Starring: Syd Chaplin
Plot: The adventures of Old Bill and his friends Bert and Alf in the trenches of the first World War.
This was Warner’s second feature film to use Vitaphone sound technology which, in addition to music, includes various sound effects and a couple whispered words.
Syd Chaplin was a successful silent-film comedian whose importance has been upstaged by his much more famous half-brother. But in fact it was Syd Chaplin who helped kid brother Charlie get his first jobs as a performer in Victorian music-halls. After Charlie Chaplin became a film star, it was big brother Syd who negotiated the contracts that made Charlie a multi-millionaire. Richard Attenborough’s film biography “Chaplin” sadly neglected the major contributions which Syd Chaplin made to Charlie’s career, in addition to entirely ignoring Syd’s own career as a comedian.
Like the Addams Family movies, “The Better ‘Ole” is a live-action movie based on characters that originally appeared as magazine cartoons. “The Better ‘Ole” stars Syd Chaplin in heavy make-up as Old Bill, a Tommy Atkins (private infantryman) in the British Expeditionary Forces during the Great War. Some historical background is necessary here. Americans of a certain age will recall Willie and Joe, the two riflemen drawn by American cartoonist (and infantryman) Bill Mauldin for “Stars and Stripes” magazine during World War Two. During the same period, English military humourist W.J.P. Jones was lampooning British Army officers in a panel cartoon called “The Two Types”. What those characters represented for the Second World War, “Old Bill” represented for the British army during the First World War. Old Bill was created by Bruce Bairnsfather, a B.E.F. army captain and talented cartoonist. Bairnsfather’s most famous drawing depicted Old Bill and a younger infantryman in a filthy trench full of rainwater. The younger man has clearly just finished uttering a complaint, and the caption reveals Old Bill’s reply in his Cockney accent: “If you knows a better ‘ole, go to it.” That scene is re-enacted by Syd Chaplin in this movie, along with several more of Bairnsfather’s drawings. (Bairnsfather’s creation also became a London stage play, and there was a 1919 film version made in England … so this movie is a Hollywood remake.)
Modern viewers may not realise how incredibly popular (and how important to morale) Bairnsfather’s cartoons were for the British war effort (and, to a lesser extent, the American war effort) during the Great War.
“The Better ‘Ole” features good supporting performances by comedy veteran Edgar Kennedy and his unjustly obscure half-brother Tom Kennedy. The Kennedy brothers both had long film careers but only seldom worked together because they were similar physical types. Here, they’re in separate scenes.