Films: Comedy/Musicals

MOVIE! MOVIE! Reviewed by Dan Stumpf:
Two Films by W. C. Fields.


THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER. Paramount, 1933. With W.C. Fields, Rosemary Theby, George Chandler and Gordon Douglas. Produced by Mack Sennett. Written by W.C. Fields. Directed by Clyde Bruckman.

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK.  Universal, 1941. With W.C. Fields, Gloria Jean, Leon Errol, Margaret Dumont, Franklin Pangborn, Anne Nagel (as “Madame Gorgeous”) Minerva Urecal, Carlotta Monti, and Emil Van Horn (as “Gargo the Gorilla”) Written by John T. Neville, Prescott Chaplin, and “Otis Criblecoblis.” Directed by Edward Cline.

   Genius strikes twice, near the beginning and shortly before the end, of W C Fields’ career in talking pictures.

   Fields was a confirmed star in silent movies, but studio heads must have been nervous about his fitness for sound, because early on, Paramount featured him mostly in their “All Star” features, co-billed with players like Burns & Allen, Charlie Ruggles, and even Bela Lugosi and Gary Cooper!

   But at the same time, Fields was working on ultra-low-budget shorts for Mack Sennett, mostly recreations of his old Vaudeville routines, and among these mini-films, Fatal Glass of Beer calls out to this discerning critic, with its stunning location photography, stirring music, heart-wrenching drama, breath-taking special effects, and thematic resonance, contrasting man’s struggle with the elements and his struggle against sin, for a deeply-felt statement about the savagery of both.

   We-ell, that may be stretching things just a bit.

   The location photography is actually grainy old stock footage with mis-matched sound effects. The music is written & performed by Fields himself (“Mind if I play with my mittens on?”) and the special effects are only astonishing in their audacious ersatzery, so obviously fake as to evoke gasps of disbelief in the audience.

   In fact, what we have here is Fields testing the notion of what it is to be a movie. He deliberately calls attention to the language of film-making, just to craft cinematic puns with it, and the drama creaks with age, played with stony seriousness by a cast of seasoned pros acting like amateurs. The result is a film as anarchistic — and as funny — as Duck Soup or Airplane, hacked out by a genius fluid in the language of Cinema.

   Eight years later we find W.C. Fields physically deteriorating in his last solo-starring feature film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and once again we find him toying with the question, What does it mean to be a Movie? Artists and critics have asked What is a Painting? What is a Novel? A Statue? A Bird? A Plane? A Superman? (Well, only Shaw, Siegel & Schuster asked that last one, and really no critic worth his by-line bothers with birds & planes anymore.)

   But I digress. With Never/Break, Fields threw together every element of a 1940s comedy, then tore them all apart. Once again, we get stunning locations — glass-painted courtesy of Universal Studio’s Jack Otterson (of The Killers and Son of Frankenstein).   We get musical production numbers, some quite elaborate, and there’s even drama of sorts, but don’t try to summarize the plot, because there isn’t any, just a rickety framework about Fields trying to sell a story to his producer, a framework that quickly sinks into the story itself.

   Ah yes. Where Fatal/Beer marches through melodrama, Never/Break   tiptoes through the tulips of timeworn cliché, with predictable romantic rivalries, vapid young lovers, doting dotards and twinkle-eyed teenagers. And Margaret Dumont. And a Gorilla. And a wild chase for a finale that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. Like I said: every element of B-movie comedy broken down and packaged up like a celluloid Xanadu.

   It’s seldom that a career is bookended so neatly. In fact, the closest I can recall is John Wayne going out with The Shootist.  And let’s face it, Fatal Glass… wasn’t Fields’ first film, nor was Never Give his last. But they’re close enough — and memorable enough — to work for me.


From Page to Screen. by Mike Tooney:
DAMON RUNYON “The Lemon Drop Kid.”


DAMON RUNYON “The Lemon Drop Kid.” Short story. First appearance: Collier’s, 03 February 1934.

   Damon Runyon (1880-1946) used to be a household name. He was famous for two reasons: his reportage, often covering some of the most sensational stories of the first half of the 20th century, and his fiction, featuring thinly disguised real people in occasionally outlandish situations, written in a narrative style uniquely his own.

   Nowadays Runyon’s reputation rests almost entirely in his “Broadway stories,” such as Guys and Dolls. People who knew Runyon well claimed his hardboiled exterior concealed a cultured and sensitive interior. In any case, he was friends with the infamous (Al Capone was a neighbor) as well as the famous (in accordance with Runyon’s wishes, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker flew low over Broadway and scattered his ashes over the district).

   One of Runyon’s “ironic mini-comedies” involves a racetrack tout named The Lemon Drop Kid. A tout, for the uninitiated, is a hustler who pretends he has inside information on an upcoming race (when, in fact, he has none), and who by getting some sucker to get in on the betting is able to clear a few “bob” for himself, the sucker usually being happy enough to cut the tout in on the winnings  —  but being very unhappy when the tip doesn’t pay off as advertised.

   This is called “telling the tale,” and The Lemon Drop Kid is normally very good at it.

   But on this particular occasion, The Kid accidentally misdirects his mark, and through a major misunderstanding takes it on the lam to escape what he mistakenly assumes will be retributive justice in the form of The Kid’s tender flesh.

   And so he literally runs away from the racetrack, with his mark in hot pursuit.

   Eventually, The Kid will find love for the first time in his life, but the experience will prove bittersweet . . . .

   Runyon’s story has been filmed twice, once by Paramount in 1934 with Lee Tracy, Helen Mack, and William Frawley (remember the growly landlord in I Love Lucy?); and a second time by Paramount in 1951 with Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, Lloyd Nolan, Fred Clark, and William Frawley again.

   The 1934 version, we are told, adheres more closely to the original story. Those who have seen it say it starts out a comedy and ends up on a more serious note, very much like Runyon’s tale. The claim has been made that Paramount suppressed this film in favor of the remake.

   The 1951 edition takes the idea of The Kid misinforming someone about a bet and runs with it; the whole thing is played for as many laughs as possible (e.g., The Kid initiating a scam on little old ladies, Bob Hope in drag; you get the idea).

   Hope’s film also introduced a song that became an instant Christmastime standard, “Silver Bells.”

   To give you an idea of how much the 1951 movie differed from Runyon’s story, get a load of this list of characters’ names that never appeared in the original tale: Sidney Melbourne, ‘Brainy’ Baxter, Oxford Charley, Nellie Thursday, Moose Moran, Straight Flush, Gloomy Willie, Sam the Surgeon, Little Louie, Singing Solly, The Bird Lady, and Goomba. “Sidney Melbourne” was the moniker they gave The Kid and “‘Brainy’ Baxter” was gorgeous Marilyn Maxwell.



THE FULLER BRUSH MAN. Columbia Pictures, 1948. 93 minutes. Red Skelton, Janet Blair, Don McGuire, Adele Jergens, Donald Curtis, Arthur Space, Hillary Brooke, Ross Ford, Trudy Marshall, Nicholas Joy, Selmer Jackson, Jimmy Hunt (the Mean Widdle Kid). Based on The Saturday Evening Post short story “Appointment with Fear” by Roy Huggins (28 September 1946) .

   Red, recently fired from the sanitation department, tries his hand at door-to-door salesmanship, without much success. But there is some pain — e. g., the Mean Widdle Kid (one of Skelton’s characters), who gives him a horrible time (ironic, since Red played the Kid on radio). And not only pain — Red manages to get himself designated as the prime suspect in a murder, an impossible crime in which the deadly weapon mysteriously disappears (actually it never appears in the first place — perplexing, huh?).

   Before he can finally clear himself, Red and Janet Blair almost get rubbed out in a war surplus warehouse filled with explosives. Congratulations are due the stunt people, who definitely earned their paychecks on this picture.

   At one point Red refers to himself as “Philo Jones,” a still-meaningful reference to society sleuth Philo Vance.

   Oddly enough, this Red Skelton vehicle got its start as a hard-boiled private eye story in The Saturday Evening Post, but by the time the screenwriters (principally Frank Tashlin) got through with it there was no resemblance to the source material.

   For you trivia hounds, the original story featured P. I. Stu(art) Bailey, played on TV a decade later by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., in the 77 Sunset Strip series. At almost the same time as The Fuller Brush Man was being filmed, a more serious movie featuring the Stu Bailey character (I Love Trouble with Franchot Tone in the lead) was also being lensed; it even had a few actors from the Skelton film (Janet Blair, Adele Jergens, Donald Curtis). Coincidence? We don’t think so.


Related 2013 Mystery*File article about Roy Huggins:


GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. 20th Century Fox, 1953. Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn, Elliott Reid, Tommy Noonan, George Winslow. Based on the musical comedy by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos. Director: Howard Hawks. Currently streaming online here.

   Especially if the blonde is Marilyn Monroe. Jane Russell is the brunette of the pair, showgirls with two tally opposed ways of  looking for a husband. Lorelei Lee is a golddigger from the word go, while her friend is looking merely for a man.

   There is not much to the story. Subtract the singing and dancing, and you’d have an hour or less of plot, which nobody probably pays any attention to anyway. Marilyn steals the show as the really not-so-dumb blonde. She has all the moves in the book.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Universal Pictures, 1940. Virginia Bruce,John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland.

   More a low-key screwball comedy than a horror feature, The Invisible Woman is a genial, albeit rather forgettable affair. Released in 1940, seven years after James Whale’s The Invisible Man, the film has a light tone that makes it breezy fun, but not much more than that. Based on a story co-written by Kurt Siodmak (The Wolf Man) and directed by A. Edward Sutherland, the movie does what it is supposed to; namely, provide an hour plus of escapist entertainment.

   When oddball Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore) puts an advertisement in the paper for someone wanting to become invisible, he gets more than he bargained for when working girl Kitty Carroll (Virginia Bruce) shows up. Sassy and strong-willed, she’s determined to use her newfound ability to torment her sexist and demanding boss. While the invisible Carroll gets caught up in a love-hate relationship with playboy millionaire Richard Russell (John Howard), the zany professor is targeted by a gangster (Oscar Homolka) who wants the invisibility machine so he can safely return from his Mexican exile and visit the home country.

   The special effects, by today’s standards, are really nothing special. Truth be told, even for a 1940 feature, there’s nothing particularly impressive doing on in this realm. Director James Whale certainly did it all better years before in the original entry into the Invisible Man series.

   Still, there are some laughs to be had in this comedy. Did I mention Charles Ruggles plays a bumbling butler, devoted – at least financially – to Russell? I guess I would see this one again with a crowd, should the opportunity arise. But to watch it again on VHS? Probably not.


TWO TICKETS TO BROADWAY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1951. Tony Martin, Janet Leigh, Gloria De Haven, Ann Miller, Bob Crosby. Barbara Lawrence. Screenwriters: Sid Silvers & Hal Kanter, based on a story by Sammy Cahn. Director: James V. Kern.

   A young girl from Pelican Falls is given a rousing send-off by her home town she she goes off to fame on Broadway. Of course it doesn’t work out that way, not at first, but I wasn’t worried. I just knew that she and her friends would end up on [Bob] Crosby’s TV show.

   Lots of singing and dancing and variety acts, much like the old Ed Sullivan program when I was a kid. I found [back then] I could do without the variety acts, and I’ve just learned I still can. Today, though, I can use the old-fashioned fast-forward button on the VCR.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.




TWO WAY STRETCH British Lion Films, UK, 1960. Peter Sellers, David Lodge, Bernard Cribbins, Wilfrid Hyde White, Maurice Denham, Lionel Jeffries, Irene Handl, Liz Fraser. Director: Robert Day.

   I don’t often review comedies on this blog – though I do love ’em – but I’m making an exception for this as it is both old and involves a crime. It’s basically Porridge fifteen years earlier, with Peter Sellers as crafty, cockney career criminal (and guest of Her Majesty’s) ‘Dodger’ Lane. He and his cell-mates ‘Jelly’ Knight (David Lodge) and Lenny the Dip (Bernard Cribbins) treat the prison like a hotel, with a newspaper and fry-up every morning.

   The staff, meanwhile, are gullible and good-natured, with the governor (Maurice Denham) more interested in growing prize-winning vegetable marrows than keeping his convicts under control. Unsurprisingly, with such an easy life, Dodger and co have no wish to escape.

   This, however, is just what their old conspirator ‘Soapy’ Stevens (Wilfred Hyde-White) asks them to do. Disguised as a gentlemanly prison chaplain, he recognises that the trio’s imprisonment affords them the perfect alibi and enlists their help in a diamond heist. All they have to do is break out of prison, carry out the theft and break back in again.

   With the prison’s security almost non-existent, the plan is bound to succeed. However, a problem arrives in the shape of Dodger’s old nemesis, the irascible and sadistic prison warder ‘Sour’ Crout (Lionel Jeffries). With this guy around, there’s no way our trio can figure out a way to escape … surely?

   Caper comedies were popular at this time with The Big Job (1965), Too Many Crooks (1959) and Make Mine Mink (1960) showing that we Brits may be rubbish criminals but do make pretty good comedies. This was one of the most popular British films on the year of release, and it’s easy to see why. Schoolboys, in particular, must have loved the silly fun found here, and Jeffries makes for a terrific pantomime villain as the gestapo-like Crout, screaming his lines (“Silence when you’re talking to me!”) and sadistically determined to make every inmate suffer. There’s excellent support too from Liz Fraser and Irene Handl, the latter urging her son Lenny to escape jail like everyone else in their family.

   The break-out attempts in the middle of the film tip the hat to both The Wooden Horse (1950) and Danger Within (1959), spoofing another popular genre of the time, though both are episodic and unsurprisingly focus more on comedy than logistical analysis. The eventual theft of the diamonds from an army vehicle is a little underwhelming, however, though Thorley Walters shows how he could have played Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army (a role in which he was considered).

   This was probably the most casual performance Sellers ever gave, lacking as it does the multi-character revue of The Mouse That Roared (1959), Dr Strangelove (1964) and Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1974) or the intensity of I’m Alright, Jack (1959) and Being There (1979). It is also one of his most charming and accessible films, proving that not only Ealing could do Ealing.

   Fans should also check out The Wrong Arm of the Law (1962) (another Sellers caper and something of a spiritual successor to this), POW spoof Very Important Person (1961) and, more recently, the starry but sadly neglected prison comedy Lucky Break (2001).

Rating: ****




MY LEARNED FRIEND. Ealing, 1943. Will Hay, Claude Hulbert, Mervyn Johns, and Ernest Thesiger. Written by Angus MacPhail & John Dighton. Directed by Basil Dearden & Will Hay. Currently streaming on Plex.

   Will Hay — for reasons that escape me — was an enduring star of British stage, screen and airwaves. His observations seem obvious to me, his delivery deliberate, and his timing tortuous. Still, you can’t argue with Success (Or rather, you can, but It won’t listen,) he made a score of well-received films, and I actually enjoyed this one.

   Hay stars as Will Fitch, a former barrister brought up on charges of fraud, who easily gets himself acquitted with a flurry of wheezy old jokes, then invites the flummoxed Crown Prosecutor, fittingly named Claude Babbington, back to his digs for a drink.

   But there they are confronted by a recently released felon gone mad (a delightfully miscast Mervyn Johns, whom you may remember as Bob Cratchit to Alastair Sim’s Scrooge.) who has sworn to kill everyone who had a hand in sending him up, and just wants to give Hay a heads-up you know, because he’s last on the list.

   Duly alarmed, Fitch and Babbington set about trying to thwart the madman by getting to his prospective victims first, following clues he has thoughtfully provided them. All they manage, though, is to arrive late or at the wrong places and get themselves suspected and ultimately hunted by Scotland Yard.

   It’s a tenuous concept for a comedy, but it gets more than its share of laughs, mostly because Babbington, Fitch’s partner in not-solving crimes is played by veteran comic actor Claude Hulbert.

   Hulbert specialized in playing the Silly Ass, and even essayed a turn as Algy Longworth in Bulldog Jack (aka: Alias Bulldog Drummond). Everyone involved had the wisdom to give him free rein here, and he’s simply and completely hilarious, even when the jokes are not. Indeed, he gets a tour de force dance number that he handles with amazing gracefulness (sorry) and split-second timing.

   Friend ultimately devolves into a farcical set-to inside an explosive-laden Big Ben, but by that time I had surrendered to Hulbert’s charm and found myself enjoying this nonsense in spite of myself. You might, too.


FUN IN ACAPULOCO. Paramount Pictures, 1963. Elvis Presley, Ursula Andress, Elsa Cárdenas, Paul Lukas, Larry Domasin, Alejandro Rey. Producer: Hal Wallis. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   I realize that movies such as this one don’t turn up on this blog very often, but other than the fact that Elvis is in it, it marks a significant milestone for me. It’s the first movie I’ve seen in a theater in almost two and a half years. It was the matinee film shown at the New Beverly Theater in Hollywood last Sunday. The New Beverly is owned by Quentin Tarantino and specializes in retro films from 60s through the 80s, many of them prints coming from Tarantino’s own collection, such as this one. The poster below is the one on the sidewalk in front of the theater as you entered.

   The movie was a big hit in its day, but to call it fluff from today’s perspective would be exaggerating by a factor of ten. The plot has something to do with Elvis’s character, the object of affection of two women in competition for his sole attention, and not much more than that —  Elsa Cárdenas as a lady bullfighter, and Ursula Andress as the assistant social director at the resort hotel in Acapulco where Elvis has a combined job as a lifeguard and (of course) a singer.

   I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but the teen-aged girls who came in hordes to see this movie in 1963 surely did. Besides Elvis, the other star attraction, the one aimed for the guys whose girls came to see him and were forced to come along, was of course Ursula Andress, this being the very next film she made following her bombshell appearance as Honey Ryder in the James Bond movie Dr. No. They made for an interesting couple on film. One can only wonder how they may have gotten along in real life.

   I probably would never have sat down to watch this on TV, but it served its primary purpose very well. A movie in brilliant technicolor on a big screen with lots of people in it singing and dancing and just plain having a good time – and all that was only a bonus. It just felt great to be back in a movie theater again!




BIZARRE, BIZARRE. Pathé Consortium Cinéma, France, 1937, originally released as Drôle de drame.  Françoise Rosay, Michel Simon, Louis Jouet, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nadine Vogel, and Jean-Louis Barrault. Screenplay by Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné, from the novel by J. Storer Clouston. Directed by Marcel Carné.

   A fun and funny farce in the tradition of Arsenic and Old Lace or The Trouble with Harry    —  both of which it predates.


   Molyneux (Michele Simon) a meek botanist who secretly augments his income by writing crime stories under the name Felix Chapel. First seen at a public lecture given by his cousin,

   Bishop Soper, the most sinister churchman since Claude Frollo, who inveighs against writers of crime novels in general and Felix Chapel in particular.

      Also at the lecture is:

   William Krantz, a serial killer known as “The butcher of butchers” who vows to hunt down and kill Felix Chapel.

   Soper invites himself to dinner at Molyneux’s. Distraught, Molyneux goes home to

   Mme Molyneux (Françoise Rosay) his socially conscious wife, who, for reasons too farcical to recount, decides to fake a disappearance and pose as a servant, along with the remaining maid,

   Eva (Nadine Vogel) who gives Molyneux all the ideas for his books, which she gets from

   Billy, the story-telling milkman.

   Bishop Soper grows suspicious of Mme Molyneux’ absence — particularly as the botanist’s feeble explanations fall apart — and vaults to the conclusion that Molyneux has killed her. Minutes later, the Molyneux house fills with cops, The Missus has booked, and Molyneux and the maid wisely follow suit, leaving only the imaginative milkman for the police to arrest as the botanist/writer becomes the center of a well-publicized manhunt.

   And so it goes, in the best manner of one-damn-thing-after-another: the street fills with mobs demanding blood, the house fills with screwball reporters inventing stories, Molyneux disguises himself as Felix Chapel, Krantz falls in love with Mme Molyneux, he and Chapel get drunk together, Billy seduces Eva…. Bringing Up Baby  (which came out the next year) has nothing on this one!

   I should add that all this is elegantly directed with Marcel Carné’s signature fluid style, sparklingly photographed by Eugen Schüfftan, who later chalked up credits like The Hustler and Eyes Without a Face.

   In short, this is the veritable Mère of screwball comedy, a film of style, wit and imagination, and one not to be missed.


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