Brian Aherne

FeaturedBrian Aherne

Like other actors featured on this blog, Brian Aherne started his career in English film in the 1920s, before moving to Hollywood in the 1930s. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, he was able to establish a long and successful career in the US, which lasted until the 1960s. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in the 1939 US production Juarez. The seeds of this career were sown in interwar London.

Aherne’s full name was William Brian de Lacy Aherne, which hints at his upper middle-class background. His father was an architect, his mother an actress; Aherne trained in his father’s profession before deciding to follow into his mother’s footsteps instead and pursue acting. He started out on the stage and landed his first film role in 1924, in a supporting role in the no longer extant film The Eleventh Commandments (dir. George A Cooper).

Aherne quickly moved into leading man parts and working with established directors; he was directed by Sinclair Hill in The Squire of Long Hadley and by veteran director Henry Edwards in King of the Castle, both released in 1925. He returned to work with Hill two years later in A Woman Redeemed. However, modern audiences are most likely to have seen Aherne in one of the two silent films he made with Anthony Asquith: Shooting Stars (1928) and Underground (1928). Both have been restored and re-released by the BFI in the last ten years so are readily available to us.

Brian Aherne in 1938

In both films, Aherne plays a good, kind and dependable man who has to endure adversity in his romantic relationships. His even features and a slightly dreamy look in his eyes made him a suitable romantic hero. In Shooting Stars, he plays Julian Gordon, an actor married to actress Mae Feather. Julian and Mae often act together in genre flicks in which he is the hero to her damsel in distress. Off set, however, their relationship is far from happy, and Mae enters into an affair with another actor, the comedian Andy Wilkes.

Mae worries that she will suffer professionally if she were to divorce Julian, so instead she hatches a plan. The couple are recording a western film, and are due to record a scene in which a stooge has to shoot at Julian with a shotgun. Mae secretly puts a live bullet in the gun, hoping that Julian will die and she can pass it off as a freak accident. Of course, the plan goes wrong; the bullet instead hits Andy, who is filming on an adjacent sound stage. Julian realises what Mae was planning and leaves her; her career is destroyed as a result, whilst Julian becomes a successful director.

Much of the joy from viewing Shooting Stars is derived from its tongue-in-cheek knowingness about the film industry, which is perfectly encapsulated by its double-entendre title. Julian’s graduation from actor to director reflects (not very subtly) his journey from a naïve young man to someone who literally calls the shots. Shooting Stars includes a telling scene in which Julian, as yet unaware of Mae’s infidelity, goes to the cinema to watch one of their own films, a typical action flick. He sits among the young boys in the audience and becomes completely engrossed in the fantasy-world in which he is Mae’s hero, saving her from danger. Although Mae is certainly positioned as a cold-hearted, manipulating woman, Aherne’s performance also initially shows Julian as gullible and a bit foolish. By the end of the film, director Julian is hardened and unmoved by Mae’s distress.

Aherne followed Shooting Stars immediately with a lead role in Underground, in which he played London Underground employee Bill. Underground portrays the romantic entanglements between four individuals, and uses the space of a London Underground station to link them together. Bill works as an attendant in the station, helping travellers to find the right trains, making sure they do not fall of the escalator, and answering any queries they may have. He meets Nell when she drops her glove whilst travelling up the escalator. It is love at first sight, but Nell is already being pursued by Bert, a worker at Lott’s power station. Bert in turn has an admirer in the seamstress Kate, who lives in the same boarding house as him.

As soon as Bert realises that Bill is his rival for Nell’s interests, he sends Kate to the underground station; she does as Bert says in the vain hope she will win his affection. Kate manages to lure Bill to an emergency staircase off the main Tube platform, under false pretences. She then waits for the platform to fill up before running out of the staircase and accusing Bill of assaulting her. As planned by Bert, Nell witnesses the incident and she (temporarily) withdraws from Bill as a result. To resolve the misunderstanding and win back Nell, Bill must fight Bert, in this case physically. He succeeds, and the film ends with Nell and Bill united in matrimonial bliss. Like Julian in Shooting Stars, Brian Aherne’s character in Underground starts out as an innocent, but matures through adversity and by tapping in to more traditionally ‘masculine’ behaviours.

After the transition to sound film, Aherne’s last notable British film appearance was his role as Lewis Dodd in the 1933 version of The Constant Nymph (directed by Basil Dean). The 1928 silent film based on the same source material, in which Ivor Novello played Dodd, is the one that is best remembered today. By the time the version with Aherne was released in cinemas, he was already across the Atlantic and appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933). By the time of his death, Aherne was generally remembered as a Hollywood actor first; but as his appearance in two of the best-known British films of the late silent period testifies, he was also a part of the cultural scene in interwar London.

Featured

George Formby

George Formby (1904-1961) was one of the top-grossing and most popular British film stars of the late 1930s, both in Britain and abroad. Like many other British film stars of the period, he started out as a variety stage performer; he also had a prolific music output. Born in Wigan, Formby’s trademark features were his strong Lancashire accent, his ukulele, and a consistent presentation as an honest, simple, hapless man finding his way through a complicated world.

Formby entertaining the troops in France in 1940. By War Office official photographer Puttnam L A (Lt) – Public Domain photograph

Formby started his career on the regional stage in 1921 and made his West End debut at the Alhambra in 1924.[1] As a variety performer, he would sing songs and perform short skits, usually on a bill with other acts. He recorded many of his stage songs as records; he put out a total of 189 songs during his lifetime.[2] Many of his most famous songs contain liberal sexual innuendo; film historian Jeffrey Richards has pointed out that sex was ‘a subject of fundamental importance which was not allowed to surface (…) in popular culture’ during the 1930s.[3]

Richards builds on connections initially drawn by George Orwell, between working class culture, seaside postcards, music hall, and sex. For example, Formby songs like ‘Delivering the Morning Milk’ and ‘In My Little Snapshot Album’ are narrative songs that could be part of a music hall show; the lyrics of both are brimming with sexual innuendo and references to voyeurism. Songs like this were a key part of Formby’s brand, but when he moved into film production, he had to balance them with the conventions and expectations of a wider audience.

Formby and his wife Beryl, who had been a stage performer in her own right prior to their marriage, decided to dip their toes into the world of cinema in 1934. The resulting film, Boots! Boots! and its successor in 1935, Off the Dole, were low-budget productions which proved successful in the north of England.[4] On the back of that success, Basil Dean at Associated Talking Pictures offered Formby a contract for eleven films at his studio in Ealing.[5]

It is at this point that Formby’s explicit northern brand, so heavily dependent on saucy jokes and working-class culture, needed to be made palatable for a wider audience. Like that other Lancashire star whose popularity had preceded Formby’s – Gracie Fields – the film producers at ATP had to find a way to make Formby appealing to those in London and the Home Counties, who represented a large slice of the domestic cinema market, whilst not alienating his original fanbase.

That the innuendo-heavy content of Formby’s songs was not a comfortable fit for the protectors of good taste is evidenced by the fact that John Reith, the original BBC director-general, banned ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ from being broadcast. This song does, however, appear in Keep Your Seats, Please!, the second film Formby made with ATP, in 1936. As Jeffrey Richards has argued, in the films, ‘the songs, however cheeky, were contained in and by stories whose attitudes to life and work were irreproachable, thus limiting the extent of the rebellion the songs embodied.’[6] As the overall narrative of the film was conventional, it could give occasional space to a daring song without this proving too disruptive.

In the films Formby made for ATP during the second half of the 1930s, he inevitably plays a young, ambitious man who endures a series of adventures and mishaps, but who in the end achieves his goal and gets the girl in the process. Except for Formby’s own instantly recognisable and consistent persona, the films’ plots are generic. Each contains some musical numbers which do not necessarily gel with the narrative; both Formby himself and Michael Balcon (who was head of ATP from 1938) in hindsight agreed that the films would have been stronger, narratively, without the songs, but that they needed to be included to attract Formby’s original fanbase.[7]

None of the films Formby made with ATP are set in the north; most of them are set in a generic urban environment that could be deduced to be London (such as Keep Your Seats, Please!, Feather Your Nest and I See Ice!, made in 1936, 1937 and 1938 respectively). The associations with the working classes were also toned down, with Formby increasingly playing characters that had skilled professions.[8]

The Formby films of the 1930s, then, represent an awkward clash of class cultures. He owed his popularity to his clear northern identity, and his ability to build on working-class cultural traditions such as music hall and seaside entertainments. Formby was careful to maintain this persona, which included keeping the same appearance and the same catchphrases throughout his career. On the other hand, once he was contracted by a London-based, national film studio, his appeal had to be widened without alienating his original audience. This tension even played out in Formby’s personal life; he and Beryl moved to London in 1936 but he continued to regularly visit Lancashire on the weekends.[9]

The films promote Formby in a way that would allow southern and middle-class audiences to make sense of him; in most of them he is a plucky and enterprising young man who manages to overcome obstacles. The fragmented nature of the music hall performance is replaced with a cohesive, 90-minute narrative arc. However, as noted above, the musical interludes still disrupt this narrative and provide a window on the decidedly more recalcitrant potential of popular comedy. In this way, Formby’s film output emblematises the social tensions of interwar Britain, where social upheaval changed class dynamics. Formby was able to provide working-class audiences with a hero they could identify with, but only at the cost of significantly toning down the more impertinent aspects of his output.

George Formby’s films are widely available on DVD; seven of his ATP films are available in Optimum Home Entertainment’s ‘George Formby Collection’. Seven of his films made in the 1940s are available in the ‘George Formby Film Collection’ DVD boxset distributed by Sony. His music is even more easily accessible, for example on the 3 CD ‘The Absolutely Essential Collection – George Formby’ produced by Big 3.


[1] John Fisher, George Formby (London: The Woburn Press, 1975), p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 23

[3] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 193

[4] David Bret, George Formby: A Troubled Genius (London: Robson Books, 1999), p. 40

[5] Fisher, George Formby, p. 49

[6] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 196

[7] Alan Rendall and Ray Seaton, George Formby, (London: WH Allen, 1974), pp. 79-80

[8] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 199

[9] Bret, George Formby, p. 56