Films: Comedy/Musicals

FLIRTING WITH DANGER. Monogram, 1934. Robert Armstrong, Edgar Kennedy, William Cagney, Maria Alba, Marion Burns. Director: Vin Moore.

   Titles can be deceiving, and this one is one of them. When it comes to old movies such as this one, I try to know as little as possible about them when I pick one out to watch, and this one fooled me, but good. I thought it might be a relatively unknown crime film with a good-looking female participant or two, but it turned out to be an almost totally unknown comedy film about the happy-go-lucky adventures of three powder mixers for a dynamite factory.

   And that’s about all the plot there is, mixed in with a little girl chasing and explosions going off at funny times, leaving Edgar Kennedy, mostly, with blackened face or hanging from the highest branch of a handy nearby tree.

   But when “Lucky” Davis (William Cagney, of yes that Cagney family) gets serious about one of the girls he finds charming, and vice versa, the two other fellows concoct a plan to keep them apart. So off to South America they all go, cheerfully wondering in passing when the next revolution will start.

   The story line is so negligible I probably wouldn’t bothered writing up this review but for the fact that the film has only one user comment on IMDb and no external ones.

   The fact that it has enough charm to it to have kept me watching all the way through has to mean something, however. The three male stars are also no slouches in the acting field, even if William Cagney’s career eventually went off in other directions.

   Bonus piece of trivia: Carol Tevis, the girl with the high-pitched voice and stutter who was briefly romanced by Robert Armstrong’s character is said to have provided the voice at one time for Walt Disney’s Minnie Mouse, not to mention one of the Munchkins.


WELCOME DANGER. Paramount, 1929, Harold Lloyd, Charles Middleton, Barbara Kent, Noah Young. Directors: Malcolm St. Clair & Clyde Bruckman. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   This Harold Lloyd starrer was originally filmed as a silent, but converted to sound. St. Clair directed the silent version, Bruckman did the sound inserts. (We were told that the silent version is being restored.)

   Harold plays Harold Bledsoe, son of a notable San Francisco police chief, who is called in by the new chief to deal with an outbreak of crime. Harold is a shy botanist who is not what anyone expected and quickly reduces the department to chaos. He does, however, with his sidekick, silent film comic actor Noah Young, stumble onto the Tong’s headquarters and eventually expose do-gooder Middleton as the tong criminal mastermind.

   The film is too long [at 113 minutes], and it is extremely repetitive, but it was Lloyd’s highest grossing film. Not top-flight Lloyd by any means, but the best things in it make me want to see the silent version, which should be shorter and better paced.

OUT OF THE BLUE. Eagle-Lion Films, 1947. George Brent, Virginia Mayo, Turhan Bey, Ann Dvorak, Carole Landis, Elizabeth Patterson, Julia Dean. Based on a story by Vera Caspary, serialized in Today’s Woman, September 1947. Director: Leigh Jason.

   The nominal stars of this semi-sprightly comedy romance are George Brent and Virginia Mayo, but it is Ann Dvorak as the more-than-slightly tipsy (and and always tippling) Olive Jensen who steals the show. I don’t believe I’ve seen her in a straight comedy role before, but on the other hand, there are a lot of her movies I haven’t seen. On the basis of her performance here, I’m tempted to search out more.

   Nor, strangely enough, are Brent and Mayo romantically paired off in this film. He’s the meek, mild-mannered and henpecked husband of Carole Landis who uncharacteristically picks up Dvorak when his wife goes out of town for a weekend, while next door in the same apartment building Virginia Mayo and Turhan Bey find themselves falling for each other. The latter is a bohemian type artist, and she’s a wealthy dog-owner whom he persuades to pose for him, while two elderly biddies watch all of the comedic goings-on from their seats in the balcony and their apartment one floor above.

   Looking at the paragraph above, I will concede that there’s nothing there to suggest what kind of funny goings-on are going on. It’s difficult to put into words, but to go back to the first paragraph of this review, it’s the reaction of milquetoast Brent (if you can picture that) when he finds that the lady he meets in a bar and invites up for a brandy just won’t go home, and dramatically (and as I said above, tipsily) so. In fact, she stays overnight, unbeknownst to him, since they are in two separate bedrooms.

   Worse, she has a bad heart, or so she claims, and after one argument between the two a little more strenuous than usual, she collapses on the floor, and George Brent, faced with his wife’s imminent return and thinking her dead, dumps her body on his neighbor’s terrace (the one owned by the bohemian artist, with whom he and his wife have been feuding).

   I guess you have to watch this yourself, as mere words may not be enough, but in all honesty, at nearly 90 minutes long, it is at least 20 minutes longer than it needed to be, and alas and alack, neither Virginia Mayo nor Carole Landis make much of an impression, especially the latter in a part truly not made for her.

DANCE HALL. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Carole Landis, Cesar Romero, William Henry, June Storey, J. Edward Bromberg, Charles Halton. Based on the novel The Giant Swing by W. R. Burnett (1932). Director: Irving Pichel.

   According to what I’ve been able to uncover so far, and you certainly may correct me if I’m wrong, The Giant Swing was a hard-boiled novel about a jazz musician try to make his way to the top. The page for the film on the AFI website says that “the studio purchased W. R. Burnett’s novel in 1932 and began preparing scripts for it from that time. Among the writers who over the years worked on the adaptation were: W. R. Burnett, Garrett Fort, Howard J. Green, Doris Anderson, Lester Cole, Winifred Willis, Kathryn Scola, Lamar Trotti, William A. Drake, Robert Yost, Sally Sandlin, Shepard Traube and Horace McCoy.”

   If my description of the book is correct, there were a lot of changes made in all that time and with all those hands working on it, I have a feeling that the end result may be a long way from its beginnings.

   There is a piano player in the movie, and he is trying to write his own music while his career is stuck while spending his nights in a 1940s dance hall. But his problems play only third or fourth fiddle (bad metaphor) to the love-hate romance between the womanizing manager of the club (Cesar Romero) and the beautiful new singer (Carole Landis), whom I believe does her own singing, and quite well, too.

   In spite of all their spats, Lily Brown sees something in the smooth-talking Duke McKay that I don’t see, but I imagine the ladies in the audience in 1941 may have felt the same way as she did, too. And at length, at just over 70 minutes of playing time, with each playing amusing tricks on the other, romance finds its way — and the piano player is on his way to New York with the song he has composed.

   I found this moderately entertaining, but not particularly funny. The concept of on-and-off romances like this is OK, but I found the aforementioned tricks they play on each other a little too mean-spirited for me, for lack of a better term. (She steals his car behind his back while he thinks he’s proposing to her, and through a ruse he locks up another would-be suitor in a closet while she waits for the fellow outside the club alone.)

   Carole Landis was only 22 when she made this film, and whatever charm the movie had for me, which was more than a little, most of it was because of her presence in it.


TWO-FISTED. Paramount, 1935. Lee Tracy, Roscoe Karns, Grace Bradley, Kent Taylor, Gall Patrick, Akim Tamiroff, Florence Lake, Irving Bacon. Director: James Cruze. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A nifty little programmer with Tracy as the fight manager of none-two-swift (except in hitting the canvas) Roscoe Karns. Hap and Chick agree to take a temporary job in the home of a millionaire whose rascally brother-in-law wants to get custody of his sister’s young son.

   Hap will train Clint (Kent Taylor) to be a fighter and stand up to his brother-in-law. Then Clint, falling from grace and landing in a bottle, bets with brother-in-law George that Chick can defeat his chauffeur in a friendly boxing match, whose outcome will decide the custody of the boy.

   An attractive cast, with Grace Bradley as Maria, the maid for whom Chick falls, a cute and funny foil for Karns.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

VIBES. Columbia Pictures, 1988. Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum, Peter Falk, Julian Sands, Googy Gress, Elizabeth Peña. Director: Ken Kwapis.

   Vibes is the cult classic that could have been. A quirky quasi-ensemble cast (check); a mash-up of genres, ranging from romantic comedy to adventure film and fantasy and back again (check); and quite a few memorable, downright repeatedly quotable, moments (check). And for a while, Vibes manages to feel like a hangout film, a movie where you just feel like you’re there, or you’d like to be there, just hanging out, shooting the breeze, with the main characters.

   But it wasn’t to be. Indeed, Vibes really doesn’t seem to have all that much of a critical reputation or a cult following. Which is somewhat of a shame, because it really is a daring, albeit wildly uneven, little comedy-adventure film that is worth watching, if only once. It benefits greatly from the screen presence of both Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk, as well as 1980s pop singer, Cyndi Lauper, in a film role.

   The plot centers around two New York psychics, Nick Deezy (Goldblum) and Sylvia Pickel (Lauper) who travel to Ecuador at the behest of con artist/criminal/man of mystery, Harry Buscofusco (Falk) to allegedly search for a missing man. A search that turns into a hunt for Inca gold. Which transforms into an encounter with a relic from an ancient alien civilization and a source of psychic power. (Try selling that script today: “So tell me what your screenplay’s about.”). There’s also a budding romance between Deezy and Pickel.

   It’s a difficult plot to pull off successfully and, at times, the movie just falls painfully flat. The ending, in particular, is a serious let down. But the journey to the ending, literally and metaphorically, is half the fun. And the cast, particularly Goldblum, seems to be in on the joke. It’s no classic, cult or otherwise, but it’s an enjoyable enough movie to watch, the later into the night the better. And it’s definitely a product of the 1980s, like for sure.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

PROFESSOR BEWARE. Paramount, 1938. Harold Lloyd, Phyllis Welch, Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, William Frawley, and Montagu Love as Professor Schmutz. Written by Delmer Daves. Directed by Elliott Nugent.

   Not a completely successful film, nor a consistently funny one, Professor Beware flopped at the box office, leading to Lloyd’s retirement (until Mad Wednesday anyway) but I find it a charming thing, with a screamingly funny wrap-up.

   This starts off with a creepy pastiche of The Mummy (Universal, 1932) as a star-crossed Egyptian Romeo gets entombed alive, the result it seems of a misunderstanding involving a vestal virgin or some such. Flash forward to 1938 and we find the ancient swain reincarnated as our Egyptologist Hero and launched on a cross country chase with a madcap heiress in true screwball-comedy fashion.

   The problem here is that the resulting escapades ain’t all that funny. There’s a clever line here and there, a fleetingly funny bit of business now and then, and Phyllis Welch, in her one and only starring film, has the requisite cute-and-perky act down pat, but the story lacks sustained comic momentum, and Lloyd’s best and most athletic days were now behind him.

   Instead of the cheerful ballet of Harold at his best, we get some rather dire back-projection and a faintly unfocused odyssey as he tries to escape the curse of his ancient progenitor, the heiress and cops chase after him, and a slew of comic character actors do what they can in brief bits — my favorite being Montagu Love as Professor Schmutz; he doesn’t do anything funny, I just like the name “Professor Schmutz.”

   But I said early on that I liked this film, and I do. There’s a certain eerie mood hung on the theme of Harold trying to cheat his fate that sustains the story in spite of itself, and it comes together in a thoughtful moment when our hero figures out that if risking a horrible death is the price of true love…. Well, maybe it’s worth it.

   Of course it helps that Professor Beware wraps up with a full ten minutes of delightful sight gags, wonderfully conceived, and beautifully shot and edited as Harold storms a yacht and we get that wonderful feel of his Silent Movie days, that this guy can sweep a football field or climb a skyscraper and take us right along with him.

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