February 27, 2017


Old Bones of the River – 1938 | 90 mins | Comedy | B&W


Plot Synopsis

Old Bones of the River

Professor Tibbetts (Will Hay), brings education to the luckless natives. He is uncle of the original Bones and representative of the Teaching and Welfare Institute for the Reform of Pagans (neatly abbreviated on his luggage to TWIRP, which provides an irresistible subject for a joke at his expense). First seen learning African with the aid of a gramophone, he is duped by a villainous African prince into taking ashore as part of his own luggage an illicit gin still. With this the prince aims to inflame his subjects into driving the British out of the country and restore their jolly tribal customs, like human sacrifice. Tibbetts has some odd ideas about African topography, and when the assistant district commissioner suggests he should found not just one university but two, he replies, ‘Good idea. Then we can have a boat race.’

But he begins more modestly at Kombooli high school, teaching the alphabet to native piccaninnies, naked except for their Eton collars. The older natives are vastly entertained by his mortarboard – an incongruous piece of headgear with his tropical shorts – and quickly run up some improvised ones for themselves. The geography lesson ends in disorder when Tibbetts’s diagram of the world is converted into a dartboard by the natives, using spears for darts. When the ADC succumbs to a fever, Tibbetts takes over his responsibilities, and on his way up-river by canoe to collect taxes from the villages he (literally) runs into the S. S. Zaire – a decrepit old paddle-steamer crowed by his old sparring partners, Albert and Harbottle (Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt). He is hardly aboard when he is struck by the ship’s collapsing funnel and subject to sundry other humiliations. Going ashore at one village, Tibbetts makes a vain attempt to collect taxes in the form of rubber, goats or other local tender. This precipitates one of the film’s choicest scones in which Tibbetts tries to explain the mysteries of Schedule E and the British income-tax system. Albert and Harbottle characteristically leave Tibbetts in the lurch when he goes to rescue a baby from tribal sacrifice, it is an oddly avuncular Hay who tells the baby a garbled fairy tale beginning, ‘Once upon a time there was a boy called Cinderella… ‘and takes it paternally through an extended bath routine.

Another of the film’s high spots is the trio’s attempt to master the Zaire’s primitive telegraph equipment. Having reduced the Morse code to gibberish, they succeed in sending a message minus a crucial comma which arrives as an ‘S’. Consequently they have to defend the fort against rioting natives single-handed and rout them by scattering tin-tacks under their bare feet. The plot is responsible for some sluggish passages in this film, but Hay and his accomplices are undoubtedly in good form.

Production Team

Marcel Varnel: Director
Alex Vetchinsky: Art Direction
Alfred Roome: Cinematography
Arthur Crabtree: Cinematography
RE Dearing: Editing
Louis Levy: Music Direction
Edward Black: Producer
JOC Orton: Script
Val Guest: Script
Marriott Edgar: Script
S Wiles: Sound Department


Will Hay: Prof Benjamin Tibbetts
Moore Marriott: Jerry Harbottle
Graham Moffatt: Albert
Robert Adams: Bosambo
Jack London: M\’Bapi
Wyndham Goldie: Commissioner Sanders
Jack Livesey: Captain Hamilton

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