Friday, October 21, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Tough Assignment (1949)

The honeymoon of L.A. newspaper reporter Dan Reilly (Don “Red” Barry) and his wife Margie (Marjorie Steele) is apparently in full sway…because Marg is stoked about preparing their first home-cooked meal in their new home.  She needs to get a few things at Schultz’s (Leander De Cordova) butcher shop, and she insists that Dan snap a photo of her outside the entrance for one reason or another.  As Dan trips the shutter, three men walk out of the jernt…and are notably perturbed that they had to smile for the camera.  The Reillys soon learn the reason why—old man Schultz was beaten up by the three goons, much to the dismay of Mrs. Schultz (Edit Angold).

Later, at Casa del Reilly, two of the thugs (Marc Lawrence, Ben Welden) rudely interrupt the couple’s domestic bliss by administering a pummeling to Dan and snatching the undeveloped film from Margie.  What gives?  Well, Dan does a little investigative reporting (I know, it was like this movie from another era or something) and learns from Patterson (Stanley Andrews) at the Bureau of Livestock Investigation that there’s a “bootleg beef” racket in full force—unsavory criminals are selling meat without state or federal inspection (this is why it’s good to have regulations, kids).  Reilly decides—with the approval of his editor Hutch (Michael Whalen)—that this would provide the grist for a good story, and it soon makes front page headlines.

The “boss” of the racket, Morgan (Steve Brodie), is not particularly jazzed about the publicity—so Vince (Lawrence) and Sniffy (Welden) are instructed to collect Reporter Dan and bring him in for a chinwag about dropping the story.  The tenacious Reilly isn’t so easily scared off, and after he and Margie conduct surveillance on a delivery truck outside of Schultz’s they soon find themselves on a ranch that’s the center of operations for the bootleggers…so they pose as a impoverished couple (they go by “Jim and Amy Hill”) in need of work in order to blow the racket wide open.  (That’s reporter talk.)

With an uncredited turn as a student in a Cecil B. DeMille oddity entitled This Day and Age (1933), Donald Barry officially launched his movie career.  Barry appeared in small roles and bits in films like Dead End (1937), The Last Gangster (1937), and Young Dr. Kildare (1938) before going to work for Republic Pictures and receiving featured parts in films like Wyoming Outlaw (1939—with John Wayne and the Three Mesquiteers) and Days of Jesse James (1939—with Roy Rogers).  It was at Republic that Barry would get the film role that made him a household name (and inspired him to add to his own); he starred in that studio’s 1940 serial, The Adventures of Red Ryder, and soon started being billed as Don “Red” Barry.

Barry is often described as “the poor man’s James Cagney,” and his onscreen persona resembled Jimmy’s in that he may have been short in stature but his cockiness/pugnaciousness more than made up for it.  Barry’s B-Westerns at Republic were very popular with theatergoers, with titles like Ghost Valley Raiders (1940), Wyoming Wildcat (1941), Two-Gun Sheriff (1941), Death Valley Outlaws (1941), and Outlaws of Pine Ridge (1942).  Unfortunately for “Red,” he took himself a little too seriously as a Cagney wannabe and alienated a lot of the directors with whom he worked at the studio.  (Red Ryder co-director William Witney derisively called him “the midget” and the other director on that serial, John English, vowed never to work with the star again after 1943’s Black Hills Express.)

Barry’s career was dealt an ace of spades as the 1940s came to a close, since B-Westerns were slowly dying off (they would be resurrected on the small screen soon after…since television could make them even cheaper).  Determined not to go gently into that good night, Don signed a contract with Lippert Pictures, and made some fairly decent oaters like Red Desert (1949) and Border Rangers (1950).  At Lippert, Barry also got the opportunity to don a producer’s hat—one of those pictures was today’s “Forgotten Noir,” Tough Assignment (1949).

Tough Assignment really isn’t much of a noir to me…but I did like the modern-day Western aspect of the picture, which takes hold about twenty-three minutes into the film. (It’s not a great movie, but it kept me entertained for its sixty-four-minute running time.)  The supporting cast in this one is Assignment’s most valuable asset, with noir icons like Steve Brodie and Marc Lawrence present…and as always, Lippert’s “good luck charm” Sid Melton is on hand for comic relief.  (Suffice it to say, I am somewhat more tolerant of Mr. Melton’s shtick than my good friend Scott C. at World O’Crap.)  Lawrence and Melton have an amusing scene where Sid finds out that Marc has been making time with Sid’s girlfriend (played by TDOY fave Iris Adrian in an all-too-brief appearance), and Sid’s response to Marjorie Steele’s news that she’s going to cook a meal “just like Mother made” is a riot: “Nuh-uh…that’s why I left home in the first place!”

Sadly, Lawrence doesn’t really come off as too menacing in Tough Assignment—which might be because he’s paired off with Ben Welden (who was the go-to guy for comic gangsters).  There are also contributions from familiar faces like Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, Stanley Price, Fred Kohler, Jr., and Frank Richards—with Dewey Robinson providing Assignment with an amusing closing bit.  The film was directed by the indefatigable William Beaudine, and at the American Film Noir website there’s a section on “Bad Film Noirs” where the authors comment: “Beaudine, one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history, was known for delivering cheap films with a fast shooting pace.  He certainly didn’t disappoint us with this effort.”  (Ouch!)

I didn’t think Tough Assignment was too terrible (the site also lists Fingerprints Don’t Lie [1951] …which definitely is) but discriminating viewers may not take to it…which is kind of a sad commentary on my existence if you think about it.  I chuckled at the cover of VCI’s Forgotten Noir Vol. 5 because Assignment receives the appellation “Co-Hit” alongside what appears to be the DVD’s “main” feature, FBI Girl (1951).  As for Don “Red” Barry, he became one of the busiest actors on the small screen (he had a regular role as “Lt. Snedigar” on TV’s Surfside 6) yet continued to experience difficulty with his personal life and he committed suicide in 1980.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

On the Grapevine – Lane closure

Okay, apologies for the lame title of this post.  I couldn’t come up with anything nearly as clever as some of the two-reelers that comprise Lupino Lane Comedy Shorts, a Grapevine Video release that came out last month.  I got wind of this DVD a while back at the Silent Comedy Mafia website, where capo di tutti capi Richard M. Roberts mentioned that a few of the items on Grapevine’s Lane menu would originate from his voluminous movie library.  (I would have ordered my copy the second the announcement hit my e-mailbox…but I was without funds at the time.)

The comedian who often draws strong comparisons to silent comedy legends Buster Keaton (for his athleticism and inventive physical gags) and Harry Langdon (for his vacant stare and innocent child-like persona) was born to a famous theatrical family (Ida Lupino is a second cousin) on June 16, 1892 in London—sources are occasionally contradictory about his birth name (given as Henry William George Lupino); proprietor David B. Pearson writes here that the Lupino family named the future film star “Lupino Lane” because a maiden aunt had planned to will her future heir £200,000 if the Lane clan complied.  To family and friends, Lupino was known as “Nipper” (though Lane himself preferred “Nip”—“nipper” is English slang for a pickpocket.)

Lane was a talented circus acrobat and tumbler who had appeared in British movie comedies since 1915, and he made his first U.S. film in 1922.  After spending two years at Fox (Lane also has a role in D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful? [1924], which I’ll be covering in this space in a few weeks), Lupino signed with Educational Films (“The Spice of the Program”) where he hit his stride with some very entertaining two-reel comedies, produced by Jack White.  Five of them are featured on this Grapevine set.

The collection kicks off with the best of the bunch, Maid in Morocco (1925); Lupino is a groom whose bride (Helen Foster) has attracted the roving eye of Ben Hammered (Wallace Lupino—the star’s younger brother, who appeared in most of the Lane comedies but also did some solo work [his 1928 comedy The Lost Laugh is on Accidentally Preserved, Volume 1]), the Caliph of Ginfez.  Even though Ben already has a harem numbering 200 wives, he figures one more won’t make that much difference…so The Groom is forced to infiltrate the palace and rescue his love.  Morocco features one of the comedian’s best-remembered gags: during a frantic chase with the Caliph’s guards, Lane does a gravity-defying run up one side and down the other of an archway (he does this twice in the short!).  Morocco is a true comedy gem, with Lane constantly in motion (Steve Massa describes him in Lame Brains & Lunatics as “the diminutive dervish who sets all the other elements spinning”)—there’s even a spirited chase at the end that requires him to do some Keatonesque sprinting to evade his adversaries.

Movie Land (1926), the second short on the DVD, is also most enjoyable…with Lupino as a gazillionaire (the appropriately-titled “Lester Limberleg”) who’s fallen for actress Kathryn McGuire.  After a mishap involving his dress clothes (you kind of have to see this to believe it), he unintentionally slights Kathryn and when he visits her at the movie studio the next morning to make amends she informs studio security that he’s to escort Mr. Limberleg off the lot by any means necessary.  This is an invitation for some hilarious physical comedy (the mattress gag is sidesplitting), which culminates with Lester impersonating a stunt dummy that nevertheless allows him to experience a few blissful moments of romance in the arms of his lady love. 

Movie Land was written and directed by future Oscar winner Norman Taurog, while Morocco and Naughty Boy (1927), another entertaining comedy, were helmed by the prolific Charles Lamont (he directed a lot of Abbott & Costello’s vehicles in the 1950s).  Boy has a bit of a farfetched premise—Lupino has to impersonate a child (here’s where the Langdon influence is most noticeable) because his father has told his bride-to-be he’s thirty—but it’s got funny gags aplenty and an energetic performance from the star.  Fandango (1928) stars Lane as “The Lonesomest Man in Town”; a caballero who competes with Wallace Lupino for the attentions of a fetching senorita (Marjorie Moore).  It’s not one of the strongest Lupino shorts I’ve seen, but it’s redeemed by the presence of TDOY fave Anita Garvin, who plays Lane’s seductive dance partner in the two-reeler’s highlight.  Rounding out the disc is Battling Sisters (1929), which really doesn’t go anywhere once its one-joke premise has been established (in the future [1980!], women fight in the wars while men “keep the home fires burning”).  (Hey—you can’t hit one out of the park every time you’re up to bat.)

Fandango and Sisters allowed Lupino Lane to embrace his inner auteur; he directed these shorts under the nom de cinema “Henry W. George.”  Lane’s work behind the camera would reach its apex with Only Me (1929), a two-reeler that features him playing all twenty-four roles in the short!  (Influenced by Buster Keaton’s The Play House [1921], no doubt; Only Me is available on the Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD collection.)  Massa observes: “Lane also benefited from the direction of Keaton mentor Roscoe Arbuckle in his early comedies The Fighting Dude (1925), Fool’s Luck (1926), and His Private Life (1926).”  (Fool’s Luck turns up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time, so keep an eye peeled for it.)

Of the five shorts on Grapevine’s Lane collection, I was already familiar with three of them (Morocco, Boy, and Fandango) as a result of a previous purchase of Alpha Video’s Lupino Lane Silent Comedy Collection, Volume 1; that set also features one of the comedian’s best shorts (I just wish Alpha’s print was better) in Roaming Romeo (1928—a.k.a. Bending Her), Who’s Afraid? (1927), and a sound effort from Lupino, Purely Circumstantial (1929).  Alpha put out a second collection in January of 2014 that features four additional shorts including 1928’s Sword Points (with a memorable sequence of Lane leaping in and out of trapdoors hidden in a wall).  (Ask Andrew “Grover” Leal how he happened to acquire a copy of this DVD sometime—hint: it involves me not remembering I previously purchased the disc.)

My lifelong love for Buster Keaton might explain why I enjoy the Lupino Lane comedies so much; the gags are really imaginative and Lane executes some stunts that even surpass The Great Stone Face—including his trademark routine, where he does a “split” and then jack-knifes back to a standing position without putting a hand on the ground.  Leonard Maltin writes in The Great Movie Comedians: “But Lane suffered from the same problem that plagued so many of his colleagues: there was nothing tangible or human underneath the surface gags.  Even those acrobatics became familiar after a couple of films and started to lose their fresh appeal…”  Pearson muses that if Lane had been employed at Hal Roach, where the writers were able to develop meatier stories, his prominence in the Kingdom of Comedy might be markedly different.  (And let’s not overlook the fact that Lane became an even bigger name on the other side of the pond as the originator of “The Lambeth Walk” in the hit stage musical Me and My Gal.)

But that’s all frog dissection: when the Lupino Lane comedies are good, they’re very, very good.  I highly recommend a purchase of Grapevine’s collection, and perhaps in future we’ll see a release with better prints of Roaming Romeo and Sword Points.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Treachery Rides the Range (1936)

For Native Americans, the buffalo was of vital importance in the Old West.  It was a source of food, clothing, shelter, and weapons—and the relentless hunting of that wild range bovid by the white man put it perilously close to extinction.  In an effort to foment peace, the U.S. government signs a treaty with the Comanche to make it illegal for buffalo hunters to shoot the beasts on Indian lands.  Negotiating the peace is U.S. Cavalry Captain Red Colton (Dick Foran), who shares a kinship with the tribe (he’s an honorary “blood brother”) presided over by Chief Red Smoke (Jim Thorpe…All-American).  Red Smoke agrees to meet with Colonel Drummond (Monte Blue), Colton’s superior, by “the next moon,” and promises to bring both of his sons—Little Big Wolf (Carlyle Moore, Jr.) and Little Big Fox (Frank Bruno)—along for the powwow.

Back at the fort, Drummond and Colton get a visit from buffalo hunter Wade Carter (Craig Reynolds), who requests permission to hunt buffalo on Comanche lands to meet the demand for buffalo meat and pelts.  Drummond says “No dice, Chicago”; he’s determined to make sure the treaty is enforced—which doesn’t set at all well with Wade.  (When Colton tells him the last of the buffalo are on Native American land—and once the buffalo are gone, so goes the tribe—Carter whips out the familiar western film excuse that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  He seems nice.)  So Carter, in tandem with bidness partner Burley Barton (Henry Otho), orders his henchmen—headed up by Monte Montague as “Nebraska Bill”—to disguise themselves as Cavalry soldiers and pay Chief Red Smoke a friendly visit.  They convince the Chief that Drummond wants a chinwag earlier than scheduled, and so the Chief’s sons journey back with the “soldiers” where they are killed along the trail.  Well, one of them is—Little Big Wolf, though wounded, manages to make his way back to the tribe and report the treachery riding the range.

Dick Foran’s (billed as “The Singing Cowboy”) third Warner Brothers western is short and sweet (it calls it a wrap after 56 minutes), and therefore it’s painless to take…but although it’s a fast-paced oater this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good one.  (I was kind of critical of Trailin’ West [1936] when I covered that movie earlier on the blog—Treachery Rides the Range [1936] makes West look like Citizen Kane.)  Paula Stone, who also played the love interest in West, doesn’t get a lot to do in this one other than damsel-in-distress (her character of Ruth Drummond is on her way to the fort when the Indians start putting on the war paint…and though Colton is able to stop her stagecoach from getting her to the fort, she winds up in the clutches of Carter and Barton).  Foran’s musical numbers—Ridin’ Home and Leather and Steel—are also pretty uninspiring…though director Frank McDonald does attempt to make Leather interesting by having the star perform as he rides with his fellow Cavalry soldiers.  (I kept hearing Stout Hearted Men in my head the entire time.)

One bright moment in Treachery—and I realize this will only amuse those of us who are fans of the Hal Roach comedies…so I’m guessing everyone, right?—is seeing Don “Thank you gigantically!” Barclay as one of Foran’s men, Corporal Bunce.  Colton and Bunce have to rescue Ruth Drummond from the Comanche…because Chief Red Smoke has decreed that Ruth must die to avenge the death of Little Big Wolf.  Colton gets an idea: he’ll leave Ruth and Bunce with Red Smoke while he and several members of the tribe ride off in search of the Colonel so everything can be ironed out.  Bunce reluctantly agrees to this, but tells his superior officer to be careful in that trademark fruity manner of his: “I have no desire to be parboiled by these Indians...”  (It is indeed a shame that no one thought to bring Barclay back for additional Foran oaters—though the two did work on 1937’s Black Legion.)

With a story and screenplay by future producer William Jacobs (he would also script the first and second entries in the Foran Western series, Moonlight on the Prairie [1935] and Song of the Saddle [1936]), Treachery Rides the Range is pleasant enough but doesn’t really have the “oomph” needed to be a first-rate programmer (even the villains in this one are ho-hum).  It’s available on the Warner Archive MOD DVD set Dick Foran Western Collection (though I DVR’d this one from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™).

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Guilty Pleasures: Ghost Catchers (1944)

In a review of Murder in the Blue Room (1944) that I wrote for the blog a while back, I slipped in a casual mention of how Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas—authors of the amazing reference tome Universal Horrors—were not particularly enamored of the Ole Olsen-Chic Johnson comedy Ghost Catchers (1944).  Here’s what they have to say:

It’s hard to knock a comedy duo that collaborated that long and that successfully, and starred in one of Broadway’s longest-running shows (“Hellzapoppin”)—but we’re sure gonna try.  To the innocent, uninitiated viewer who stumbles upon Ghost Catchers, the Olsen and Johnson shtick can be a painful thing to behold.  Their forte was wild sight gags, hoary jokes and puns and what film historian Leonard Maltin lovingly calls “a flair for the ridiculous that has never been duplicated.”  Time, however, has passed them by: There’s no longer any humor in seeing these loudmouths cavorting in women’s clothes or zoot suits, no pleasure left in the dreamworld plots left over from the vaudeville pastiches.

I realize that comedy is subjective to many folks.  I know that what makes me laugh might leave you completely stone-faced.  But Leonard Maltin is the reason why I was initially curious about Olsen & Johnson (they receive a chapter in his book Movie Comedy Teams), and I’m going to be completely honest: I think the duo are funny.  I maintain both Hellzapoppin’ (1941) and Crazy House (1943) are first-rate movie comedies, even though they’re a bit top-heavy with the musical numbers (a Universal trademark).  “Fans of Olsen and Johnson complain about the big band musical numbers and romantic subplots which bog down some of their pictures, but others may find these added elements a welcome respite from O&J.”  Your mileage may vary, I guess.

That having been said, I’ll admit that Ghost Catchers is not one of Chic and Ole’s strongest vehicles.  But there’s still a lot to like in the movie.  Here’s the bare bones plot: Southern colonel Breckinridge Marshall (Walter Catlett)—he’s not a legitimate colonel, but is what we used to say in my neck of the swamp “puttin’ up a front”—and his daughters Susanna (Martha O’Driscoll) and Melinda (Gloria Jean) arrange to rent a New York brownstone in anticipation of the success from Melinda’s singing career (she’s to give a performance at Carnegie Hall).  The lawyer (Walter Kingsford) who made them such a sweet deal on their new digs has neglected to tell them, however, that the joint is haunted; as the family Marshall settles in for a good night’s sleep, they hear strange noises in their new domicile—a horse whinnying and someone…tap dancing.  Susanna rushes next door to obtain help from the neighbors.

The neighbors are Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (playing themselves); they operate a nightclub next door and when Susanna bursts onto the scene, pleading for help, the duo “give her the business” in typical Hellzapoppin’ style as they and their employees—including Virginia Bennett (Ella Mae Morse) and bandleader Clay Edwards (Kirby “Sky King” Grant)—entertain Susanna and the nightclub patrons with Three Cheers for the Customers.  Misunderstanding that the funnymen rarely take anything seriously, an angry Susanna returns to Casa del Marshall…and are soon joined by Chic and Ole, who are persuaded to spend the night in order to investigate the goings-on.

After experiencing supernatural events that seemingly have no explanation, Ole and Chic go with Susanna to the lawyer’s office the next day to break the lease…but no soap—attorney Chambers refuses to believe in “ghost stories.”  Chambers then tells the trio the tale of Wilbur Duffington (Jack Norton), a millionaire who died on New Year’s Eve in 1900 after taking a tumble out a window—apparently he was having a miserable time at his own affair.  That gives Olsen and Johnson an idea:  why not throw a party in Wilbur’s honor in an effort to exorcise his spirit?

Wilbur is reluctant to leave Rancho Marshall despite the swell bash—he only agrees to vacate after Ole & Chic give the order to ramp up some loud jazz music as a cast of thousands jitterbug their hearts out.  Wilbur waves a white flag as he departs the brownstone…but the Marshall family’s troubles are just beginning when it’s discovered that a criminal gang are operating in the basement!

Leonard Maltin wrote in Movie Comedy Teams that Ghost Catchers came closer to Olsen and Johnson’s zany brand of humor than any of their other vehicles—I’m going to have to dissent from this opinion, because I think Crazy House is a much better representation of their “anything-for-a-laugh” approach to movie comedy.  There are some fitfully amusing sequences in Catchers that often remind me of The Goon Show (where the plot stops dead in its tracks for a wheezy gag or two); I like the craziness that permeates the team’s nightclub (when Susanna is ejected from the joint she disappears via a trap door that opens up under the floor of the place and deposits her out on the street), particularly in the wind-up scene where Ole, Chic, and the Marshalls are tangling with the bad guys…and their pleas for help are ignored by the patrons (they assume they’re just clowning around).  I also enjoy the fact that there’s an actual ghost in Catchers (most of the time in these haunted house films weird events are usually explained away Scooby-Doo-style); in fact, it’s Wilbur who comes to the rescue (despite having been evicted) by summoning the cops—police sergeant Edgar Dearing explains to Ole and Chic that someone just walked through a wall at the precinct to let them know they were in trouble.  Dearing then takes a beat, and repeats “Walked through a wall?

In Crazy House, Olsen & Johnson in-joked that they were not Universal’s star mirthmakers with a gag in which studio president Thomas Gomez, informed by his secretary that “Universal’s most sensational comedy team [is] outside!”  “Oh,” cracks Gomez, “Abbott and Costello!  Send them right in!”  Ole and Chic reference Bud and Lou in Ghost Catchers, too—most memorably in a funny scene where the two of them are undressed for bed by unseen forces while they discuss among themselves how unrealistic Hold That Ghost (1941) was (including the “moving candle” bit).  (The duo don’t realize that something supernatural has taken place until after they’ve hit the hay…then both of them awake with a sudden start.)  The animated opening credits of Catchers—with a tall man and short man running away from a ghost—was cribbed from Hold That Ghost’s titles, too.  The authors of Universal Horrors argue: “The scene isn’t good, and isn’t funny, but hearing Olsen and Johnson discussing Abbott and Costello and Hold That Ghost makes for an unusual moment that sticks in the mind after everything else about Ghost Catchers has faded.  (Hold That Ghost is one of my favorite A&C vehicles…but believe me, it’s not difficult to enjoy both movies.)

I still argue that Universal’s shoehorning of specialty acts into their comedy features (you not only get the Apache dancing of Armando & Lila…but Morton Downey warbling These Foolish Things [Remind Me of You]) makes for some glancing-at-your-watch viewing…but Ghost Catchers does make an effort to work the musical performers into the plot with Ella Mae Morse (singer of hits like Cow Cow Boogie and Blacksmith Blues) and Kirby Grant (billed here as “Kirby Grant and His Orchestra”) as actual characters.  (You’ll also notice how Gloria Jean is a big girl now…and in all the right places, to quote one of my favorite movies.)  In addition, Catchers features some fabulous character veterans like Tom “Heil myself!” Dugan (as the guy who bricks up our heroes “Cask of Amontillado”-style), Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine (his character is identified in the closing credits as “Horsehead”), Henry Armetta, Tor Johnson, and Wee Willie Davis.  (Lon Chaney, Jr. is also in this one, and manages to keep his dignity despite wearing a bear costume.  Hey—if he was able to shamble around in dirty bandages for three Mummy films, the bear suit is a walk in the park.)

Weaver and the Brunases (Bruni?) conclude: “In the twenty-first century, Ghost Catchers is the kind of movie that you’d be embarrassed to have someone walk in and catch you watching—but watch it we Universal devotees must, at least once, because it’s a Universal ‘haunted house’ movie and because it features Lon Chaney, Jr.”  (You guys are really sitting on the fence about this one, aren’t you?)  Pish and tosh, says I; the movie makes me laugh, and if I have a nitpick (and this is a major one) it’s that the film is not available on legitimate DVD (it was released on VHS in the 1990s, which is when I first saw it).  Amazon offers a bootleg copy for twenty bucks from the now out-of-business Nostalgia Home Video…but it’s a terrible print (I have a copy), and missing the opening Universal titles.  You can probably wait until this one makes it to legitimate DVD.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review: Lou’s on First

It was my very good Facebook friend (and fellow Jaw-jan) Shiksa Ravelli (whom I affectionately call ‘SKR”) that alerted me to a price decrease in the Kindle edition of Lou’s on First, a biography on the comedic great Lou Costello written by his youngest daughter Christine (Chris) and Raymond Strait.  (Grabbed it for $3.99—there you go, can’t be bad.)  Released three years after the publication of Bob Thomas’ Bud and Lou in 1978 (which became a justly derided TV-movie starring Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett), Chris wanted to set the record straight with regards to her famous pop…because Thomas got most of the first-hand information in his tome from Eddie Sherman, Abbott & Costello’s longtime business manager.  (This probably won’t come as much of a surprise—but Sherman had an axe to grind on the subject of Lou.  Chris is fairly even-handed when it comes to talking about Eddie…but you kind of get the idea they weren’t swapping Christmas cards after her father’s passing.)

Most of the books that I have read on the famous comedy team are those dealing with their movies; I’d highly recommend Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo’s Abbott & Costello in Hollywood as the best, and I dimly remember Stephen Cox & John Lofflin’s The Abbott & Costello Story: Sixty Years of “Who’s on First?” being a good read as well.  (If you’re limited to one purchase, however, go with the Furmanek/Palumbo book.)  Chris’ book, however, offers a much more personal look at her father’s career: a multi-talented funnyman whose life wasn’t always filled with the laughter that he received from grateful audiences.

Paterson, NJ said “hidy” to one of its favorite native sons on March 6, 1906 when Louis Francis Cristillo made his debut in this world.  A gifted high school athlete, Lou at first considered a career in the sweet science, boxing as “Lou King”…but he really harbored a desire to try his luck in Hollywood and the motion picture business.  He worked as a laborer, extra. and stuntman (he did stunt work in 1928’s The Trail of ’98, and can be spotted ringside in the Laurel & Hardy comedy The Battle of the Century [1927]—yet when it became clear that the movies weren’t exactly clamoring for his services, he decided to head for home.  Costello got sidetracked in St. Joseph’s, MO when he landed a job as a “Dutch comic” in a burlesque show.

His success in burlesque led him to New York, where he continued to perform in both burlesque and vaudeville…and eventually made the acquaintance of Bud Abbott, another veteran performer.  Abbott had established himself as one of burlesque’s premier straight men, and teaming up with Lou in 1936 would produce comedy gold—notably in their timeless baseball comedy routine, “Who’s on First?”  The duo would eventually conquer Broadway (in Streets of Paris in 1938), radio (they became regulars on The Kate Smith Hour at the same time), and movies—Universal hired them to be the comic relief in 1940’s One Night in the Tropics…which led to their first starring feature film, Buck Privates, in 1941.  It’s no exaggeration to say that their comedies—cheaply filmed yet highly profitable—kept Universal out of the red in the 1940s (though the same thing has also been said about everyone under contract at the studio from Deanna Durbin to Francis the Talking Mule).

Most of the information on Costello’s (and Abbott’s) career I had read from other sources…so I was pleasantly surprised by revelations that I did not know.  A team that created the miracle of laughter when in front of audiences, both Bud and Lou were cordial to one another off-stage—but not what you would call close buddies.  (In their early days, Bud got 60% of the take due to his straight man status…but once they were America’s #1 movie comedy team, Lou renegotiated their contract to get the bigger split.)  The duo made money and spent it like no tomorrow, which later led to much scrutiny from the IRS…and sadly, their breakup in 1957.  (I wrote liner notes for a Radio Spirits Abbott & Costello collection one time, and was advised to ix-nay on the IRS-way to avoid any trouble with the estate.)

The devastating section of Lou’s On First arrives on that fateful November 4, 1943 date when Lou’s son Lou, Jr. (affectionately known as “Butch”) managed to work his way out of the crib he was in and fell into the family’s swimming pool, drowning as a result.  (Butch was two days’ shy of his first birthday.)  Lou had looked forward to doing his and Bud’s popular radio program that evening because his son was going to get his opportunity to listen to his famous pop clown in the team’s weekly half-hour.  In the tradition of “the show must go on,” Lou fought back tears and wisecracked with his partner that night; it wasn’t until the program’s close that Bud Abbott informed the studio audience of the devastating tragedy that had happened to his better half.

The death of Lou Costello, Jr. haunts the rest of Lou’s On First (I knew it was coming, and even after reading about it I felt like I swallowed a sno-cone): many of Costello’s colleagues have observed that the funnyman was never the same after the incident, and Chris Costello bravely relates that the tragic death of her brother took an immeasurable toll on the family—particularly her mother Anne, who blamed herself till the end of her days in 1959 (she passed away about nine months after her husband).  (The reader will learn that Lou’s family blamed her as well, and it was this family ugliness that led to her mother’s alcoholism.)

It is not an easy subject to talk about, and yet Chris is able to regale the reader with anecdotes of happier occasions with the Family Costello; her description of how her father loved (I mean loved) Christmas and her dirt-dishing on sisters Patricia (“Paddy”) and Carole''s tumultuous lives will give you a delightful idea of how despite the setbacks, the Costello clan met adversity at every turn and gave it a proper ass-whooping when needed.

My mother’s stepmother (my step-gran) couldn’t stand Abbott & Costello.  She asked me one time when I was watching one of their movies at her house: “How can you watch that nonsense?”  (I seem to recall stronger language used, but I’ll refrain from it.)  The truth is—I enjoyed the heck out of the team’s antics growing up (The Abbott & Costello Show ran like tap water when I was a kid, and when the once-proud AMC showed their movies I made it a point to never miss any of them).  I’m the proud owner of all of their films in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives, and every year it’s a Halloween tradition to run my favorite in their oeuvre, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (a movie even my mother will watch—and she hates the team almost as much as did my step-gran).  I’ve stated here and elsewhere that despite whether you love them or hate them (and there are a lot of people who feel the latter) they’re an important part of comedy history because their movies and TV shows are a virtual encyclopedia of American burlesque.

If there’s a downside to the Kindle edition of Lou’s On First it’s that it doesn’t contain the photos from the print edition (I knew this going in, of course, but it still would have been nice) and apart from a pin prick of a nitpick (Chris says Bud and Lou’s radio program started in the fall of 1941…but it was actually a year later; the duo were appearing on The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show in 1941) it’s a wonderful book about a man who never really received his due as one of the true comedy greats.  Grab yourself a copy.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

“Winning isn’t everything, but it beats anything that comes in second.” – Paul “Bear” Bryant

I just wanna tell ya (in my best Bob Hope impression) the number of entries for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s “Inner Sanctum/Lights Out” giveaway was pretty darn impressive.  Again, nothing on a Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar scale (here’s where I plug Radio Spirits’ upcoming Dollar compendium—Medium Rare Matters—the liner notes were not written by your humble narrator, but rather the indefatigable Liz McLeod) but very encouraging all the same.  (Pimping these contests on Facebook certainly doesn’t hurt, either.)

I wish I had sets to give away to everyone who did enter…but that would cut into RS’ bottom line, I imagine.  So it’s my great pleasure to announce that the winner is member of the TDOY faithful Britt Reid, the proprietor of the great nostalgia blog Secret Sanctum of Captain Video.  (He not only has a “secret sanctum”…now he has an “inner sanctum.”  Seriously—check out his blog when you get a chance.)  The editor of The Daily Sentinel will be sending me his snail-mail address soon (I’m told the paper is no longer accepting packages…for obvious reasons), and I will mail his prize posthaste.

Keep an eye on this space—because in two weeks, I’ll have another bodacious swag giveaway scheduled (and this prize will also be a “bundle”—very, very cool!).  Remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!

Friday, October 14, 2016


And believe me, cartooners—I ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.  (Thanks to loyal member of the TDOY faithful C.N. for inspiring the blog post title, by the way.)  The deadline for Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s latest old-time radio giveaway—a chance to win copies of the Radio Spirits releases Lights Out: Later Than You Think and Inner Sanctum: Shadows of Death—ends tomorrow evening (Saturday, October 15) at 11:59pm EDT.  I have to tell you: the response to the contest has been most encouraging, but I don’t think I would sleep soundly at night if I thought anyone out there in YesteryearLand was going to miss out on a chance to enter and win.  (Then again…it may be listening to the shows on these collections.)  Just shoot me an e-mail with “Inner Sanctum/Lights Out” in the subject header to igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com by the deadline—offer good for U.S. residents/addresses only—and Sunday morning I shall summon forth a name with a sacrifice to the gods.  (Just trying to keep things in the Halloween spirit, I guess.)  Good luck to everyone who entered!

Forgotten Noir Fridays: FBI Girl (1951)

Owen Grisby (Raymond Greenleaf) is the governor of an unidentified state (he operates out of a burg known as “Capitol City”)—and he’s being groomed to run for a Senate seat from the same fictitious locale.  Grisby, however, has a teensy problem: many, many years ago—before he got into an honest racket like politics, he wrote jokingly—he committed a murder as “John Williams” (no, not the British actor who used to hawk 120 Music Masterpieces in the TV ads) and his fingerprints are on file with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Should a Senate crime committee find something hinky in Grisby’s background, he’ll naturally be arrested and his true identity revealed.  Grisby’s henchman Blake (Raymond Burr) has an idea: he’ll arrange for the Guv’s fingerprints to be “liberated” from the FBI files…and no one will ever know Williams existed.

Blake leans on a lower-level stooge named Paul Craig (Don Garner), who in turn begs his sister Pamela (Margia Dean) to remove Mr. Williams from the Feds’ database.  Pamela is eager to help out her brother…but she gets cold feet at the last minute.  Sadly, the two men assigned to make sure Pamela doesn’t share Blake’s scheme with the authorities do not realize this; they run her car off the road, and she dies as a result of the accident.  Because Pam was an FBI employee, Agents Glen Stedman (Cesar Romero) and Jeff Donley (George Brent) are brought in to investigate along with the usual gendarmic representatives.  Their dogged pursuit of the evidence (along with a helpful FBI employee who remembers seeing Pamela poring through fingerprint files the day she was murdered) points to one of Blake’s goons—a charmer nicknamed “Georgia” (Alexander Pope) …who commits two more murders (brother Paul is one of the victims) before plunging to his death from a hospital ledge.  Continually stymied in their attempts to unravel the identity of “John Williams,” Stedman and Donley will eventually have to turn to one of Pamela’s roommates—another Bureau employee, Shirley Wayne (Audrey Totter)—to assist them on the case.

I’ve noticed two irrefutable facts about these VCI “Forgotten Noir” films.  One, they don’t really fit my definition of “noir” (it bears repeating—sometimes a black-and-white crime film…is just a black-and-white crime film).  Two, they’re either deliriously entertaining…or they really, really suck.  Fortunately, FBI Girl (1951) is deliriously entertaining…thanks to a splendid cast, more action than is the norm for a Lippert production, and direction by an accomplished B-picture director, William A. Berke (the auteur behind another VCI “Forgotten Noir,” Shoot to Kill [1947]).  The screenplay by Dwight V. Babcock (whose screenplays include the Inner Sanctum films Dead Man’s Eyes and Pillow of Death) and Richard H. Landau (Back to Bataan, The Secret of the Whistler) is very solid, and the author of Girl’s story is Rupert Hughes—uncle of Howard Hughes.  (Rupe even gets a “name-above-the-title” credit!)

FBI Girl kicks off with some giggly narration courtesy of star Romero, who gives us the skinny on this nation’s Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation (“a symbol of international strength and hope,” it says here)—the highlight is when he describes the employees of the fingerprints department as “nice, normal boys and girls.”  (They don’t drink.  They don’t smoke.  They don’t…period!)  Cesar, whom we learned in Shadow Man (1953) had started freelancing once his contract expired at 20th Century-Fox, appeared in quite a few Lippert productions since he was still a “name” in the industry despite not being affiliated with a studio.  Romero is always dependable (Shadow Man was an awful film though the actor himself was not), but had I been the casting director on Girl I would have suggested he switch parts with co-star George Brent.

You know my position on Brent—a.k.a. “Bette Davis’ doormat”—here at TDOY.  So this will come as a bit of surprise to you—he’s actually damn good in FBI Girl.  He’s so convincing as a Jack Webb-like, stick-up-his-keister Fed that the moment in the film when he starts to express regret about putting Audrey’s character in danger he has trouble selling it; Romero, on the other hand, is the hardcase telling George to pull up his big boy pants and stop whining.  (I think it would have worked better the other way around.)

As for Audrey…well, FBI Girl is not her finest hour.  She’s not terrible (she could never be!) but she’s really been saddled with a thankless part…and it doesn’t help matters that her love interest is played by the staggeringly uninspiring Tom Drake.  (That having been said, I love the fact that Drake’s lobbyist character is a bad guy—because I believe in my heart of hearts that lobbyists are evil.)  Despite so many memorable performances (Lady in the Lake, The Set-Up) Totter’s career in movies and TV gave way to roles not worthy of her talents (you check out any episode of Cimarron City and you’ll know what I mean).

Just as Loan Shark (1952) benefited from first-rate scoundrels in Paul Stewart and John Hoyt, FBI Girl avails itself of the villainy of Raymond Burr, a.k.a. The Man Who Would Be Mason.  Burr has a delightful showcase as political fixer Blake…whose interest in furthering Grisby’s career isn’t altruistic—he’s got a lot invested in the Guv hizzownself, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let this puling old wanker scotch his ambitions.  (I suppose you could make a case—if you disagree with my assertion that Girl isn’t noir—that the presence of Burr and Totter does give the picture some Dark City bona fides.)  Other character greats on hand include Byron Foulger, O.Z. Whitehead, Marie Blake, George Eldredge, and Joi Lansing—and a future game show host and his comedic partner in Peter Marshall and Tommy Noonan.

Yes, a title card for FBI Girl reads “Introducing Tommy Noonan and Peter Marshall”—which is a little bit of a misnomer, since the comedy duo had already appeared in the Lippert pictures The Return of Jesse James (1950) and Holiday Rhythm (1950).  Tom and Pete (shout-out to a West Virginia boy!) do a routine on a TV set that Romero is forced to watch with Totter’s other two roomies; I guess Sid Melton was busy elsewhere on the lot.  Noonan didn’t do badly for himself in later years—he’s remembered for appearances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and A Star is Born (1954)—and of course, Marshall was the longtime host of TV’s Hollywood Squares…but as a comedy team they were strictly from hunger (they made two more pictures, The Rookie [1959] and Swingin’ Along [1961]) and thankfully disbanded as a grateful nation wept tears of joy.

I wish I had the opportunity to listen to the audio commentary for FBI Girl from Facebook compadre/noir expert Alan K. Rode…but I was little pressed for time this week, and so I’ll have to save that dessert for a more convenient time.  This volume of Forgotten Film Noir (a double feature of Girl and 1949’s Tough Assignment, which is on tap for next week) also features trailers for Girl as well as Bad Blonde (1953), Deadly Game (1954), and Man Bait (1952), and bios on the film’s stars plus a photo gallery.  You can rent this at your friendly neighborhood ClassicFlix—I highly recommend this one.