Films: Comedy/Musicals


MY FRIEND IRMA GOES WEST. Paramount Pictures, 1950. John Lund, Marie Wilson, Diana Lynn, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Corinne Calvet, Lloyd Corrigan, Don Porter, Harold Huber, Kenneth Tobey. Screenplay: Cy Howard & Parke Levy. Director: Hal Walker.

   Marie Wilson, who made a career of playing ditsy blondes, will be remembered best for her portrayal of Irma Peterson, the impossibly vacuous New York City secretary with a mind the size of a paper clip. This was the second film to feature Irma, who began her career on radio in 1947, but as usually the case, of all the people who were in the cast on the radio program, only Marie Wilson managed to make the transition into the movies.

   And even though creator Cy Howard was also involved in the movie production, much of the magic her character created in her original form is gone. In fact, Irma is on the screen far less than the up-and-coming comedy team of Martin and Lewis. Incidentally, they also appeared in the first Irma picture as well — their screen debut, no less.

   The plot is simple enough — Dean Martin, who plays the boy friend of Irma’s friend Jane, gets a shot at Hollywood, or so he thinks, and the whole gang goes along. It;s to bad that, unknown to them, the boys in the white suits come along afterward to pick up the “producer” who hired him. (But what about the French actress with eyes for Dean?)

   Irma continued on the radio for four more years, until 1954, but there weren’t any more movies. It’s no wonder why. When writers lose the roots of their own creations, chances of a successful transplant are next to none.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990 (very slightly revised).


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


YOU NEVER CAN TELL. Universal, 1951. Dick Powell, Peggy Dow, Joyce Holden, Charles Drake, Frank Nelson and Flame (the dog.) Written and directed by Lou Breslow.

   This movie-fantasy is dumb as a box of puppies, but I liked it anyway. Maybe it’s the loopy concept and the way it plays on movie conventions. After all, Dick Powell had been playing hard-boiled PIs and tough guys for so long his mere presence promised a certain hard-chiseled persona — and here he is as Private Eye Rex Shepherd, a reincarnated dog set to sniff out the guy who poisoned him (shades of D.O.A.) and romancing heiress Peggy Dow in the best Philip Marlowe tradition.

   The story takes way too long to get going, and the humor is on the level of Francis the Talking Mule (also from Universal), but the players take the stale jokes and cliché situations in easy stride, turn on their relaxed charm and rise above it — no, elevate it — to a surprising level. I particularly liked Joyce Holden as Powell’s secretary (formerly a race horse) and Frank Nelson offering one of his patented smug-polite perfs as a police detective dealing with Powell’s PI in a neat turn on the sort of thing Philip Marlowe used to go through.

   Don’t come to You Never Can Tell expecting a lot of laughs, but if you’re looking for an off-beat thing with a certain charm, this is it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TOUGH GUYS. Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures, 1986. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charles Durning, Alexis Smith, Dana Carvey, Darlanne Fluegel, Eli Wallach. Director: Jeff Kanew.

   A buddy movie. A message movie about how American society treats senior citizens. A comedy-crime film. Those are all perfectly adequate ways of describing Tough Guys. But at the end of the day, the movie was really one thing: a golden opportunity to bring Hollywood legends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas together on the big screen for one last time.

   The two actors who appeared in a total of seven movies together, but who are perhaps best known for their work together in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (reviewed here ), portray best friends in Tough Guys. Best friends who happen to be finishing up a 30-year stint in prison for robbing the Gold Coast Flyer. These two men, the last two to rob a train in the United States, are truly the last of a dying breed.

   But if prison is tough, getting out is even tougher. Both men are fish out of water. Not only have times change, but they’re old men now. But they still love women.

   Through a series of romantic mishaps and comedic adventures, they learn the hard way that very few people want to treat senior citizens with much respect or dignity. There’s definitely a message here, one that Lancaster, in an interview with the New York Times, suggested takes the movie out of the real of action-comedy into something more meaningful.

   Despite this being a lightweight, perfectly innocent affair that doesn’t stay with you long after you’ve finished watching, Tough Guys works. The pairing of Lancaster and Douglas as two aging criminals trying to regain one last moment of glory is pure entertainment. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one.

   One last thing: without Lancaster and Douglas, this movie never would have worked. It’s their vehicle from start to finish.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR. United Artists, 1950, Ronald Colman, Celeste Holm, Vincent Price, Barbara Britton, Art Linkletter, and (according to IMDB) Albert Einstein. Written by Hans Jacoby and Frederick Brady. Directed by Richard Whorf.

   No classic, but a sparkling little gem of a film that deserves to be screened more often.

   Ronald Colman stars as Beauregard Bottomly, unemployed genius. Sharing a bungalow with his sister (Barbara Britton) who makes a living giving piano lessons to Byron Foulger. Colman applies for a job at Milady Soap, where he runs afoul of mad soap tycoon Burnbridge Waters (Price) Humiliatingly rejected, he plots an exquisite revenge ……

   … because it seems Milady Soap sponsors a Quiz Show (hosted by Art Linkletter!) with the prize amount doubling every week. With his superior mental capacity, it becomes an easy matter for Bottomly to run up the stakes till he threatens to bankrupt Waters by winning his whole company — until Waters strikes back.

   I should say at the start that this film is hardly a Laff Riot on the order of His Girl Friday or Duck Soup; it’s a gentle comedy, with moments of gentle satire, and an atmosphere of gentle pleasantry. But it comes to sharp, hilarious life whenever Vincent Price is on screen!

   Price’s Burnbridge Waters ranks as one of the great characters in fiction, alongside Hamlet, Scrooge, Mister Toad, Oedipus and Rochester (both of them) and Vinnie plays it with relish, rolling grandiose lines across his tongue, indulging in outrageous double-takes, and generally imparting a helluva good time all around. Colman, Holm, Britton, and even Art Linkletter are all fine, but Price just walks away with it all.

   And whenever I find an off-beat thing like this, I’m always intrigued by where it came from. The careers of the writers and director of this thing are so negligible that I’m inclined to give credit to producer Harry M. Popkin, whose credits include such unorthodox efforts as And Then There Were None, The Thief, and DOA.

   Hey, it works for me!

THAT’S MY BABY. Republic Pictures, 1944. Richard Arlen, Ellen Drew, Leonid Kinskey, Minor Watson, Richard Bailey. Director: William Berke.

   The setting for this definitively minor comedy effort from 1944 is supposed to be that of a comic book publisher’s office, which is why I rescued the DVD it’s available on from the $3 bin at a local record store. In truth, however — and the truth always comes out — Moody Productions looks more like an animated cartoon production facility, a supposition heavily reinforced by, well, the animated cartoon they produce on the quick that ends the movie.

   It turns out that the head of the firm (Minor Watson) is suffering from a bad case of the blues, and to cheer him up, his daughter (Ellen Drew) and her beau (Richar Arlen) bring into his home a whole host of vaudeville acts, with no success. Not until they discover what it was in his past that has not allowed him to even smile in some twenty years.

   This is a small time capsule of the kinds of acts that made people in small town America laugh. I don’t believe too many of these acts were ever preserved on film in many other ways. Many of these are pure corn, others are mildly amusing, and one, Gene Rodgers, the astoundingly good piano player, makes you wonder why you never heard of him before.

Mike Riley and His Musical Maniacs

Freddie Fisher and His Schnikelfritz Orchestra

Lita Baron, as Isabelita

The Guadalajara Trio

Gene Rodgers (boogie-woogie piano player)

Peppy and Peanuts

Mitchell & Lytell (office worker comedy routine)

Alphonse Bergé

Doris Duane

Adia Kuznetzoff (Russian singer)

Chuy Reyes and His Orchestra

Al Mardo and His Dog

Dewey ‘Pigmeat’ Markham

   Personally, if you were to ask me, it is a wonder that both Richard Arlen and Ellen Drew, both consigned to B-movie stardom at the time, ever had careers after making a movie such at this, with one of the weakest storylines of any comedy musical I’ve ever seen.

THE GIRL FROM MEXICO. RKO Radio Pictures, 1939. Lupe Velez, Donald Woods, Leon Errol, Linda Hayes, Donald MacBride. Ward Bond. Director: Leslie Goodwins.

   Although not intended to be the first in a series, this movie turned out to be such a big hit that RKO decided to make seven more “Mexican Spitfire” movies. The name is apt. Lupe Velez, as the singer a talent agent named Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods) finds and brings back from Mexico, is exactly that: a spitfire, a pepper pot, a firecracker.

   And who she has her eyes on is no other than her Denny. Trouble is, he’s already engaged to a society girl his aunt approves of highly. His uncle (Leon Errol) not so much, and when Denny is tied up with work or wedding plans, he starts taking Carmelita out on the town: to a baseball game, a wrestling match, a nine-day bicycle race, and even eventually a night club.

   Complications arise, as perhaps you can imagine, albeit rather tamely today. Lupe Velez, while not a true exotic beauty, must have attracted men in the audience immensely with her torrid and uninhibited Mexican ways, her rapid fire way of speaking, and her deliciously foreign and refreshingly charming personality. Donald Woods’ character certainly is — attracted, that is — as much as he tries to fight it. What women thought of this movie and the seven sequels, I do not know.

   I probably won’t seek out the others in the series, but in spite of its very meager plot, I enjoyed this one.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SING AND LIKE IT. RKO, 1934. Nat Pendleton, Zasu Pitts, Edward Everett Horton, Pert Kelton, Ned Sparks and John Qualen. Written by Aben Kandel and Marion Dix. Directed by William A. Seiter.

   Sometimes in Hollywood they gave the stars a day off and turned the character actors loose on a movie, generally with happy results, and this is one of the happiest.

   Nat Pendleton stars as a tough gang boss (“Youse guys are way down on yer kidnappin’s. And the Safecrackin’s off too.”) married to a restless showgirl (Pert Kelton at her sharpest and sexiest). Early on, while cracking a safe in a Bank building, he overhears the Amateur Dramatic Society rehearsing their show and is captivated by Zasu Pitts singing an ode to Mother Love.

   You can probably see it coming from here, but I’ll go on to say that Nat decides Zasu should go to the Big Time with a moving song like this, so he moves her into his penthouse, chaperoned by Ms Kelton — which is a bit like appointing John Waters to the Catholic Legion of Decency — and muscles in on Broadway’s leading impresario, played here by Edward Everett Horton.

   These four play off each other like tennis pros doing mixed doubles: Pendleton’s genial ogre slamming up against Horton’s urbane jellyfish; Zasu’s innocence fluttering up against Pert Kelton’s sharp edges, and all of this propelled by a sharp script and brisk direction. I particularly enjoyed the bit where Pendleton decides the jokes in this show ain’t no good and has his boys write some… followed up many scenes later with the reaction of New York’s drama critics.

   As if this weren’t enough, Sing is graced with the mugs of familiar character actors like Roy D’Arcy, Joe Sawyer, Paul Hurst and Bob Kortman. We also get Ned Sparks’ savage deadpan and a delightful John Qualen, perfectly cast as the lady’s wimpy beau.

   There’s an interesting subtext here: Ms Pitts assumes that all show-people and gangsters are hell-bound degenerates and that sooner or later she will have to sacrifice her innocence for the sake of her art. And while she’s not exactly averse to the idea, there’s a charming moment when John Qualen declares, “I’ll still love you Annie — no matter how steeped in sin you are.”

   Come to think of it, this is a film full of charming moments, all of them served up with agreeable verve by a troupe of players obviously enjoying their time in the spotlight, and making things a lot of fun for the viewer. Catch it if you can.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SKIPALONG ROSENBLOOM. Eagle-Lion/United Artists, 1951. “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, Max Baer, Jackie Coogan, Hilary Brooke, Fuzzy Knight, Raymond Hatton. Written by Eddie Forman and Dean Reisner. Directed by the indefatigable Sam Newfield.

   A surprisingly sharp comedy in the anything-goes mode of Hellzapoppin and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, co-written by a guy who went on to Dirty Harry and other prestigious Clint Eastwood flicks, and helmed by a director who routinely churned out a clunker or two every week for PRC.

   Let me pause here and reflect on something I read so long ago I’d most forgot about it, let alone who wrote it and where I read it, but it goes something like this: When we think of the B-movie classics, we tend to remember the noirs, the westerns and the horror films, because tragedy is easy to do. It’s hard work doing comedy and practically impossible to do it in a low-budget film.

   Skipalong Rosenbloom is a happy exception, performed with gusto by a willing ensemble, laced with a few surprisingly subtle jokes (Maybe too subtle for its own good; did anybody but me laugh when Jackie Coogan kicks an obnoxious brat and snarls, “Child actors are murder.” ?) and directed with the slapdash abandon one normally associates with Same Newfield — only here it works.

   The whole thing is framed as 50s television show, complete with commercials, obviously satirizing the Hopalong Cassidy craze of that time. Maxie Rosenbloom takes the title part (surprise!) and runs with it, obviously delighted to be the star of the piece. Max Baer is just as good, snarling threats and gloating wonderfully at each new dastardly plot. Hillary Brooke makes an enthusiastic frontier vamp, with just the right amount of over-playing, while Western Icons Fuzzy Knight and Raymond Hatton lend a bit of authenticity to the whole thing — particularly Fuzzy as Sneaky Pete, cinema’s most enthusiastic henchman ever.

   As for the film itself, I’m not going to repeat any of the outrageous jokes; take my word for it, they anticipate what Mad comic books would start dong the next year — Jackie Coogan even looks a bit like Melvin. Raymond Hatton lives in a ranch house about the size of a tool shed, and at one point when Sneaky Pete wants to eavesdrop, he simply sticks his head in the window, unnoticed by all.

   From this we go on to chases, gun battles, fist-fights, falling off a mountain and a particularly brutal gopher-beating. That’s right: a gopher-beating. This is, in short, a film in its own little world, like no other movie ever — and I mean that in a good way.

MURDER BY DEATH. Columbia Pictures, 1976. Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood. Title drawings by Charles Addams. Screenplay: Neil Simon. Director: Robert Moore.

   It was a dark and stormy night. Five of the world’s greatest detectives have been summoned, and collectively they’re given a million dollar challenge: solve a murder about to happen, or face the fact that their host, Mr. Lionel Twain, is actually the world’s greatest criminologist.

   For about 20 minutes this is an absolutely devastating parody of Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Nick & Nora Charles, Miss Marple and M. Hercule Poirot, full of puns, one-liners and sight gags — about one a minute as a conservative estimate. Guinness as the blind butler, Bensonmum, is nothing but terrific.

   It’s tough to maintain a pace like this, however, as bits and pieces do not a story make, and the last hour simply runs out of witty things to say. The cinematic version of the traditional detective story is an awfully easy target to play around with, but in my opinion, Neil Simon, giving it all he had, wound up and missed.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT. GM, 1971. Jerry Orbach, Leigh Taylor-Young, Jo Van Fleet, Lionel Stander, Robert De Niro. Based on the novel by Jimmy Breslin. Director: James Goldstone.

   Thanks to director James Goldstone’s frenetic pacing, there’s not a lot of down time in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. In this comedy film, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Despite a fairly thin plot, this off-kilter satire of Brooklyn’s mafia wars moves from scene to scene at a rapid clip, not giving the viewer much time to digest what happened. Most of the time, it works well and distracts the viewer from the fact that there’s not whole much depth to the proceedings.

   But who needs much depth when you’ve got Jerry Orbach portraying Kid Sally, a low-rent South Brooklyn enforcer and Robert DeNiro portraying a character named Mario, an Italian bicycle racer turned con man? Both are such fine actors that it’s difficult to not get lost in their respective characters various schemes and machinations.

   Then there’s veteran character actor Lionel Stander, whose career was among the most effected by the Hollywood blacklist. He portrays Baccala, a crude, tough talking mafia don who utilizes his wife to start the ignition on his car. You know. Just in case.

   The plot follows two parallel tracks. Kid Sally’s attempts to rub out Baccala, and Kid Sally’s sister, Angela’s (Leigh Taylor-Young) budding romance with Mario. Eventually these tracks merge in Kid Sally’s hilariously incompetent attempt to kill Baccala in an Italian restaurant. In this scene, as in many others, the humor isn’t exactly subtle. But it’s not childish and infantile, either. The comedic talent on display makes The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight an enjoyable enough movie, but not necessarily one that necessitates a second viewing.



Editorial Note:   As coincidences go, this is a sad one. This review was scheduled yesterday for today. This morning Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jimmy Breslin’s death was reported. He was 88.

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