Films: Comedy/Musicals

HORROR ISLAND. Universal Pictures, 1941. Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran, Fuzzy Knight, John Eldredge, Lewis Howard, Hobart Cavanaugh, Walter Catlett, Ralf Harolde, Iris Adrian. Director: George Waggner.

   Sometimes you’re expecting one thing and you get something else. Not all the time, not most of the time. It’s actually rather seldom, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out well at all. But when it does — and I imagine you’ve guessed by now that this is one of those times — it’s makes you feel great just to be able to stand up and tell other people about it.

   Or maybe just a little foolish.

   Horror Island may not be to all tastes. You have to be fond of creaky but often still entertaining tales of old dark houses or mansions, isolated for one reason or another from the rest of the world — snowbound, stormbound (lots of thunder and lightning), or the like — filled with strangers, mostly, with some kind of evil or sinister presence among them, or controlling them in weird or evil ways for some nefarious purpose unknown.

   And — of course! — lots of hidden panels and secret passageways, suits of armor perhaps with eyes peering out from within, painting with peepholes and in active use. You know what I mean. It’s all kind of silly and fun, except when the dead bodies start to pile up, at which point your sense of make believe has to kick in. The actors are not taking this all very seriously, so why should you?

   What makes Horror Island a little different is that it takes place on (guess what) an island, where two enterprising entrepreneurs (Dick Foran and Fuzzy Knight) have created a tourist trap mystery-adventure cruise, complete with a castle-like mansion and all the trimmings (see above). And naturally a treasure map that helps attract a small boatful of various individuals of both genders and with all kinds of motives (not all of them good).

   Even though this came in a boxset of DVDs entitled Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive (along with such non-ringers as The Black Cat, Man Made Monster, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman), you will noticed that I have classified this as a comedy as well as a mystery. And so it is, and if you’re in the same mindset as I am, it’s a gem.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

TRUE CONFESSION. 1937. Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Porter Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Lynne Overman, Fritz Feld, Tom Dugan, John T. Murray, Hattie MacDaniel. Director: Wesley Ruggles.

   Honest lawyer Ken Bartlett (MacMurray) won’t represent anyone unless he thinks they are genuinely innocent, and as a result he and wife Helen (Lombard) are struggling. Since opposites attract in film as well as life, Lombard is a compulsive liar and writes fiction that doesn’t sell because as friend Merkel says, “all the people you write about are crazy.”

   Desperate for work Lombard takes a job as personal assistant to a wealthy man (John T. Murray) with plans to hide the job from her husband despite warnings from Merkel about her best qualification being something other than shorthand.

         Lombard: Where does the secretary usually do most of her work?

         Butler Fritz Feld: Hah!

   Sure enough boss gets a bit handsy, Lombard resists and hits him , and then when she goes back with Merkel in tow for her hat, the police led by Edgar Kennedy show up, and Mr. Arnold’s body is shot dead in his home office. Good thing she is married to a lawyer, but he only defends the innocent, and he’s not so sure she’s among them.

   This was the fourth and final outing for Lombard and MacMurray, and by this point they were a smooth team with another even better screwball comedy, the mystery The Princess Comes Across, under their belts. Here a mustache-bearing MacMurray is more than a little peeved with her, but still can’t live without her or with her.

   Ironically John Barrymore, top billed not that many years before in Twentieth Century, is third billed here and well towards the end of his career.

   Lombard is delightful with a fine scene when she gets caught up in Edgar Kennedy’s theory of why she did it, and then when she finds Kennedy doesn’t want an easy case, her too fertile mind leaps to his aid, and she confesses more or less just to entertain him. Whenever her tongue wanders into her right cheek there is trouble afoot.

   When her gun shows up in her apartment she is headed for a cell, and an angry MacMurray still can’t stay mad when he is near her, his stern lectures always ending in a clench even in a cell. But when he finds out she didn’t do it, his whole strategy is shot, since he can’t claim self-defense, and Lombard sees it as a chance for him to get headlines and business — even with her neck on the line, so she tells MacMurray she shot the man in self-defense even though she didn’t.

   Enter John Barrymore blowing balloons and popping them in a saloon to the annoyance of owner Lynne Overman. Barrymore lays claim to being a great criminologist as a “student of life,” and after reading about the case, he is off to the courtroom where he is a regular in his white Chaplinesque suit (clearly his character is modeled on Chaplin’s little tramp even miming the walk and the cane twirl).

   Things look bad. Prosecutor Porter Hall seems to have a perfect case for first degree murder against her, so her confession doesn’t look half so promising for her husband’s career. As Barrymore tells Merkel, “She’ll fry.”

   Barrymore shows up to talk to Lombard in her cell and frightens her to death describing how she will look “fried,” leaving her more than a little scared as reality sets in so she retracts her confession — again, but now MacMurray only wants to win the “honest way.” She’s stuck with her lie, only now she realizes she could end up in the chair.

   Watch for the scene where she and MacMurray recreate the crime in court a bit too strenuously with the less than cooperative aid of a prop door that won’t open while Barrymore lets air out of one of his balloons as commentary.

   By now even the jury is lost and find her not guilty out of sheer confusion. And there’s more to come…

   This is a fast, often zany, and at times delirious screwball comedy. It really isn’t a mystery despite the murder, and MacMurray has a point that it a lot of happiness to come from someone’s murder, but no one seems to mind as much as he does.

   Lombard rides again, unrepentant to the end, the last shot of her, as MacMurray slings her over his shoulder to try and teach her the error of her ways again, is tongue literally in cheek.

   This may not rank with It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, or Nothing Sacred, but that said, it is fresh, funny, and thanks to Lombard, sometimes takes flight as only the best of screwball comedy can. In any case a Lombard film I’ve never seen before is always worth watching.


HOLD YOUR BREATH. Christie, 1924. Dorothy Devore, Walter Hiers, Tully Marshall, Jimmie Adams, Priscilla Bonner, Jimmy Harrison, Lincoln Plummer, Max Davidson. Director: Scott Sidney. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The audience greeted the silent comedy with considerable pleasure. In its own way, it is somewhat bizarre, as cub reporter Dorothy Devore attempts to get an interview from reclusive millionaire Tully Marshall in his well-guarded apartment.

   Through a series of ruses, she gains entry and even manages to ingratiate herself when an organ-grinder’s monkey reaches through an open window and makes off with an expensive diamond bracelet, the most recently acquired bauble in Marshall’s collection.

   The rest of the film consists of Devore’s hair-raising attempts to retrieve the necklace as the monkey climbs about the building’s exterior, with a detective in hot but somewhat less exposed pursuit, A highlight for the audience was a cameo by Max Davidson as a street pedlar who takes advantage of the crowd gathered to hawk his wares.

   Devore is a delight, and this film was one of the comic highlights of the weekend. Sidney also directed the Elmo Lincoln Tarzan of the Apes, as well as another Christie comedy that I’ve seen and liked, Charley’s Aunt (1925). According to the program notes, Devore was the top female comedian on the Christie lot in the 1920s. I don’t find that hard to believe.

MY FAVORITE SPY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1942. Kay Kyser, Ellen Drew, Jane Wyman, Robert Armstrong, William Demarest, Harry Babbitt, Ish Kabibble. Director: Tay Garnett.

   I don’t have much to say about this movie. Either you like band leader and long-time radio star Kay Kyser in the role of a movie hero, or you don’t. His overripe meekness and exaggerated gestures of astonishment and surprise can wear on you awfully quickly.

   He’s no Pee Wee Herman, though. I think of him as an early Woody Allen type, southern style. Utterly cornball, in other words, but still funny.

   His orchestra plays only a minor role in this one, as Kay is asked by the army to help unroot some spies working out of the night club where he and his band are playing, The only problem is that he’s not able to tell his wife what he’s doing, and their honeymoon is constantly being interrupted. You can see what this means, and you can take it from there.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, considerably truncated and revised.



THE COCK-EYED WORLD. Fox Film Corporation, 1929. Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, Lily Damita, Leila Karnelly, El Brendel, Bob Burns, Stuart Erwin. Director: Raoul Walsh. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   I was not in a great mood for this reprise of performances by McLaglen and Lowe as Top Sergeant Flagg and Sergeant Harry Quirt, last seen in a 1926 success, What Price Glory?, but my grumpiness evaporated early on, beguiled by the combative charm of the leads and non-stop action orchestrated by director Walsh.

    The crowded plot follows the two rascals from Siberia by way of Coney Island to Central America, with brawls and womanizing pretty much summarizing the early scenes, then shifting to a more serious engagement in Central America that has the boys fighting for country, girls and the studio’s profit margin.

    This film is definitely pre-code, with girls, girls, girls in various stages of dress and undress. And oh, yes, there’s familiar comic El Brendel gracing yet another film with his ubiquitous and not always amusing presence. A lively romp that escapes the leaden ace of so many early sound films and races to a satisfying conclusion.

    PS. Jim G. was particularly impressed by the beautiful Lily Damita, future wife of Errol Flynn.


GOIN’ SOUTH. Paramount Pictures, 1978. Jack Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd, John Belushi, Danny DeVito, Veronica Cartwrighht, Ed Begley Jr. Director: Jack Nicholson.


   Even if I told you this was a Western, you’d still know it was a comedy, just by looking at the list of people in it. The only two cast members of any consequence, however, are Nicholson and Steenbergen — the first film appearance of the latter, at the very young age of 25.

   Nicholson is a horse thief, a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders, an outlaw through and through, and of no good to anyone to boot. Captured in Mexico and broght back (illegally) across the border to be hanged, he is saved from the noose at the last minute by Steenbergen’s speaking up at the last minute to say that she will parry him. (A local ordinance carried over from the Civil War, when men were scarce.)

   It’s not really a husband she’s looking for, however. She has a mine on her property that needs working, and she’s desperate to find the gold she’s sure that’s there before the railroad comes in and takes over the land.

   One look at Nicholson in this movie will show you just how desperate she is. He is the scruffiest looking star of a major motion picture that I can ever recall seeing. He is manical capering gnome of a man, leaping for the sheer joy of living, with a leer in every glance to sends his new wife’s way.


   And Mary Steenbergen, although still young, is a quintessential “old maid,” with fussy, virginal ways, but totally in charge of the situation, until, of course, it blushingly (and inevitably) goes out of control.

   The rest of the cast is there for background, nothing more, except for perhaps Veronica Cartwright, who plays the outlaw’s former love, he “first woman he ever had to pay for.” Sparks fly, misunderstandings abound, nefarious double-dealings run amuck. And for a Jack Nicholson movie, there are surprisingly few moments of enigmatic incomprehensibility. This is a funny movie, worth looking out for.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.



THE WRONG BOX. Salamander Film Corp., UK, 1966. Michael Caine, Nanette Newman, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Peter Sellers, Wilfred Lawson, Tony Hancock. Director-producer: Brian Forbes. Based on the book by Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osbourne. [Osbourne was Stevenson's stepson.]

The Wrong Box

   This 1966 version of The Wrong Box is a movie graced by the beetle-like humor of Dudley Moore and a perfect caricature of a fact-spouting pedant, played by Ralph Richardson.

   The film is not as good as the sum of its parts, and is not particularly enhanced by a romantic subplot involving Michael Caine and a forgettable British actress, but the manic attempts of two members of the inimitable “Beyond the Fringe” company, Moore and Peter Cook, to make certain that their uncle, played by Richardson, is the last surviving member of a “tontine” and, thus, inheritor of a fortune of some one hundred thousand pounds, are often very funny.

   Cook is the fast-talking “brains” of the team, constantly maneuvering around the sweet-talking bumbling of overactive Lothario Moore, but Moore gets the best line. After it is pointed out that Cook has altered a death dertificate but inadvertently put on the next day’s date, Moore comments, “here today, gone tomorrow,” a perfectly logical statement in the context of this zany Victorian comedy.

   It is one of the few films I have seen in which the line “the butler did it” is uttered to truly comic effect, and the final scene is a triumph of comic miscalculations that somehow seem inevitable and right.

   A funny take-off on caper-and-chase films, The Wrong Box did not find much of an audience in this country in its original release and is sometimes hampered by a too-obvious and arch adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson original story by the America scriptwriters, but the talented cast surmounts most of the weaknesses, and the film is worth watching for.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 1, January-February 1982 (slightly revised)

Editorial Comment:   My own review of this film, posted here on this blog almost six years ago (!) agrees with Walter in all but one important aspect.

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