Base-Brawl: William Bendix in KILL THE UMPIRE (Columbia 1950)

Ahh, spring is in the air, that magical time of year, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of… baseball!! That’s right, Dear Readers, Opening Day is upon us once again, and what better way to celebrate the return of America’s National Pastime than taking a look back at KILL THE UMPIRE, a 1950 comedy conceived in the warped mind of former animator Frank Tashlin and directed by ex-Warners vet Lloyd Bacon.

Big lug William Bendix stars as Bill Johnson, an ex-major leaguer whose passion for the game keeps him from holding a regular job because he keeps playing hooky to go to the ballpark. Bill hates only one thing more than missing a game – umpires! But when his exasperated wife threatens to leave him, his ex-ump father-in-law suggests he go to umpire school to save his marriage. Bill balks at first, but then reluctantly agrees, not wishing to lose his spouse. He does everything in his power to get ejected out of the school, including donning a pair of thick “Coke-bottle’ glasses, but eventually comes around. Bill and his roomie Roscoe are sent to the Texas League, where he finds Texans hate umpires even more than he does, at one point getting knocked out by a tossed cowboy boot! Some gamblers attempt to bribe Bill, but he causes them to lose by having their team forfeit, causing a Texas-sized riot at the old ball game! Fans want Bill’s head on a platter, and it all culminates in a wild chase with Bendix in drag, pursued by an angry mob and angrier gamblers. But as you probably can guess by now, all’s well that ends well.

Tashlin’s loony screenplay features many of his trademark cartoony sight gags, like Bendix wearing an over-inflated chest protector, then getting his spikes stuck in a wooden floor, with hilarious results. The chase is a riot too, with our hero being dragged water-skiing style on a piece of fence behind an ambulance. Tashlin strikes the right balance of situation comedy and slapstick hijinks, aided by Bacon’s deft direction. Bacon was adept at any type movie, but got his start with Chaplin and Mack Sennett; his comedy bona fides include GOLD DUST GERTIE, THE IRISH IN US , A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER, and MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND.

“This ballpark has sho’ gone crazy!”

William Bendix plays it broad as baseball nut Bill. He was no stranger to baseball pictures, having starred two years earlier in THE BABE RUTH STORY. No stranger to comedy, either: Bendix starred in radio’s THE LIFE OF RILEY sitcom, later bringing it to television (in fact, his RILEY TV costar Tom D’Andrea plays roommate Roscoe). It’s nice to see Una Merkel get a substantial part here as Bendix’s beleaguered wife. Ray Collins , of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and TV’s PERRY MASON, plays father-in-law Jonah. Three Stooges fans will get a kick out of seeing many Columbia Short Subject Players in small roles: Murray Alper, Stanley Blystone, Vernon Dent, Dudley Dickerson (“This house has sho’ gone crazy!”), Emil Sitka, Dick Wessel, and Jean Willes appear, and the familiar strains of “Three Blind Mice” play over the opening credits! You’ll also find Familiar Faces like William Frawley , Billy Gray, Frank Hagney, Alan Hale Jr. , and others in the mix.

Some may find KILL THE UMPIRE a bit dated, but it’s still got plenty of laughs in it to make it worth your time. And it’s available on YouTube for your convenience! Makes a good pre-game warm-up…. now let’s Play Ball!

Oh, and one other thing…. Let’s Go Red Sox!!

Rockin’ in the Film World #10: THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT (20th Century Fox 1956)

Frank Tashlin  combines two of 50’s America’s favorite obsessions, sex & rock’n’roll, in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, Jayne Mansfield’s first headlight headlining role. When Jayne sashays across the screen, turning heads, melting ice, boiling milk, and cracking eyeglasses a star is born, in CinemaScope and gorgeous DeLuxe color. But the film is stacked with more than just Jayne’s Twin Peaks; it features performances from rock royalty like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and a host of others.

The plot is very simple (and very familiar): a goony gangster (broadly played by a hilarious Edmond O’Brien ) hires a down-on-his-luck agent (Tom Ewell of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) to make a singing star out of his honey (our girl Jayne). Only problem is, Jayne can’t carry a tune in a bucket, shattering lightbulbs whenever she starts to warble. Seems she doesn’t want to be a star anyway, just to settle down and be domestic. Tom and Jayne quietly fall in love, the gangster gets jealous, and you just know that by film’s end everything will turn out for the best.

Interspersed in all this are the cream of classic 50’s rockers belting out their big ti.. er, hits! Little Richard does the title tune, “Ready Teddy”, and “She’s Got It”. The Three Chuckles (whose lead singer Teddy Randazzo costarred with Tuesday Weld in ROCK ROCK ROCK  ) perform “Cinnamon Sinner”. Fats Domino lends his New Orleans-flavored R&B to “Blue Monday”. Gene Vincent blasts his mega-hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Eddie Cochran belts out “Twenty Flight Rock”. Abby Lincoln does a Gospel-tinged “Spread the Word”. The Platters doo-wop to “You’ll Never, Never Know”, and Nino Tempo, Johnny Olenn, Eddie Fontaine, The Treniers, and Freddy Bell & The Bell-Boys also appear.

Tashlin’s trademark cartoony gags bounce playfully throughout the film, beginning right off the bat with the pre-credits introduction by Ewell. It’s packed with double entendres by the truckload, most of them involving Jayne’s ample endowments. There’s a funny fantasy scene where Ewell, still carrying the torch for ex-client Julie London, sees her everywhere singing her own big hit, “Cry Me A River” (and by the way, the future Nurse Dixie McCall of TV’s EMERGENCY was pretty darn hot herself!). Surpassing that is the sight of O’Brien gyrating wildly and croaking out the song “Rock Around the Rock Pile”, a precursor of sorts to Elvis Presley’s showstopping number in JAILHOUSE ROCK .

Despite the classic rockers, Tashlin’s Looney Tunes humor, and a beautiful pastel color scheme, all eyes will be on Jayne Mansfield. She’s really good in this, giving a sweet-natured performance as the girl who just can’t help it. Jayne was red-hot at the time due to her Broadway smash WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (later filmed by Tashlin), and 20th Century Fox signed her as a rival to Marilyn Monroe. She was a good actress, though now best remembered for her sexpot image, and it’s a shame her career took such a downward trajectory so fast. With the right material, we’d probably be looking at Jayne Mansfield today for more than her obvious assets.

Legend has it when THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was released in England, a 16-year-old kid in Liverpool saw his rock idols perform for the first time. The lad’s name was John Lennon, and soon he met 15-year-old Paul McCartney, who auditioned for Lennon’s teenage band by doing an imitation of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” from the film. McCartney got the gig, and within a few years The Beatles  were the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world. That’s how influential THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was in the history of rock’n’roll, and any fan of rock music, Jayne Mansfield, or Frank Tashlin needs to put it on their must-see list.



 

Naughty Or Nice: SUSAN SLEPT HERE (RKO 1954)

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Looking for something a little offbeat in a Christmas movie? Try SUSAN SLEPT HERE, a film that could never get made today, as it concerns the romance between a 17 year old girl and a 35 year old man. I know some of you out there are already screaming “EEEEWWW!!!”, but indulge me while I describe the madcap moments leading to said romance.

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For starters, the movie is narrated by Oscar. Not Oscar Levant, but THE Oscar, the fabled Academy Awards statuette. This particular Oscar was won by Mark Christopher, screenwriter of fluffy Hollywood comedies yearning to pen a dramatic yarn and prove his mettle as a writer. Into his life comes teenage Susan Landis, a juvenile delinquent dumped on his doorstep by two cops who don’t want to lock her up til after the holidays. They figure Mark can watch her and get a good story idea in the process before she winds up on a prison farm until she turns 18.

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This idea doesn’t sit well Susan, who thinks the old rascal wants to get in her pants. Mark’s fiancé, the blonde ice princess Isabella, isn’t too happy with the situation either. Susan soon begins to fall for Mark’s kindness and gives him a big kiss under the misseltoe, just when his pal Virgil and attorney Harvey walk in the door. Mark decides he’s going to marry Susan – in name only, of course – in order to keep her out of the hoosegow, so he drives her over state lines for a quickie Vegas wedding, and keeps her up dancing all night so they won’t have time to consummate the honeymoon. Then Mark and his secretary Maude take off for Sun Valley so he can work on his script, leaving Susan alone with Virgil.

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Lawyer Harvey tries to get Susan to sign annulment papers, but she refuses. Later, Harvey sees Susan at a lunch counter- eating strawberries and pickles! Fearing the worst, he calls Mark to chastise him for getting her pregnant, but innocent Mark thinks it’s Virgil that did the dirty deed while he was away. Alls well that ends well, as we find out Susan’s not really preggo, she just digs eating strawberries and pickles! Mark soon realizes he’s fallen in love with Susan, and she pulls him into the bedroom to, uh, well… consummate!

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Screenwriter Alex Gottleib peppers his script with plenty of double entendrees and innuendoes, but it’s Frank Tashlin’s direction that makes the film come to life. Tashlin got his start in cartoons, working for animation studios Terrytoons, Van Buren, Ub Iwerks, Screen Gems, and most notably Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes”, cranking out classics with Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and (during the war) Private Snafu. He put his cartoon training to good use in films starring Martin & Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST), Bob Hope (SON OF PALEFACE), and many of Jerry Lewis’s early solo efforts. Tashlin was also responsible for two of the 50’s funniest comedies, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, both with Jayne Mansfield. Most of his films resemble live-action cartoons, with wild sight gags galore, and filled with vibrant, eye-popping Technicolor, captured in SUSAN SLEPT HERE by Nicholas Musuraca, usually associated with the dark world of film noir!

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22 year old Debbie Reynolds plays 17 year old Susan, and she’s a frantic, funny ball of energy as the delinquent teen. 50 year old Dick Powell plays 35 year old Mark, and the difference in their ages really shows. You can tell he’s uncomfortable about the whole thing, and the filmmakers wisely chose to make Debbie the aggressor, chasing Powell with wild abandon. There’s a crazy dream sequence that has Powell in a spangled sailor suit, harkening back to his early Warner Bros musical days, with Debbie a sweet little bird in a gilded cage, and lovely Anne Francis (Isabella) as the Spider-Woman coming between them.

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Glenda Farrell , who was Powell’s age but looks much older, is his girl Friday Maude, and she gets the best lines, calling Isabella “Dracula’s daughter”, having an exchange with Powell’s maid (Maid: “Didn’t he just write a hit for Jane Russell?” Glenda: “His story is NOT what made that picture a hit!”), and this bit with Virgil; Him: “What do you know about motherhood?” Her: “I happened to have typed the script for ‘Stella Dallas’!”. Virgil is Alvy Moore, best known as Mr. Kimball on TV’s GREEN ACRES. Other Familiar Faces are Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon as the cops, Les Tremayne as the lawyer, and bits from Benny Rubin, Ellen Corby, Rita Johnson, and in a funny cameo, Red Skelton .

Times and tastes change, and Tashlin’s 50’s films today may be considered sexist. I like his stuff, as he brings that cartoony sensibility to all his films. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether SUSAN SLEPT HERE belongs on your Christmas watch-list. I enjoyed it, it’s full of Hollywood in-jokes and skewers all Tashlin’s favorite targets- teenagers, television, psychiatry, and SEX! Give it a shot; if you feel offended by it, I’ll be glad to send you a safety pin.

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