Films: Comedy/Musicals


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


WILD MONEY. Paramount, 1937. Edward Everett Horton, Louise Campbell, Lynne Overman, Lucien Littlefield, Esther Dale, Porter Hall, Benny Baker. Based on a story by Paul Gallico. Director: Louis King. Shown at Cinevent 26, Columbus OH, May 1994.

   The surprise “B” hit of the convention was Wild Money. Edward Everett Horton, on of my all-time favorite character actors, was the star. He played a stuffy accountant for a big-city newspaper, who, while vacationing with his cousin (Esther Dale) and her husband (Lucien Littlefield), is charged with reporting on the “breaking story” of the kidnapping of one of America’s wealthiest men.

   Horton, Dale and Littlefield make a delightful team, and there’s not a wasted frame in this comic crime film. Horton even gets the girl (Louise Campbell) and kisses her in the final shot.

   What films such as this demonstrate is that a well-crafted small movie is a safer bet than a larger-budgeted film with pretensions beyond its capabilities. But that’s another fatality of the demise of the studio system where the “A” crew could be used on the “B” film, giving it a professional sturdiness that has disappeared in the era of out-of-sight budgets.


BONUSWild Money‘s Lucien Littlefield, a supporting actor whose career began in silent films, was even more delightful in the Joe E. Brown comedy, The Gladiator (credits below). Here he plays mild-mannered Professor Donner who’s discovered a formula that increases strength in animals and, as he discovers when Brown is unexpectedly administered a dose, humans as well.

   Brown was both touching and funny in the title role and although the film rushed through the final sequences to a pre-ordained conclusion, it was most enjoyable.

THE GLADIATOR. Columbia Pictures, 1938. Joe E. Brown , June Travis, Man Mountain Dean, Dickie Moore, Lucien Littlefield. Based on the novel by Philip Wylie. Director: Edward Sedgwick.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE ADVENTURES OF JANE. Eros Films, UK, 1949. Christobel Leighton-Porter, Michael Hogsworth, Peter Butterworth, Sonya O’Shea, Ian Colin, Stanelli, Sebastian Cabot. Screenplay by Alf Goulding, E. J. Whiting and Con West, based on the comic strip “Jane” created by Norman Pett. Directed by E. J. Whiting and (uncredited) by Alfred Goulding and Norman Pett. TV series: BBC, UK, 1982-84 (reviewed by Michael Shonk here ).

   Jane, that grown up Little Orphan Annie in and out of lingerie, wasn’t the first glamor girl to strip down in the comic strips on either side of the Atlantic, but her predecessors like Fritzi Ritz, Dixie Dugan, Blondie (before marrying Dagwood), and Frank Godwin’s Connie were modest in comparison to the British Gypsy Rose Lee of the news kiosk.

   Jane lost more clothes, showed more skin, and outlasted the best of them. She has hardly been out of the papers since her creation and even managed two movie outings over forty years apart.

   That’s not bad for a lass and her pet dachshund Fritz, especially since Jane’s chief talent was a gift for getting caught out after spectacular costume failures.

   Jane put the strip in comic strip.

   She was created by artist Norman Pett as a morale booster, a bit along the lines of Milton Caniff’s “Male Call,” but Jane ran in the daily papers and fairly soon, unsatisfied with simply finding ways for Jane to lose her clothes, Pett decided there should be a bit of plot to go with all that skin, so Jane got involved with smugglers, spies, saboteurs (certainly a fifth column was involved in sabotaging her costumes), and kidnappers. Across her career she would veer into a soap opera for a while and even acquire a daughter just as prone to losing her clothes as Maman.

   There is a whole school of British comic strip inspired by Jane and Pett, including Romeo Brown by Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdway, who soon got more serious with Modesty Blaise.

   Here we have the original Jane, Christobel Leighton-Parker, in the flesh, the model whose photos often accompanied Pett’s annuals and collections of Jane’s adventures, cast as Jane, a show girl who gets involved with smugglers when a seeming nice old man, Sneyd (the name should have been a clue) gives her a fake diamond bracelet.

   It’s all part of a dastardly plot to get past British customs with the stolen Bulawayo Diamond by the handsome criminal Cap, but bound to be foiled by Fritz and Jane’s less than bright policeman boyfriend Tom, and Jane herself, because Jane is never just a victim to be rescued by a man.

   That’s it folks. There is a swimsuit contest Jane judges, Jane shuts doors, and other things, on her clothes and loses her skirt while only wearing scanties, Jane changes her clothes, Jayne wears lingerie, a comic drunk climbs in bed with Fritz in her room, Jane goes to sea, gets wet and changes out of her wet clothes… It pretty much is the same formula as the comic strip in action.

   A young Sebastian Cabot even shows up in a comic bit about a Frenchman going through British customs.

   If you haven’t guessed how The End flashes on screen you aren’t trying.

   But it is fun in the same way as the strip was, plus under the titles we get to see Pett drawing his most famous Jane picture as Leighton-Porter and Fritz pose. You can catch it in two parts on YouTube if you want, and it is currently on Amazon Prime.

   It’s all fun and tease, and Jane, for all her innocence of her various states of undress, is a surprisingly smart and capable heroine who as often as not rescues herself. It’s no wonder she has survived the ravages of time and changes of custom.

   Jane is a force to reckon with.

   A naked force at that.

   

LOVE ME TONIGHT. Paramount Pictures, 1932. Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charlie Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Myrna Loy, C. Aubrey Smith, Elizabeth Patterson. Music by Rodgers & Hart. Director: Rouben Mamoulian.

   As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the best romantic comedy musicals of all time. The plot is simple. A tailor in Paris (Maurice Chevalier) goes to a castle in the country to be paid for some work he’s done, gets mistaken for a baron, and falls in love with a princess (Jeanette MacDonald).

   Love Me Tonight was one of the first musicals in which the songs are an integral part of the story, in fact moving the plot itself along on more than one occasion. A fact worthy of note, but the cinematography? Perhaps even more astounding. Under Mamoulian’s direction, the camera never stops moving, zooming in and out at will, and using split screens as well as fast and slow motion to both great dramatic and comedic effect. It is difficult to believe that this movie was made in 1932.

   Two long scenes need pointing out in particular: The opening of the movie takes place on a quiet Parisian street at dawn. Then a worker comes out with a hammer to work on the pavement, then a woman comes out of her house to sweep the sidewalk, two other women open their windows to flap rugs against the railings, two shoemakers begin hammering nails into boots in a syncopated counterpoint harmony, and soon there’s a entire cacophony of sounds (and music) showing off life in a big city.

   Later on, the song “Isn’t It Romantic?” begins by being sung by Maurice Chevalier in his tailor’s shop, is picked by a man taking a cab to the train station; on the train a band of soldiers overhear it, and continue to sing it while marching through a forest, where a gypsy hears it and takes it back to his camp, from which the sound is heard by the princess in a balcony of her palace. Wonderful!

   Other songs you may have heard of are “Mimi,” “Love Me Tonight” and “The Son of a Gun Is Nothing But a Tailor.” Of the players, both Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald were made to play their respective roles, while Charlie Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, and C. Aubrey Smith, all resident members of the nobility, are in fine comedic form. There is but one regret in this film. One can only wish that Myrna Loy were on the screen more. Unfortunately several of her pre-Code scenes were deemed too risque when the movie was re-released in the late 1940s, and the shorter version from that date is the only one that still exists.

MY FRIEND IRMA GOES WEST. Paramount Pictures, 1950. John Lund, Marie Wilson, Diana Lynn, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Corinne Calvet, Lloyd Corrigan, Don Porter, Harold Huber, Kenneth Tobey. Screenplay: Cy Howard & Parke Levy. Director: Hal Walker.

   Marie Wilson, who made a career of playing ditsy blondes, will be remembered best for her portrayal of Irma Peterson, the impossibly vacuous New York City secretary with a mind the size of a paper clip. This was the second film to feature Irma, who began her career on radio in 1947, but as usually the case, of all the people who were in the cast on the radio program, only Marie Wilson managed to make the transition into the movies.

   And even though creator Cy Howard was also involved in the movie production, much of the magic her character created in her original form is gone. In fact, Irma is on the screen far less than the up-and-coming comedy team of Martin and Lewis. Incidentally, they also appeared in the first Irma picture as well — their screen debut, no less.

   The plot is simple enough — Dean Martin, who plays the boy friend of Irma’s friend Jane, gets a shot at Hollywood, or so he thinks, and the whole gang goes along. It;s to bad that, unknown to them, the boys in the white suits come along afterward to pick up the “producer” who hired him. (But what about the French actress with eyes for Dean?)

   Irma continued on the radio for four more years, until 1954, but there weren’t any more movies. It’s no wonder why. When writers lose the roots of their own creations, chances of a successful transplant are next to none.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990 (very slightly revised).


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


YOU NEVER CAN TELL. Universal, 1951. Dick Powell, Peggy Dow, Joyce Holden, Charles Drake, Frank Nelson and Flame (the dog.) Written and directed by Lou Breslow.

   This movie-fantasy is dumb as a box of puppies, but I liked it anyway. Maybe it’s the loopy concept and the way it plays on movie conventions. After all, Dick Powell had been playing hard-boiled PIs and tough guys for so long his mere presence promised a certain hard-chiseled persona — and here he is as Private Eye Rex Shepherd, a reincarnated dog set to sniff out the guy who poisoned him (shades of D.O.A.) and romancing heiress Peggy Dow in the best Philip Marlowe tradition.

   The story takes way too long to get going, and the humor is on the level of Francis the Talking Mule (also from Universal), but the players take the stale jokes and cliché situations in easy stride, turn on their relaxed charm and rise above it — no, elevate it — to a surprising level. I particularly liked Joyce Holden as Powell’s secretary (formerly a race horse) and Frank Nelson offering one of his patented smug-polite perfs as a police detective dealing with Powell’s PI in a neat turn on the sort of thing Philip Marlowe used to go through.

   Don’t come to You Never Can Tell expecting a lot of laughs, but if you’re looking for an off-beat thing with a certain charm, this is it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TOUGH GUYS. Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures, 1986. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charles Durning, Alexis Smith, Dana Carvey, Darlanne Fluegel, Eli Wallach. Director: Jeff Kanew.

   A buddy movie. A message movie about how American society treats senior citizens. A comedy-crime film. Those are all perfectly adequate ways of describing Tough Guys. But at the end of the day, the movie was really one thing: a golden opportunity to bring Hollywood legends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas together on the big screen for one last time.

   The two actors who appeared in a total of seven movies together, but who are perhaps best known for their work together in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (reviewed here ), portray best friends in Tough Guys. Best friends who happen to be finishing up a 30-year stint in prison for robbing the Gold Coast Flyer. These two men, the last two to rob a train in the United States, are truly the last of a dying breed.

   But if prison is tough, getting out is even tougher. Both men are fish out of water. Not only have times change, but they’re old men now. But they still love women.

   Through a series of romantic mishaps and comedic adventures, they learn the hard way that very few people want to treat senior citizens with much respect or dignity. There’s definitely a message here, one that Lancaster, in an interview with the New York Times, suggested takes the movie out of the real of action-comedy into something more meaningful.

   Despite this being a lightweight, perfectly innocent affair that doesn’t stay with you long after you’ve finished watching, Tough Guys works. The pairing of Lancaster and Douglas as two aging criminals trying to regain one last moment of glory is pure entertainment. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one.

   One last thing: without Lancaster and Douglas, this movie never would have worked. It’s their vehicle from start to finish.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR. United Artists, 1950, Ronald Colman, Celeste Holm, Vincent Price, Barbara Britton, Art Linkletter, and (according to IMDB) Albert Einstein. Written by Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady. Directed by Richard Whorf.

   No classic, but a sparkling little gem of a film that deserves to be screened more often.

   Ronald Colman stars as Beauregard Bottomly, unemployed genius. Sharing a bungalow with his sister (Barbara Britton) who makes a living giving piano lessons to Byron Foulger. Colman applies for a job at Milady Soap, where he runs afoul of mad soap tycoon Burnbridge Waters (Price) Humiliatingly rejected, he plots an exquisite revenge ……

   … because it seems Milady Soap sponsors a Quiz Show (hosted by Art Linkletter!) with the prize amount doubling every week. With his superior mental capacity, it becomes an easy matter for Bottomly to run up the stakes till he threatens to bankrupt Waters by winning his whole company — until Waters strikes back.

   I should say at the start that this film is hardly a Laff Riot on the order of His Girl Friday or Duck Soup; it’s a gentle comedy, with moments of gentle satire, and an atmosphere of gentle pleasantry. But it comes to sharp, hilarious life whenever Vincent Price is on screen!

   Price’s Burnbridge Waters ranks as one of the great characters in fiction, alongside Hamlet, Scrooge, Mister Toad, Oedipus and Rochester (both of them) and Vinnie plays it with relish, rolling grandiose lines across his tongue, indulging in outrageous double-takes, and generally imparting a helluva good time all around. Colman, Holm, Britton, and even Art Linkletter are all fine, but Price just walks away with it all.

   And whenever I find an off-beat thing like this, I’m always intrigued by where it came from. The careers of the writers and director of this thing are so negligible that I’m inclined to give credit to producer Harry M. Popkin, whose credits include such unorthodox efforts as And Then There Were None, The Thief, and DOA.

   Hey, it works for me!

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.

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