Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break

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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and Baby Leroy dropping grapes through a hole in the porch (“Shades of Bacchus!”); and a wild picnic on private property. One of Fields’ best movies, an absurd comic classic! Fun Fact: Kathleen Howard was a former opera singer who costarred in three of W.C.’s films.

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GENERAL SPANKY (MGM 1936, D: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas) Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and the “Our Gang” kids star in this Civil War era comedy that plays like a few shorts strung together. There’s not really any overt racism, as some critics claim; except for the use of the derogatory term “pickaninny” early on, it’s simply a product of its era. The story is told from the Southern POV, making it sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the slaves are treated with more dignity by the Southerners than the invading Yankee army! The warm relationship that develops between the two orphans Spanky and Buckwheat rarely gets mentioned. Still, this ain’t GONE WITH THE WIND; if it sounds offensive, just don”t watch. Fans of Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts will want to catch it, though. Fun Fact: Irving Pichel, who I’ve discussed here in past posts , plays the mean Yankee captain at odds with Spanky and friends.

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TURNABOUT (United Artists 1949, D: Hal Roach) Gender-bending screwball comedy about a constantly bickering couple (John Hubbard, Carole Landis) that have their wish to swap bodies granted by a Hindu idol come to life. Ultimately the film tries a little too hard at being wacky and is a letdown considering it’s groundbreaking theme. Adolphe Menjou, William Gargan, Mary Astor, Joyce Compton, Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, Marjorie Main, and especially Donald Meek head a game supporting cast. Based on a novel by Thorne (TOPPER) Smith. Fun Fact: One of a handful of feature films directed by comedy pioneer Roach.

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BLONDE INSPIRATION (MGM 1941, D: Busby Berkeley) Minor but amusing screwball comedy concerning an idealistic unpublished writer (John Shelton) who’s conned out of $2000 by two broke publishers (the unlikely but funny comedy team of Albert Dekker and Charles Butterworth !) to write Western pulp fiction when their drunken star scribe Dusty King (Donald Meek again!) quits. Shelton’s bland in the lead,  but the rest of the cast makes up for it, with a wisecracking script by Marion Parsonnet and swift direction from musical maestro Berkeley. Virginia Grey plays the publisher’s cynical secretary who ends up falling for the dopey, naïve Shelton. Reginald Owen, Alma Krueger, Byron Foulger, and Charles Halton all add to the fun. Fun Fact: Marion Martin, former Ziegfeld showgirl, is the “blonde inspiration” of the title, playing the dumb-blonde companion of Butterworth.

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WHO DONE IT? (Universal 1942, D: Erle C. Kenton) Abbott & Costello play two soda jerks (emphasis on “jerks”) and wanna-be radio mystery writers who get caught up in a real-life murder mystery at the station. This was Bud and Lou’s first effort without the usual musical interludes (no Andrews Sisters, no swing bands, etc), and allows them to unleash their comic mayhem uninhibited. The radio setting gives them good material to work with, like their “watts are volts” wordplay riffing (they even have a bit disparaging their classic ‘Who’s On First?” routine). There are some genuinely scary touches between the slapstick from horror vet Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN ), and a solid supporting cast featuring William Gargan and William Bendix as a pair of dopey detectives, Mary Wickes as Lou’s love interest (!!), and Universal’s Familiar Face Brigade: Patric Knowles, Louise Allbritton, Thomas Gomez, Don Porter, Jerome Cowan, and Ludwig Stossel. Cadaverous Milton Parsons even shows up as the coroner! Fast and fun entry in the A&C catalog. Fun Fact: The page boy constantly getting over on Lou is Walter Tetley, a radio actor known to TV affecianados as the voice of Mr. Peabody’s favorite boy, Sherman!

This Was Burlesque: THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER (Monogram 1943)

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Monogram Pictures is mostly remembered today as the home of Bela Lugosi chillers that weren’t too chilling, Charlie Chan mysteries that weren’t so mysterious, and the Bowery Boys peculiar brand of buffoonery. The Poverty Row studio seemed to throw virtually anything at the wall hoping it would stick in order to compete with the major studios of the 1940’s (MGM, 20th Century-Fox, etc). They signed burlesque stripper Ann Corio to a contract, fresh off her appearance in 1941’s SWAMP WOMAN (released by PRC, a studio even more poverty-stricken than Monogram) and concocted a farce titled THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER, which in spite of itself manages to entertain because of the talented comic actors in the cast.

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The opening says it all, as we gaze upon a book titled “Phony Phables”. The Sultan of Araban (Charles Butterworth ) has a daughter named Patra (Miss Corio), who owns all the country’s oil fields. Nazi agents (Jack LaRue, Gene Roth) want to buy them, but Patra will only sell to the Americans. Enter Jimmy and Tim (Eddie Norris, Tim Ryan), a pair of vaudeville hoofers stranded in Araban. The boys are duped into fronting for the Nazis to purchase the oil, passing themselves off as “subjects of the kingdom of Brooklyn”. Patra falls for Jimmy, while her American companion Irene (Irene Ryan) goes gaga for Tim. Evil Nazi sympathizer Kuda (Fortunio Bonanova ) kidnaps the sultan, Jimmy and Tim are implicated, then vindicated, and by film’s end, everything turns out for the best.

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Ann Corio’s quite a lovely women, but as an actress, she’s a great stripper. Ann doesn’t do any peeling here, but her costume’s skimpy enough to show her stuff to good advantage. A star of the Minsky’s Burlesque circuit, her movie career was brief. She later put together a traveling review titled THIS WAS BURLESQUE that was quite a successful nostalgia show. Supporting stars Tim and Irene Ryan were vaudeville veterans who had an act similar to Burns & Allen. Tim became a mainstay at Monogram, acting in and writing for many of their films. He’s pretty funny here, so I guess I can forgive him for his atrocious screenplay BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA . Wife Irene gets to display her comic talents, and has a pleasant singing voice. She’s best known of course for her long run as Granny on TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!

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Then there’s Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher and his orchestra. These guys were kind of cornpone precursors to Spike Jones, mixing comedy with swing music. Speaking of which, there’s plenty of jitterbugging and hepcat talk here. Director Arthur Dreifuss was an old pro at low-budget musical comedies geared for young audiences, helming many a Gale Storm production at Monogram. He concluded his career directing 1960’s youth flicks like RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP and THE YOUNG RUNAWAYS.

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THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER is a fun little film, but certainly not essential viewing. It’s the product of a bygone era, a time when low-budget studios like Monogram churned out programmers designed to entertain the public and take their minds off the war for an hour or so. I’d recommend it to fans of Monogram Pictures, Ann Corio, or Irene Ryan. And any fans of Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher, if there are any left out there!

Pre Code Confidential #5: HOLLYWOOD PARTY (MGM 1934)

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One of the most bizarre films of the Pre-Code (or any) era is HOLLYWOOD PARTY. This practically plotless hodgepodge stars Jimmy Durante as jungle movie hero Schnarzan, whose films are tanking at the box office. The public has grown tired of his battles with “moth-eaten, toothless lions”, so his producer decides to buy new ones from the adventurer Baron Munchausen (radio star Jack Pearl doing his schtick). Schnarzan throws a big Hollywood party for the Baron, hoping to win his favor, but screen rival Liondola (dialect comic Georges Givot), disguising himself as the Grand Royal Duke of Peloponnesia, crashes the bash and tries to buy the lions for himself with the help of Oklahoma oil baron Harvey Crump (the perpetually perplexed  Charles Butterworth).

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All this is just an excuse for a series of unrelated comic bits featuring some of the era’s top funnymen. Durante, as the nominal star, gets the bulk of the material. He’s a roar in a “Schnarzan” trailer with his half-naked costar, the fiery and funny Lupe Velez. A reincarnation skit features Jimmy as Adam at the Garden of Eden and Paul Revere’s horse! He even gets to clown around with the one and only Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney), which segues into a color Disney cartoon, “Hot Chocolate Soldiers”.

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Ted Healy and his Three Stooges show up, with Moe, Larry, and Curly as autograph hounds at the door and do a bit about Neanderthal craniums with three eminent professors. Mack Sennett veteran Polly Moran is Butterworth’s social-climbing wife, who gets involved in some amorous (and racy!) situations with Durante and Givot. Young lovers Eddie Quillan and June Clyde pitch woo and sing the comical “I’ve Had My Moments”.

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But it’s Laurel & Hardy who manage to steal the film, showing up in the last half as a pair of ragamuffins who sold the lions to Baron Munchausen. Seems the Baron gave them a check for fifty thousand tiddy-winks, and they want their lions back! After some shenanigans at the front door with butler Tom Kennedy, they crash the party and meet Lupe Velez at the bar. This turns into a classic “tit for tat” bit involving Stan, Ollie, Lupe, and a bowl of raw eggs (which the team later reprised in THE BULLFIGHTERS). Stan and Ollie let one of the lions loose, and Schnarzan engages in a fierce battle, only to awaken from what’s been a dream Durante had after reading a Tarzan book!

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HOLLYWOOD PARTY features tons of scantily clad women in musical sequences singing and dancing to some pretty forgettable songs. It was released about a month before the Code went into effect, and edited upon rerelease by the censors. What survives is still funny, and of interest to fans of early 30’s comedy. Also in the cast are Leonid Kinskey, Edwin Maxwell, Jed Prouty, Arthur Treacher (as a butler, of course), Robert Young (doing a bit as a radio announcer), and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers (if you look close, you’ll spot her!).

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Richard Boleslavsky usually gets the director’s credit, but research has shown the film had multiple hands working on different sequences. George Stevens handled the Laurel & Hardy scenes, and Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, and Sam Wood all took turns in the director’s chair, but who did what is up for speculation. This gives HOLLYWOOD PARTY a disconnected feeling, like a series of two-reelers slapped together, but somehow it works. It’s a zany look at Hollywood Bacchanalia before the code went into effect, and film buff’s delight. If you’re a fan of any of the comedians I’ve mentioned, it’s definately worth checking out.

More PRE-CODE CONFIDENTIAL:

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