Convict 99

Movie Information

In Brief: British comedian Will Hay – little known in the U.S. – stars in Convict 99, one of his best films. As is usually the case, he plays a lazy, incompetent and not particularly honest English schoolmaster, only here he's mistaken for an Australian expert on prison reforms and given the job of warden at a large penitentiary that he proceeds to run along the lines of a boys' school. As an introduction to the star's brand of very British comedy, this is probably the best place to start.
Score:

Genre: Comedy
Director: Marcel Varnel
Starring: Will Hay, Moore Marriott, Graham Moffatt, Googie Withers, Peter Gawthorne, Basil Radford
Rated: NR

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Though he was a big star in Great Britain, chances are most Americans have never even heard of comedian Will Hay. (In fact, it’s even money that the name will call to mind the U.S. movie censor Will Hays. There is no similarity.) Hay was a music hall performer who was also an astonomer, an airplane pilot, and an engineer. He came to the movies in 1934 and turned out 17 feature films before poor health forced him into retirement in 1943. There really is no American equivalent to him, though W.C. Fields comes closest. Like Fields, Hay was largely unsympathetic and an unregenerate scoundrel — always looking out for any profit that might come his way. His usual character was that of an incompetent and shiftless schoolmaster (Michael Redgrave does a brief impression of this character in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes). This is essentially the character he plays in Convict 99, but here he is mistaken for a tough prison warden from Australia and given the warden job in an English prison (he thinks he’s applying for a post as headmaster at a school for backward boys). Considering the job pays ₤2,000 a year (a substantial sum at the time), he keeps his mouth shut upon discovering the error — and proceeds to run the prison as if it was indeed a school for backward boys.

 

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The results are unusual to say the least — and very funny, assuming you take to Hay’s character. Convict 99 is from Hay’s best period — when he was working with Moore Marriott (as a toothless old coot — he really was toothless, but was only 53 when this was made) and Graham Moffatt (as a helpful — and probaby smarter than the others — fat boy). The trio made a terrific screen team, but Hay’s ego got in the way and he dropped them from his films in 1940 — and something was lost in the process. But here there all present and at the top of their game.

 The Asheville Film Society will screen Convict 99 Tuesday, June 24 , at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “Convict 99

  1. Ken Hanke

    Sometimes I’d be willing to buy back my introduction to you.

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