No Limit (Review)

No Limit (1935) is a British musical comedy starring ‘The Lancashire Chaplin’, George Formby, much of it shot on location at the Isle of Man TT (the year Stanley Woods won the Senior for Moto Guzzi, after an epic battle with Jimmy Guthrie on his Norton). Unless you’re a big fan of Formby, it’s a very silly film, but hang in there because the race at the climax is bloody nail-biting!

This was Formby’s third film, but the one that transformed him from a popular music hall act to a bankable star and a national treasure. It was directed by the Italian comedian and actor Monty Banks – who also directed Laurel and Hardy – and produced by Basil Dean for his company Associated Talking Pictures (Ealing Studios), Warner’s having rejected Formby as ‘too stupid to play the bad guy and too ugly to play the hero’. He was supported by the comic actress and impersonator Florence Desmond, who would later become known for her risqué wartime song, ‘The Deepest Shelter in Town’. (Formby’s formidable wife and manager, Beryl, later described Londoner and stage-schooled Desmond as a ‘stuck-up little trollop’.) While Formby’s first two films, Boots! Boots! and Off the Dole were shorts essentially reproducing his stage act, filmed in a studio above a garage, No Limit is a feature-length movie with a proper story that established the formula for most of his subsequent film work, in which the lovable but accident-prone northern working-class everyman pursues a (usually professional) dream, winning the love of a nice southern middle-class girl in the process. (What they saw in him, god knows; perhaps it was his little stick of Blackpool rock.) This is basically a ‘rags to riches’ story; and a variation of this archetype was already well established through the Hollywood underdog/sports movie. You can still see it in the Rocky franchise and films like Dodgeball, Real Steel, and Eddie the Eagle, and in Britain No Limit followed Bernard Vorhaus’ more serious Money for Speed (1933), which dramatised speedway, then at its popular zenith, as was road racing.

In No Limit, George Shuttleworth is a chimneysweep from Wigan whose hobbies are, unsurprisingly, motorcycling and playing the ukulele. He is desperate to get on the ‘Rainbow’ racing team (a fictional British bike brand) and has adapted one of their models into the ‘Shuttleworth Snap’ (a heavily disguised AJS H5 side-valve), a road racer with rocket-like, chequered streamlining anticipating the ‘dustbin’ fairing. Having deluged the company with unsuccessful job applications, George borrows fifteen quid from his mam – which he promptly loses on the Liverpool packet – and heads for the TT in the hope of winning the £1000 prize and making a name for himself. He is supported by the Rainbow director’s secretary Florrie Dibney (Desmond) after he saves her from a near-fatal onboard accident, and she recognises him as the young hopeful who’s been writing to the company. Now skint, George ducks and dives his way on the island to pay for board and lodgings, helped by Florrie, who is falling for the dopey, big hearted dreamer, despite being courted by the posh, arrogant, and urbane Bert Tyldesley (Jack Hobbs), Rainbow’s star rider. (In one excruciating episode, George dons blackface to disguise himself as a ‘minstrel’ busker in one of the film’s four musical numbers.) In the trials, George’s throttle lever sticks and his brakes fail, and he breaks the track record, finally ditching his bike to avoid hitting a toddler that’s wandered onto the road. Hailed as a hero by public and press, and now seen as a dangerous rival by the professional riders, George has not only lost his bike, he’s lost his nerve. How then, is he going to regain his confidence, outwit the rival race team trying to knobble him, compete in the Senior, pay his mam back, and get the girl…? Well, you’ll have to track a copy down and find out. (You can still get the digitally restored Studio Canal DVD new for about a tenner on Amazon, and second-hand copies do pop up on e-Bay. Beware the colourised version though. This is an out-of-copyright knock-off and won’t have the quality of the Studio Canal version.)

No Limit is the first of eleven films Formby made for ATP, and it’s probably the best. This is Formby unfiltered, fresh off the stage: anarchic, cheeky, a bit blue, a working-class hero and very northern. No Limit is his Jailhouse Rock. There are a lot of genuinely funny moments, and there’s no doubt we are in the presence of historical comedic genius. There is also some excellent support from the veteran character actor Edward Rigby as Granddad Shuttleworth, Florence Gleason as George’s light-fingered mam, and Beatrix Fielden-Kaye as his morbid landlady: ‘You know Braddan Bridge,’ she tells him at one point, ‘where all them riders get killed.’

This is also a film about social class, urban poverty, the north/south divide and the outsider versus the elite. This is hardly surprising, given that the original story was written by Walter Greenwood, the working-class Salford author of the bestselling Love on the Dole, written two years previously, a novel about poverty and unemployment in the north in the early-30s. This was a novel, and later play, which Greenwood described as an attempt ‘to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole, the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth.’ In No Limit, George and his family constantly worry about money, while working-class characters are depicted as stoic, resilient, and coping with the Depression with a singsong and by drinking themselves blind. (The film is full of comedy drunks.) The middle-class characters, meanwhile, with the exception of Florrie (who signals her affinity with George and his class by singing in the bar of the Mona’s Queen steam packet), are at best patronising and patriarchal, and at worst profligate, spiteful, and narcissistic. You can see why a working-class audience would relate to Formby’s character, joking and singing and flirting in the face of adversity.

Finally, this is a film about the bravery and skill of the road racers and the risks they take, and it doesn’t hold back in depicting the violent reality of ‘the most dangerous racing event in the world’. When George’s throttle sticks open, the scene is not slapstick but terrifying, with close-up shots of the tarmac whizzing by, cut with blurring hedgerows and George’s horrified eyes. Only the odd bit of back-projection breaks the spell. In the aftermath, he seems shell-shocked, flinching at the sound of an engine. In the race segments, real Manx footage is used, while stunt riders smash through gates, brick walls and, in one case, the doors of a pub; others fall into rivers, hit other bikes, and routinely slide down the road. In three particularly eye-watering crashes, a rider on the ground balls himself up as he’s run over by another bike, a luckless Ariel rider blows his engine, causing the bike to explode in flames, and one poor sod goes over a cliff, his (dummy) body filmed all the way down. (Two years later, Jimmy Guthrie was killed in the German Grand Prix.) Stunts were done by local racers, the brothers Bertie and Harold Rowell, and members of the Peveril Motorcycle and Light Car Club. Formby also did some of his own stunts, including a nice run on the Cronk-y-Voddy Straight, where he weaves in and out of half a dozen racers as if playing a videogame. And for all the daftness and unlikely story events, you do get a sense of the bravado and energy of the TT before the war, with a lot of great footage of the riders, the spectators, and the bikes.

If you can suspend disbelief, and manage your expectations, No Limit’s a lot of fun to watch. And remember that in its own day, it was a big domestic hit, setting Formby on the road to wealth and celebrity and a new Roller every year. Formby’s character is now a TT icon, memorialised as a statue by the Manx artist Amanda Barton in Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, in full racing leathers and pudding bowl helmet, playing his ukulele. There are also numerous replicas of the ‘Shuttleworth Snap’ doing the rounds of shows and rallies. In the annals of biker movies, No Limit also begs an important question, namely Why are there no decent movies about motorcycle racing?

Historically, there’s also a sense of something coming to an end in this film which makes it incredibly poignant. The ‘long summer’ of the interwar period of peace and stability, progress, egalitarianism and artistic experimentation, albeit with economic stagnation, was waning. 1935 was George V’s Silver Jubilee. It was a glorious summer, with national celebrations, and the general population, having survived the Great War and Depression and begun to rebuild the run-down economy, must have thought the worst was over. But this was also the year Hitler broke with the Treaty of Versailles, reforming the Luftwaffe, re-arming, and reintroducing conscription. The Neuremberg Laws were passed, stripping German Jews of their citizenship, while Himmler launched his Lebensborn eugenics programme. The same year, the Nazis flaunted Germany’s growing military machine at the Leipzig Fair.

One of the visitors was James Leek, a senior executive at BSA. When he returned to England, he presented his directors with a bleak but persuasive report based on what he’d seen in Leipzig, recommending that the company’s plant and factory space be immediately repurposed to return to the manufacture of armaments, in preparation for the coming storm…

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