Films: Comedy/Musicals

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

P. G. WODEHOUSE – A Damsel in Distress. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1919. George H. Doran Company, US, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft.

A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS. RKO, 1937. Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Reginald Gardiner, Montagu Love, Ray Noble. Written by Wodehouse, Ernest Pagano, S.K. Lauren, William J. Burns and P.J. Wolfson. Music by George Gershwin. Dance Director: Hermes Pan . Directed by George Stevens.

   A tale that finds the author at the top of his form, A Damsel in Distress was adapted as a silent film the year it was published, then as a play in 1928, and finally as a lush RKO musical in 1937. The book itself mines all the usual rich veins of Wodehouse: the stately castle presided over by an Earl (Emsworth in all but name — this Earl nurses roses instead of a prize pig.) the standard iron-clad Aunt, cunning servants, young lovers, dithering relations, and a young demi-lord who could stand as Bertie Wooster’s twin brother.

   The amazing thing is that Wodehouse could return to the same plots, themes, characters and motifs time and again without ever getting stale. In this case, he takes for his hero a composer of popular musicals, one George Bevan (who coincidentally has the same occupation and initials as Wodehouse’s long-time collaborator, the incurably romantic Guy Bolton), whose life is agreeably upset one day on a London street when a desperate young lady (the Damsel in Distress) jumps in his taxi and begs him to hide her.

   From there on, things go as one expects them to: He falls in love; she does too but doesn’t realize it; identities are mistaken, plans laid, plots hatched, things go awry and then get wryed back up again. No surprises here, just laugh-out-loud humor as Wodehouse weaves the tale with his customary understated hyperbole and stream-of-non-sequiturs narration.

   I was struck though by how astute and likable our hero turned out to be — characters in Wodehouse tend to be either one or the other, but seldom both to this degree — and I found myself wondering if this were a mark of the author’s affection for his life-long friend, Bevan’s character model.

   Be that as it may, I read a biography of Wodehouse once that deplored the RKO film of Damsel in Distress, and Wodehouse himself said he contributed remarkably little to it, but I find it a hard film to deplore or even dislike.

   This Damsel is a charming thing, faithful in its fashion to the novel, and where it departs from the text it does so with admirable aplomb; for example, a meeting between the plot-crossed lovers set in a smelly barn in the book is relocated to a fun-fair for splendidly cinematic results. Joan Fontaine seems a pluperfect romantic heroine, and even Burns & Allen enter into the Wodehousian spirit admirably.

   I was struck also by the inspiration in re-shaping the romantic Bevan. Someone at RKO must have noticed that they had cast Fred Astaire in the part (rechristened Jerry Halliday for some reason) and hit upon the happy notion to make him not a musical composer but a musical star! One applauds the cutting-edge creativity involved, as this lets them slip in several highly enjoyable dance numbers, including a fine bit with Burns & Allen, who turn out to be talented hoofers themselves.

   I don’t know which of the phalanx of writers came up with this idea, but I’m glad whoever it was took the concept by the horns and talked the others around to his way of thinking — just imagine how otherwise this might have turned out had they missed this boat and the character remained a composer; the notion of scenes with Astaire sitting at his desk trying to find a rhyme for “Lady Alyce Marshmorton” simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

   Oh, and I wanted to say something about the music by George Gershwin, but once you’ve said “Music by George Gershwin” what more is there?

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          

BEACH BLANKET BINGO. American International Pictures (1965). Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Deborah Walley, Harvey Lembeck, John Ashley, Jody McCrea, Donna Loren, Marta Kristen, Linda Evans, Timothy Carey, Don Rickles, Paul Lynde, Donna Michelle, Buster Keaton, Earl Wilson. Director: William Asher.

   You’d be hard pressed to get me to describe a coherent plot, at least in any traditional understanding of the term, in Beach Blanket Bingo. Directed by William Asher, the American International beach party movie stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in a celluloid mélange of singing, slapstick vignettes, and comic antics.

   In this installment of the popular beach movies series, the romantic singing duo try their hand at skydiving; meet an upcoming female singer, Sugar Kane (Linda Evans) and her agent; and watch in skepticism as their friend named Bonehead (Jody McCrea, son of Joel) gets romantically entangled with a mermaid.

   While quite a bit of the humor in Beach Blanket Bingo falls flat, as if the movie’s creators were just trying way too hard to get a guffaw out of teenage movie audiences, some of the borderline absurdist humor works extraordinarily well.

   This is in no small part to the fine work of Timothy Carey as South Dakota Slim, a psychotic pool player; Paul Lynde as Sugar Kane’s ruthless agent; and Don Rickles as the owner of a skydiving school. All three men, each of whom was well known to audiences in the 1960s, maintain a singular presence in this silly, although quite enjoyable, little genre-defying film.

   And speaking of cameos, look for Earl Wilson as well as the legendary Buston Keaton in one of his last film roles.

   Speaking of Buster. What makes Beach Blanket Bingo worth watching, especially for people who truly love cinema, is that the movie is really best understood as a tribute to the silent film era, an homage which reaches its peak in the final scene in which Frankie saves Sugar Kane from the increasingly unhinged South Dakota Slim’s (Carey) clutches. It’s something right out of The Perils of Pauline.

   And just in case the audience didn’t get the reference, two of the characters are there to remind you that what you’re watching is a tribute to something very special in cinematic history that existed long before Frankie and Annette came on the scene.

   Beach Blanket Bingo may not be a great movie in the traditional sense. It’s unlikely often discussed in film schools. But it is nevertheless kind of a perfect movie for those people who appreciate that cinema, when done correctly, can provide immeasurable, if only temporary, escapism from everyday life.

   So, is Beach Blanket Bingo a serious film? Not at all. But is it, provided you’re in the right mindset, an entertaining (if a bit stupid) movie? Definitely.

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DIVORCE. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Lynn Bari, Mary Beth Hughes, Joseph Allen Jr., Nils Asther, Truman Bradley, Kay Linaker, Lyle Latell. Director: Robert Siodmak.

   There are some funny moments in this not-so-funny film, it is true, but not too many. What makes the movie worth watching, though, is any moment that Lynn Bari is on the screen. At least in my opinion, and since she is the leading lady, she is on the screen quite often, a stunning brunette with lots of close-ups.

   Mary Beth Hughes, a blonde bombshell whose whispery come-hither voice will remind you of Marilyn Monroe, even before the latter ever dreamed of making a movie, is second-billed, but if Lynn Bari never became a star, not of the household name variety, so alas did not Mary Beth Hughes.

   The idea behind this film is that in many a marriage (1940s style) the man of the house would resent it if the woman of the family is more competent than he in almost everything. To George Nordyke (Joseph Allen) the final straw comes when his wife Lynn (Bari) has a lower golf score than he has ever manged to have, and she has only started to learn the game, while he has been playing for years.

   Trying to nab him on the rebound, even before the divorce is final, is Lola May (guess who?), who is more than willing to play weak and dependent. To tie this in more solidy with the purported purpose of this blog, Lynn’s new would-be boy friend is bumped off, and to get George back (though I’m not exactly sure why), she takes the blame and lets George help her out of the jam.

   Not exactly the funniest premise in the world, but perhaps it fared better back in the early 40s. Even back then, though, I’m willing to wager that this movie came and went without making much of a fuss.


DIVA. Les Films Galaxie, France, 1981. United Artists Classics, US, 1982. Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Frédéric Andréi, Richard Bohringer, Thuy An Luu, Jacques Fabbri, Chantal Deruaz, Anny Romand, Roland Bertin. Based on a novel by Daniel Odier (as Delacorta). Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix.

   I am beginning to think that recommending films to friends should be relegated to the same, ill-advised category as counseling friends who are battling toward divorce or who want to prevent their teenagers from making the same mistakes yours did.

   E. T. made me feel better about children and aliens than anything since Close Encounters, and the newly released French import Diva provoked in me similar feelings about opera singers, French postal workers, and fourteen-year-old Vietnamese flower children. I thought it the most exhilarating thriller in my recent memory, the most stylish, the most imaginative in its use of fairy-tale elements to grace an unlikely mix of operamania/record pirating/corrupt police officials/drugs and prostitution with wit, affection and visual beauty.

   I also liked the references to other film directors (of which the most engaging was the Renoir sequence involving a “blind” beggar) and wallowed in the sentimental ending.

   The friends to whom I had recommended the film stared glumly into space when I asked them what they had thought of it. One of them muttered something about the film being too “self-conscious,” while the other was more to the point: “Why when I see only two films a year, does one of them have to be Diva?”

Well, I will say no more except to add that I think that Diva may be a movie buff’s delight, but too special for some people’s tastes, and if you happen to see it and don’t like it, don’t complain to me. I’m only recommending it to myself, and I am going to see it a second time.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 4, July-August 1982.


PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES. Paramount, 1964. William Holden, Audrey Hepburn, Noel Coward, with appearances by Marlene Dietrich, Mel Ferrer, Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis. Written by George Axelrod, based on the film Holiday for Henrietta (La fête à Henriette, 1952) written by Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson. Directed by Richard Quine.

   Someone’s going to have to help me with this; I’ve seen Paris When It Sizzles a bunch of times and I still can’t figure out whether it’s a sophisticated bit of avant-garde filmmaking that slipped in under the Hollywood radar — or a complete flop.

   It’s certainly a styish affair, with guest stars, location shooting in Paris and Antibes, lavish sets and two mega-stars. The photography is lush, the colors bright and the music bouncy, but at times all the Paramount splendour mitigates against the intimacy of what is essentially a two-character/one-set story.

   Said story is set (unsteadily) on the premise of an overpaid, boozy, middle-aged screenwriter (guess who?) who, having run through the exorbitant fee paid him to write a screenplay, is holed up in a luxury hotel in Paris trying desperately to churn out a story. Enter Audrey Hepburn as his day-job typist tuned amanuensis and we’re launched into a knowing duologue about film theory that turns into a love story.

   Only there’s a bit more to it than that; as Holden and Hepburn craft their tale, the movie suddenly turns into the film they’re writing, a slick caper-flick (starring Holden & Hepburn, natch) about international thieves, dogged cops and …

    … and then we suddenly cut back to our stars in the hotel room, re-writing the story as they hedge their emotional bets, hearts on sleeves but cards close to the vest….

    … and then back to the film-in-the film, as the characters flirt with danger and each other, bluffing about their motives and feelings as they get closer to the big score and the police move in on them….

   I don’t know how Holiday for Henrietta (the film this was based on) handled all this, but the notion was sufficiently off-beat at the time that when Robbe-Grillet used it a few years later in Trans-Europ Express (1966) the critics called it avant-garde. Paramount was so nervous about the concept as to hold off releasing the film for two years, and when it finally escaped it was roundly razzed by critics who couldn’t resist rhyming sizzle and fizzle.

   And in fact, some of the most elaborate gags in the film fall totally flat. Writer George Axelrod (The Manchurian Candidate, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter) is wonderfully trenchant when dissecting pop culture and the movies, but someone (I hope it wasn’t he) decided to inject lethal doses of broad slapstick and overdone excess.     (*)

   (*)   “overdone excess” Isn’t that a bit redundant? Well I’ve always felt that excess serves an aesthetic function in some movies, but you have to be careful not to overdo it.

   Anyway, I should mention in passing that Tony Curtis is screamingly funny as a sulky bit-player, and though the biggest moments of Paris/Sizzles deflate themselves, the quieter bits sneak pleasantly up on one. Shaw once observed that our faults and our virtues don’t come in matched sets like bookends, and perhaps this is true of films as well as people. This film anyway.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ROUSTABOUT. Paramount, 1964. Elvis Presley, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Freeman, Leif Erickson, Sue Ane Langdon, Pat Buttram, Joan Staley, Dabbs Greer. Director: John Rich.

   Elvis Presley made a lot of movies, some better than others. While Roustabout may not immediately come to mind as one of his best cinematic achievements, it’s nevertheless an exceptionally well-paced and enjoyable 1960s film that makes great use of bright colors and Elvis’s musical abilities. The soundtrack apparently did well on the Billboard charts. That’s no surprise, as a few of the numbers, such as “Little Egypt” and “Poison Ivy League,” are just great, if lesser known, Elvis songs.

   Directed by John Rich, with cinematography by Lucien Ballard, Roustabout was produced by Hal Wallis and stars Elvis as Charlie Rogers, an itinerant, motorcycle-driving, young man without much faith in the goodness of everyday people. He is rough around the edges, scornful of those born into privilege, and drifts from place to play, playing his guitar, hoping to get to Phoenix or to Los Angeles.

   When a vehicular mishap damages Rogers’ motorcycle, he ends up staying at a carnival run by Maggie Morgan (Barbara Stanwyck). Morgan’s got her hands full. A bank agent is on her tail, pursuing claims stemming from a lawsuit. One of her top employees, Joe (Leif Erickson) has a drinking problem and a temper. And then there’s Joe’s lovely young daughter, Cathy (Joan Freeman), who develops a love-hate relationship with our boy, Charlie, who doesn’t have much experience on how to conduct himself professionally with the world weary Maggie.

   In general, Roustabout plays it light. But there are genuine dramatic, even tragic moments. The majority of the film takes place within the confines of the traveling carnival. There’s nothing necessarily surreal or spooky about the carnies. They’re just, to be honest, quite a sad bunch, societal misfits forced together by circumstance. It takes Charlie Rogers nearly the whole movie to realize that he’s a bit of a misfit of himself and maybe, just maybe, he needs something more stable in his life than the open road and a yearning to hit the big time.

   Director John Rich and cinematographer Lucien Ballard would work together again on Boeing Boeing, also a Hal Wallis Production that, like Roustabout, has that unmistakable mid-1960s feel and which also makes extensive, and impressive, use of bright colors.

BOEING BOEING. Paramount, 1965. Tony Curtis, Jerry Lewis, Dany Saval, Christiane Schmidtmer, Suzanna Leigh, Thelma Ritter. Director: John Rich.

   A comedic farce based on a play by Marc Camoletti and starring Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis, Boeing Boeing’s theatrical roots are quite evident throughout the course of the movie. This, of course, has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the theatrical nature of the film allows both Lewis and Curtis to showcase their penchant for physical comedy, manic energy, and quick timing.

   Unfortunately, however, the movie at times feels too much like a play on screen, and some of the immediacy and magic that a live audience would experience seeing a stage production of Boeing Boeing just seems to be missing here.

   The premise is simple enough. Curtis portrays Bernard Lawrence, an American newspaperman based in Paris. His hobby, as it were, is stewardesses. Much to the chagrin of his housekeeper, Bertha (Thelma Ritter), he dates more than one at a time. Lawrence has to keep constant track of their flight schedules so as to prevent them all landing at once, as it were.

   When his friendly rival, Robert Reed (Jerry Lewis), shows up in Paris, all bets are off. Reed soon learns what Lawrence is up to and he wants in on the action.

   And by action, I mean a British stewardess (Suzanna Leigh). That still allows Lawrence time enough with his other two gals, a Lufthansa girl (Christianne Schmidtmer) and a somewhat local French girl (Dany Saval).

   It’s a fast-paced, thoroughly frantic, race to the finish, as the two bachelors attempt to prevent each of the three gals from knowing about, let alone, meeting one another. And as you might very well guess, it doesn’t work out for the two scheming men.

   Although I didn’t enjoy Boeing Boeing quite as much as I had expected, the film does have a simply great performance by Jerry Lewis in what was to be his last motion picture with Paramount. If you like him as a comedic actor, it’s worth seeking out. At times, his facial expressions and body language are just comedic gold.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

SUSAN SLEPT HERE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1954. Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Glenda Farrell, Alvy Moore, Horace McMahon, Les Tremayne. Screenplay by Alex Gottlieb, based on his play with Steve Fisher Directed by Frank Tashlin.

   “Any judge that starts handing out 17 year old girls to thirty five year old lawyers is going to be elected President next time.”

   This surprisingly open sex farce squeaks by for inclusion on this blog because it stars a former Philip Marlowe, Honey West, and is based on a play co-written by Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming) — and yes, it as about as tentative as a connection to this site as I could find, but I came up with one anyway. You don’t have to buy it, just accept it.

   I don’t think you could sell this one today or make it, but somehow with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds and narrated by Powell’s screenwriter character’s Oscar, this one skates all over its premise, never quite going too far or letting you really consider what is going on here.

   Powell is Mark Christopher, screenwriter and novelist, whose career is headed south for the pole in double time. On Christmas Eve his cop pal Horace MacMahon shows up on his doorstep with juvenile delinquent Susan Landis, Debbie Reynolds, in tow. Christopher once considered writing a movie about a JD, maybe if he spends the evening with her he’ll get some ideas.

   Ideas he gets. Not for a screenplay, though.

   Powell is none too happy, but he can’t throw her back in reform school on Christmas Eve, so after they calm her down a bit, he arranges for his secretary Maud, Glenda Farrell (keep an eye out for Red Skelton in a cameo as her long lost boyfriend Oswald — “You’ll get another Oscar, I get an Oswald”), to keep her, but Maud is on a bender, and his old Navy pal Virgil, Alvy Moore, who was his lieutenant in the war, leaves him in the lurch. His fiancee Isabella, Anne Francis, isn’t the forgiving sort either when Susan answers his phone.

   Susan: She said she was going out with the assistant butler … What does an assistant butler do?

   After a night that includes a long gin game, an uncomfortable couch and Susan sleeping with a rolling pen under her pillow in his bedroom, Powell calls in lawyer Les Tremayne with the bright idea of marrying Susan — she has a paper from her mother in Peru on her honeymoon allowing her to marry — to keep her out of reform school. Of course in name only. When she is 18 and safe in four months, they’ll get her an annulment, some money, and a job.

   So it’s off to Vegas, and a honeymoon night spent on the dance floor, and the next morning Mark takes off to work in Sun Valley as Hurricane Isabella hits. Susan plans to leave, but Maud persuades her to take some motherly advice.

   Virgil: You, a mother?

   Maud: I typed the script for “Stella Dallas.”

   So Susan stays and spider lady Isabella gets thrown out, though she’s not through.

   Mark can’t get a divorce because they never consummated the marriage and Susan lets his lawyer know in no uncertain terms Mark can’t have an annulment, but he can a divorce. Then she very publicly lets everyone think she is pregnant and Mark assumes it was Virgil.

   Then his lawyer’s analyst convinces him that he’s in love with Susan.

   Mark: How can I love her, she’s a delinquent girl?

   Doctor: You seem to be a delinquent husband.

   Of course the age difference does come up, a determined Mark no match for an even more determined Susan.

   Mark: When I’m 60 how old will you be?

   Susan and Mark together: I’ll (You’ll) never be over 30.

   As Virgil informs him: You accidentally married the right girl.

   Of course Reynolds had a career at this point as the sexy wholesome outspoken but practical virgin (Tammy) and film makers of the era were experts at the tease, but this one teases hard with a difficult subject, and it could go so wrong so easily and doesn’t.

   Other than Cary Grant, I can’t think of any actor by Powell who could bring this off half so well.

   I suppose some one will find this offensive, but this is Hollywood and not the real world, a romantic comedy, and not a police blotter or a case for a social worker. Lighten up, recognize this has no connection to reality, and enjoy some fine players, finely playing their assigned rolls.

   This was Powell’s last film, and ironically includes a musical fantasy sequence from Susan’s dream, though he doesn’t croon. Don Cornell does the only song in the film other than the brief title song (“So This is the Kingdom of Heaven”). It’s fitting Powell that should go back to his roots for his last screen outing. He even wears a sailor suit in the fantasy sequence.

   To give this full credit, maybe no one in the world but Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell could have pulled off how sexy this film is without offending anyone, and Frank Tashlin is one of the few directors who could have brought it off. (Tashlin had a great touch with humor and sex for someone who started out directing cartoons and made his live screen debut with Bob Hope and Trigger in Son of Paleface.)

   Susan Slept Here is bright, funny, sexy, gorgeous to look at, and deftly done at all points. Reynolds and Francis are at their most attractive and it is always fun to see Francis get a shot at comedy, something she was quite adept at. There is a very funny and at the same time sexy scene when teen Susan compares herself to Francis’s sexy photo and tries to rearrange things to better recreate it. It’s a perfect showcase for what Reynolds did better than almost anyone else. It’s fine and funny final nod to the medium for Powell, and its nice to see Farrell still funny and sassy this late in the game.

   It’s the kind of thing Rock Hudson and Doris Day would later do to great success, but lacking in the rather tasteless sniggering attitude to sex of those films.

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