From the VHS Vault: The Three Stooges in HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL (Columbia 1959)

My DirecTV receiver decided to fry itself the other day. A new one won’t be shipped for another five days – no TCM, no DVR’d movies, no Red Sox, no nothin’! What’s a film blogger to do? Since my DVD player isn’t working either, I thought I’d reach into my collection of VHS tapes and see what I could come up with for viewing. Hmm, let’s see… wait a sec, what’s this? An unopened copy of HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL, the Three Stooges  comeback starring feature! Good Lord, I haven’t seen this movie in years! The Stooges it is!

A little background first: after making shorts for Columbia since 1934, the studio dumped the trio when their contract ended in 1957. Television had killed the short subject market, and the boys were thrown out on their collective keisters. Ironically, it was television that revived their career when the Stooges shorts were released to TV a year later, and a whole new generation fell in love with their physical slapstick brand of humor. Moe Howard and Larry Fine recruited burlesque comic Joe DeRita (who had his own series of Columbia shorts in the 40’s) to replace Joe Besser. DeRita was a better fit than Besser anyway, and his resemblance to Curly Howard (always the most popular Stooge) led to him being dubbed Curly Joe. The reconfigured Stooges toured successfully, and Columbia came crawling back to star them in a feature film titled HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL.

HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL isn’t vintage Stooges, but it’s not half bad, either. The Stooges are bumbling janitors at the “National Space Foundation” who are accidentally locked in a rocket ship and blast-off for Venus, encountering a giant fire-breathing tarantula, a talking unicorn, and a robot super-computer who shrinks them to mouse-size and makes android clones of them. They return to Earth as heroes, are given a ticker-tape parade and a gala celebration, a distinguished affair that devolves into a slap-happy donnybrook. The whole thing gives them an excuse to trot some of their old schtick like the “plumbing” gag, the “chased through multiple doors” gag, and the “couch-spring-stuck-in-the-rear-end” gag. They even get to exercise their tonsils, breaking into song about halfway through, a ditty called… what else, “Have Rocket, Will Travel”!

The Stooges are a bit more kinder and gentler here, older but definitely not wiser. The familiar eye pokes, hair-pulling, and face slapping are still around, as are the familiar sound effects, and Moe still hurls insults at his partners (at one point calling Curly Joe “ya baby hippopotamus”). Robert Colbert (later of TV’s THE TIME TUNNEL) and Anna-Lisa provide the romance, while veteran character actor Jerome Cowan takes his lumps as the Stooges’ foil, head of the space foundation. HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL was aimed directly at their new juvenile audience and is ultra low-budget, with cheezy special effects and cardboard sets, but fans of the boys will enjoy revisiting their antics. I know I sure did!

That’s Entertainment!: TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM (Columbia 1941)

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Most of you “Cracked Rear Viewers” know I run an occasional series titled ‘Cleaning Out the DVR’, where I do capsule reviews of five or six different films. TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM was going to be included in my next ‘DVR’ entry, but after watching it, I’ve decided to give it the full treatment. This has happened only once before (see PENELOPE ). It’s a 40’s B-movie lovers dream, a second-tier all-star musical comedy, and it gives The Three Stooges probably their best feature showcase of the 40’s. Plus the tap-dancing wonders of lovely, leggy Texan Ann Miller. Now how can you beat that!

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The plot’s as old as film musicals themselves: theatrical agents Rudy Vallee and Richard Lane become successful, and develop a hit show. Lane’s former flame (Rosemary Lane, no relation) comes between them, and the partners break up. Vallee and sidekick Offbeat (comic Allen Jenkins) discover Rosemary’s maid (our girl Ann) and plan on starring her in the big show. But Rosemary schemes to get the part herself and become a Hollywood star, ditching Richard in the process. Richard finally wises up, dumps Rosemary, makes amends with Valle, and the whole thing is capped off with the production number “Time Out for Rhythm”.

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The real fun is to be had in between all the romantic shenanigans. Moe, Larry, and Curly keep popping up as three dumb clucks trying to break into show biz. They get to perform some of their tried-and-true material, like the ‘Maha’ (“ah ha”) routine, where nearsighted Curly does a knife-throwing act. They’re hired to impersonate gangsters (complete with the George Raft coin-flipping bit) in order to keep Rosemary on ice. They dig up one of their old Ted Healy routines, “Melodrama”, where Curly (as usual) gets the brunt of the punishment. They share a scene with Vallee and Jenkins as three dopey messengers and, finally, the Stooges trot out on stage as rhumba dancers in a musical number, with Curly dressed in drag as Carmen Miranda!

Radio stars Brenda & Cobina (Blanche Stewart, Elvia Allman) play secretaries, doing the shtick they made famous on Bob Hope’s radio show (they even sing and dance with the Stooges in the rhumba number). Singer Joan Merrill appears as singer Joan Merrill (talk about typecasting!) and does a few songs, including a duet with crooner Vallee. Six Hits and a Miss add some 40’s song stylings, Eddie Durant’s Rhumba Orchestra provides the Latin flavor, and the popular Glen Grey and his Orchestra swing out ditties like “Boogie Woogie Man”, a bizarrely shot novelty tune sung by Pee Wee Hunt you’ve just gotta see:

Director Sidney Salkow was a ‘B’ vet mostly associated with westerns, but he handles things well on TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM. Cowriter Edmund L. Hartman worked with Hollywood funsters Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope, Martin & Lewis, and even Don Knotts, but is remembered as writer/producer of two TV family comedies, MY THREE SONS and FAMILY AFFAIR. Plenty of Familiar Faces show up in this movie, like Stanley Andrews, Billy Benedict, Richard Fiske, a very young Alan Hale Jr (GILLIGAN’s Skipper), and Stooges vets Bud Jamison and Eddie Laughton.

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But the spotlight’s clearly on Ann Miller here, in her first Columbia picture. Even though she was only eighteen when filming TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM, Ann was already a show biz veteran, having appeared in films like STAGE DOOR, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and the Marx Brothers’ ROOM SERVICE. Columbia had high hopes for their new contract star, yet continuously wasted her in ‘B’ vehicles with titles like REVILLE WITH BEVERLY, WHAT’S BUZZIN’ COUSIN?, and JAM SESSION. Ann Miller later signed with MGM and was given better material (EASTER PARADE, ON THE TOWN, KISS ME KATE), but television had pretty much killed the film musical by the end of the 1950’s. Ann would remain a star via Broadway shows and touring companies. She even did a well-remembered commercial with satirist Stan Freberg spoofing her Hollywood days:

TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM won’t make anyone forget SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, but fans of The Three Stooges and/or Ann Miller will love it.  It’s a fine example of ‘B’ moviemaking from back in the day, and entertaining as all get out. Like I said earlier, how can you beat that?

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:

Happy Birthday Shemp Howard: BRIDELESS GROOM (Columbia short 1947)

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The very funny Shemp Howard was born Samuel Horwitz on March 11, 1895. He got the moniker Shemp because his immigrant mother had trouble pronouncing his first name. Shemp and his younger brother Moe formed a vaudeville act and toured the circuit, until being discovered by Ted Healy. Healy incorporated the two into his act and, together with Larry Fine, made them his “stooges”. They worked together until Shemp left Healy in 1932, replaced by his youngest brother Curly. Eventually Moe, Larry, and Curly struck out on their own, and became The Three Stooges.

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Meanwhile, Shemp began appearing in Vitaphone short subjects. He was given the role of Knobby Walsh in the “Joe Palooka” series, and his comic improvising soon became the focal point of the shorts. Shemp graduated to comic relief in mainstream films, and comedy stars like W.C. Fields ( THE BANK DICK ) and Abbott & Costello ( BUCK PRIVATES ) used him to good advantage in their vehicles. When Curly had to leave the Stooges in 1947 due to a series of strokes, Shemp stepped in and rejoined the act. He remained with the team until he passed away of a heart attack in 1955.

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Of the 73 shorts Shemp did with the Stooges, the best is BRIDELESS GROOM, where he takes center stage as a vocal coach who could inherit half a million dollars if he gets married ASAP. So “hold hands, you lovebirds” and enjoy watching The Three Stooges in BRIDELESS GROOM:

 

One Toke Over the Line: REEFER MADNESS (G & H Productions 1936)

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I’m writing this post while battling a nasty case of the flu, so it’s probably going to be a short one. That’s okay though, because really, what can I say about REEFER MADNESS? It’s terrible filmmaking, and dull as dishwater. There are plot holes so wide you could drive a semi through them. This little exploitation number would’ve been long forgotten after making the rounds on the grindhouse and roadshow circuits, until it was rediscovered by the stoner crowd in the 70’s and turned into an ironic midnight cult movie.

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The movie itself finds stodgy Dr. Carroll lecturing the local School-Parent Group to help “stamp out this frightful assassin of youth” marijuana. He recounts what happened when some kids got hooked on the stuff. Seems this gang of drug pushers were out to corrupt American youth by turning them on at an apartment run by no-goods Mae and Jack. Sweet Mary’s brother Jimmy and her beau Bill get caught up in the sleazy goings-on at Mae’s place. Jimmy makes a run to cop more weed with Jack, but he’s so stoned he runs over a pedestrian. Bill gets involved with Blanche and ends up deflowering her while they’re both high. Mary goes looking for Bill, and is almost raped by wild-eyed stoner Ralph. Bill comes into the room and begins to throttle Ralph when Jack bursts in with a gun. There’s a scuffle, and Jack ends up shooting Mary. They convince Bill he did it, and he goes on trial. Meanwhile, Ralph freaks out about the whole thing, cracks up and beats Jack to death with a poker. The cops raid the place and Blanche spills the beans on the whole sordid situation. Bill is freed, Blanche commits suicide by jumping out a window, and Ralph is sent to a home for the criminally insane, yet another victim of the marijuana epidemic.

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Director Louis Gasnier was once famous for the pioneering 1914 serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE, but had fallen on hard times, and this was his last film. The cast isn’t well-known, but does feature Dave O’Brien as the hophead Ralph, whose career I covered in my post on THE DEVIL BAT . His maniacal laughter and deranged crack-up scene are the only good things about the film. Dorothy Short (Mary) married O’Brien shortly after making the movie, and was featured in another pothead exploiter, ASSASSIN OF YOUTH. Thelma White (Mae) appeared in B-films and shorts with Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol. Lillian Miles’ (Blanche) brief career was notable only for the 1934 Astaire/Rogers vehicle THE GAY DIVORCEE. Carleton Young (Jack) had a long film career, though; his best known are THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Oh, and the actor who plays the judge at Bill’s trial is Edward LeSaint. As I was watching, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this guy somewhere before”, and I was right. He was the judge in the Three Stooges short DISORDER IN THE COURT. And since my post’s so short, why don’t we just watch Moe, Larry, and Curly in one of their best comedies, and forget about REEFER MADNESS. Enjoy!

 

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in THE DEVIL BAT (PRC 1940)

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Horror icon Bela Lugosi had some superb acting roles. Count Dracula. Murder Legendre. The broken-necked Ygor. And….Dr, Paul Caruthers in THE DEVIL BAT? What, you ask? Have I gone as looney as some of Bela’s mad scientists? I know, THE DEVIL BAT is pure hokum, with a lousy script and a ludicrous premise. But that’s my point: the only reason to watch this bottom-of-the-barrel nonsense is Lugosi’s performance. The actor,  despite all the ridiculous goings-on, gives it his all and makes the picture work.

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The town of Heathville is rocked by a string of murders committed by a (yes) giant bat! Intrepid reporters Johnny Layton and shutterbug One-Shot McGuire are sent by editor Joe McGinty to investigate. The prominent Heath and Morton families have been targeted. Kindly Dr. Caruthers harbors a long-time grudge against them for making them rich at his own expense. So he creates a “devil bat”, using radiation to enlarge bats and trains them to attack. He’s invented a “shaving lotion” using a “strange Oriental fragrance” found only in Tibet that triggers the fiend to kill. The reporters get fired for rigging a phony picture of the bat (clearly marked “Made in Japan”), but stick around and solve the not-so-mysterious mystery. Caruthers is killed by his own creation, and Johnny and young Mary Heath live happily ever after.

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Lugosi is more restrained here than in his later Monogram vehicles, like THE APE MAN and VOODOO MAN. When he performs his soliloquy in the film’s opening scene, alone in his lab except for that goofy bat, he convinces the viewer he’s dead serious. Not easy to do when your acting partner is a rubber prop! Bela’s self-mocking voiceover, berating himself for “selling out” to the Heaths and Mortons, is well done, except for the pronouniation of “formula” as “formoola”. He gets all the best lines, too, gleefully telling victims to take the lotion and “rub it on the tender part of your neck. Soothing, isn’t it?” Listening to a radio broadcaster discredit the notion of a “devil bat”, he growls, “imbecile…bombastic ignoramus”. And of course, there’s the famous (or infamous) inflections of the words “Good-BYE” to his next victims. Bela Lugosi shows us why he was indeed a great actor. Even stuck with a lemon like THE DEVIL BAT, he manages to give us lemonade.

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The rest of the cast is non-descript with a few exceptions. Dave O’Brien (Johnny) is best known as the deranged pothead in the exploitation classic REEFER MADNESS. O’Brien also portrayed CAPTAIN MIDINGHT in the Republic serial of the same name, and starred in a series of MGM Pete Smith comedy shorts. Speaking of shorts, Suzanne Kaaren (Mary) worked in three with the Three Stooges, including playing Gail Tempest in their DISORDER IN THE COURT. Miss Kaaren gained notoriety in the 1990’s when she refused to leave her rent-controlled apartment after the building was bought by one Donald J. Trump! She won the case in court (shades of Gail Tempest!) and continued living there until her death. The actor playing editor McGinty may not look familiar, but you’ll definitely recognize his voice. He’s Arthur Q.Bryan, who for decades voiced the arch-nemesis of that “wascally wabbit” Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd!

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But it’s Lugosi’s show all the way, and he doesn’t disappoint. Getting no help from director Jean Yarborough (who had success as director of Abbott & Costello’s TV show), Bela Lugosi does wonders with an inane screenplay, lesser actors, and virtually no budget. Perhaps Bela thought doing a good job would lead to more prominent acting roles. Sadly, he spent the rest of his career toiling on Poverty Row, ending up in Ed Wood’s epics. THE DEVIL BAT is fun to watch for Bela fans, as he rises above the material once again to give another memorable performance.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt1: Five Films from Five Decades

I record a LOT of movies. Probably around ten per week, more or less. And since I also have to do little things like work, exercise, cook, clean, breathe,  etc etc, I don’t always have time to watch  them all (never mind write full reviews), so I’ve decided to begin a series of short, capsule reviews for the decades covered here at Cracked Rear Viewer. This will be whenever I find my DVR getting cluttered, which is frequent! I’ll try to make CLEANING OUT THE DVR a bi-weekly series, but there are no guarantees. Monthly is more realistic. Anyway, here are five films from the 1930s to the 1970s for your reading pleasure.

Continue reading “CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt1: Five Films from Five Decades”