‘The truth, the whole truth, so help me Goebbels.’
The Goose Steps Out is an Ealing comedy released during World War 2 in which Will Hay ‘pokes fun at the Hun’. This is Hay at his finest, with his deliberate absurdity and intellectual stupidity; he also wrote, starred and co-directed the film which is nationalistic on the surface as wartime propaganda, but also distinctly English with its use of comedy. His humour concerning wordplay, both with pronunciation and interpretation of phrases and place names was the cause of many of the censorship issues that befell this U rated movie but it is now presented in a nicely restored version. So the idiosyncrasies of the English language are brought to the fore as he discusses how to pronounce Slough and tough as well as place names such as Cirencester and Bicester. Verbally this is central to the Hays humour but the film also offers gentle slapstick and visual gags that whiz by in its minimal running time.
William Potts (Will Hay) is a schoolteacher trying to keep his job during the war, his bumbling nature annoys the headmaster, but he maintains extremely fine standards in education. As cinematic curiosity would have it, William Potts bears an uncanny resemblance to Nazi General Muller (Will Hay), a German spy recently captured by the British. This raises the opportunity for Potts to become a super spy who can parachute into enemy territory disguised as the general and thwart a heinous plan by the Nazis to develop a new horrific weapon. As luck would have it Potts manages to maintain his position in the guise of his pre-espionage employment, as a teacher at a highly regarded school for the elite Hitler Youth who are, themselves, planning to be spies on the enemy front. To develop their personas on foreign territory need to disguise themselves as British citizens. So Potts/Muller/Potts teaches them etiquette and language in class to become wholehearted British citizens and aid the Reich. Or, rather, in a cunning personal plan to aid the British through their inept interpretation, providing of course they all really are as dedicated to the Fuhrer and his ideals as they appear.
Perhaps the prospect of a wartime propaganda comedy is not particularly enticing but The Goose Steps Out is clever enough, silly enough and even self-deprecating enough to hold its own 75 years after its initial release, if you view it in the right frame of mind. Will Hays’ bumbling central character launches an accidental charm offensive against the enemy as his ‘hangover and arsenic’ classes lead to his duties for his country that he – quite rightly – considers to be ‘barmy’. So teaching the Hitler Youth the English two fingered salute ‘not to me but to our beloved Fuhrer’, is his subversive method which he employs prior to going undercover to locate the weaponry. The scenes of infiltration from asbestos suits to arming himself with sand-filled socks as a cosh to batter his opponents (‘these socks are woven from British wool’ is the patriotic declaration of espionage) keep the pace moving. Also of interest is Hays’ class features Charles Hawtrey, Barry Morse and Peter Ustinov in early roles.
Helpful additions to the disc include an interview with Hays biographer Graham Rinaldi, a BBC radio feature about him and Go to Blazes(1942), a short from the same year from the Ministry of Information where he is dictating to his wife ‘How to Put Out A Firebomb’ in deliberately silly ways that are perceptibly sensible, but needs both her and his mother-in-law to explain the proper way and where to get training beyond his manual.
Available on DVD or Red, White and Blu-Ray. Enjoyable fun so please take our advice because as Mr Potts says ‘I’d hate you to be caught with your Panzers down’.