Confessions of a TV Addict #5: Aaron Ruben, Man Behind the Laughter

So what could a Jewish kid from Chicago possibly know about life among rural Southerners or the black experience in Watts? Probably not a whole heck of a lot, but if that kid’s name is Aaron Ruben, there’s one thing he  does know – funny! For Aaron Ruben was the producer/writer behind such classic sitcoms as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and SANFORD AND SON, who used his comedic talents behind the scenes keep America laughing while glued to the boob tube for over forty years!

Milton Berle in his radio days

Ruben was born on Chicago’s West Side in 1914, and after service in WWII began his show biz career writing for comic Wally Brown on Dinah Shore’s radio show. He was soon hired by Burns & Allen for their program, and then wrote for Milton Berle alongside Nat Hiken, who would play an important role in Ruben’s later career. Berle brought Ruben on board for his smash TV series TEXACO STAR THEATER for the 1953-54 season, marking the writer’s first efforts on the small screen. They wouldn’t be his last!

(clockwise from top) Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray, and Sid Caesar in “Caesar’s Hour”

Ruben’s next gig found him in heady comedy company indeed. Sid Caesar returned after his smash YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS in a new variety hour titled, appropriately enough, CAESAR’S HOUR, bringing back sidekicks Carl Reiner and Howard Morris along with newcomer Nanette Fabray (replacing Imogene Coca, who went out on her own). Aaron was added to a writing team that included Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Tolkin, as well as Caesar, Reiner, and Morris, producing a live hour of mirth on a weekly basis! The show lasted three seasons, following which Ruben went to work for his old friend Hiken writing and directing THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, subtitled YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH but better known to TV fans as SGT. BILKO.

Ruben with Don Knotts & Andy Griffith

In 1960, Ruben got in on the ground floor for a true comedy classic, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. He was a producer/writer/director on the series set in the quaint little town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and did some of his finest work on the show. Among his many contributions are a few standouts: “Barney Mends a Broken Heart”, which introduced The Fun Girls from Mount Pilot (Joyce Jameson and Jeanne Carson), who returned in the Ruben-penned “The Fun Girls”. “Floyd, The Gay Deceiver” gave series regular Howard McNear a chance to shine. Ruben left the show after the final episode of 1964, but returned in 1968 with “Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting”, the improbable tale of Barney Fife trying to negotiate détente between the U.S. and Russia, which turned out to be Don Knott’s series swan song.

Frank Sutton and Jim Nabors in “Gomer Pyle USMC”

That last episode in ’64 was the pilot for GOMER PYLE, USMC (1964-69), a spin-off starring the late Jim Nabors as Mayberry’s hayseed gas station attendant, now in the Marine Corps, opposite apoplectic Frank Sutton as the beleaguered Sgt. Vince Carter. GOMER PYLE was Ruben’s baby all the way, played strictly for laughs despite the raging war in Vietnam at the time. The formula was simple; Gomer’s naivety constantly gets him in trouble, and Sgt. Carter usually takes the fall. GOMER was popular with both audiences and the Marines themselves, proving the Corps really does have a sense of humor. Semper Fi!

“The Comic” (1969) with Dick Van Dyke & Michele Lee

After GOMER’s run, Ruben cowrote the film THE COMIC (1969) with director (and former CAESAR’S HOUR cohort) Carl Reiner. This dramedy starred Dick Van Dyke (another TV icon) as a washed-up, alcoholic silent comedian, and costarred Mickey Rooney, Michele Lee, and Cornel Wilde. While it didn’t do well at the box office when first released, it’s well worth rediscovering for fans of classic comedy, of which Ruben was definitely one (he wrote some skits for the 1965 TV special A SALUTE TO STAN LAUREL, hosted by Van Dyke and featuring, among others, Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, and the great Buster Keaton).

Ruben with Redd Foxx & Demond Wilson on the set of “Sanford & Son”

1972 found Ruben working for Norman Lear as producer/writer on a new sitcom, SANFORD & SON. The misadventures of junkyard proprietor Fred G. Sanford, played to perfection by cantankerous comedian Redd Foxx, and his hip son Lamont (Demond Wilson) was yet another feather in Ruben’s comedy cap, writing the first episode aired, “Crossed Swords” (with the Sanfords trying to raise the price of a porcelain piece they procured at an auction), and twenty others, including the classic “The Piano Movers”. Ruben stayed with the show for two seasons, and was a big part of its early success.

Aaron Ruben didn’t slow down, but the hits seemed to stop coming. His military sitcom CPO SHARKEY, starring Don Rickles , lasted two seasons (1976-78). Other attempts (THE STOCKARD CHANNING SHOW, TEACHER’S ONLY) failed to move the ratings meter. Old pal Andy Griffith hired Ruben as a creative consultant on his hit series MATLOCK, adding some comedy bits from 1990-92 to brighten things up. It was his last TV credit; soon Ruben settled into a comfortable retirement with his wife, actress Maureen Arthur. He was lauded for his work with abused children in the Los Angeles area, which he continued until his death from pneumonia in 2010 at the age of 95. Aaron Ruben will always be remembered by TV fans for his comedic talents, but it’s his work with children he was most proud of.  Most importantly, he helped put smiles on people’s faces, and when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what life’s all about? Thanks for the smiles, Aaron!

 

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Quirky Jerky: Jerry Lewis in THE BELLBOY (Paramount 1960)

The late, great Jerry Lewis was not just a funny man, he was an innovative filmmaker whose talents behind the cameras matched his onscreen antics. Paramount Pictures gave him carte blanche on THE BELLBOY, his first film as producer/director/writer/star, a film with “no story, no plot, just a series of silly sequences” following the misadventures of Stanley, the world’s most inept bellboy. To the best of my knowledge it is the first of its kind… even W.C. Fields’ bizarre NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK and Olsen & Johnson’s wacky HELLZAPOPPIN’ had some semblance of loose plot foisted on them by nervous studio execs!

Lewis was doing his nightclub act at Miami’s Fontainebleu Hotel at the time, and already had CINDERFELLA in the can. Paramount wanted a summer release, but Lewis thought the film would do better in the Christmas season, so he concocted this loose, madcap romp done in blackout style, and filmed during the day at the hotel. He rounded up stand-up comics playing the area (Bob Clayton, Sonnie Sands, Herkie Styles, Jack Durant) to play minor parts, even corralling Milton Berle to play himself in one funny sequence.

Comedian/impressionist Bill Richmond pops up amidst the chaos as Stan Laurel , and that’s no coincidence. Lewis had long been a fan of Laurel & Hardy’s humor, and he asked Stan to work as a gag writer on THE BELLBOY. Laurel refused the request, but went over the script for Jerry, making notations and suggestions which Lewis diligently followed. Lewis even named his character after the comic giant, and THE BELLBOY is a love letter to the kind of silent slapstick Laurel did best, a tribute to the man’s generosity toward younger comedians.

The movie featured another first: Lewis came up with what’s now known as Video Assist, a device where the director could watch the footage being shot to assure he’s getting the scene he envisioned. Today the system is used on virtually every movie made, and Jerry Lewis is to thank for that. THE BELLBOY is a unique film in the Lewis canon, and I think it’s among his best. It’s pure, unadulterated Jerry Lewis zaniness that defies description, full of wacky sight gags that’s sure to please fans of inspired lunacy. Even non-fans of Lewis’s films will get a kick out of this if they give it half a chance.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the memories of Jerry Lewis and Stan Laurel, both of whom brought so much needed joy and laughter into the world!)  

Pre Code Confidential #14: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (RKO 1932)

Director Gregory LaCava is remembered today mainly for a pair of bona fide classics: MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR. LaCava, who started his career in early silent animation, was also responsible for THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, a Pre-Code screwball comedy begging to be rediscovered. It’s a crazy, innovative, pedal-to-the-metal farce headlined by fast-talking Lee Tracy and “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez as a pair of carny con artists who work their way up to The Great White Way in grand comic style.

Tracy does his rapid-fire spieling schtick as a carnival barker promoting hot-tempered tamale Lupe, a hootchie dancer who spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing. Together with pal Eugene Pallette , they leave the carny life behind (with the law on their tails!) and head for Broadway, where Lee promises Lupe he’ll make her a star. The trio pawn Lupe off as Turkish Princess Exotica (with Tracy pawning off an unwitting Pallette as a eunuch!), and set their sights on Broadway impresario Merle Farrell, played to perfection by the perpetually befuddled Frank Morgan. Tracy’s promotional stunt includes importing a lion named Stamboli straight from Coney Island!

Soon hustler Tracy has Lupe under contract to Merle Farrell’s Follies, where the former hootchie becomes a Broadway sensation singing and dancing to the double entendre laden “The Carpenter Song”. She then dumps the loquacious Lee for old goat Morgan, causing him to promote a new find, hotel maid Gladys, redubbing her Eve, Queen of the Nudists! The hustling huckster also manages to snap a photo of Morgan and Lupe in a compromising situation, which he proceeds to plaster all over the producer’s office. Morgan’s no fool, so Lupe gets dumped, and Eve gets her follies spot. Lee misses his spicy little enchilada though, and a riotous scene finds every noise he hears reminding him of “The Carpenter Song”. The unhappy Tracy decides to chuck it all and return to carny life, where he finds his pal Pallette running the old show, and little Latin Lupe doing her hootchie thing once again. And they lived happily ever after!

Lee and Lupe make a great screen team, their styles meshing perfectly amidst all the zaniness going on here. Morgan and Pallette’s comic talents add to the merriment, and Shirley Chambers’ dumb blonde turn as Gladys/Eve holds her own with the star quartet. Franklin Pangborn is on hand as (what else?) the hotel manager, and “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers has a larger than usual part playing Tracy’s secretary. Max Steiner contributes the music, and even appears as the conductor at the Follies! We also get Teresa Harris (Barbara Stanwyck’s BABY FACE companion) in a brief bit as Lupe’s maid.

LaCava and Corey Ford’s screenplay is full of sharp, sparkling dialog, off the wall comedy situations, and blazing banter between Lee and Lupe. THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH is a Pre-Code delight, a forgotten little gem waiting to be savored by movie buffs. So what are you waiting for – go find it!

Read more “Pre-Code Confidential”!

LADY KILLER (1933)

KONGO (1932)

MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

THE SECRET SIX (1931)

PLAY-GIRL (1932)

BABY FACE (1932)

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

CLEOPATRA (1934)

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)

FLESH (1932)

The Day the Clowns All Cried: RIP Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is an acquired taste for many. His unique comic persona isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially among the highbrow set (except in France, where for decades he’s been hailed as a genius). He was zany, manic, childlike, and the last of the great slapstick comedians, his career spanning over eighty years. He was a comic, writer, director, actor, singer, businessman, innovator, and philanthropist. Jerry Lewis is a true American icon, and the embodiment of the American  dream.

Joseph Levitch was one of those “born in a trunk” kids referenced in many a classic movie. His father was a vaudevillean, his mom a piano player, and by the time he was five Lewis was appearing with his parents onstage at Catskill Mountain resorts. A high school dropout, Lewis did what was known as a “record act” as a teen, where he’d lipsynch popular tunes of the day with comic results. During this time he met a young crooner named Dean Martin , and the two developed an act where Lewis would interrupt Dino’s singing with his wacky antics, much of it improvised. The 28-year-old Martin and 19-year- old Lewis were a smash on the nightclub circuit, within three years had their own radio variety show.

Television was in its infancy when Martin & Lewis appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TOAST OF THE TOWN in 1948. Jerry’s mirthful mayhem, combined with Dean’s good looks, were made for the medium, and they took TV by storm, becoming rotating hosts of THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR, along with established acts like Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, and Abbott & Costello. Millions of Americans got their first exposure to Martin & Lewis and their fresh new brand of buffoonery, and soon the duo supplanted Abbott & Costello as the #1 comedy team in the country.

The team went to Hollywood that year as well, supporting “dumb blonde” Marie Wilson and her MY FRIEND IRMA radio gang in two films. Paramount signed them to a long-term contract and they made 13 movies together beginning with the 1950 service comedy AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (Dean and Jerry also did a cameo in the Hope and Crosby entry ROAD TO BALI). All the Martin & Lewis films are worthwhile, but my favorite is 1955’s ARTISTS AND MODELS, directed by Frank Tashlin. The former Looney Tunes animator’s vivid imagination lets Jerry run as wild as Bugs Bunny, playing Eugene Fullstack, a comic-book crazed geek obsessed with a character called “The Bat-Lady”. Dean is his roommate Rick Todd, a struggling fine artist who uses Eugene’s feverish comic-book dreams to crash the industry. The lunacy satirizes everything from the Cold War to the Kefauver Congressional hearings on how comics were warping American youth’s minds, and features one of Dino’s best movie tunes “Innamorata”, and sexy ladies Dorothy Malone, Shirley MacLaine, Anita Ekberg, and Eva Gabor.

All good things must end, and the team broke up in 1956. Martin, tired of being the straight man to Jerry’s increasingly expanding popularity, wanted to go it alone, and the breakup was one of the most acrimonious in show business history. Jerry’s first solo film was 1957’s THE DELICATE DELINQUENT, with Darren McGavin taking the Martin role.  In 1960, Lewis became a quadruple threat as he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in THE BELLBOY. Jerry plays inept bellboy Stanley, who gets into a series of unrelated misadventures at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, where Lewis was doing his nightclub act while filming. Lewis does the character of Stanley in pantomime, and the name itself is an homage to comedy legend Stan Laurel, who consulted Lewis on the gags (and there’s a Laurel lookalike popping up throughout the film). For this movie Lewis invented a device called the Video Tap, which allowed the director to see what the camera operator sees in terms of framing. This later became de rigueur in filmmaking, and the industry has Jerry Lewis to thank for it.

Jerry’s best known and loved film is undoubtedly 1963’s THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, a Jekyll & Hyde take-off with the star in the dual roles of nebbish college professor Julius Kelp and smug, smarmy hipster Buddy Love. Here Lewis found the perfect balance of slapstick and pathos, playing two highly exaggerated extensions of his own personality. Contrary to popular belief, ‘Buddy Love’ was not a slam against former partner Martin; Lewis has denied this several times over the years. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR remains Lewis’ greatest film achievement, later remade in 1996 by Eddie Murphy.

Jerry’s other solo efforts were hit-and-miss; of them, two stand out in my mind. 1964’s THE PATSY finds bellboy Stanley turned into a top banana by a group of greedy Hollywood hangers-on looking to replace their former “meal ticket”. Again, Lewis marvelously walks the tightrope between comedy and pathos, aided by his best supporting cast: Everett Sloane, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, John Carradine, and Peter Lorre in his last movie. 1965’s THE FAMILY JEWELS has Jerry in seven different roles as a recently orphaned little girl inherits 30 million dollars and must choose a new guardian among her six uncles (all essayed by Lewis), assisted by faithful family chauffeur Willard (also Lewis). THE FAMILY JEWELS doesn’t get as much attention as the other two films, but it’s a delight, with Jerry in top form impersonating all the screwball relatives. Jerry’s son Gary appears in this one with his band The Playboys, singing their #1 hit “This Diamond Ring”.

In 1966, Lewis began hosting the annual Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon, and used his show biz clout to attract the top stars in Hollywood, Vegas, Nashville, New York, indeed around the world, to donate their time to this worthy cause. Lewis’ “Love Network” of TV stations across the country (local Channel 6 right here in New Bedford, MA was among the first) joined in to broadcast the event nationwide during the holiday weekend. This wasn’t Jerry’s only humanitarian effort; he was charitable behind the scenes for many worthy causes. Ex-partner Dean Martin finally reunited with Jerry in a surprise 1976 segment orchestrated by mutual friend Frank Sinatra, one of TV’s most memorable moments. Jerry’s co-host every year was TONIGHT SHOW sidekick Ed McMahon, and every year the star would perform his heart-wrenching signature tune, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”:

Jerry Lewis never really slowed down. Martin Scorsese’s 1983 THE KING OF COMEDY had him cast as talk-show host Jerry Langford, kidnapped by unhinged stand-up wanna-be Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro). The 1986 TV Movie FIGHT FOR LIFE has Lewis and Patty Duke as a couple who must leave the country to obtain medication for their daughter’s epilepsy. He appeared in a five-episode arc of the 80’s crime drama WISEGUY as a clothing manufacturer threatened by gangsters, along with Ron Silver and Stanley Tucci. A 2006 episode of LAW & ORDER: SVU cast him as the uncle of Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch. And a little less than a year ago Lewis had the title role in the indie film MAX ROSE, as an aging jazz pianist who finds out his late wife (Claire Bloom) had an ongoing affair, and questions his entire life.

There’s so much more I could tell you about Jerry Lewis: his health battles, his humanitarian efforts, his success in Vegas, his failures as a solo TV performer. I’d probably be up all night just writing about his films with Dean.  When he died today at age 91, it truly was the end of an era. Lewis once was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to be remembered. I want the nice words when I can hear them”. Sorry Jerry, but you will definitely be remembered, not only for your show biz career, but your kindness in helping the less fortunate. I know you can’t hear all the nice words today though. All the clowns in the world are crying, and their tears are drowning them out.

 

 

Confessions of a TV Addict #4 : How TURN-ON (1969) Got Turned-Off

TURN-ON made its debut February 5, 1969 on the ABC network. It was promptly cancelled a day later. Quicker at the ABC affiliate in Cleveland: after the first eleven minutes! Why? Was it that bad? What was all the hubbub about?

The brisk half-hour was produced by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the duo behind NBC’s highly successful ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, a subversive comedy-variety series that spoofed just about anything in its path. It was hoped TURN-ON, even more outrageous than its predecessor,  would be a hit with the same hip audience. But the world wasn’t quite ready for this non-stop assault on the senses, which used quick blackout sketches, animation, stop-motion, early computer graphics, a synthesized score, and worse of all- NO LAUGH TRACK!!

The premise of TURN-ON was that it was made by a computer, a novelty back before the days when everyone had a PC or laptop. Yes, it was the Stone Age! The jokes and gags concerned sex, sex, sex, and more sex. This was really what caused TURN-ON to be turned off by ABC’s affiliates; the smutty humor was too much for American audience’s delicate palettes.

Tim Conway was the first (and only) guest host. TURN-ON’s ensemble featured comic actors Hamilton Camp, Teresa Graves (who went on to join LAUGH-IN and the later 70’s cop show GET CHRISTIE LOVE!), Chuck McCann, and Mel Stewart. After Cleveland pulled the plug, West Coast stations in Denver, Portland, and Seattle, having viewed the East Coast feed in horror, refused to air the show at all. TURN-ON was replaced the very next week by a movie (1966’s THE OSCAR- talk about going from bad to worse!), then a revival of the saccharine, sanitary King Family Singers.

I couldn’t find any clips to show here, so I can just say from memory TURN-ON was strange but funny. Of course, I was only ten at the time, and thought anything smutty and slightly dirty was funny, even though I probably didn’t get half the jokes! Today TURN-ON would be considered relatively mild compared to what we see on the boob tube. It was a groundbreaker that was waaaay ahead of its time.

Familiar Faces #3: Esther Howard, Grand Dame of Film Noir

Esther Howard (1892-1965) graced the screen in over 100 appearances, but it’s her work in the shadowy world of film noir for which she’s best remembered. A deft comedienne, Esther was also a member in good standing of Preston Sturges’ stock company, cast in seven of his films. Her matronly looks and acting talent allowed her to play a rich, haughty dowager or drunken old floozy with equal aplomb. Esther may not have been a big star, but her presence gave a lift to any movie she was in, big or small.

Esther in 1931’s “The Vice Squad” (w/Judith Wood)

She was already an established stage actress when she entered movies in 1930. Talkies were all the rage, and Esther began her screen career appearing in Vitaphone shorts opposite the likes of Franklin Pangborn. Her first feature was 1931’s THE VICE SQUAD, a Pre-Code drama starring Kay Francis and Paul Lukas, with Esther billed sixth. More movies found her down in the cast lists, or sometimes unbilled: MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932), THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE (’35), DEAD END (’37), and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (’38) were among her many credits.

Esther’s got her eyes on Ollie in 1944’s “The Big Noise”

Esther’s flair for comedy found her supporting many classic comics of the era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s COCKEYED CAVALIERS (’34) places her square among the team’s medieval mirth. The short THE MISSES STOOGES (’35) has Esther hosting a swanky society party ruined by Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly. The bawdy KLONDIKE ANNIE (’36) pairs her with the inimitable Mae West. 1939’s THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE sees her briefly as a florist. In MY FAVORITE BLONDE (’40), she’s involved with Bob Hope’s zany shenanigans. Laurel & Hardy’s THE BIG NOISE (’44) has Esther on the make for Ollie. She has a bit in the Three Stooges short IDLE ROOMERS (’44), and played Andy Clyde’s wife in seven of his Columbia shorts.

As Miz Zeffie in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)

Her association with writer/director Preston Sturges began with his first in the director’s chair, 1940’s THE GREAT MCGINTY. From there, Esther went to  appear in six more Sturges classics. SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS   (’41) casts her as a man-hungry farm widow setting her sights on Joel McCrea. THE PALM BEACH STORY (’42) finds Esther married to the wealthy “Wienie King”. She had three Sturges films released in 1944: MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK has Esther embroiled in the saga of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), she serves as a dentist’s guinea pig in THE GREAT MOMENT, and plays Mayor Raymond Walburn’s wife in HAIL THE CONQUORING HERO. Her last with Preston Sturges was also his last American-made film, 1949’s THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND.

As boozy Mrs. Kraft in 1947’s “Born to Kill”

Despite all this, it is her roles in film noir for which Esther Howard is most closely associated. In 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET , she plays a key role as the duplicitous drunk Jessie Florian, who tries to throw Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) off Velma’s trail. Her part as the waitress in Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945) is small, but her presence adds much to this low-budget masterpiece. In DICK TRACY VS CUEBALL (’46), she has a meaty role as Filthy Flora, proprietor of the Dripping Dagger. My favorite Esther Howard noir is Robert Wise’s BORN TO KILL , where she plays nosy boarding house owner Mrs. Kraft, menaced by Lawrence Tierney and his sneaky sycophant Elisha Cook Jr. She closed out her film noir career with a pair of 1949 films: Mark Robson’s CHAMPION (as boxer Kirk Douglas’s mother) and THE CROOKED WAY (a bit as a hotel proprietor).

Mrs. Florian (Esther) is wary of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in 1944’s “Murder, My Sweet”

Esther Howard closed out her film career completely by returning to comedy as Joe Besser’s aunt in the 1952 short CAUGHT ON THE BOUNCE. She’s still remembered today for both the dark worlds of film noir and classic comedy. Actresses like Esther Howard are part of what makes watching these films so special, their small but memorable contributions enhancing our viewing experience. All hail Esther Howard!

 

Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)

I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell Bank, currently headquartered in a trailer while construction is finished on a new building. Karp’s assembled a nutty robbery crew that includes his ex-FBI agent nephew Victor, ditzy, amorous financial backer Eleonora, looney driver Stosh Gornik and his con artist mom, and trigger happy wanna-be politician Hermann X. The brainy Ballentine decides they won’t just rob the bank… they’ll steal the entire kit’n’kaboodle! Ballentine and company pull off an elaborate, ingenious heist that baffles everyone but “Bulldog”, who’s hot on the fugitive’s trail.

 

Scott, complete with bushy eyebrows and a pronounced lisp, is the lynchpin holding BANK SHOT together, playing straight man to the wackiness going on around him. When he learns the job is in LA, he grumbles it’s “freak town- kook city – where the nuts are – trouble”, and he’s not wrong. Sorrell Booke (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Boss Hogg) goes strictly for laughs as his partner-in-crime Karp. Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) has one of her earliest roles as the constantly giggling Eleonora, as does Bob Balaban (credited as Robert) as young Karp. One of my favorite comic character actors Don Calfa (WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) plays the manic Stosh, with Bibi Osterwald (THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) as his swindler mom. Ex-NFLer Fred McRae (48 HRS) makes a funny Hermann X, but it’s the late Clifton James (Sheriff J.W. Pepper of LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN ) who stands out as the ornery, doggedly determined Warden “Bulldog” Streiger.

Director Gower Champion was a former MGM musical star famed for his dancing with wife Marge Champion. He was more successful as a Broadway director (BYE BYE BIRDIE and HELLO DOLLY! were among his many hits) than on film, in fact BANK SHOT was only his second (and last) feature. It was a good swan song, as the film captures the Westlake flavor nicely. The movie has a daffy, anarchic spirit to it, and though sometimes it can be over-the-top silly, is worth watching when you’re in the mood for a good, solid belly-laugh.