Films: Comedy/Musicals

HOPSCOTCH. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, Lucy Saroyan. Screenplay by Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by the former. Director: Ronald Neame.

   It wasn’t intentional, but I saw this right after after watching Spy Game (reviewed here ), another film based on what happens after men in the spy business are about to retire, or in this case, unwillingly bounced out of the job. This is what happens to Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) when he lets his counterpart for the Soviet Union (Herbert Lom) go free when caught red-handed just doing his job.

   Matthau’s rationale is that it’s better to know who’s who on the other side rather the wait to learn who the new guy might be. But furious, Ned Beatty as Matthau’s new inexperienced boss, boots him out, permanently.

   What is there for Matthau to do but a little revenge, which comes in the form of writing his memoirs, which he starts sending out to publishers one chapter at a time, and staying ahead of Beatty and his former co-workers one jump at a time.

   It is but a game to him, and it is a lot of fun for the viewer too, but the viewer (this one, anyway) begins to realize that the game is all too easy for Miles Kendig. The game is far too one-sided. Ned Beatty, for all his profanity and foot-stomping, doesn’t stand a chance.

   The remaining pleasure therefore lies in watching Walter Matthau, he of the lugubrious, lived-in face, as an old pro at work. Glenda Jackson as his long-time lady friend, doesn’t have all that much else to do, but whenever the two of them are on the screen together, the chemistry between them makes sparks fly.

   All in all, though, when compared to Spy Game, the only category for which I would rate Hopscotch more than second best is light comedy, at which there was none better than Walter Matthau, that and the additional presence of Glenda Jackson.

   As a movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch, I grant you, but when what’s happening on the screen starts repeating itself, you know the movie’s over, and way too soon. And worse, there’s never a sense of urgency or tension in the story that’s told. Even if played as a comedy, which this one is, stories of a master spy at work should never be as relaxing as this one.


LET’S GO NATIVE. Paramount, 1930. Jeanette MacDonald, Jack Oakie, “Skeets” Gallagher, Kay Francis, James Hall and William Austin. Written by Percy Heath and George Marion Jr. Directed by Leo McCarey.

   A silly thing, but outrageously enjoyable. Writers Heath and Marion start with a “putting on a show” story: Jeanette McDonald is a Costume Designer in dire straits whose show is about to launch… if she can just make ends meet till then. That’s adequate, but Director McCarey is more interested in using slap-shtick from his old silent days, while Eugene Pallette, charged with repossessing Jeanette’s belongings, drops and breaks whatever he touches, like a one-man Laurel & Hardy routine.

   Suddenly a title card informs us that the star of the show couldn’t make it, so Jeannette stepped in and is now the star! 10 minutes of show tunes ensue, including one with dancing bears that ends with the warbling lovers encased in snow. McCarey does what he can with a stationary camera, but basically this is just photographed dance routines, in the style of the Marx Brothers’ Coconuts (1929.) Still, those guys dancing in bear suits….

   About this time Jack Oakie shows up as a cab driver named Voltaire McGinnis, and the whole show sets off for South America(!) whereupon Native turns into a shipboard romance, with Jeanette up against Kay Francis (also the vamp in Coconuts) for the affections of bland leading man James Hall. With time out for some more L&H routines and a dance number of course.

   Then there’s a shipwreck and the players are stranded on a tropical island ruled by Skeets Gallagher, a band-leader marooned there years ago, who taught the native girls (there are no native men) to play swing music. So they dress up in Jeanette’s costumes and put on a show till the volcano erupts…. and NO, Jeanette does NOT wake up from a dream.

   Jack Oakie gets most of the comedy time, but the big laugh-getter is William Austin, a British comic I never heard of, who does physical & verbal comedy equally well, mixed with an off-hand manner that downplays his expertise and conversely shows it off. Austin had a mostly bit-part career but is remembered thusly in IMDB:

    “William Austin’s being cast as Alfred the Butler in the Columbia Pictures’ Batman Serial (1943) proved to have a profound effect on the character. Prior to the serial, Alfred had been portrayed as being a very portly character. In order to rectify the disparity between Comics Page and Film, the Editors at DC Comics had Alfred put on a diet; which resulted in a slimmer Butler, who mirrored the movie version.”

   So William Austin paved the way for Michael Gough, Alan Napier, Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons. In these posts I strive to be Educational as well as Entertaining.


THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. Paramount, 1967. James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, Joan Delaney, Pat Harrington, Barry McGuire, Jill Banner, Will Geer, William Daniels and Joan Darling. Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker.

   This will open with a rant, so skip the first few paragraphs and scan down till you see the words “The President’s Analyst” again. Got that? “The President’s Analyst.” I mean the next time you see it. Not now, further down. Okay? Now the rant.

   Last month I cut the cable with ATT DirecTV and switched internet services. Getting the new service hooked up and my TV set switched to Antenna was fairly simple. Getting away from ATT was not.

   Working on instructions from ATT, FedEx handled the return with aplomb, ATT acknowledged receipt of the Modem — but not the Cable stuff.

   My “whuzzah?”call to ATT began an acquaintance with “Brian,” “Jessica,” “Donald” and others (American names must be popular in India.) who said my ATT service was “concert” but they couldn’t credit me for the equipment until the end of the “birring cykor.”

   Turns out ATT policy said I’d be charged for the next month for the very good reason that it was ATT policy to cancer (?) service at the end of the month following notice. After some telephone pinball, someone — “Trixie,” I think — allowed me to speak with a supervisor about this, and after 10 minutes on hold, cut me off.

   To make a long story a little less long, I went through this a few more times, with “Larry,” “Moe” and “Aditya” before reaching a supervisor (“Bonnie”) who said she couldn’t alter ATT “Pohsee” and anyone who could was by definition too important to talk to me.

   So anyway, I related all this to a friend, who responded “Three words, Dan: The President’s Analyst.”


   It took me back to my Senior Year of High School, when adulthood beckoned with a coy wink, and the World was falling apart. Somewhere in the midst of this gaudy chaos, James Coburn was emerging as a movie star, and The President’s Analyst solidified his image as a somewhat off-beat persona in a film that never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be about — and is all the better for it.

   It starts out as a one-joke movie: Coburn is retained as the POTUS’ on-call shrink, and finds himself growing paranoid — or is he really being watched? Well of course he is. What kind of movie would you have if he wasn’t?

   So when he cracks under the strain and goes on the run, TPA shifts from Political Comedy to Spy Spoof as our hero finds himself pursued by the Secret Agencies of every government on Earth and takes cover: first with a family of militant liberals (deftly played by William Daniels and Joan Darling) then, less amusingly, with Barry McGuire’s hippie band.

   I should pause here to mention Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden as an American agent and his Soviet counterpart, both roles well written and feelingly played, notably in a fractured and melancholy reminiscence about departed enemies. Later on, Daniels and Darling do a hilarious bit of suburban self-defense, then there’s a balletic sequence of Coburn plucking the gowans fine with a fair young maiden in a field of wildflowers — while being stalked by scores of assassins, agents and assorted men in black.

   All that though is just writer/director Flicker showing off his stylish wit as TPA changes course once again. Finally captured by Darden’s Russian Spy, Coburn realizes that his best weapon is the one he was trained to use, and he sets about escaping from Darden by understanding him — a ploy used earlier in films like Blind Alley and The Dark Past, but never to such humorous effect.

    Whereupon (you guessed it) the movie bounces off a wild wall, and the sinister agency behind the whole thing is revealed as… Well if you didn’t guess it, I won’t reveal it now, but Pat Harrington plays the PR man for Artifice Trapping & Treachery with a cozening cheerfulness just wonderful to watch. Even better, his little show is followed by a noisy burst of gunfire, explosions & derring-do just as satisfying in its own brainless way.

   The President’s Analyst is no classic. It’s just a little too trendy for its own good. But it’s also unlike any other film you’re likely to see, and worth a look.

   And by the way, I found out that BBB trumps ATT, and got a Happy Ending all my own.


THE WIDOW FROM MONTE CARLO. Warner Brothers, 1936. Warren William, Dolores del Río, Louise Fazenda, Colin Clive, Warren Hymer. Director: Arthur Greville Collins.

   A better than average WB flick is The Widow from Monte Carlo. Good cast, with brightest performances by Hymer (Dopey Mullins) as an American crook “vacationing” in England and Fazenda as a socially ambitious American parvenue who’s not above blackmail to get Del Rio to attend her costume ball.

   William is more interesting when he plays one of his cads, but he makes an amused foil for Hymer and an attentive suitor for Del Rio. A drawing-room comedy based on a play by F. Hugh Herbert (and others). Not memorable but polished and charming.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #106, March 1995.


WORKING GIRLS. Paramount Pictures, 1931. Judith Wood, Dorothy Hall, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Paul Lukas, Stuart Erwin, Frances Dee. Director: Dorothy Arzner.

   A thoroughly enjoyable pre-Code comedy/drama, Working Girls may not have all that much to say to contemporary audiences, but has a lot to say about the time and place in which it was filmed. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to direct a talkie, this Paramount Pictures release tells the story of two sisters from small-town Indiana as they try to balance work and love in New York City.

   June (Judith Wood) and Mae (Dorothy Hall) Sharpe arrive in Manhattan and take up residence at a woman’s boarding house. Within the first day or so, they are out and about looking for employment and for men to date. June ends up working for a Western Union telegraph office and dating a saxophone player (Stuart Erwin).

   Mae, on the other hand, finds work as a secretary for Dr. Joseph Von Schrader (Paul Lukas), who proceeds to fall in love with his much younger employee. Mae, naturally, doesn’t reciprocate the affection. Instead, she’s got her eyes on Boyd Wheeler (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a Harvard graduate working in a Manhattan law firm who seems to really care for her.

   Or does he? It would seem that he’s got a fiancée from the wealthy suburbs who he plans to marry soon and that he is just using Mae for a good time.

   While I won’t tell you how the story turns out, I will let you know that Working Girls is simply a fun movie to watch. It’s loaded with sexual innuendo, has some great comedic moments, and benefits greatly from Judith Wood’s hard-boiled, cynical character who has a quick wit as well as stunning looks.

   For contemporary audiences who are all too familiar with romantic comedy tropes, it may not seem like there’s much new under the sun here, but bear in mind this was filmed in 1931. And if you watch it with that fact very much in mind, you’ll surely find a lot to appreciate in this lesser known pre-Code film.

         February 4.

HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING. Filmways, 1980. Susan Saint James, Jane Curtin, Jessica Lange, Richard Benjamin, Eddie Albert, Cathryn Damon, Dabney Coleman, Director: Robert Scheerer. [Watched on HBO.]

   Essentially a time-waster, and I’m sorry I did. The only moral to this sad story of three suburban ladies trying to cope with double-digit-inflation seems to be that the only solution is to turn to crime. And of course, that way nobody loses but the insurance company.

   It’s supposed to be a comedy,but we have a problem right there, It’s not very funny. There are a couple of scenes worth laughing at. Unfortunately one of them — as Susan St. James tries to hold up a supermarket at the checkout counter — was spoiled by overexposure: I’d already seen it in the coming attractions.

   (One of my favorite spots on HBO, by the way — the best way tp id out which movies to avoid. It didn’t work this time.)

   Dabney Coleman, who was superb as Dolly Parton’s lecherous boss in Nine to Five, plays a lecherous policeman in this one, and he is superb again. Otherwise the movie is essentially Jane Curtin’s; the others are along solely for the ride.

   Rated PG, for bad language again (although not the ‘F’ word, which may be the difference) and (surprisingly) or a brief look at the conclusion of a topless strip tease act, performed admirably by Jane Curtin. (Since it was headless, too, as I recall, the body may actually have been someone else’s. Since we had already seen a panting Richard Benjamin stripped to his shorts earlier in the movie, we do know it was not his.)


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.


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.


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?

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