Films: Comedy/Musicals

MURDER IN THE FLEET. MGM, 1935. Robert Taylor, Jean Parker, Ted Healy, Una Merkel, Nat Pendleton, Jean Hersholt, Arthur Byron. Director: Edward Sedgwick.

   A new electronic fire-fighting device is being installed on a navy cruiser, and someone is intent on stopping it, to the extent of committing murder. Robert Taylor is in charge of the installation, but as stalwart and handsome as he is, the movie’s still a disaster.

   Less than a quarter of the film is devoted to the mystery. The rest consists of busted romance (Jean Parker, primarily) and slapstick comedy (Ted Healy, minus his Three Stooges, and Nat Pendleton). What’s worse, to tell you the truth, I think I liked the comedy better.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


GUMSHOE. Columbia, 1971. Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay, Janice Rule, Fulton Mackay, and Bill Dean. Written by Neville Smith. Directed by Stephen Frears.

   A quirky little mystery/comedy/drama that deserves to be better remembered.

   In the early 1970s, Cinephiles and Cineasts knew all about film noir, and looked back on it with affection. But to ordinary Cinners in the movie-going public, it all seemed a bit passé, and so this clever pastiche went largely unseen and unsung. Too bad, because it’s a dandy little film.

   The story, as far as I can make out, centers on Eddie Ginley (Finney) a failure at 31 who ekes out a living as a Bingo Caller and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. His long-time girlfriend (Whitelaw) left him to marry his brother, and he’s seeing a Psychiatrist:

   “Eddie, you know what? You’re a bloody nut!

“I owe it all to you, Doc.”

   For a birthday present to himself, he puts an ad in the paper:

No Divorce Work

   To his surprise, a mysterious phone call summons him to meet with a shady fat man, who gives him an envelope with a picture of a girl, a thousand pounds, and a gun. So the chase is on: to find the girl, learn who wants to kill her, and why—a chase complicated by his ex-girlfriend-now-sister-in-law; a femme fatale (Rule) who wants him off the case; and the real hit man who was supposed to pick up the package Eddie got by mistake.

   If it all sounds complicated, well that ain’t the half of it, and it’s further obfuscated by sudden shifts in tone from action to drama to comedy. This was the first feature film of Stephen Frears (and of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, come to think of it) and he opts for speed, with lines bouncing around like something from a Howard Hawks movie:

Anne: I’m Anne Scott.

Eddie: I’m all shook up.

Anne: What’s your name?

Eddie: Modelling. Clay Modelling.

Anne: I don’t think I fancy you, Modelling.

Eddie: Work on it.

Anne: I like tall men.

Eddie: The Seven Dwarves got Snow White.

Anne: Only because they crowded her.

   The Big Sleep comes to mind, doesn’t it? And like that classic, Gumshoe leaves no time to wonder if it makes sense –which it doesn’t. What it does is provide 86 minutes of laughs, surprises, suspense and drama. And what more could you ask, anyway?

THE GREAT DIAMOND ROBBERY. MGM, 1953. Red Skelton, Cara Williams, James Whitmore, Kurt Kaznar. Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

   Sort of a quiet, sedate comedy, with Red Skelton playing a simple sort of soul who just happens to work for a diamond company. He is also an orphan, and the people he comes across who claim to be related are really (not surprisingly) a bunch of crooks.

   Read the title again and you will know everything there is to say about the story — except possibly that Cara Williams, who plays the girl who is supposed to be his sister, falls in love with him instead, and — you can finish it up from here. (Spotted in bit parts were Olan Soule and Jack Kruschen, long time radio actors.)

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

SUPER-SLEUTH. RKO Radio Pictures, 1937. Jack Oakie, Ann Sothern, Eduardo Ciannelli, Alan Bruce, Edgar Kennedy, Joan Woodbury. Director: Ben Stoloff.

   An insufferably conceited movie star who plays a genius detective on the screen begins to mock the police department’s efforts in catching the perpetrator of a series of “poison pen” murders, and as a result, not surprisingly, ends up being the target of the killer himself.

   Pretty much a ho-hum effort, both as a mystery and as a comedy. Jack Oakie never seemed to catch the public as a comedian, and if you take this film as an example, it’s easy to see why. His portly arrogance and general dimwittedness certainly turned me off.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Universal Pictures, 1940. Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka, Donald MacBride, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard, Anne Nagel. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   This may be the only movie made by a major studio in the 1940s in which the leading lady spends most of her time on the screen totally nude. She even kisses the leading man in the same condition. We can’t see her, of course, but we’ve got imaginations, don’t we?

   This movie is also (slightly less) famous for that noteworthy line, “You know, if women were invisible, life would be much less complicated.” It’s also the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages. If ever this shows up again on your favorite cable station, don’t miss it.

— Reprinted from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES. Universal, 1940. Franchot Tone, Warren William, Peggy Moran, Andy Devine, Mischa Auer, Porter Hall and Broderick Crawford! Written by Harold Shumate. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   Hey, how’s this for an original Western plot: A lawman comes to town to look into a killin’ and discovers that a pillar of the community is actually running the gang of rustlers that murdered his friend.

   Oh you’ve seen it? Well maybe not, because this one has the intelligence not to take itself too seriously – or seriously at all.

   The intelligence starts with Franchot Tone as an Eastern dude sent West to root around the prairie and look for clues — thank gawd no one tried to pass the cosmopolitan Tone off as a cowboy. Even better, when he gets to the burg of Peaceful Flats and finds the sheriff handcuffed to a lamp post, the laughs start coming, and though they pause for action, they never really stop.

   Warren William, his career in sad eclipse, lends his usual polish to the role of dress-heavy, and his veneer of sophistication matches Tone’s perfectly. In direct contrast, Tone gets teamed up with Andy Devine as a cowboy who dreams of becoming a valet (?!) and Broderick Crawford, providing truculent muscle for any and all occasions.

   And then there’s Mischa Auer, who comes on as an Indian in a Medicine show, morphs into a Mexican, then a Bullfighter, a Cossack, an Acrobat, Magician and Southern Colonel (!) lending an air of pleasing surrealism to the whole thing.

   I should also put in a word for Peggy Moran as a predatory ingénue who spends most of the film trying to seduce Franchot Tone, an agreeable change-up on the usual formula, and she handles it well.

   Overall though, the chief attractions of Trail of the Vigilantes are writer Shumate’s ability to overturn the conventions and director Dwan’s relaxed approach to it all. Thus Tone never fires a shot, even in the big saloon shoot-out, but the film makes no big deal of it. On the other hand, his iffy horsemanship gets only passing notice till it emerges to rousing effect in that saloon melee.

   So what you have here is that rarity, a film that mocks itself yet remains true to form. Exciting, absurd, funny and formulaic in equal measure, Trail of the Vigilantes emerges as rare fun. And what more could you ask?


THE FUZZY PINK NIGHTGOWN. United Artists, 1957. Jane Russell, Ralph Meeker, Keenan Wynn, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Harris, Una Merkle, Fred Clark. Screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons, from a novel by Sylvia Tate. Directed by Norman Taurog.

   An odd item: a comedy without laughs, directed by Norman Taurog, who specialized in that sort of thing.

   Jane Russell, playing Big Hollywood Star Laurel Stevens, gets kidnapped by nice guys Ralph Meeker and Keenan Wynn, on the night her new movie The Kidnapped Bride premieres. She’s held in durance vile in a luxurious beach house, which signals right away that no one takes this seriously, and she and Meeker fall in love.

   The twist is that the studio head (Menjou) thinks it’s a publicity stunt cooked up by her agent (Harris, whom you no doubt remember as the Mad Makeup Man in How to Make a Monster) and Harris thinks Menjou is behind the whole thing. Cops and gossip columnists line up in disbelief, and before long, the only ones fretting are Russell and her gentle abductors.

   Which leads to the plot point that kept me watching:


   The only way to save Jane’s career is for Ralph to actually get a ransom for her, which makes him a kidnapper and even if he gets away with it, he’ll have to flee the country, parting them forever. He loves her to much to hurt her, and she loves him too much to let him take the fall. So I kept wondering “How are they going to write their way out of this?” and stayed with it to the end — where they just shrug it off!

   I felt used. And cheap.


   On the plus side, the leads have a lot of charm, and good dialogue to display it. There’s excellent support from Adolphe Menjou, Una Merkel and Robert Harris — I kept waiting for them to say something funny, but the wait was in vain for nothing. Fred Clark actually got a laugh out of me with that shotgun face of his, but it served only to break the silence.

   A trashy guy like me gets a lot of fantasies thinking of Jane Russell in a Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, and if your mind is wont to wander in similar gutters… well, stay out of this one.


CASBAH. Universal, 1948. Tony Martin, Yvonne De Carlo, Peter Lorre, Marta Toren, Hugo Haas, Thomas Gomez. Screenplay by L. Bush-Fekete and Arnold Manoff. Directed by John Berry.

   The idea of a musical remake of Algiers / Pepe le Moko starring Tony Martin and Yvonne De Carlo struck me as so incredibly kitschy that I had to see it. I went into this movie hoping for something spectacularly awful, but I was disappointed — happily so, because it’s really quite a fine film, and worthy in my opinion to stand beside its romantic forebears.

   If you’re not familiar with the tale, it’s about master thief Pepe Le Moko, who rules a Thieves Kingdom in the Kasbah, but knows he will be caught if ever he tries to leave. And if you can’t see the ending coming from here, well I’ll just let it surprise you.

   I will say up front that Tony Martin is the real surprise here, displaying a brooding discontent light years away from The Big Store or his other light-weight musicals. Yvonne De Carlo offers her usual exotic thing as his Algerian squeeze, and Marta Toren lends just the right touch of wistful class to her role as the woman who awakes Pepe’s nostalgic yen for Paris.

   Even better are the supporting players: Thomas Gomez as a crude police chief, Herbert Rudley as Marta’s acquisitive sugar-daddy, Douglas Dick as Pepe’s old-cohort-turned-quisling, the legendary Hugo Haas, and especially Peter Lorre as the only character who moves easily among them all.

   Lorre in fact, is the glue that holds the story together, in one of the best parts of his later career: Knowing, witty, and possessed of a Zen-like patience, he gives the film an emotional depth and resonance that are a pleasure just to watch.

   But I credit Casbah’s success to director John Berry. Back when I reviewed Tension (here ) I cited the strong sense of local atmosphere that film evoked. Well here, Berry does the same thing for the Kasbah. Perhaps he was aided considerably by cinematographer Irving Glassberg, who worked with Douglas Sirk and Anthony Mann at the height of their days at Universal, and by the alluring sets of John DeCuir, who went on to South Pacific and The King and I, but it’s Berry’s sure hand for composition and tracking that lead us dizzyingly through maze-like streets and alleys, in and out of steamy nightclubs and squalid apartments… well, squalid by the standards of a Universal movies — most of them look classier than my old Bachelor digs.

   To get back to the Casbah, though, the film comes off with a romantic intensity that surprised me. The songs by Harold Arlen suit the mood splendidly, and there’s even a sultry dance number from Eartha Kitt. And best of all, when we reach the ending we all knew was coming (if we’ve seen the previous versions) Berry does it up with originality and an artistry all his own.

   This is not an easy film to find, but if you get a chance, don’t miss it.

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE. Columbia Pictures, 1977. George Segal, Jane Fonda, Ed McMahon, Dick Gautier, Hank Garcia. Director: Ted Kotcheff.

   Even though you may never have seen this movie, it’s well known enough that you may know the story line anyway. But just in case, here it is. When the husband of an upwardly mobile family of three living in what appears to be the Los Angeles area loses his job in the aerospace industry, all kinds of misfortunes come their way. To get out of their new found poverty, they decide to try their hands at crime.

   Unable to find jobs, or unable to hold them if they happen to do, giving up on unemployment money and food stamps as beyond their ability to cope, they turn to robbing small convenience stores at first, gradually working their way up to the phone company (to the great applause of the other customers standing in line), then in the grand finale, cracking the safe in the office of Dick’s crooked boss who fired him in the first place.

   Revenge is sweet.

   I should mention that this is a comedy, but in my opinion most of the gags would work a a lot better in a theater filled with people watching, such as Dick coming home to find their lawn being rolled up and repossessed, and a hole in the back yard where their new swimming pool was supposed to be.

   Some of the jokes are a little risque. When Dick shoves gun in the front of his trousers before he goes out on his first job, Jane says, “Be careful. Don’t go off half-cocked.” Or while on his first stab at robbery, that of a small one-man drug store, Dick is so nervous that he ends buying over eight dollars’ worth of condoms.

   Overall, though, the humor is mostly hit-or-miss. Call me Mr Grumpy, but while this movie has its very devout fans even today, I think that watching this movie is like being caught up in a small time warp. In that regard, though, this is a film that could be exceedingly valuable to historians looking to see what was on the minds of movie audiences of some 40 years ago.

   Or what Hollywood thought was on their minds.


CAPTAIN SWAGGER. Pathé Exchange, 1928. Rod La Rocque, Sue Carol, Richard Tucker, Victor Potel, Ulrich Haupt, Maurice Black, Ray Cooke. Directed by Edward H. Griffith.

   This silent comedy opens in France in 1917, where gallant American pilot Rod La Rocque as just returned from Paris, “an hour and three quarts away…” still on the windward side of soused, but ready to volunteer to dare the skies against Baron Von Stahl (Ulrich Haupt), due to make his daily bombing run.

   Sure enough our hero is true to his word and shoots Von Stahl down over his own lines, but when he fails to see the gallant enemy pilot emerge from his burning plane he lands and rescues him. The grateful German recognizes a fellow knight of the sky and presents him with his own engraved Luger, then helps him to escape the German troops who spotted his plane come down.

   A decade later back in good old New York, our hero, who has earned the nickname “Captain Swagger” from his numerous bill collectors is on his last dime, a playboy who has run out of funds and friends, so taking the engraved Luger he decides to do what any self respecting Twenties gentleman would do: turn elegant bandit (top hat, white tie, formal coat, and white silk scarf).

As luck would have it, all he succeeds in doing is rescuing beautiful Sue Arnold (Sue Carol) from a wolf with a convertible. A bust at banditry, Captain Swagger returns to his soon to be former residence with the girl, and resolves he will have to try a more honest form of survival.

   With the girl, he manages to form a dancing act at one of the more upscale clubs and they are an instant hit. Sue is ready to breathe a sigh of relief: he has finally given up the gentleman bandit game when the club his held up, and one of the hold-up men is Baron Von Stahl.

   Will Captain Swagger stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of true love, or will he fall under the sway of his old enemy and comrade of the skies?

   And why, should you care?

   There is a reason, the reason I have been so careful not to reveal the true name of Rod La Rocque’s Captain Swagger, you see his real name is one you will almost certainly know:

   It’s Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond.

   Brought to the American screen for the first time, H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s two-fisted, beer-guzzling, jovial and homicidal hero not only becomes an American, he loses his entire reason for being, looking for adventure in boring old peacetime, misplaces Carl and Irma Peterson, leaves the trenches for the skies, and ends up dancing at a night club.

   What would Algy Longworth say? What would Dick Hannay say? What would they say at his club? What would Phyllis say?

   He can hardly show his face at those old Etonian dinners again, one would think. At least Raffles had the good taste to get shot in the Boer War. Even the Saint might think twice about rubbing shoulders with half of a cabaret act.

   La Rocque isn’t bad in the lead. You can imagine him as Drummond, and fortunately a year later Samuel Goldwyn had the good taste to stick much closer to the book and play with an all talking film, cast Joan Bennett as the soon to be Mrs. Drummond, Montagu Love as dear old Carl, and Ronald Colman as Hugh, an especially good idea as Colman managed to get nominated for the first Best Actor Oscar for playing Drummond (he lost out to Warner Baxter’s the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona the last time two series characters or films would be nominated).

   But such is Bulldog Drummond’s first sojourn onto American screens, and I suppose we should be grateful the Brits didn’t retaliate by casting Jack Buchanan as a singing and dancing Philo Vance. There’s no telling where this kind of thing might lead. Can you imagine Mr. Moto, Burlesque comic; or Charle Chan with simple songs and snappy patter; Ellery Queen and his amazing Poodles; or, Fred and Ginger as Nick and Nora?

   The blood curdleth.

Next Page »