Films: Comedy/Musicals


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES. Universal, 1940. Franchot Tone, Warren William, Peggy Moran, Andy Devine, Mischa Auer, Porter Hall and Broderick Crawford! Written by Harold Shumate. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   Hey, how’s this for an original Western plot: A lawman comes to town to look into a killin’ and discovers that a pillar of the community is actually running the gang of rustlers that murdered his friend.

   Oh you’ve seen it? Well maybe not, because this one has the intelligence not to take itself too seriously – or seriously at all.

   The intelligence starts with Franchot Tone as an Eastern dude sent West to root around the prairie and look for clues — thank gawd no one tried to pass the cosmopolitan Tone off as a cowboy. Even better, when he gets to the burg of Peaceful Flats and finds the sheriff handcuffed to a lamp post, the laughs start coming, and though they pause for action, they never really stop.

   Warren William, his career in sad eclipse, lends his usual polish to the role of dress-heavy, and his veneer of sophistication matches Tone’s perfectly. In direct contrast, Tone gets teamed up with Andy Devine as a cowboy who dreams of becoming a valet (?!) and Broderick Crawford, providing truculent muscle for any and all occasions.

   And then there’s Mischa Auer, who comes on as an Indian in a Medicine show, morphs into a Mexican, then a Bullfighter, a Cossack, an Acrobat, Magician and Southern Colonel (!) lending an air of pleasing surrealism to the whole thing.

   I should also put in a word for Peggy Moran as a predatory ingénue who spends most of the film trying to seduce Franchot Tone, an agreeable change-up on the usual formula, and she handles it well.

   Overall though, the chief attractions of Trail of the Vigilantes are writer Shumate’s ability to overturn the conventions and director Dwan’s relaxed approach to it all. Thus Tone never fires a shot, even in the big saloon shoot-out, but the film makes no big deal of it. On the other hand, his iffy horsemanship gets only passing notice till it emerges to rousing effect in that saloon melee.

   So what you have here is that rarity, a film that mocks itself yet remains true to form. Exciting, absurd, funny and formulaic in equal measure, Trail of the Vigilantes emerges as rare fun. And what more could you ask?


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE FUZZY PINK NIGHTGOWN. United Artists, 1957. Jane Russell, Ralph Meeker, Keenan Wynn, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Harris, Una Merkle, Fred Clark. Screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons, from a novel by Sylvia Tate. Directed by Norman Taurog.

   An odd item: a comedy without laughs, directed by Norman Taurog, who specialized in that sort of thing.

   Jane Russell, playing Big Hollywood Star Laurel Stevens, gets kidnapped by nice guys Ralph Meeker and Keenan Wynn, on the night her new movie The Kidnapped Bride premieres. She’s held in durance vile in a luxurious beach house, which signals right away that no one takes this seriously, and she and Meeker fall in love.

   The twist is that the studio head (Menjou) thinks it’s a publicity stunt cooked up by her agent (Harris, whom you no doubt remember as the Mad Makeup Man in How to Make a Monster) and Harris thinks Menjou is behind the whole thing. Cops and gossip columnists line up in disbelief, and before long, the only ones fretting are Russell and her gentle abductors.

   Which leads to the plot point that kept me watching:

(SPOILER ALERT –WARNING: PLOT AND RESOLUTION AHEAD. CONSIDER ALTERNATE ROUTE)

   The only way to save Jane’s career is for Ralph to actually get a ransom for her, which makes him a kidnapper and even if he gets away with it, he’ll have to flee the country, parting them forever. He loves her to much to hurt her, and she loves him too much to let him take the fall. So I kept wondering “How are they going to write their way out of this?” and stayed with it to the end — where they just shrug it off!

   I felt used. And cheap.

(END OF WARNING. RESUME NORMAL SPEED)

   On the plus side, the leads have a lot of charm, and good dialogue to display it. There’s excellent support from Adolphe Menjou, Una Merkel and Robert Harris — I kept waiting for them to say something funny, but the wait was in vain for nothing. Fred Clark actually got a laugh out of me with that shotgun face of his, but it served only to break the silence.

   A trashy guy like me gets a lot of fantasies thinking of Jane Russell in a Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, and if your mind is wont to wander in similar gutters… well, stay out of this one.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CASBAH. Universal, 1948. Tony Martin, Yvonne De Carlo, Peter Lorre, Marta Toren, Hugo Haas, Thomas Gomez. Screenplay by L. Bush-Fekete and Arnold Manoff. Directed by John Berry.

   The idea of a musical remake of Algiers / Pepe le Moko starring Tony Martin and Yvonne De Carlo struck me as so incredibly kitschy that I had to see it. I went into this movie hoping for something spectacularly awful, but I was disappointed — happily so, because it’s really quite a fine film, and worthy in my opinion to stand beside its romantic forebears.

   If you’re not familiar with the tale, it’s about master thief Pepe Le Moko, who rules a Thieves Kingdom in the Kasbah, but knows he will be caught if ever he tries to leave. And if you can’t see the ending coming from here, well I’ll just let it surprise you.

   I will say up front that Tony Martin is the real surprise here, displaying a brooding discontent light years away from The Big Store or his other light-weight musicals. Yvonne De Carlo offers her usual exotic thing as his Algerian squeeze, and Marta Toren lends just the right touch of wistful class to her role as the woman who awakes Pepe’s nostalgic yen for Paris.

   Even better are the supporting players: Thomas Gomez as a crude police chief, Herbert Rudley as Marta’s acquisitive sugar-daddy, Douglas Dick as Pepe’s old-cohort-turned-quisling, the legendary Hugo Haas, and especially Peter Lorre as the only character who moves easily among them all.

   Lorre in fact, is the glue that holds the story together, in one of the best parts of his later career: Knowing, witty, and possessed of a Zen-like patience, he gives the film an emotional depth and resonance that are a pleasure just to watch.

   But I credit Casbah’s success to director John Berry. Back when I reviewed Tension (here ) I cited the strong sense of local atmosphere that film evoked. Well here, Berry does the same thing for the Kasbah. Perhaps he was aided considerably by cinematographer Irving Glassberg, who worked with Douglas Sirk and Anthony Mann at the height of their days at Universal, and by the alluring sets of John DeCuir, who went on to South Pacific and The King and I, but it’s Berry’s sure hand for composition and tracking that lead us dizzyingly through maze-like streets and alleys, in and out of steamy nightclubs and squalid apartments… well, squalid by the standards of a Universal movies — most of them look classier than my old Bachelor digs.

   To get back to the Casbah, though, the film comes off with a romantic intensity that surprised me. The songs by Harold Arlen suit the mood splendidly, and there’s even a sultry dance number from Eartha Kitt. And best of all, when we reach the ending we all knew was coming (if we’ve seen the previous versions) Berry does it up with originality and an artistry all his own.

   This is not an easy film to find, but if you get a chance, don’t miss it.

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE. Columbia Pictures, 1977. George Segal, Jane Fonda, Ed McMahon, Dick Gautier, Hank Garcia. Director: Ted Kotcheff.

   Even though you may never have seen this movie, it’s well known enough that you may know the story line anyway. But just in case, here it is. When the husband of an upwardly mobile family of three living in what appears to be the Los Angeles area loses his job in the aerospace industry, all kinds of misfortunes come their way. To get out of their new found poverty, they decide to try their hands at crime.

   Unable to find jobs, or unable to hold them if they happen to do, giving up on unemployment money and food stamps as beyond their ability to cope, they turn to robbing small convenience stores at first, gradually working their way up to the phone company (to the great applause of the other customers standing in line), then in the grand finale, cracking the safe in the office of Dick’s crooked boss who fired him in the first place.

   Revenge is sweet.

   I should mention that this is a comedy, but in my opinion most of the gags would work a a lot better in a theater filled with people watching, such as Dick coming home to find their lawn being rolled up and repossessed, and a hole in the back yard where their new swimming pool was supposed to be.

   Some of the jokes are a little risque. When Dick shoves gun in the front of his trousers before he goes out on his first job, Jane says, “Be careful. Don’t go off half-cocked.” Or while on his first stab at robbery, that of a small one-man drug store, Dick is so nervous that he ends buying over eight dollars’ worth of condoms.

   Overall, though, the humor is mostly hit-or-miss. Call me Mr Grumpy, but while this movie has its very devout fans even today, I think that watching this movie is like being caught up in a small time warp. In that regard, though, this is a film that could be exceedingly valuable to historians looking to see what was on the minds of movie audiences of some 40 years ago.

   Or what Hollywood thought was on their minds.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


CAPTAIN SWAGGER. Pathé Exchange, 1928. Rod La Rocque, Sue Carol, Richard Tucker, Victor Potel, Ulrich Haupt, Maurice Black, Ray Cooke. Directed by Edward H. Griffith.

   This silent comedy opens in France in 1917, where gallant American pilot Rod La Rocque as just returned from Paris, “an hour and three quarts away…” still on the windward side of soused, but ready to volunteer to dare the skies against Baron Von Stahl (Ulrich Haupt), due to make his daily bombing run.

   Sure enough our hero is true to his word and shoots Von Stahl down over his own lines, but when he fails to see the gallant enemy pilot emerge from his burning plane he lands and rescues him. The grateful German recognizes a fellow knight of the sky and presents him with his own engraved Luger, then helps him to escape the German troops who spotted his plane come down.

   A decade later back in good old New York, our hero, who has earned the nickname “Captain Swagger” from his numerous bill collectors is on his last dime, a playboy who has run out of funds and friends, so taking the engraved Luger he decides to do what any self respecting Twenties gentleman would do: turn elegant bandit (top hat, white tie, formal coat, and white silk scarf).

As luck would have it, all he succeeds in doing is rescuing beautiful Sue Arnold (Sue Carol) from a wolf with a convertible. A bust at banditry, Captain Swagger returns to his soon to be former residence with the girl, and resolves he will have to try a more honest form of survival.

   With the girl, he manages to form a dancing act at one of the more upscale clubs and they are an instant hit. Sue is ready to breathe a sigh of relief: he has finally given up the gentleman bandit game when the club his held up, and one of the hold-up men is Baron Von Stahl.

   Will Captain Swagger stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of true love, or will he fall under the sway of his old enemy and comrade of the skies?

   And why, should you care?

   There is a reason, the reason I have been so careful not to reveal the true name of Rod La Rocque’s Captain Swagger, you see his real name is one you will almost certainly know:

   It’s Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond.

   Brought to the American screen for the first time, H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s two-fisted, beer-guzzling, jovial and homicidal hero not only becomes an American, he loses his entire reason for being, looking for adventure in boring old peacetime, misplaces Carl and Irma Peterson, leaves the trenches for the skies, and ends up dancing at a night club.

   What would Algy Longworth say? What would Dick Hannay say? What would they say at his club? What would Phyllis say?

   He can hardly show his face at those old Etonian dinners again, one would think. At least Raffles had the good taste to get shot in the Boer War. Even the Saint might think twice about rubbing shoulders with half of a cabaret act.

   La Rocque isn’t bad in the lead. You can imagine him as Drummond, and fortunately a year later Samuel Goldwyn had the good taste to stick much closer to the book and play with an all talking film, cast Joan Bennett as the soon to be Mrs. Drummond, Montagu Love as dear old Carl, and Ronald Colman as Hugh, an especially good idea as Colman managed to get nominated for the first Best Actor Oscar for playing Drummond (he lost out to Warner Baxter’s the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona the last time two series characters or films would be nominated).

   But such is Bulldog Drummond’s first sojourn onto American screens, and I suppose we should be grateful the Brits didn’t retaliate by casting Jack Buchanan as a singing and dancing Philo Vance. There’s no telling where this kind of thing might lead. Can you imagine Mr. Moto, Burlesque comic; or Charle Chan with simple songs and snappy patter; Ellery Queen and his amazing Poodles; or, Fred and Ginger as Nick and Nora?

   The blood curdleth.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DUDE RANCH. Paramount, 1931. Jack Oakie, Stu Erwin, Eugene Pallette, Mitzi Green, June Collyer. Written by Milton Krims, Percy Heath and Joseph L. & Herman J. Mankiewicz. Directed by Frank Tuttle.

   The first of the films I brought home from Cinevent, and what a treat!

   Stu Erwin plays the owner of a Dude Ranch where things are so dull the tour guide falls asleep in mid-sentence. As one departing guest observes, “Wild West? The wildest thing I saw out here was a wildflower — and it was a pansy!”

   As the guests prepare to depart en masse, a down-at-the-heels-and-soles troupe of traveling players (Oakie and Pallette, marvelously hammy, abetted by Mitzi Green as a professional orphan and Ms Cecil Weston as her chronically long-lost mother) stumble onto the scene, and quickly conspire with Stu to liven things up with a bit of full-blooded melodrama.

   Thus Jack Oakie becomes Vance Kilroy, hero of the plains; Eugene Pallette morphs into Black Jed, wife-beater, child-starver, and all-purpose blackguard, menacing Mitzi and Ms Weston as mother-and-daughter recently escaped from Injuns. A bit of drama, some fisticuffs, and the guests (except for the lovely Ms Collyer) eat it up with a ladle.

   This is the meat of the film: Jack Oakie, preening and posing as only he could, Eugene Pallette huffing, puffing, and stuffing his mouth, and little Mitzi wrenching tears of sympathy from all & sundry. The written word doesn’t do her justice. You just have to watch the scene where a kindly old lady asks her what tribe captured her, and she rolls her eyes heavenward and sighs, “They was Cleveland Indians, Ma’am!”

   As an aside, I really think Jack Oakie developed the Bob Hope Persona before Hope himself did: Soft of heart and head, cowardly, vainglorious, yet somehow likeable—and most important, Fun-nee!

   But to get back to the story: More plot quickly ensues as a quartet of genuine tough guys arrive, intending to use the dude ranch as a base of operations for a bank job—a plot that gets no more attention from director Frank Tuttle than it merits, as we race through the usual complications, enlivened with some funny pratfalls and cutting wordplay, then up to the Big Chase Finale, with thespians, guests, Stu Erwin and the law in pell-mell pursuit of the baddies and a captured heroine.

   And I have to say that this chase seems to have been the inspiration for much of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Jack Oakie’s stunt double leaps from car to truck, swings off the roof and into the cab, kicking the driver out, and gets into a wild donnybrook with the baddies while the truck is stalled on a railroad track with the Superchief bearing down on them. Tuttle gears this bit for thrills, and produces a breathtaking and suspenseful few minutes that left me marveling in its wake.

    Dude Ranch didn’t win any awards, and it’s completely forgotten these days, but the talents involved put a lot into it, and it paid off handsomely for any viewer who chances to discover this gem.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GILDERSLEEVE’S GHOST. RKO, 1944. Harold Peary, Marion Martin, Richard LeGrand, Frank Reicher, Amelita Ward, Freddie Mercer, Margie Stewart, Emory Parnell, Jack Norton as the Drunk and Charles Gemora as the Gorilla. Screenwriter: Robert E. Kent, based on characters appearing on the long-running radio program, The Great Gildersleeve (1941-1958). Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Some folks think it kinky of me, others merely shrug and roll their eyes, and a few have damned me from the pulpit for it, but I always thought Harold Peary was funny. Just something about that chuckle of his and the trademark hem-and-hawing, always gets a laugh out of me.

   So I’m tempted to give Gildersleeve’s Ghost much more praise than it deserves from a discerning critic like myself. I can’t honestly recommend it to any serious movie buff either. But damitall, this movie has everything: ghosts, an old dark house, a mad doctor with a sinister assistant, an invisible woman, insulting comic relief, and an escaped gorilla. Who — I ask you WHO? — could ask for anything more?

   Peary skips through it with his usual aplomb, and Gordon Douglas, whose career included Rio Conchos, Tony Rome, and Sincerely Yours, directs with the flippancy it deserves. I should also mention writer Robert Kent, who went on to a long and bizarre career with Sam Katzman, writing things like Hootenanny Hoot and The Fastest Guitar Alive.

   As for Gildersleeve’s Ghost, it’s fast, light, and outrageous enough to keep you saying “Whuzza?” even if you don’t find it funny. Catch it if you can.

MAKE A MILLION. Monogram, 1935. Charles Starrett (Professor Reginald Q. Jones), Pauline Brooks, George E. Stone, James Burke, Guy Usher, Norman Houston. Director: Lewis D. Collins.

   As far as I have been able to discern from Charles Starrett’s credits on IMDb, this was the next to the last film he had the romantic lead in before he became a full-time cowboy star. A movie entitled Along Came Love, made in 1936, was perhaps the last. It was probably a good thing that he could ride a horse, because on the basis of this one, his career in movies would have disappeared under his feet, with no one today knowing he ever existed.

   While made as a comedy, Make a Million also attempts to address the economic issues that were plaguing the nation in 1935. Not very deeply, mind you, but just enough to draw audiences in and maybe have them laughing a little about the problems they were having paying their bills and keeping their families fed.

   As Professor Reginald Q. Jones, Starrett plays one of those naive and out of touch left wing radical professors who think the little men in the country are paying all too much toward the wealth of the upper class, and when he fails one of his students, the daughter of a banker, for disagreeing with his theories of economics, he is summarily fired.

   But with one proviso: If he can use his theories to earn a million dollars within a fixed amount of time, he will be reinstated. Which, without wanted to reveal too much detail in how he goes about it, with the assistance of a band of hoboes, he does. Along the way, the daughter of the banker gets to see how shady a businessmen her father is — and am I telling you too much? — decides to switch sides, but almost too late.

   Nobody today, I grant you, would watch this movie other than a relic of the past. It is fun, though, to see Charles Starrett in a suit and tie and at six foot two, towering over everyone else in the movie, especially during a meeting between a band of avaricious bankers and the band of the brotherhood as they are busily discussing financial matters of the day. “What do you think of copper [as an investment]?” “Coppers? I can do without them.”

TALL, DARK AND HANDSOME. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Cesar Romero, Virginia Gilmore, Milton Berle, Charlotte Greenwood, Sheldon Leonard, Stanley Clements, Frank Jenks. Director: H. Bruce Humberstone.

   Even though this film is heavily populated by hoodlums and hardened criminals of all kinds, starting from Cesar Romero on down, what it really is is a comedy romance, as I’ve already categorized it. Not a single dark and gritty scene to be seen.

   There is a bit of a mystery at the beginning, though. Why does Milton Berle, Romero’s number one henchman, put the former’s trademark cigars in the mouths of three bodies discovered at a mom and pop store shootout? Answer: to implicate his boss, but why?

   Shift of scene to a department store where Romero spots a good-looking girl (Virginia Gilmore) who’s in charge of the section where mothers drop off their children to play while they go on to do their shopping. A conversation between the two is struck up, and before he knows it, Romero has hired Gilmore as a nanny for his children.

   The problem is, you guessed it, he doesn’t have any children, and he has to go find one, a very truculent Stanley Clements. The romance goes on its semi-rocky way from there, while at the same time, Romero has to deal with a gangster from the other side of town (Sheldon Leonard) who’s trying his best to crowd in on the former’s territory.

   The result is only mild fun, nothing more, even at the time. What is fun now, some 75 years later, is watching a nicely assembled gang of professional actors go through their paces.


Note:   Go here for Walter Albert’s comments on this very same film, posted over six years ago on this blog.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


WILD MONEY. Paramount, 1937. Edward Everett Horton, Louise Campbell, Lynne Overman, Lucien Littlefield, Esther Dale, Porter Hall, Benny Baker. Based on a story by Paul Gallico. Director: Louis King. Shown at Cinevent 26, Columbus OH, May 1994.

   The surprise “B” hit of the convention was Wild Money. Edward Everett Horton, on of my all-time favorite character actors, was the star. He played a stuffy accountant for a big-city newspaper, who, while vacationing with his cousin (Esther Dale) and her husband (Lucien Littlefield), is charged with reporting on the “breaking story” of the kidnapping of one of America’s wealthiest men.

   Horton, Dale and Littlefield make a delightful team, and there’s not a wasted frame in this comic crime film. Horton even gets the girl (Louise Campbell) and kisses her in the final shot.

   What films such as this demonstrate is that a well-crafted small movie is a safer bet than a larger-budgeted film with pretensions beyond its capabilities. But that’s another fatality of the demise of the studio system where the “A” crew could be used on the “B” film, giving it a professional sturdiness that has disappeared in the era of out-of-sight budgets.


BONUSWild Money‘s Lucien Littlefield, a supporting actor whose career began in silent films, was even more delightful in the Joe E. Brown comedy, The Gladiator (credits below). Here he plays mild-mannered Professor Donner who’s discovered a formula that increases strength in animals and, as he discovers when Brown is unexpectedly administered a dose, humans as well.

   Brown was both touching and funny in the title role and although the film rushed through the final sequences to a pre-ordained conclusion, it was most enjoyable.

THE GLADIATOR. Columbia Pictures, 1938. Joe E. Brown , June Travis, Man Mountain Dean, Dickie Moore, Lucien Littlefield. Based on the novel by Philip Wylie. Director: Edward Sedgwick.

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