Films: Comedy/Musicals


THAT’S MY BABY. Republic Pictures, 1944. Richard Arlen, Ellen Drew, Leonid Kinskey, Minor Watson, Richard Bailey. Director: William Berke.

   The setting for this definitively minor comedy effort from 1944 is supposed to be that of a comic book publisher’s office, which is why I rescued the DVD it’s available on from the $3 bin at a local record store. In truth, however — and the truth always comes out — Moody Productions looks more like an animated cartoon production facility, a supposition heavily reinforced by, well, the animated cartoon they produce on the quick that ends the movie.

   It turns out that the head of the firm (Minor Watson) is suffering from a bad case of the blues, and to cheer him up, his daughter (Ellen Drew) and her beau (Richar Arlen) bring into his home a whole host of vaudeville acts, with no success. Not until they discover what it was in his past that has not allowed him to even smile in some twenty years.

   This is a small time capsule of the kinds of acts that made people in small town America laugh. I don’t believe too many of these acts were ever preserved on film in many other ways. Many of these are pure corn, others are mildly amusing, and one, Gene Rodgers, the astoundingly good piano player, makes you wonder why you never heard of him before.

Mike Riley and His Musical Maniacs

Freddie Fisher and His Schnikelfritz Orchestra

Lita Baron, as Isabelita

The Guadalajara Trio

Gene Rodgers (boogie-woogie piano player)

Peppy and Peanuts

Mitchell & Lytell (office worker comedy routine)

Alphonse Bergé

Doris Duane

Adia Kuznetzoff (Russian singer)

Chuy Reyes and His Orchestra

Al Mardo and His Dog

Dewey ‘Pigmeat’ Markham

   Personally, if you were to ask me, it is a wonder that both Richard Arlen and Ellen Drew, both consigned to B-movie stardom at the time, ever had careers after making a movie such at this, with one of the weakest storylines of any comedy musical I’ve ever seen.

THE GIRL FROM MEXICO. RKO Radio Pictures, 1939. Lupe Velez, Donald Woods, Leon Errol, Linda Hayes, Donald MacBride. Ward Bond. Director: Leslie Goodwins.

   Although not intended to be the first in a series, this movie turned out to be such a big hit that RKO decided to make seven more “Mexican Spitfire” movies. The name is apt. Lupe Velez, as the singer a talent agent named Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods) finds and brings back from Mexico, is exactly that: a spitfire, a pepper pot, a firecracker.

   And who she has her eyes on is no other than her Denny. Trouble is, he’s already engaged to a society girl his aunt approves of highly. His uncle (Leon Errol) not so much, and when Denny is tied up with work or wedding plans, he starts taking Carmelita out on the town: to a baseball game, a wrestling match, a nine-day bicycle race, and even eventually a night club.

   Complications arise, as perhaps you can imagine, albeit rather tamely today. Lupe Velez, while not a true exotic beauty, must have attracted men in the audience immensely with her torrid and uninhibited Mexican ways, her rapid fire way of speaking, and her deliciously foreign and refreshingly charming personality. Donald Woods’ character certainly is — attracted, that is — as much as he tries to fight it. What women thought of this movie and the seven sequels, I do not know.

   I probably won’t seek out the others in the series, but in spite of its very meager plot, I enjoyed this one.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SING AND LIKE IT. RKO, 1934. Nat Pendleton, Zasu Pitts, Edward Everett Horton, Pert Kelton, Ned Sparks and John Qualen. Written by Aben Kandel and Marion Dix. Directed by William A. Seiter.

   Sometimes in Hollywood they gave the stars a day off and turned the character actors loose on a movie, generally with happy results, and this is one of the happiest.

   Nat Pendleton stars as a tough gang boss (“Youse guys are way down on yer kidnappin’s. And the Safecrackin’s off too.”) married to a restless showgirl (Pert Kelton at her sharpest and sexiest). Early on, while cracking a safe in a Bank building, he overhears the Amateur Dramatic Society rehearsing their show and is captivated by Zasu Pitts singing an ode to Mother Love.

   You can probably see it coming from here, but I’ll go on to say that Nat decides Zasu should go to the Big Time with a moving song like this, so he moves her into his penthouse, chaperoned by Ms Kelton — which is a bit like appointing John Waters to the Catholic Legion of Decency — and muscles in on Broadway’s leading impresario, played here by Edward Everett Horton.

   These four play off each other like tennis pros doing mixed doubles: Pendleton’s genial ogre slamming up against Horton’s urbane jellyfish; Zasu’s innocence fluttering up against Pert Kelton’s sharp edges, and all of this propelled by a sharp script and brisk direction. I particularly enjoyed the bit where Pendleton decides the jokes in this show ain’t no good and has his boys write some… followed up many scenes later with the reaction of New York’s drama critics.

   As if this weren’t enough, Sing is graced with the mugs of familiar character actors like Roy D’Arcy, Joe Sawyer, Paul Hurst and Bob Kortman. We also get Ned Sparks’ savage deadpan and a delightful John Qualen, perfectly cast as the lady’s wimpy beau.

   There’s an interesting subtext here: Ms Pitts assumes that all show-people and gangsters are hell-bound degenerates and that sooner or later she will have to sacrifice her innocence for the sake of her art. And while she’s not exactly averse to the idea, there’s a charming moment when John Qualen declares, “I’ll still love you Annie — no matter how steeped in sin you are.”

   Come to think of it, this is a film full of charming moments, all of them served up with agreeable verve by a troupe of players obviously enjoying their time in the spotlight, and making things a lot of fun for the viewer. Catch it if you can.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SKIPALONG ROSENBLOOM. Eagle-Lion/United Artists, 1951. “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, Max Baer, Jackie Coogan, Hilary Brooke, Fuzzy Knight, Raymond Hatton. Written by Eddie Forman and Dean Reisner. Directed by the indefatigable Sam Newfield.

   A surprisingly sharp comedy in the anything-goes mode of Hellzapoppin and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, co-written by a guy who went on to Dirty Harry and other prestigious Clint Eastwood flicks, and helmed by a director who routinely churned out a clunker or two every week for PRC.

   Let me pause here and reflect on something I read so long ago I’d most forgot about it, let alone who wrote it and where I read it, but it goes something like this: When we think of the B-movie classics, we tend to remember the noirs, the westerns and the horror films, because tragedy is easy to do. It’s hard work doing comedy and practically impossible to do it in a low-budget film.

   Skipalong Rosenbloom is a happy exception, performed with gusto by a willing ensemble, laced with a few surprisingly subtle jokes (Maybe too subtle for its own good; did anybody but me laugh when Jackie Coogan kicks an obnoxious brat and snarls, “Child actors are murder.” ?) and directed with the slapdash abandon one normally associates with Same Newfield — only here it works.

   The whole thing is framed as 50s television show, complete with commercials, obviously satirizing the Hopalong Cassidy craze of that time. Maxie Rosenbloom takes the title part (surprise!) and runs with it, obviously delighted to be the star of the piece. Max Baer is just as good, snarling threats and gloating wonderfully at each new dastardly plot. Hillary Brooke makes an enthusiastic frontier vamp, with just the right amount of over-playing, while Western Icons Fuzzy Knight and Raymond Hatton lend a bit of authenticity to the whole thing — particularly Fuzzy as Sneaky Pete, cinema’s most enthusiastic henchman ever.

   As for the film itself, I’m not going to repeat any of the outrageous jokes; take my word for it, they anticipate what Mad comic books would start dong the next year — Jackie Coogan even looks a bit like Melvin. Raymond Hatton lives in a ranch house about the size of a tool shed, and at one point when Sneaky Pete wants to eavesdrop, he simply sticks his head in the window, unnoticed by all.

   From this we go on to chases, gun battles, fist-fights, falling off a mountain and a particularly brutal gopher-beating. That’s right: a gopher-beating. This is, in short, a film in its own little world, like no other movie ever — and I mean that in a good way.

MURDER BY DEATH. Columbia Pictures, 1976. Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood. Title drawings by Charles Addams. Screenplay: Neil Simon. Director: Robert Moore.

   It was a dark and stormy night. Five of the world’s greatest detectives have been summoned, and collectively they’re given a million dollar challenge: solve a murder about to happen, or face the fact that their host, Mr. Lionel Twain, is actually the world’s greatest criminologist.

   For about 20 minutes this is an absolutely devastating parody of Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Nick & Nora Charles, Miss Marple and M. Hercule Poirot, full of puns, one-liners and sight gags — about one a minute as a conservative estimate. Guinness as the blind butler, Bensonmum, is nothing but terrific.

   It’s tough to maintain a pace like this, however, as bits and pieces do not a story make, and the last hour simply runs out of witty things to say. The cinematic version of the traditional detective story is an awfully easy target to play around with, but in my opinion, Neil Simon, giving it all he had, wound up and missed.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT. GM, 1971. Jerry Orbach, Leigh Taylor-Young, Jo Van Fleet, Lionel Stander, Robert De Niro. Based on the novel by Jimmy Breslin. Director: James Goldstone.

   Thanks to director James Goldstone’s frenetic pacing, there’s not a lot of down time in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. In this comedy film, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Despite a fairly thin plot, this off-kilter satire of Brooklyn’s mafia wars moves from scene to scene at a rapid clip, not giving the viewer much time to digest what happened. Most of the time, it works well and distracts the viewer from the fact that there’s not whole much depth to the proceedings.

   But who needs much depth when you’ve got Jerry Orbach portraying Kid Sally, a low-rent South Brooklyn enforcer and Robert DeNiro portraying a character named Mario, an Italian bicycle racer turned con man? Both are such fine actors that it’s difficult to not get lost in their respective characters various schemes and machinations.

   Then there’s veteran character actor Lionel Stander, whose career was among the most effected by the Hollywood blacklist. He portrays Baccala, a crude, tough talking mafia don who utilizes his wife to start the ignition on his car. You know. Just in case.

   The plot follows two parallel tracks. Kid Sally’s attempts to rub out Baccala, and Kid Sally’s sister, Angela’s (Leigh Taylor-Young) budding romance with Mario. Eventually these tracks merge in Kid Sally’s hilariously incompetent attempt to kill Baccala in an Italian restaurant. In this scene, as in many others, the humor isn’t exactly subtle. But it’s not childish and infantile, either. The comedic talent on display makes The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight an enjoyable enough movie, but not necessarily one that necessitates a second viewing.



Editorial Note:   As coincidences go, this is a sad one. This review was scheduled yesterday for today. This morning Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jimmy Breslin’s death was reported. He was 88.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


MURDER AT THE VANITIES. Paramount, 1934. Carl Brisson, Victor McLaglin, Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Jessie Ralph, Charles Middleton. Written by Carey Wilson and Joseph Gollomb. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A backstage Musical/Mystery so strikingly off-beat and off-color one can quickly forget how dreadful it really is.

   Charles Middleton plays Homer Boothby, a hammy actor who may have gunned down Gertrude Michael, who was blackmailing young lovers Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (two romantic leads who seem singularly colorless even in a black & white movie) threatening to deport sweet old Jessie Ralph, abusing flighty maid Beryl Wallace, and threatening distaff detective Gail Patrick, who had the goods on her.

   Got that? Well pay it no mind because the real leads here are Victor McLaglen and Jack Oakie, who play Bluff Lust and Brainless Cupidity to perfection, as a tough cop and a harried stage manager trying to solve the murder while the show goes on — as it must, you know.

   Vanities offers a plethora of suspects, a tiresome plot and some impressive proscenium-bound production numbers, of which the most memorable is the musical ode to Marijuana, capped off when a cute young thing emerging nude from a Marijuana blossom (!) finds blood dripping from the catwalk down over her bare shoulders.

   With all this going for it, one can almost overlook the fact that you don’t really give a damn about the bland young lovers or the cardboard suspects. Just sit back and enjoy the show, folks.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


TEN DAYS IN PARIS. Columbia Pictures, UK, 1939; US, 1940. Also released as Missing Ten Days and Spy in the Pantry. Rex Harrison, Kaaren Verne, C. V. France, Joan Marion, Leo Genn, John Abbot, Andre Morell, Robert Rendel, Antony Holles. Screenplay by John Meehan Jr. and James Curtis, based on the novel The Disappearance of Roger Tremayne by Bruce Graeme. Directed by Tim Whelan.

   Ten Days in Paris is a comedy spy thriller with an excellent pedigree. To begin with, it stars Rex Harrison with support work from Leo Genn, John Abbott, Andre Morell, and the beautiful Kaaren Verne, and it is directed by Tim Whelan (Q Planes, aka Clouds Over Europe).

   Add to that a jaunty and exciting score by Miklos Rozsa and the fact it is based on a novel by Bruce Graeme (creator of a gentleman thief named Blackshirt very popular in the 1920s and 30s, and the author of many more non-series works), plus a witty and rapidly paced script, and you have a fine sub Hitchcockian romp.

   Harrison is a young Englishman, Robert Stephens, walking down the street on a Paris evening when a shot rings out, and he falls to the ground. Luckily the wound is superficial, but when he wakes up the last thing he recalls is a plane crash as he was flying over from London, and a passenger he offered a lift whose name he didn’t know.

   Being a bit of a playboy, neither his father or the French police believe his story that the last ten days are a total blank, especially because there is a note in his pocket obviously from a woman signed D. As soon as he is out of the hospital he finds himself approached by Andre (John Abbot) who seems to know him and who orders him to return to Madame D. She turns out to be the beautiful Kaaren Verne, and her chauffer/butler Barnes.

   She lives outside of Paris with her father, a retired general, and her precocious son whom only Barnes can handle, and is engaged to marry a Major in the French army (Andre Morrell) who is planning secret fortifications with her father for the war that is almost certain to come (ironic in retrospect considering the fate of the Maginot Line).

   The boy’s nanny, Denise (Joan Marion), is another spy planted by spy master Lanson (Leo Genn), and she, and every other woman in the house are enamored of the suave Barnes (playing on Harrison’s reputation as a lady’s man even then).

   Soon enough Barnes/Stephens is recognized and the race is on, as Genn plans to sabotage a supply train headed to the underground facility with a time bomb setting off the ammunition aboard and destroying the fortifications. Harrison and Verne race to stop the train, quipping all the way, she interrogating him about all his rumored affairs as Barnes, as he pleads amnesia, and both duck bullets from the French outposts they run through as time runs out.

   The film is dated, and the model work is obvious, but neither the cast nor the script falter, and if one or two things are left hanging loose, you really aren’t supposed to be that anal about the bubbles in champagne so long as it isn’t flat, and this isn’t. Highlights include Harrison playing William Tell with an automatic to interrogate a spy, a picnic that ends with a soaked and half-naked Harrison and Verne literally treed by a pack of dogs, the interplay between Verne and Harrison, and that final race to stop the train.

   Ten Days in Paris is a dessert wine, not a fine vintage, but a pleasant brut, bubbly, witty, and ideal for a pleasant diversion. It doesn’t rank with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes or Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, but it has its own charms and displays them with elan.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


BABES IN BAGDAD. United Artists, 1952. Paulette Goddard, Gypsy Rose Lee, Richard Ney, John Boles, Sebastian Cabot. Written by Joe Ansen and Felix Feist. Directed by Edgar Ulmer.

   You can gauge the quality of a fabric by the way it wrinkles. In this case Paulette Goddard, in the sputtering last days of her movie career, brings a surprising vigor and cheerfulness to what must have seemed like a desperate cheapie.

   There’s some real talent involved here, though. Ms Goddard, a delightful presence by herself, worked brilliantly with Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, Mitchell Leisen, Jean Renoir and Cecil B. de Mille. John Boles was never an electrifying screen presence (he drops out of Frankenstein halfway through and no one notices!) but he had a colorful background as a spy for the allies in World War I and apparently came out of retirement just for this. Director Edgar Ulmer helmed some genuine masterpieces, and Gypsy Rose Lee… well she was a better actress than anyone with a body like that really needed to be.

   And here they are, all together in Spain (a lot of fading stars and maverick filmmakers found themselves in Europe at the time; think of Welles, Chaplin, Flynn….) amid a jumble of cardboard sets and costumed extras trotting through the Arabian Nights and doing it with real panache.

   Edgar Ulmer shows a remarkable touch for humor — unexpected from a director famed for lugubrious stuff like The Black Cat, Detour and Bluebeard — moving his camera fluidly through palaces, harems and marketplaces with assurance, and pacing the comic scenes at a brisk tempo.

   Unfortunately, there’s a story to get through here, of the sort that is generally and mercifully described as El Stinko. Something about neglected harem girls lobbying for equal rights, a conniving tax collector, hero Richard Ney falling for defiant slave girl Goddard, switched identities… it all gets a bit hard to follow and frankly not worth the effort.

   The film itself is a pleasure to watch, however. Ulmer keeps it interesting to look at, Sebastian Cabot throws in a fine bit as a eunuch, you can glimpse Christopher Lee (if you don’t blink) as a slave trader. And Ms. Goddard plays it with all the enthusiasm she gave to movies like Ghostbreakers and Modern Times: writhing, struggling and cursing as a reluctant captive, playing for laughs as a scheming vixen, and finally simply sweet and seductive for the happy ending.

   Babes in Bagdad isn’t an easy film to find, and the print I finally located is pretty dismal, but it’s still fun and, in its own way, a fitting coda to a memorable career.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SAFETY LAST! Hal Roach Studios, 1923. Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke. Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor.

   Harold Lloyd silents are, as a class, wonderfully inventive, well-thought-out and screamingly funny, and here’s an example. Everyone has seen the picture of Lloyd hanging off the clock while climbing the side of a building in Safety Last!, but the sequence itself is one of sheerest genius:

   For starters, the film is about 90 minutes long, and the whole last third of it is devoted to that climb up the building, which is as carefully crafted as a suspense set-piece. Lloyd has arranged to win himself a promotion and the hand of his childhood sweetheart by having a friend climb the building as a Publicity Stunt.

   Unfortunately, the friend is wanted by the Police and spotted just before he starts his climb. So he and Harold arrange that Harold will climb the first floor, then duck in a window where his friend will don his coat and continue the climb.

   But the Cops spot him again and begin chasing him frantically so that he never just quite has the time to make the switch, and Harold has to keep going “just one more floor.”

   There is a marvelous few minutes where the buddy tosses a rope out for Harold but is chased from the room before he gets to tie it to anything! This is followed by a nerve-wracking stretch where Harold strains, contorts, scratches and all-else to get hold of the rope that will be his death-trap, and a heart-stopping span where he gets it waving just enough to almost reach, then launches himself out, grabs it and plummets down to … well, see the movie:

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