“All over the place / the north or the south, the east or the west / there’s half of the world tattooed on his chest” so goes “All Over the Place”, the rousing tribute to the life of a sailor that opens wartime comedy Sailors Three (1940). It is sung in unison by the smiling crew of the HMS Ferocious as they near shore-leave and the rosy mood is no accident. Sailors Three delighted a country about to be blitzed and provided a morale boost for many soon to be in naval uniform themselves. This popular draw at the box office is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Network, presented in its original fullscreen aspect ratio in a brand-new remaster from original film elements.
Sailors Three was Ealing Studios’ first production to star Tommy Trinder, a wiry cockney comedian who’d come to national recognition with his music hall revues. Trinder plays sailor Tommy Taylor, who has one shandy too many at a port and wakes up on the German battleship Ludendorf alongside shipmates Llewellyn Davies (lugubrious Will Hay accomplice Claude Hilbert) and Johnny Wilding (twinkly future Elisabeth Taylor husband Michael Wilding). Though ostensibly a vehicle for Trinder, the trio share the broad comedy evenly. When Tommy berates the appearance of Llewellyn’s sister in a photograph, or competes with Johnny for the affections of a Brazilian girl, the trio makes for some kind of proto-Inbetweeners from a more strait-laced age.
Quite unlike the lovable loners George Formby and Arthur Askey, comics whose films often revolved around the little man making good in an unfamiliar environment, Tommy Trinder’s persona was that of a gregarious merrymaker. His cheery demeanour and “you lucky people!” catchphrase echoed the communal resilience of wartime Britain. Perhaps Trinder acted as a surrogate for absent loved ones, or as a role model for servicemen – watching Sailors Three now, it is impossible to reproduce the parasocial element to his appeal.
When the three sailors find themselves on a German battleship, the naval jollity turns into propaganda. The triumph of the underdog is often central to British comedy films from this time, but here it feels unconvincing or even dull. Sailors Three is certainly well-made – director Walter Forde was at the peak of a distinguished career in British cinema – but it counts on its leading man’s charms a little too much. Trinder’s confident presence gifts the film some great moments, but he can’t make up for a plot too fanciful and a comedy style too languid.
Sailors Three has most value as a period piece, a wartime propaganda film that greased the spirits of young men soon to be conscripted. A popular comedy that surrendered any potential half-life in exchange for connecting with its audience. Many personalities associated with the war saw their careers falter irreparably in its wake; Trinder remained a popular draw in subsequent decades and as late as 1979, “All Over the Place” was being used to introduce a scratchy-voiced Trinder in TV appearances. Sailors Three was fondly remembered by the generation it roused, but against other British comedies of the era, it doesn’t make waves.