Films: Comedy/Musicals


REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

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: ****

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

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!

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

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.

         DRAMATIS PERSONAE:

   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.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THERE WAS A YOUNG LADY. Nettlefold Films, 1953. Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Sydney Tafler, Bill Owen, Charles Farrell, Robert Adair, Geraldine McEwen, Kenneth Connor, Bill Shire. Screenplay: Lawrence Huntington. Story by Vernon Harris & John Jowett. Director: Lawrence Huntington. Currently available on YouTube.

   David Walsh (Michael Denison) is one of those rather hapless English public school types common to British comedy in the Post-War era, a nice chap, but not really suited to anything practical like the jewelry business he has inherited from his uncle and knows nothing about. Luckily for David his fiancee Elizabeth (Dulcie Gray) not only knows jewelry, but business.

   In fact she has a bright idea to buy the family jewels of a titled old school chum (Bill Shire) of David’s who is in a money bind, and sell them at a tidy profit if she can get past David’s stubborn refusal to use his old chum for business.

   Pushed to the brink by David’s recalcitrance and more than a little annoyed by the obvious crush the sexy receptionist (Geraldine McEwan — yes, Miss Marple) has on him Elizabeth walks out …

   And right into a smash and grab hold up at a nearby jewelry store. When the frightened criminal (Bill Owen) grabs her and drags her to the getaway car she finds herself in the company of a hopeless crew of wanna be mastermind Sydney Tafler, muscle man Charles Farrell who would rather garden, Owen, and none to bright Robert Adair who wants to be a chef.

   Truth is, these boys are so poorly organized Elizabeth takes pity on them and masterminds their escape just to get her ordeal over more quickly, but now they are holding her hostage at a manor house outside London that Farrell’s uncle watches for the owners.

   Luckily Elizabeth is able to slip a note to David on a tip she gives a local (Kenneth Connor) who gives them a lift on his hay cart after they dump the getaway car. Unluckily he doesn’t notice.

   While Elizabeth gradually takes over the gang because she is so much smarter than the rest in the way of this kind of comic crime caper David decides her plan isn’t so bad after all and arranges to buy the collection from his friend putting it in their office safe — the old one because he refused delivery on the new one Elizabeth bought while he was still mad at her — and forgets to call the insurance company when Connor shows up with Elizabeth’s note.

   Meanwhile the efficient Elizabeth, having befriended one of crooks, convinces them to make a killing by holding up the jewelry exchange where she and David have their offices with a promise to free her if the plan works. And wouldn’t you know it they hit the wrong office — hers.

   Other than a really annoying theme song this is a cute minor British comedy of the era, hardly a rival to Ealing Studios or any classics of the form from that time, but enjoyable on a British Damon Runyon note with comic crooks, a hapless hero, and a heroine frustrated by not being taken seriously despite being smarter than everyone around her.

   It’s clever, the characters well developed, and the actors fine. Denison was successful minor lead, Gray a competent actress, and the faces like Tafler, Owen (Compo on the long running British comedy Last of the Summer Wine), Adair, McEwen, and Connor — all familiar faces even if you don’t know the names.

   There is a particularly nice bit as a snide Gray reads a cheap thriller in bed out loud while outside, unknown to her, Denison is doing the exact same things she is narrating. There’s also a nice attempted hold up by the boys in the city that goes awry in exactly the way Elizabeth predicted ironically because of Denison and his titled friend who keep getting in the way while shopping for an engagement ring for the friend.

   There are no big laughs here and only the most minor of physical comedy bits, but it is an entertaining time killer that performs well above its class, and has a nice ironic and charming ending, charm being the operative word for the entire film.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

ONE EXCITING NIGHT. Columbia Pictures, UK, 1944; US, 1945. Also released as You Can’t Do Without Love (with slightly altered credits, according to IMDb. Vera Lynn, Donald Stewart, Mary Clare, Frederick Leister, Phyllis Stanley. Director: Walter Forde.

   During wartime, a singer becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to steal a priceless painting…

   Young singer Vera Baker (Vera Lynn) comes to London to entertain a group of RAF personnel on leave. At Waterloo Station, a pick-pocket (Cyril Smith), on the verge of getting caught, sneaks a stolen wallet into her bag. The wallet contains a cloakroom ticket to a mysterious package belonging to Michael Thorne (Donald Stewart), a former theatrical producer, which the nefarious Mr Hampton (Frederick Leister) hopes to claim as his own.

   Vera, meanwhile, has been sacked after an impromptu performance at the United Nations Welfare Service. Discovering the wallet, she tries to return it – and impress its owner with her singing abilities – yet both get set upon by Hampton’s men.

   The package, she learns, is a Rembrandt painting which has been sent to Thorne for safe keeping. Hampton then hires Vera to perform at a cabaret. On the night of the show, he captures Thorne and tries to kill him with the help of a doppelgänger. Vera’s efforts to rescue the imperilled producer leave her standing on a window ledge and in danger of dying herself…

   An amiable romp with six musical numbers (most of which are performed with a band in view), One Exciting Night is a comedy-adventure without enough laughs or thrills to justify its place in either genre. The last of three wartime vehicles for popular British singer Vera Lynn, known as ‘the Nation’s Sweetheart’ for the achingly poignant ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and patriotic ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’, it’s light on action and focuses mainly on farce.

   The plot is mildly engaging but much too convoluted, a sub-Wodehousian blend of light romance and criminal machinations which too often takes a back-seat to the songs. Lynn, here a wholesome, toothily attractive twenty-something, is charming and personable in a role which, perhaps unfortunately, requires her to be oblivious of the surrounding danger for much of the film.

   A far better version could have been made with her as an enterprising amateur sleuth in accord with the mystery, yet as it is she does no detective work whatsoever.

   Even the last-reel jeopardy is half-hearted, lacking any concerted effort to excite or surprise, while the late introduction of one of those miraculous face-masks, so often seen in the Mission Impossible films, makes things all the more outrageous. The film ends, too, on a slightly anticlimactic note as the villains aren’t arrested and – most distastefully – the male lead seems to settle on Vera because his true love is already married.

   Nonetheless, if one doesn’t ask too much of it, One Exciting Night makes for a warm, whimsical, occasionally even fleet-footed film, with at least a couple of enjoyable songs: ‘It’s Like Old Times’ is a wistful, pop-ballad sing-along while ‘You Can’t Do Without Love’, a call for household recycling in aid of the war effort, is a fun little ditty despite playing more like a public information announcement.

   Of course, it’s all somewhat unlikely, and only in the 1940s could the plot of a feature film depend on somebody returning a lost wallet. If that happened to any of us today, it really would be one exciting night.

Rating: ***

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

HOW DOooo YOU DO!!! PRC, 1945.  Bert (The Mad Russian) Gordon, Harry Von Zell, Cheryl Walker, Ella Mae Morse, Keye Luke, and Claire Windsor (as themselves.) Also Frank Albertson, Charles Middleton, Leslie Denison, and Sidney Marion (as fictional characters.)

   A surprisingly lavish effort from little PRC, with, the overall look of slick professionalism one seldom associates with that hard-scrabble outfit, and a surrealist bent rarely seen from any studio, major or minor.

   The frenetic plot involves Radio Stars Gordon and Von Zell slipping off to vacation incognito to get away from amorous young ladies at the studio. The notion of predatory females in relentless pursuit of these two beggars the imagination, but that’s part of the charm here. Anyway, they ensconce themselves at a luxury resort, only to find the ladies checking in right behind them.

   We pause for a bit of rom-com — comedy is never easy, especially on a low budget, but these two pros very nearly make a go of it — before the lads prepare to skip out… only to find the place under lockdown!

   At which point the perennial PRC penury starts to show. Sheriff Charles Middleton announces that a guest has been found murdered in his room, but we aren’t shown the departed guest or the room, throwing a hue of unreality onto the palette. As the story lurches on, the body disappears, then reappears at the most inopportune times, only to vanish with distressing predictability, but again, Gordon and Von Zell do what they can with the material.

   In fact, there’s a pleasantly off-the-wall sidebar to the story when The Mad Russian calls on his movie-detective friends to solve the murder, and one of them is Keye Luke, who indulges in Chanish aphorisms till someone sighs, “What a ham!”

   To discuss the plot any further would be a pointless disservice to the first-time viewer and to the film itself, which ends in a burst of surprising self-awareness. I’ll just say it showed a creative daring I hadn’t seen since Hellzapoppin.

   There was one element here that nettled my mind: Frank Albertson, playing basically the same callow reporter he essayed in Man-Made Monster   (Universal, 1941) romances Claire Windsor (playing herself) who responds enthusiastically. I kept wondering what would happen if a real person married a fictional character? Would the marriage be legal in all fifty states? And which religion would the children be raised in?

   Well, How DOooo You Do!!!   doesn’t answer these questions, nor many others, but fans of old-time radio, and movie-lovers who can let their critical belt out a notch, will find a lot to like here.
   

LOVE LAUGHS AT ANDY HARDY. MGM, 1946. Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Fay Holden, Bonita Granville, Lina Romay, Sara Haden, Dorothy Ford. Director: Willis Goldbeck.

   This was the last of the Andy Hardy films before the 1958 reunion film, Andy Hardy Comes Home, and you certainly can tell the series had seen better days. Andy comes home from the war in this one, just before heading off for college as a 20 year old freshman.

   But since Mickey Rooney was something like 26 years old at the time, he looks absolutely ludicrous in a beanie, to say the least. And he’s also far too old to continue his usual juvenile approach to love and romance any longer, even though he’s serious enough about it now to be ready to pop the question to Bonita Granville. But as you can tell from the title,  it doesn’t work out, in a twist of the plot even more ridiculous then the sight of grown men wearing stupid little caps.

   Lina Romay may not set Andy’s heart on fire, but she does add a little spice to the proceedings. And while I haven’t been able to locate Dorothy Ford in any of my standard  references, in this movie she plays a coed who is about 6 foot 6 inches tall, and when she dances with Andy (who comes only about breast high), it is really something to behold:

   Overall, while I didn’t care that much for the picture, Judge Hardy’s patented father-to-son talk with Andy at the end of the movie is as good as ever (but ruined by the local station that interrupted it in mid-sentence for yet another commercial).

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File 26, December 1990.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

36 HOURS TO KILL. 20th Century Fox, 1936. Brian Donlevy, Gloria Stuart, Douglas Fowley, Isabel Jewell, Warren Hymer, Stepin Fetchit, James Burke. Based on a story by W. R. Burnett. Directed by Eugene Forde. Released commercially on DVD.

Anne Marvis (Gloria Stuart): So this is Albuquerque?

Frank Evers (Brian Donlevy) There’s no Indians.

Anne: They’re all working for the WPA.

Frank: What a relief.

   Get it?

   That’s the wise cracking speed of the humor in this not quite a mystery comedy, that still manages to pack quite a bit of screwball into the tale of a Public Enemy on the run and a blooming romance on a train from Los Angeles to Topeka that accompanies his journey.

   Alvin Karpis has just met his rendezvous with J. Edgar Hoover, the headlines proclaim, while Duke Benson (Douglas Fowley) sweats out hiding in the suburbs of LA with his moll/wife Jeanie (Isabel Jewell) while flunky Hazy (Warren Hymer) makes house calls to deliver the news.

   This time he brings a newspaper from home, Topeka, with him and Duke spies in the paper that a mysterious lottery winner who signed himself Little Boy Blue has won $150,000, and Duke is Little Boy Blue, the winning ticket in his wallet. Just one problem: How will he ever cash it in with the Feds everywhere looking for him?

   Duke comes up with a plan. Jeanie will fly to Topeka since it is dangerous for them to travel with each other, and after arranging with his old gang for a place to hide out once there, Duke will book tickets on the train, Hazy getting on board first, and Duke making a daring transfer from a moving car in the dark as the train is still moving slow. Then Duke will hideout in his compartment for the rest of the trip.

   Complicating things at the train station is reporter Frank Evers, who is hounding a man he claims is a famous scientist he has to get a story on so desperately he buys a ticket to come along, a little girl traveling by herself who takes a shine to Hazy, and boarding at the first stop, Anne Mavis, an attractive blonde fleeing process server James Burke until she can cross over into Arizona.

   When Duke has to leave his compartment for annoying porter Stepin Fetchit to make his bed Anne, hiding from the process server, climbs in Duke’s unoccupied bed, and in true screwball style mistaken for Duke’s wife by the process server, but not by Evers who has already cozied up to Duke.

   Later still Jeanie, when her plane is forced down by a storm, will join the train finding Anne’s gloves in Duke’s compartment and jumping to conclusions so Anne has to pretend to be Frank’s wife to appease Jeannie’s insane jealousy, not really all that insane considering Duke’s proclivities and designs on Anne and how handy Jeanie is with a knife.

   And when they reach Topeka and Duke realizes the Feds are hot on his trail when the porter finds a microphone in his compartment (“Dat one of them new telephones, Mr.?”) things get really complex when he kidnaps Anne and takes her to the phony sanitarium run by his former gang and Frank has to rescue her by posing as the agent from the Insurance Agent paying the lottery ticket off to Duke’s lawyer (Charles Lane).

   Mostly the movie crackles, It speeds along, pauses for laughs, develops just enough character to keep you interested, and relies on the considerable skills of Donlevy, Stuart, Fowley, Hymer, and Jewell to keep things sparking as nothing and no one is exactly who they seem to be and complications arise. Almost every main character has a revelation to make that isn’t exactly what you expect, though one of them is pretty obvious no mater how hard I try to avoid giving it away.

   It might not seem Black Mask material, but you can imagine it i5n Dime Detective or Detective Fiction Weekly. It’s the kind of story you can imagine Richard Sale, Robert Reeves, John K. Butler, or Dwight Babcock might have written.

   Admittedly there is the always nagging problem in films of this era of the role Stepin Fetchit plays, mostly comedic relief as he infuriates Duke, but also fairly important to the plot in that his clumsiness is set up so he finds the microphone that tips Duke off he is being followed.

   Hymer’s Hazy is an odd character too, very much as if a Damon Runyon character had wandered into a Warner’s Gangster flick, his scenes with the little girl quite effecting, and his pride in having made a prune whip for the captive Anne even sweet.

   The ending as you might expect is slam bang, with guns blazing, but who gets shot by whom and why may surprise you.

   Plus I am a sucker for stories like this on a train, and if the finale isn’t on the train, the trip itself is a delight, and the cast fine companions for any journey. This is little gem I only saw for the first time recently, and never heard about, but will no doubt watch again.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER. 1942. Franchot Tone, Joan Bennett, Allyn Joslyn, Lloyd Corrigan, Cecil Cunningham, Hans Conreid. Screenplay by Gina Kaus (her story) & Jay Dratler, with additional dialogue by Harry Segall. Directed by Richard Wallace. Available for viewing online on several sites, including this one.

   With World War II coming at the end of the heyday of the screwball comedy of the Thirties, it was only natural that the new war movies would cross genres with the popular romantic comedies of only a year or so before, and perhaps natural too that the fit and the public reaction would be mixed.

   While Lubitch’s To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny was the hallmark of absolute genius for the genre not everything worked quite so well, and even that classic met mixed reactions when it came out.

   Even before the war there had been some uncomfortable if admirable attempts at mixing the two like Mitchell Leisen and Billy Wilder’s Arise My Love, a romantic comedy that turns quite dark and serious as the war intrudes or Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon with American stripper Ginger Rogers married to Nazi provocateur Walter Slezak encountering American radio journalist Cary Grant (who at one point comes close to being sterilized in a Concentration Camp) and ending with a jolly turn as Slezak falls overboard on a passenger liner on the way to practice his provocations in the States giving Grant, Rogers, and the ship’s Captain pause to debate whether they should rescue him … they don’t.

   These films are a slightly different genre than out right comedies like All Through the Night or various versions of comedic stars battling comic opera Nazi’s (Cairo even does it to music as bumbling Robert Young sinks a German sub while American spy Jeanette MacDonald warbles), and as the genre goes none are stranger than 1942’s The Wife Takes a Flyer.

   Allyn Joslyn is Major Zellfritz, a total Hitlerian idiot replete with a Sergeant whose only job is to massage his arm as he tires of Heil Hitler-ing. Along with every other Nazi in Occupied Holland he is out to find a flier shot down the night before who saw secret Nazi installations. His search leads him to the home of the Woverman’s whose daughter in law, the beautiful Anita (Joan Bennett) is divorcing their son who is due back from the sanitarium that evening.

   Zellfritz is instantly smitten and moves himself in, which would be bad enough save that the missing flier, Christopher Reynolds (Franchot Tone), has just shown up hiding in the cistern, and in desperation gets passed off as the returning husband the insane Hendrik (Hans Conreid), and Reynolds is instantly smitten with Anita too.

   Reynolds is playing madman and flirting, Zellfritz is blocking him and madly jealous, the Woverman’s (Lloyd Corrigan and Barbara Brown) only want to keep the Nazis from realizing they are hiding an Allied flyer, and Anita only wants her divorce the next day and to get out of the madhouse.

   Meanwhile rather than be released Hendrik has broken out.

   Oh, and of course Reynolds needs to make a clandestine meeting and arrange to get out of Holland so he can report on the secret installations he saw. But first the has to sabotage Anita’s divorce because he is so smitten with her he doesn’t want her to go away.

   Before it’s over there is divorce proceeding where Reynolds goes completely nuts, Anita moves in with a home full of man crazy older ladies who get enlisted in Reynold’s mission, a public trial (for an assault the real Hendrick perpetrated) where Reynolds joins the Nazi Party, and all the time he and Anita are falling in love.

   At no point does anyone address how American flier Reynolds and the other flier he meets up with happen to speak Dutch well enough to pass as natives among the Dutch or the Germans.

   Granted screwball comedy operates on a different level than the mundane reality we all live in, but this film is almost surreal in its disregard for any kind of linear storytelling or human behavior. In most screwball comedy there are at least a handful of normal people to react against and poke fun at. Here everyone but Bennett is completely nuts, and even her character seems totally indifferent to WW II.

   And that doesn’t even address Allyn Joslyn’s performance as Zellfritz, a broad even cartoonish interpretation that makes Sig Ruman look restrained. His face screwed up as if he had been sucking on alum, his walk strangely stiff, and his behavior better suited to a Daffy Duck cartoon than a human it is the ultimate comic opera Nazi in a genre where comic opera Nazi’s were the standard.

   The problem is that at no point are any of the Nazis in the film even vaguely threatening. Granted To Be Or Not To Be was broad, but this never quite rises to that level of genius and instead is just strange, an odd relic of two genres that weren’t really compatible colliding head on and ultimately not making a lick of sense. It is fun, with that cast of actors it would almost have to be, but if you engage your brain at all you may find it slightly bruised by the effort to make sense of the goings on.

   It’s hard to believe that no one at any point during the filming of this did anyone speak up and ask what the hell was going on.

   Maybe they were afraid someone would tell them.
   

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