Films: Comedy/Musicals


TWO-FISTED. Paramount, 1935. Lee Tracy, Roscoe Karns, Grace Bradley, Kent Taylor, Gall Patrick, Akim Tamiroff, Florence Lake, Irving Bacon. Director: James Cruze. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A nifty little programmer with Tracy as the fight manager of none-two-swift (except in hitting the canvas) Roscoe Karns. Hap and Chick agree to take a temporary job in the home of a millionaire whose rascally brother-in-law wants to get custody of his sister’s young son.

   Hap will train Clint (Kent Taylor) to be a fighter and stand up to his brother-in-law. Then Clint, falling from grace and landing in a bottle, bets with brother-in-law George that Chick can defeat his chauffeur in a friendly boxing match, whose outcome will decide the custody of the boy.

   An attractive cast, with Grace Bradley as Maria, the maid for whom Chick falls, a cute and funny foil for Karns.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

VIBES. Columbia Pictures, 1988. Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum, Peter Falk, Julian Sands, Googy Gress, Elizabeth Peña. Director: Ken Kwapis.

   Vibes is the cult classic that could have been. A quirky quasi-ensemble cast (check); a mash-up of genres, ranging from romantic comedy to adventure film and fantasy and back again (check); and quite a few memorable, downright repeatedly quotable, moments (check). And for a while, Vibes manages to feel like a hangout film, a movie where you just feel like you’re there, or you’d like to be there, just hanging out, shooting the breeze, with the main characters.

   But it wasn’t to be. Indeed, Vibes really doesn’t seem to have all that much of a critical reputation or a cult following. Which is somewhat of a shame, because it really is a daring, albeit wildly uneven, little comedy-adventure film that is worth watching, if only once. It benefits greatly from the screen presence of both Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk, as well as 1980s pop singer, Cyndi Lauper, in a film role.

   The plot centers around two New York psychics, Nick Deezy (Goldblum) and Sylvia Pickel (Lauper) who travel to Ecuador at the behest of con artist/criminal/man of mystery, Harry Buscofusco (Falk) to allegedly search for a missing man. A search that turns into a hunt for Inca gold. Which transforms into an encounter with a relic from an ancient alien civilization and a source of psychic power. (Try selling that script today: “So tell me what your screenplay’s about.”). There’s also a budding romance between Deezy and Pickel.

   It’s a difficult plot to pull off successfully and, at times, the movie just falls painfully flat. The ending, in particular, is a serious let down. But the journey to the ending, literally and metaphorically, is half the fun. And the cast, particularly Goldblum, seems to be in on the joke. It’s no classic, cult or otherwise, but it’s an enjoyable enough movie to watch, the later into the night the better. And it’s definitely a product of the 1980s, like for sure.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

PROFESSOR BEWARE. Paramount, 1938. Harold Lloyd, Phyllis Welch, Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, William Frawley, and Montagu Love as Professor Schmutz. Written by Delmer Daves. Directed by Elliott Nugent.

   Not a completely successful film, nor a consistently funny one, Professor Beware flopped at the box office, leading to Lloyd’s retirement (until Mad Wednesday anyway) but I find it a charming thing, with a screamingly funny wrap-up.

   This starts off with a creepy pastiche of The Mummy (Universal, 1932) as a star-crossed Egyptian Romeo gets entombed alive, the result it seems of a misunderstanding involving a vestal virgin or some such. Flash forward to 1938 and we find the ancient swain reincarnated as our Egyptologist Hero and launched on a cross country chase with a madcap heiress in true screwball-comedy fashion.

   The problem here is that the resulting escapades ain’t all that funny. There’s a clever line here and there, a fleetingly funny bit of business now and then, and Phyllis Welch, in her one and only starring film, has the requisite cute-and-perky act down pat, but the story lacks sustained comic momentum, and Lloyd’s best and most athletic days were now behind him.

   Instead of the cheerful ballet of Harold at his best, we get some rather dire back-projection and a faintly unfocused odyssey as he tries to escape the curse of his ancient progenitor, the heiress and cops chase after him, and a slew of comic character actors do what they can in brief bits — my favorite being Montagu Love as Professor Schmutz; he doesn’t do anything funny, I just like the name “Professor Schmutz.”

   But I said early on that I liked this film, and I do. There’s a certain eerie mood hung on the theme of Harold trying to cheat his fate that sustains the story in spite of itself, and it comes together in a thoughtful moment when our hero figures out that if risking a horrible death is the price of true love…. Well, maybe it’s worth it.

   Of course it helps that Professor Beware wraps up with a full ten minutes of delightful sight gags, wonderfully conceived, and beautifully shot and edited as Harold storms a yacht and we get that wonderful feel of his Silent Movie days, that this guy can sweep a football field or climb a skyscraper and take us right along with him.

Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

THE HONEY POT. United Artists, 1967, 132 minutes (cut down from 150). Rex Harrison, Susan Hayward, Cliff Robertson, Capucine, Edie Adams, Maggie Smith, Adolfo Celi, Hugh Manning. Based on the play Mr. Fox of Venice (1959) by Frederick Knott, which was based on the novel The Evil of the Day (1955) by Thomas Sterling, which was based on the play Volpone (1605) by Ben Jonson. Screenplay and direction: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

   Anyone familiar with Ben Jonson’s play knows that Volpone (“The Fox”) spends a lot of the time pretending he is deathly sick in one way or another to acquire unmerited wealth. Cecil Fox (Harrison) seems to be on his deathbed, too, and has called for his three favorite intimate female acquaintances to gather round him in his villa in Venice.

   The consensus is that, since he has no heirs, Fox wants to bestow his worldly goods on one (or possibly all) of his mistresses. But before that happy event, murder claims one of them, with suspicion falling equally on everybody. It will take all the worldly wisdom of a mild-mannered Venetian detective (Celi) to sort it all out.

   Since The Honey Pot was creatively Joseph Mankiewicz’s baby, he can be praised what for what’s good and blamed for what’s bad about the film. The good stuff: the acting (overall everyone’s fine, especially Rex Harrison) and the plot (it moves along, with a couple of nice twists). The bad stuff: While Susan Hayward’s performance is good enough, she’s hampered by one of the most inauthentic Texas accents ever committed to film — and then there’s that egregiously smart-alecky dialogue that Cliff Robertson, in particular, is saddled with.

   American audiences will probably remember Adolfo Celi for his role as supervillain and adept H-bomb snatcher Emilio Largo in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball.

   If you’ve never seen The Honey Pot and you like your whodunits to have at least some mystery about them, you would do well to avoid the IMDb, Wikipedia, and TCM entries since they all give away those “nice twists” we noted above.

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.

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