Will Hay, master of the delayed take, he of the hilarious sniff, the man who gave us such masterpieces as Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937) and My Learned Friend (1943), perhaps Britain's greatest big screen comedian, made his film debut with this lackluster period farce. He had always been reluctant to make the move from the music halls to the cinema, after all, at the time he was earning £200 a week for doing material that he could mine for months or maybe even years. Once he made a film, that would be it, he would never be able to use the material again. So, unsurprisingly, but disappointingly, Hay chose material that was markedly different from his music hall act.
Those Were the Days, based on Arthur Pinero's 1885 play The Magistrate, rather inelegantly attempts to mix a basic farce plot with a number of music hall acts. One wonders whether the plot was an excuse to show the acts, or whether the acts were just there to fatten up the slender plot. Whatever the intention, it failed miserably. The acts, whilst having some curiosity value, are mostly tremendously dull. The music hall crowds are continually shown laughing boisterously, yet I was often unaware that there had even been a joke. One act does stand out though, but for two entirely opposing reasons: Well sung, and having the novelty of the performer directly addressing us the viewer and asking us to join in with the chorus, it is dismaying that the most entertaining act is also the most disturbing - a man in black-face sings a song that has the words nigger and coon in it. How times have changed.
The plot is driven by a wife's (Iris Hoey) deception concerning her age towards her second husband the magistrate Brutus Poskett (Will Hay). When they met, she shaved six years off her age and as a result also had to shave six years off her son (John Mills). The son, Bobby, is a worldly-wise young man of 21, who must pretend to be 15 around his step-father. This rather silly premise somehow leads all and sundry to the local music hall, and before you know it the magistrate is sentencing his own wife to seven days in prison.
The music hall acts are of neither use nor ornament; whilst being generally dull and occasionally offensive, they also manage to ruin the pacing of the main plot. A good farce requires a quick, snappy pace, and this certainly does not have one. The film isn't a complete loss though: the performances are generally good and some of the dialogue is excellent (particularly anything coming out of the mouths of the two terribly posh army officers. ) Generally disappointing, though.