to rival Keaton and Lloyd, and "the funniest English picture yet produced".

In the summer and autumn of 1939 Varnel turned his attention to George Formby (Let George Do It!, the first of nine vehicles) and Arthur Askey (Band Waggon, the first of three). At first the war made little difference: the stars' demotic appeal proved a special asset in wartime, and the lampooning of authority figures, a comedy staple, was easily turned into Home Front propaganda. Earlier films had parodied teachers, the police, even (in Oh, Mr. Porter!) the IRA. Now Nazis became the butt of the jokes. Formby personally thumped the F├╝hrer in a dream sequence in Ealing's Let George Do It! before waking to unmask spies in Norway; in The Ghost of St. Michael's German infiltrators reached Hay's schoolboys, evacuated to a remote Scottish castle.

Later Formby vehicles like Bell-Bottom George and George in Civvy Street, made for Columbia-British with less experienced collaborators, buckled under the strain of keeping the comedy fresh, and Varnel began to find greater success in the theatre. He staged a series of American comedies in the West End for the producer Firth Shephard; Arsenic and Old Lace (1943) ran for over three years. Away from Formby, he directed the film version of a benign stage comedy, This Man is Mine, and was set to produce another theatre adaptation, the whimsical historical drama The First Gentleman (Cavalcanti, 1947), when he was killed after losing control of his car near Rake, Sussex, on 13 July 1947. Colleagues suspected he'd been panicked by a wasp or fly; Varnel suffered a severe insect phobia. The loss of his expertise in popular comedy was keenly felt in the British industry; paradoxically, in his native France, where none of his films were distributed, he remains an unknown figure. His son Max Varnel (1925-1996) followed him into the film business and directed numerous B-thrillers in the 1950s and 60s.

Obituary, Cine-Technician, Sept/Oct 1947, p. 157
Parkinson, David (ed.), The Graham Greene Film Reader: Mornings in the Dark (London: Carcanet, 1993)
Richards, Jeffrey, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984)
Sutton, David, A Chorus of Raspberries. British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000)

Geoff Brown and Leo Enticknap, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Ask A Policeman (1939)Ask A Policeman (1939)

A policeman is forced to commit crimes to avoid the sack

Thumbnail image of Convict 99 (1938)Convict 99 (1938)

Comedy with Will Hay mistaken for both prisoner and governor

Thumbnail image of Let George Do It! (1940)Let George Do It! (1940)

George Formby comedy that doubles as anti-Nazi propaganda

Thumbnail image of O-Kay For Sound (1937)O-Kay For Sound (1937)

Knockabout film studio farce that introduced The Crazy Gang

Thumbnail image of Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

Will Hay as a bumbling stationmaster in his most famous comedy

Thumbnail image of Old Bones of the River (1938)Old Bones of the River (1938)

Will Hay comedy about an African colonial administrator

Thumbnail image of Turned Out Nice Again (1941)Turned Out Nice Again (1941)

George Formby comedy about a ladies' underwear salesman

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Thumbnail image of Crazy Gang, TheCrazy Gang, The


Thumbnail image of Formby, George (1904-1961)Formby, George (1904-1961)


Thumbnail image of Hay, Will (1888-1949)Hay, Will (1888-1949)


Thumbnail image of Varnel, Max (1925-1996)Varnel, Max (1925-1996)

Director, Producer, Writer