In June 1927, T. S. Eliot wrote to Virginia Woolf:
Have just been to see Ernie Lotinga in his new Play at the Islington Empire. Magnificent. He is the greatest living British histrionic artist, in the purest tradition of British Obscenity.
Until recently I thought that almost all Lotinga’s film work had been lost, apart from the fragment of Acci-dental Damage at the BFI, which I wrote about some time ago.
Now the happy news is that Josser in the Army (1932) has been released on DVD.
When I heard of this film, I hoped that it might be a version of Khaki, the 1924 farce that got Lotinga into such trouble with the censor, but which was so popular that it led to his being immortalised in the sculpted frieze of the Saville Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue (now the Odeon Cinema).
Although the authors of Khaki, Herbert Sargent and Con West, wrote the script (with Frank Launder), and though the film also tells the story of Lotinga’s stock character, Jimmy Josser, joining the army and fighting on the Western Front, this is not a re-hash of the stage play, unfortunately. (I would really love to see a performance of the Orderly Room scene from the play, in which Lotinga drives an officer nuts by alternately pretending to be both himself and his brother.)
The film’s comedy is very broad. It begins on August 4, 1914. Lovely Joan (played by Betty Norton) is about to marry a man she does not really love, to please her father, not knowing that he is a German spy.
Josser, foreman at the father’s factory, creates chaos at the wedding, but when he tries to kidnap the groom, captures the wrong man. He also eats the entire wedding cake before the ceremony.
When war is declared, he joins the Army, and there is some standard fun with him cheeking the sergeant-major and causing confusion in the ranks.
These early scenes establish the kind of comedian he is. Put into a structured formal situation, he reduces it to chaos. He is the man who does not care what he says, who answers back to authority-figures and asserts the human right to express his baser appetites. In this he is very like the comedian who followed him in T. S. Eliot’s admiration, Groucho Marx. He conveys the same lack of respect for anyone in authority, and some of the same verbal ingenuity:
‘My friend thinks you’re not fit to marry a pig.’
‘Oh, and what do you think?’
‘Oh, I think you are.’
Groucho, of course, had scriptwriters like George Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and S. J. Perelman. Sargent and West are not in the same class, but they have their moments.
When Josser goes to France he is in the company led by the evil spy, and Joan turns up as a driver. There is some pretty basic fun about throwing a stinking gorgonzola cheese at the enemy trench, but Josser is soon rounding up German prisoners single-handed. The plot gets sillier and sillier, and soon he is in disguise, first as a German general, and then as French mademoiselle.
Once again, this is very much in line with his stage persona, which was that of a shape-shifter, continually surprising the audience with the changes in his appearance.
The end of the film goes for spectacle. The good characters have escaped the Germans in a biplane, and are attacked by a British squadron. There is some clever intercutting of stock footage (and what I take to be shots from silent war films) with the live action to make the film effective.
A fair amount of the comedy has, to be honest, not worn very well. Or perhaps it’s just that one wishes one could have watched this in a packed fleapit with a none-too-critical audience in 1932. The plot is daft even by the standards of 1930s British comedy films, and the humour is mostly the sort that works better on stage. Despite this, one gets a sense of what so attracted Eliot to Lotinga – his energy, his scorn for convention, his unpredictability. On stage I bet he was one of those actors who created a real sense of danger, a sense that absolutely anything was possible.
If any more Lotinga films come out on DVD, I’d definitely watch them.