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.
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.