Films: Comedy/Musicals


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CROOKS ANONYMOUS. Independent Artists, UK, 1962. Leslie Phillips, Stanley Baxter, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Pauline Jameson, James Robertson Justice, Raymond Huntley and Julie Christie. Written by Jack Davies and Henry Blyth. Directed by Ken Annakin.

   An unexpected Christmas movie.

   Leslie Philips stars as a smooth thief with a jaunty front, given to cigarette holders, poking people with his umbrella and calling everyone “Sport.” As the film opens, he seems rather good at his trade — there’s a clever scene in his apartment where his stripper girlfriend, Babette LaTour (Julie Christie!) challenges him to show her one thing there that isn’t stolen. He casts about a bit, finally points to her picture on the mantle and adds, “Not the frame of course.”

   Persuaded by love to go straight he enrolls in Crooks Anonymous, an institution that reforms crooks, run by Wilfrid Hyde-White, but the bulk of the job is carried by Stanley Baxter, and quite well too, in a variety of disguises as a nasty “Guardian Angel.” We first see him, disguised as a priest, seating himself on a park bench beside two attractive young ladies, and pulling out a book titled Flogging.

   Phillips’ crash course in Honesty is quite amusing, but the film really kicks into high gear when he lands a job as a department store Santa and gets locked in the store on Christmas Eve, with a safe full of untraceable money.

   I won’t go into details here, but it’s riotous fun, perfectly played by a host of British character actors who get a laugh out of every scene. I particularly liked Raymond Huntley (the unspeakable husband in So Evil My Love (reviewed here ) as a nasty store manager, and James Robertson Justice as his nastier boss.

   The Holidays have peaked and waned, but if you can get a look at this one, I guarantee a Holly-Jolly Post-Christmas.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:         


13 HOURS BY AIR. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Zasu Pitts, John Howard, Brian Donlevy, Alan Baxter, Fred Keating, Ruth Donnelly, Adrienne Martin, Benny Bartlett. Screenplay Bogart Rogers, based on his story “Wild Wings” with Frank Mitchell Dazey. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A bit different than what you might expect from director Leisen, though he often did films about flying or flyers (Arise My Love).

   This is an early aviation film with the usual Grand Hotel cast, first Captain Jack Gordon (MacMurray) meets Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) desperate to get a ticket on the flight to San Francisco. Of course he can’t resist helping even when he sees a headline about a woman in a fur coat who held up a jewelry store with two men.

   Add to the passenger list Zasu Pitts as the high-strung nanny to wealthy young Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett, billed as Binnie Bartlett), a small handful of ill manners and painful tricks, then a mysterious Dr. Evarts (Brian Donlevy), the nosy Mr. Palmer (Alan Baxter), and a foreign fellow threatening Felice (Fred Keating), plus co-pilot John Howard and stewardess Adrienne Martin who just got engaged.

   The usual comedic misdirection abounds, and this one almost falls into the runaway heiress genre of screwball comedy, with Bennett and MacMurray both veterans of such lighter fare, but then the plane is forced down in bad weather in a snowy field, and it turns out there is a killer on board willing to sacrifice everyone so he can escape to Mexico.

   No surprises here. Waldemar proves his worth, MacMurray gets the girl, and the bad guy gets decked while all the romantic entanglements get explained simply as soon as everyone stops playing cute and just talk to each other. Leisen often combined comedy and drama in his films.

   Granted the model work is distractingly crude, though good for the time, but aside from that I’m a sucker for these closed world films whether on a train, a plane, or ship, and this one boasts an unusually good cast and a solid plot that, while slight, gets by on good dialogue and the quality of the players. It plays like one of the better stories of this sort that appeared in the slicks and the pulps of the period, and is a good example of a genre that writers such as Ernest K. Gann and Arthur Hailey would push to the bestseller list and would be adapted into memorable films later.

   Better than average fare in a genre that would become a staple in the decades that followed.


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.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


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:

GINLEY’S THE NAME
GUMSHOE’S THE GAME
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.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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?


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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:

(SPOILER ALERT –WARNING: PLOT AND RESOLUTION AHEAD. CONSIDER ALTERNATE ROUTE)

   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.

(END OF WARNING. RESUME NORMAL SPEED)

   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.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

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