Convict 99 (1938)
Director: Marcel Varnel
Cast: Will Hay, Moore Marriott, Graham Moffatt
Synopsis: A disgraced school master, Benjamin Twist, is mistaken for a tough prison governor and assigned the charge of a prison for particularly hardened criminals.
Will Hay made a living out of playing essentially the same character — slightly seedy, vaguely confused — who finds himself elevated to an undeserved position of authority. Sometimes he fraudulently attains the position (Boys Will Be Boys), sometimes it is attained through family contacts (Oh, Mr. Porter!) and sometimes, as in this film, it is the result of a genuine misunderstanding. Here, Benjamin Twist (Hay) believes he is applying for the position of headmaster at a school for backward boys. He’s actually stumbled into an interview for the position of governor at a tough prison, and the interviewees have mistaken him for a hard-line veteran called Mr. Benjamin.
The writers have to tie themselves in knots to work Twist into a position in which he is able to assume the role of governor and they do it quite ingeniously. He ends up as a prisoner in the prison he is supposed to be running, befriended by a dotty old tunneller (Moore Marriott) who is about to finish the tunnel he has been digging for forty years about two weeks before he is due to be released. Hay’s other sidekick, Graham Moffatt, plays a scruffy prison guard, but the comic pair unfortunately don’t enjoy quite as much screen time as they did in Hay’s other films.
Once he has finally assumed the position of governor, Twist, under the ‘guidance’ of a working committee of prisoners who bully him into accepting their motions, initiates a series of far-reaching reforms and, before long, the prison begins to resemble a modern-day open prison, with the guards placing the prisoner’s polished shoes neatly in front of each cell before waking them at 8.30 with cups of tea.
After this brilliant opening the film seems to run out of steam a little, although it still manages to raise a number of laughs. A 22-year-old Googie Withers — who would return to prison thirty-five years later in the TV show Within These Walls — shines in a cast largely made up of crusty old cons, and Basil Radford makes a brief but welcome appearance as the hapless deputy governor who has his new boss banged up.
This isn’t quite top-notch Hay, but it’s close enough to make it funnier than most comedies and is recommended viewing.
(Reviewed 12th September 2005)