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Formby, George (1904-1961)


Main image of Formby, George (1904-1961)

"I wasn't very good but people seemed to like me", remarked Wigan-born Formby and for several years he was Britain's most popular film star, and one of the highest-paid.

Beginning in northern music halls, where his father, George Sr, billed as 'The Wigan Nightingale', had been a popular singing comedian, he became known in the south only with movie success in the mid 30s.

He played essentially gormless incompetents, aspiring to various kinds of professional success (as, say, cyclist or jockey) and even more improbably to a middle-class girlfriend, usually in the clutches of some caddish type with a moustache. Invariably he scored on both counts, in such films as No Limit (d. Monty Banks, 1935), Keep Fit (d. Anthony Kimmins, 1937), and Trouble Brewing (d. Kimmins, 1939).

These artless narratives, interspersed with songs of Formby's own composition and accompanied by him on the ukelele, are unpretentiously skilful in their balance between broad comedy and action, laced with his shy ordinariness. The sly sexual content of some of the songs is sung with such a toothy grin and air of innocence that offence was kept at bay.

Love scenes, with the likes of Phyllis Calvert (who marvelled at the brilliance of his timing), Dinah Sheridan, Linden Travers, Kay Walsh and Googie Withers were, allegedly, controlled with a stopwatch by Formby's ever-watchful wife Beryl Formby who appeared with him in Boots! Boots! (d. Bert Tracy, 1934) and Off the Dole (d. Arthur Mertz, 1935), both of which he co-scripted. When he got engaged shortly after her death in 1960, he explained that her drinking had long undermined the happiness of their marriage. He died in Preston, Lancashire, the following year.

He is comic ancestor to Norman Wisdom.

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Boots! Boots! (1934)Boots! Boots! (1934)

Northern musical comedy that marked George Formby's film debut

Thumbnail image of Come On George! (1939)Come On George! (1939)

Racetrack comedy starring George Formby and an unstable horse

Thumbnail image of Keep Fit (1937)Keep Fit (1937)

George Formby comedy about a coward who takes to the boxing ring

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 Spare a Copper (1940)Spare a Copper (1940)

George Formby comedy in which he foils a gang of saboteurs

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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A closer look at the golden age of British musical comedy

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Song and dance on the big screen

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Meet the team at 'the studio with team spirit'

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Thumbnail image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)Ealing Studios (1938-59)

Film Studio, Production Company

Thumbnail image of Mancunian StudiosMancunian Studios