Films: Comedy/Musicals

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

HAZARD. Paramount Pictures, 1948. Paulette Goddard, Macdonald Carey, Fred Clark, Stanley Clements, Percy Helton, Frank Faylen, Charles McGraw. Maxie Rosenbloom Screenplay by Arthur Sheekman and Roy Chanslor (his novel). Directed by George Marshall.

   Looking at that cast and those credits you can forgiven for thinking this must be a small missing gem you have somehow overlooked.

   I had fairly high hopes for this when I saw the cast and credits — for about fifteen minutes.

   Goddard is Ellen Crane, a spoiled rich girl with a gambling problem ever since the boy she was engaged to died in the war. Fred Clark is Lonnie, the owner of Club 7 who has a thing for her. She is into him for $5,000 and a hot check and he offers her a deal; high card wins and she is either clear or she marries him.

   She doesn’t draw the high card or there would be no plot. She skips town, but Lonnie hires skip tracer Storm (Macdonald Carey) to stop her starting a cross country race that leads to Chicago and Los Angeles, and then a road trip back as she and Storm connect. He even does a little cheap analysis proving she has been trying to lose her father’s money by compulsive gambling because she blames that for her boyfriend’s death.

   George Marshall was one of the masters of the comedic form, and the cast is uniformly good, but this is the flattest film you have ever had the bad luck to see. There is no spark between Goddard and Carey, the script is dishwater dull, and not even the character actors manage a bright moment.

   There isn’t a genuine laugh in the picture. There’s not a moment where the film ever rises above the level of one single note. Even a bit of action and rough stuff at the ending leaves the blood pressure low. When George Marshall can’t even choreograph a comedic fight you know things are bad.

   There is one single funny line, the last one in the film delivered by Frank Faylen to Fred Clark followed by Clark’s double take, but by then it is far too little too late. Skip this and take a nap instead. It will be more exciting — likely more laughs too.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THREE GIRLS ABOUT TOWN. Columbia Pictures, 1941. Joan Blondell, Binnie Barnes, Janet Blair, John Howard, Eric Blore, Una O’Connor, Hugh O’Connell. Bruce Bennett, Lloyd Bridges. Guest Star: Robert Benchley. Screenplay by Richard Carroll. Directed by Leigh Jason.

   Joan Blondell and Binnie Barnes are sisters who work as Convention Hostesses at the Merchants Hotel where Binnie has a thing for chief clerk, the much harassed Robert Benchley. It’s the busy season and things are more hectic than normal because a convention of magicians is being followed by a staid convention of morticians and because Joan’s boyfriend, reporter John Howard, wrote an article implying the ladies are more than just helpful to convention attendees. This has caught the attention of the head of the undertakers convention and a ladies group who meets weekly at the hotel.

   Add to all that a major union and the bosses are having nationally important talks at the hotel in hopes of avoiding a strike that could leave the country vulnerable, and as yet the mediator from Washington has yet to show.

   Howard just wants Blondell to quit so they can marry, but she and Binnie can’t think of themselves because younger sister Janet Blair is away at an expensive finishing school they are paying for. Which is why Blondell decks Howard for the first of several swings in this lightweight but fast and smartly written screwball comedy well played all around.

   Of course Blondell could do comedy blindfolded and still hit her marks, as could Barnes and of course Benchley and Blore, but Howard does surprisingly well as the fast-talking, fast-thinking reporter whose life is about to get complicated.

   Then there is a very drunk Eric Blore pestering everyone by asking where Charlie is.

   It’s at this point that maid Una O’Connor and her helpers find a body in the bedroom next to the girls’ room.

   Don’t get ahead of me. You are expected to get the connection.

   Joan and Binnie quickly convince Benchley, Binnie’s boyfriend, that the hotel can’t afford a body to be found like that, especially with those staid undertakers and pressure from the Ladies Club who have read Howard’s article and want answers, so they decide to move the body. Which is all well and good until Howard discovers the corpse and recognizes it is the mediator everyone is looking for. It’s the scoop of a lifetime for him and a certain raise at the paper if he can be the one to turn in the story. But Blondell is determined the body won’t be found in the hotel.

   Now, to make things decidedly worse, little sister Janet Blair shows up, and finishing school has about finished her. She sets her sights on sister Joan’s boyfriend John Howard from the get go, showing all about what she learned of the fine art of lip oscillation at that exclusive school for hormonal young women.

   There is also a cop, Hugh O’Connell, whose wife is having a baby that is taking its time getting here, the only thing he can think about until he discovers Howard is hiding a body.

   There is nothing startling or new here. If you have seen a screwball comedy you will recognize the form from the first scene, but here it works with almost perfect timing, an attractive cast of mostly B or minor A stars and supporting actors and some clever bits including Howard caught in a poker game where the corpse can’t lose a hand no matter how hard Howard tries — he throws away three aces and draws three queens to match the one he has — and a bit straight from The 39 Steps where he poses as the mediator and fast talks the settlement of the strike while the police look on.

   Meanwhile Eric Blore still can’t find Charlie.

   Not much more I can say, save that this is not a comedy mystery, though it plays much like one for most of its run. No spoilers to explain why it isn’t, save that the why would have you throwing things at the screen in frustration if you saw it in an actual mystery. Here it just seems to fit the whole screwball format of the film.

   Blondell looks as good as you ever saw her in a film, and Blair makes a satisfactory tempest of a sexpot little sister. Binnie Barnes couldn’t help but be good in this kind of film, and Eric Blore and Robert Benchley … well, do I really have to say it?

   It’s John Howard, who usually played rather stalwart unimaginative leads or decidedly stiff second or third leads (Lost Horizon, The Philadelphia Story), who is a surprise here, though if you watched him in the Bulldog Drummond films or The Invisible Woman, you might not be quite as surprised.

   He shows considerable charm and comic timing in this one, and the ending when he referees while Janet Blair receives a much deserved public spanking from sisters Joan and Binnie, and soon to be brother-in-law Robert Benchley actually rises to that kind of giddy high usually only achieved in major screwball comedies with people like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing up Baby or James Stewart and Claudette Colbert in It’s a Wonderful World.

   I’m not comparing this to those classics, only pointing out it achieves one genuine lighter than air moment of sheer exuberance mindful of those found in those films. That’s quite an accomplishment for a film with these credentials.


HALF A SINNER. Universal Pictures, 1940. Heather Angel, John King, Constance Collier, Walter Catlett, Clem Bevans, Henry Brandon. Based on a story by Dalton Trumbo. Director: Al Christie.

   What a pleasure it is to start watching a movie you know nothing about, only to discover that against all expectations you’re enjoying yourself immensely. And when that happens it’s also sometimes difficult to put into words what magic of movie-making it was that made a small visual treat as Half a Sinner such a pleasant way to spend on hour, or at 59 minutes, just a hair less.

   The players themselves were not stars then, nor did they ever become stars.. Heather Angel may be best remembered, at least in some circles, as Bulldog Drummond’s girl friend Phyllis Clavering in several of the former’s movie adventures, while John King is remembered in some quarters as Ace Drummond in the 1936 13-chapter serial (no relation, I don’t imagine). He was perhaps even better known as John “Dusty” King in a host of early 40s B-westerns.

   In any case, they certainly make a fine pair together in this definitely screwball mystery comedy in which Heather Angel plays a prim and proper schoolteacher who decides to kick up her heels one day, buy a nice dress and new hat, add some silk stockings and have some fun for a while.

   What she doesn’t expect is to end up stealing a car (trying to escape a wolf who’s really a small time gangster) that has (she discovers later) a corpse in the back seat. As she’s making a getaway, she’s flagged down by John King’s character, who decides to play along with her as the two of them try to elude both the police and the gang of crooks who stole the car in the first place.

   Of course the plot doesn’t make any sense, and the crooks are about as ineffectual as a gang of crooks could ever have been, but everybody in the fast-paced flim-flam of a movie plays it with all the gusto they’ve got. And it shows.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

IT’S IN THE BAG. United Artists, 1945. Fred Allen, Binnie Barnes, Gloria Pope, William Terry, Richard Tyler, John Carradine and Sydney Toler. Also featuring appearances from Minerva Pious (as Mrs. Nussbaum) Jerry Colonna, Robert Benchley, Rudy Vallee, Victor Moore, William Bendix, Don Ameche and Jack Benny. Written by Lewis R. Foster, Fred Allen, Alma Reville (!) and Morrie Ryskind, from the novel Двенадцать стульев, or Dvenadtsat stulyev (The Twelve Chairs) by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov. Directed by Richard Wallace.

   Credits like those above are going to get my word count off to a healthy start for the New Year, but that’s not my only reason for mentioning this neglected treasure. It’s in the Bag is a fast-moving and witty little comedy with moments of surrealism to rival Hellzapoppin.

   The “Twelve Chairs” plot is probably familiar to most readers by now, but to briefly recap, Flea Circus impresario Fred Floogle (Allen) inherits a fortune, only to find that crooked lawyer John Carradine has pilfered it down to five chairs and a phonograph record. Floogle sends the chairs to be sold at an auction house, then learns from the phonograph record that there’s a fortune hidden in one of them.

   Zaniness ensues (as they say) as Floogle and his long-suffering family (Binnie Barnes, Gloria Pope and Richard Tyler) track down, chase down, and sometimes wrestle down the new owners to recover their fortune, dogged relentlessly by the sinister Carradine and a tough police detective (Sydney Toler.)

   The turns by the Guest Stars here are consistently funny, and Jack Benny’s scene is a true delight, but to their credit, the troop of writers didn’t just sit back and let the thespians carry the load; Bag teems with clever lines and enough off-the-wall weirdness to give the viewer laughter and double-takes in equal measure. There’s a scene in an art deco movie palace (showing Zombies in the Attic) of Kafkaesque hilarity, and an action-packed musical interlude at a nightclub that just about defines fast-paced movie-making.

   I have to say, though, that my favorite treat in the Bag is John Carradine’s splendidly crooked lawyer, a generous portion of old-fashioned Ham served up splendidly by Carradine and director Richard Wallace, who lets his bad guy stalk about in a top hat and cape, and indulge in sinister organ solos when not cheating widows and robbing orphans. It’s the perfect straight-faced complement for a film rich in laughs, and one I’ll recall fondly years hence.

IT'S IN THE BAG Fred Allen

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

COWBOY FROM BROOKLYN. Warner Brothers, 1938. Dick Powell, Pat O’Brien, Priscilla Lane, Dick Foran, Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan. Director: Lloyd Bacon.

   Dick Powell is at his comedic best in this predictable, yet light and amusing musical comedy about a guy from Flatbush, Brooklyn pretending to be a singing cowboy. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Cowboy From Brooklyn has an innocent charm to it, allowing us to see Powell as a gifted physical comic, rather than as a hard-nosed film noir man with a gun.

   Powell portrays Elly Jordan, an aspiring singer and a man deathly afraid of animals, big and small. On his way to California with his band, Jordan takes a detour in Wyoming and ends up spending time at a local ranch where he befriends the lovely cowgirl, Jane Hardy (Priscilla Lane) who teaches him how to talk like a cowboy.

   Pretty soon, Jordan’s dressed up like Roy Rogers and singing ballads. Then, out of the clear blue sky, talent agent Roy Chadwick (Pat O’Brien) and his assistant, Pat Dunn (Ronald Reagan) show up and pretty soon Elly Jordan is transformed into singing cowboy star Wyoming Steve Gibson!

   At a running time of an economical seventy-seven minutes, Cowboy from Brooklyn doesn’t have all that much depth to it. There are some hilarious moments, however, with nearly perfect comedic timing. This is the type of comedy that makes you like comedies — fast-talking, wisecracking characters running amok. It’s a timeless story about a fish out of water, a man pretending to be someone he’s not for money and fame, and a rather innocent love story all lassoed together.

THANKS A MILLION. 20th Century Pictures, 1935. Dick Powell, Ann Dvorak, Fred Allen, Patsy Kelly, Paul Whiteman and Band, Ramona, Raymond Walburn. Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck. Director: Roy Del Ruth.

   I’ll remember this movie as the feature film debut of Fred Allen, the radio comedian, more than I will of just another early Dick Powell lead in a 1930s romantic comedy musical. Allen made very few movies. I think it was himself who said, “I have the perfect face for radio.”

   Allen plays the business manager of a group of touring musicians, who when the troupe in stranded in a small hick town somewhere near New York City, offers their services as entertainment for a gubernatorial candidate for the state, a besotted old gentleman who on his own drives his audience away in droves.

   But after one too many incidents of being too besotted, the powers that be for the party decide that singer Eric Land (that is to say, Dick Powell) ought to take his place. Things proceed about as expected from here. When the campaign starts to really roll, friction starts to build up between Powell and his lady friend, singer-dancer Sally Mason (Ann Dvorak), who finds the time she’s able to spend with him dwindling away.

   The latter does her own dances, surprisingly well, and apparently her own singing as well. Powell does his own, of course, as well as playing (and very well, too) an apparently vacant-minded young lad barely more than wet behind the ears.

   It was roles such as this one that were left far behind when Powell wisely made the transition to a new tough-guy persona, beginning with Murder, My Sweet in 1944.

   But as I say, I watched this one to see (and hear) Fred Allen in action. His quick-on-the-trigger witticisms, delivered in a sour, dead pan fashion, is exactly where my sense of humor lies. I see from IMDb that he supplied (uncredited) some of the dialogue. All his own, I would imagine, but I haven’t yet researched that.

   In passing, however, this film does have a lot to say about the political climate of the time, with entertainment mattering more than issues, when a jazz band leader could end up be elected the Lt. Governor of the state of Washington. (A true fact.)

THE REMARKABLE ANDREW. Paramount Pictures, 1942. Brian Donlevy, William Holden, Ellen Drew, Montagu Love, Gilbert Emery, Brandon Hurst, George Watts, Rod Cameron. Story & screenplay: Dalton Trumbo. Director: Stuart Heisler.

   A mildly amusing and engaging comedy-fantasy about several of this country’s forefathers (among them George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and more) coming to life from the past to assist a mild-mannered town accountant (William Holden) in his time of need. First and foremost among them is Andrew Jackson (Brian Donlevy), however, returning a favor — Andrew Long’s great, great grandfather at one time saved Jackson’s life.

   It seems that Andrew Long has discovered some discrepancies in the town’s books, and when he won’t go along with hushing it up, the political elite of the city decide to frame him for embezzlement. Convinced by these illustrious guests from the past that an honest democracy is worth fighting for, Andrew Long gives a courtroom speech almost worthy of a Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds) or Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith), but somehow it never caught on. No one’s heard of this movie today.

   What is even more interesting is to see William Holden as an actor when he was only 24. Even though he had been picked to star in Golden Boy three years earlier, his acting skills as displayed in Andrew seem rather limited — just suitable enough to play a mild-mannered boy-next-door sort of guy who’s been engaged to a girl for five years waiting for a raise of $2.50 per week before they can get married. There’s nothing in this film to suggest in the slightest that he’d grow up to be an Oscar contender every time the nominations came around.

   And oh, yes, one more thing. You may have noticed Rod Cameron’s name in the credits. I’d forgotten he was in the movie while I was watching it, and didn’t even recognize him, not all dressed up as Jesse James the way he was, complete with a wide bandito mustache. I don’t really know why Jesse James was in this movie, but he was.

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