Films: Comedy/Musicals

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.

FLIRTING WITH DANGER. Monogram, 1934. Robert Armstrong, Edgar Kennedy, William Cagney, Maria Alba, Marion Burns. Director: Vin Moore.

   Titles can be deceiving, and this one is one of them. When it comes to old movies such as this one, I try to know as little as possible about them when I pick one out to watch, and this one fooled me, but good. I thought it might be a relatively unknown crime film with a good-looking female participant or two, but it turned out to be an almost totally unknown comedy film about the happy-go-lucky adventures of three powder mixers for a dynamite factory.

   And that’s about all the plot there is, mixed in with a little girl chasing and explosions going off at funny times, leaving Edgar Kennedy, mostly, with blackened face or hanging from the highest branch of a handy nearby tree.

   But when “Lucky” Davis (William Cagney, of yes that Cagney family) gets serious about one of the girls he finds charming, and vice versa, the two other fellows concoct a plan to keep them apart. So off to South America they all go, cheerfully wondering in passing when the next revolution will start.

   The story line is so negligible I probably wouldn’t bothered writing up this review but for the fact that the film has only one user comment on IMDb and no external ones.

   The fact that it has enough charm to it to have kept me watching all the way through has to mean something, however. The three male stars are also no slouches in the acting field, even if William Cagney’s career eventually went off in other directions.

   Bonus piece of trivia: Carol Tevis, the girl with the high-pitched voice and stutter who was briefly romanced by Robert Armstrong’s character is said to have provided the voice at one time for Walt Disney’s Minnie Mouse, not to mention one of the Munchkins.


WELCOME DANGER. Paramount, 1929, Harold Lloyd, Charles Middleton, Barbara Kent, Noah Young. Directors: Malcolm St. Clair & Clyde Bruckman. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   This Harold Lloyd starrer was originally filmed as a silent, but converted to sound. St. Clair directed the silent version, Bruckman did the sound inserts. (We were told that the silent version is being restored.)

   Harold plays Harold Bledsoe, son of a notable San Francisco police chief, who is called in by the new chief to deal with an outbreak of crime. Harold is a shy botanist who is not what anyone expected and quickly reduces the department to chaos. He does, however, with his sidekick, silent film comic actor Noah Young, stumble onto the Tong’s headquarters and eventually expose do-gooder Middleton as the tong criminal mastermind.

   The film is too long [at 113 minutes], and it is extremely repetitive, but it was Lloyd’s highest grossing film. Not top-flight Lloyd by any means, but the best things in it make me want to see the silent version, which should be shorter and better paced.

OUT OF THE BLUE. Eagle-Lion Films, 1947. George Brent, Virginia Mayo, Turhan Bey, Ann Dvorak, Carole Landis, Elizabeth Patterson, Julia Dean. Based on a story by Vera Caspary, serialized in Today’s Woman, September 1947. Director: Leigh Jason.

   The nominal stars of this semi-sprightly comedy romance are George Brent and Virginia Mayo, but it is Ann Dvorak as the more-than-slightly tipsy (and and always tippling) Olive Jensen who steals the show. I don’t believe I’ve seen her in a straight comedy role before, but on the other hand, there are a lot of her movies I haven’t seen. On the basis of her performance here, I’m tempted to search out more.

   Nor, strangely enough, are Brent and Mayo romantically paired off in this film. He’s the meek, mild-mannered and henpecked husband of Carole Landis who uncharacteristically picks up Dvorak when his wife goes out of town for a weekend, while next door in the same apartment building Virginia Mayo and Turhan Bey find themselves falling for each other. The latter is a bohemian type artist, and she’s a wealthy dog-owner whom he persuades to pose for him, while two elderly biddies watch all of the comedic goings-on from their seats in the balcony and their apartment one floor above.

   Looking at the paragraph above, I will concede that there’s nothing there to suggest what kind of funny goings-on are going on. It’s difficult to put into words, but to go back to the first paragraph of this review, it’s the reaction of milquetoast Brent (if you can picture that) when he finds that the lady he meets in a bar and invites up for a brandy just won’t go home, and dramatically (and as I said above, tipsily) so. In fact, she stays overnight, unbeknownst to him, since they are in two separate bedrooms.

   Worse, she has a bad heart, or so she claims, and after one argument between the two a little more strenuous than usual, she collapses on the floor, and George Brent, faced with his wife’s imminent return and thinking her dead, dumps her body on his neighbor’s terrace (the one owned by the bohemian artist, with whom he and his wife have been feuding).

   I guess you have to watch this yourself, as mere words may not be enough, but in all honesty, at nearly 90 minutes long, it is at least 20 minutes longer than it needed to be, and alas and alack, neither Virginia Mayo nor Carole Landis make much of an impression, especially the latter in a part truly not made for her.

DANCE HALL. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Carole Landis, Cesar Romero, William Henry, June Storey, J. Edward Bromberg, Charles Halton. Based on the novel The Giant Swing by W. R. Burnett (1932). Director: Irving Pichel.

   According to what I’ve been able to uncover so far, and you certainly may correct me if I’m wrong, The Giant Swing was a hard-boiled novel about a jazz musician try to make his way to the top. The page for the film on the AFI website says that “the studio purchased W. R. Burnett’s novel in 1932 and began preparing scripts for it from that time. Among the writers who over the years worked on the adaptation were: W. R. Burnett, Garrett Fort, Howard J. Green, Doris Anderson, Lester Cole, Winifred Willis, Kathryn Scola, Lamar Trotti, William A. Drake, Robert Yost, Sally Sandlin, Shepard Traube and Horace McCoy.”

   If my description of the book is correct, there were a lot of changes made in all that time and with all those hands working on it, I have a feeling that the end result may be a long way from its beginnings.

   There is a piano player in the movie, and he is trying to write his own music while his career is stuck while spending his nights in a 1940s dance hall. But his problems play only third or fourth fiddle (bad metaphor) to the love-hate romance between the womanizing manager of the club (Cesar Romero) and the beautiful new singer (Carole Landis), whom I believe does her own singing, and quite well, too.

   In spite of all their spats, Lily Brown sees something in the smooth-talking Duke McKay that I don’t see, but I imagine the ladies in the audience in 1941 may have felt the same way as she did, too. And at length, at just over 70 minutes of playing time, with each playing amusing tricks on the other, romance finds its way — and the piano player is on his way to New York with the song he has composed.

   I found this moderately entertaining, but not particularly funny. The concept of on-and-off romances like this is OK, but I found the aforementioned tricks they play on each other a little too mean-spirited for me, for lack of a better term. (She steals his car behind his back while he thinks he’s proposing to her, and through a ruse he locks up another would-be suitor in a closet while she waits for the fellow outside the club alone.)

   Carole Landis was only 22 when she made this film, and whatever charm the movie had for me, which was more than a little, most of it was because of her presence in it.

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