Friday, April 21, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #3: “Desert Death” (10/19/35)

I’m two weeks into the Crime Does Not Pay series here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and already I have been able to gauge its monumental success because the CDNP shorts that had been previously posted at YouTube have been removed.  I swear I’m not making this up.  Some kind soul uploaded some of the two-reelers to the ‘Tube, blissfully unaware that they are owned by legitimate copyright holders…so you could argue that it was only a matter of time before it was brought to someone’s attention and the necessary “cease and desist” letter mailed to the violator.  (As always, cartooners—Uncle Ivan frowns on people who disregard copyrights…unless it’s a movie he really wants to see and can’t become some rat bastard has it locked it away in a vault somewhere.)  I thought that if I refrained from mentioning the shorts’ presence on YouTube, I could continue to conveniently view them in the confines of Count Comfy von Chair and not have to resort to sitting in my painful office desk chair, preparing my weekly snark.  As for those of you who are smugly saying to yourself right now “Well—he’s certainly overstated his importance in the blogosphere, the conceited ass!” I can only counter: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”

This week, even though the “MGM Reporter” is identified at the (always reliable) IMDb, it would not have been necessary for me to consult that reference source because I recognized him right off as actor Richard Carlson—star of TV’s I Led 3 Lives and many science-fiction movie classics like It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  (The [always reliable] IMDb says this is his first movie—believe them if you must.)  In fact, Desert Death (1935) is the first Crime Does Not Pay short to credit performers in its main titles—the lucky winners are character great Raymond Hatton (a silent film veteran best known for his appearances in the “Three Mesquiteers” series) and not-quite-yet-a-character-great-but-on-his-way Harvey Stephens, remembered for his impressive stage work and appearances in movies like The Cheat (1931) and Evelyn Prentice (1934).  And now, let’s see what’s going on down in Pine Ridge…

REPORTER: How do you do, ladies and gentlemen…this is the MGM Reporter drawing your attention once again to the fact that crime is one business in which the final entry must always be set down in the debit side of the ledger…

Suppose you’re using two sets of books?

REPORTER: At this time, it’s my privilege to interview for you Mr. Burton James, chief investigator for one of the nation’s largest insurance companies…

As always, the individual who narrates these shorts is completely fictional—“James” is played by actor John Hyams, whose slightly-more-famous daughter Leila appeared in such movie classics as Freaks (1932) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).

REPORTER: From your experience, Mr. James, do you believe that crime does not pay?

“I’d be a fool to answer ‘no,’ young fella—do I look like I want MGM to stop payment on my check?”  James explains to Reporter Guy that “the criminal, no matter how clever he is, can’t win.”

JAMES: Now in this work of insurance investigation—we deal with some of the brainiest and most astute criminals in the world…
REPORTER: And if the smart criminal can’t win—there certainly isn’t much chance for any of the others, eh?

“That’s right, my boy.  Crime is not a profession for morons.”  Because we have twenty minutes to kill, James has just such a tale to illustrate how not even the best and the brightest can advance in the challenging, dog-eat-dog world of wanton criminality—ace investigator Bob Mehaffey (Stephens) is sent out into “desert country” to probe into the death of a man named John Collins…accompanied by a local sheriff (Erville Anderson) who looks as if he and Chet Lauck share the same makeup man.  The deceased Collins had been living with his cousin, George Lesh, out on Lesh’s sheep ranch for the past six months.  According to “Sheriff Alder.” Collins had been out to pick up some supplies and in his driving haste, badly negotiated a hairpin turn.  He went down an embankment, and might have walked away with nary a scratch had the cans of gasoline in the back of his vehicle not explodiated upon impact.

MEHAFFEY: What can you tell me about Collins?
SHERIFF: Well, nobody rightly knows much about him…and even less about old Lesh…Lesh is a…county mystery, you might say…came here to herd sheep for the Magowan Brothers about fifteen years ago and scarcely a…a soul has as much as laid eyes on him close up in all that time…
MEHAFFEY: How come?
SHERIFF: Well, he’s what you might call a ree-cluse

When Mehaffey inquires as to how Lesh gets his supplies, Alder explains that in addition to his being a lawman he owns the local store (you thought I was kidding with the Lum ‘n’ Abner comparisons, didn’t you?)—and his delivery man makes regular trips up to Lesh’s mailbox.  (Lesh’s box, by the way, is fourteen miles from his spread.  And to think I complain about having to dodge mud puddles to pick up the House of Yesteryear’s mail.)  Old Lesh will leave a list of what he needs in the box and the money to cover it, and once the delivery guy picks that up he returns to town, grabs what the old hermit needs from the Jot ‘Em Down Store’s inventory, and brings it back to deposit at the mailbox.  Lesh then waits until sundown to retrieve the goods.  (I suppose I don’t have to tell you that if Lesh ever needs any dairy products he’s going to be seriously boned, what with living in the desert and all.)

MEHAFFEY: Queer old duck, eh?
SHERIFF: Ain’t no name for it…gets his pay the same way at the mailbox…
MEHAFFEY: Ever see the dead man—Collins?
SHERIFF: Only sorta…

Sheriff Lum relates spotting Collins when he first arrived in Allenville six months ago.  He wasn’t able to identify Collins’ body in the wreck at first—“There wasn’t much left of him as you could see back there in the undertaking parlor”—and originally assumed it was Old Lesh who cracked up in the vehicle (it was his “flivver”).  But there were items in the wreck with Collins’ initials on them (a hat, a ring, and a pocket watch), and upon stopping by the shack, Old Lesh accompanied Alder to identify the body.

The two men arrive at the scene of Collins’ accident.  I strongly suspect that the “large insurance company” referenced by the MGM Reporter at the beginning of this narrative is Central Casualty, the outfit that employs Eric Gregg (Ronald Reagan) in the 1939 programmer Accidents Will Happen.  Why, you may be asking?  Well, because after an examination by Mehaffey…there are elements to this “accident” that do not add up.

A pool of oil clearly visible on the highway…

The ignition switch is in the “off” position…

MEHAFFEY: Strong smell of gasoline, isn’t there?
SHERIFF: Shouldn’t wonder…he had twenty-five gallons in that back seat…

“Twenty-five gallons?  What was he doing, drinking it?”  Mehaffey finds the remnants of one of the cans…with a peculiar gash in the top…

An additional canvassing of the area turns up evidence of some sagebrush that’s been removed from its base…a further search reveals the missing piece, tossed aside a few yards away…

SHERIFF: What’s that you got there?
MEHAFFEY: Piece of sagebrush, isn’t it?
SHERIFF: Sure…country’s all cluttered up with it…

“We are in the desert, you know.”  Finally, Mehaffey locates a teensy scrap of paper on the ground…and breaks the silence with “Sheriff…I’m not sure that was an accident.”

SHERIFF: No?  You think it was planned, mebbe?
MEHAFFEY: I’m not sure yet…
SHERIFF: Suicide?
MEHAFFEY: Might be…guess we better get up and see Old Lesh…

And so our heroes arrive at what used to be the old Haney place—now the address of Lesh the Hermit.  They’re greeted by several dogs, who commence to barking at the strangers until an elderly gent (Hatton) emerges from behind the shack, and adroitly tends to the nuisance by throwing a few rocks at the canines.  Alder makes the proper introductions, and the trio go inside the house.

MEHAFFEY: Mister Lesh?  Sheriff Alder here tells me you’ve been living here alone for a long time…up until about six months ago…
LESH: Yeah…that’s right…
MEHAFFEY: Do you mind if I ask you just how it happened that Mr. Collins came out here to live with you?

Lesh explains that he and John Collins (Arthur Stone) are cousins, and in a series of flashbacks he tells Mehaffey that while he was reluctant to take Collins in, he felt an obligation since he was his only living relative.  Collins wrote in a letter that he was dying and needed a change of climate for his health.  As he strolls merrily along Memory Lane, Mehaffey offers him a cigarette…and Lesh accepts it as if he hasn’t made a trip to Flavor Country in months.

LESH: You been here three days now, John…it’s time I said somethin’…
LESH: The minute I laid eyes on ya I knew there wasn’t nothin’ wrong with your health…’cept maybe a little too much alky-hol…what’s this all about?
COLLINS: Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you all along, George…the fact is I…I didn’t know how you’d take it…I’m…well…I’m in a jam…you see…I got mixed up in a shady deal over some government bonds and…I’ve just gotta have a good, safe place to hide until the whole thing blows over…

Mehaffey informs Lesh that Collins wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie as he produces a piece of paper from his pocket—it’s a notice with Collins’ picture on it, and the words “Fugitive Wanted” printed above.

LESH: Of course…after I heard about this I…told him to clear out…but he begged me to stay…he said he wasn’t wholly to blame…and you know, after he’d been here the first few days…I really enjoyed talkin’ to someone…

“Felons always seem to tell the best stories.”

MEHAFFEY: Did anyone see him during the six months he was here?
LESH: Why…uh…no…not that I recollect…you see, he wanted to avoid seein’ folks…
MEHAFFEY: Did he usually go up to the junction for the supplies?
LESH: No…no…I did…but I got in kinda late and I was just plumb tired out and…he said he’d go up for the stuff so I...I let him…I guess I hadn’t oughta done it…he’d be alive yet…

“Didn’t you wonder what happened to him when he didn’t return?” presses Mehaffey.  Lesh claims he knew nothing about it until Alder came in and woke him up the next morning to report the accident.  Then the investigator goes for the Coup de Gracie:

MEHAFFEY: Mr. Lesh…did you know that John Collins took out a $75,000 life insurance policy…naming you as beneficiary just before he left the East?
LESH: Why…no!
MEHAFFEY: Well, he did…he had a double indemnity in case of accident clause, too…that’s why I’m here…we’ll be paying out $150,000

Mehaffey is puzzled that Collins never mentioned what a grand guy he was to be so thoughtful of his cuz…until Lesh remembers that Cousin John did refer to it in passing:

COLLINS: I’m innocent…but if you turn me out, they’ll put me in jail for something I didn’t do just the same…let me stay…just a little while…you’ll never regret taking me in…I’ve…seen to that…

“But this policy is voided in case of suicide,” continues Mehaffey.  “Now, can you think of any reason—apart from the fact that he was a fugitive from justice—why he might have wanted to take his own life and make it look like an accident?”  George pooh-poohs this notion, recalling that the deceased Collins was feeling “pretty chipper” the last couple of days and had even made noises about returning East.  “You don’t mean that…that he’d take his life to pay me back?” inquires Lesh.  Lesh refuses to entertain such a notion…but let’s be reasonable, old timer—he’s been hiding out from the long arm of the law for six months; I wouldn’t put anything past him.

“Do you mind if I look around a little?”  Mehaffey asks the old man.  “I’ve got to make my report sound like I’m on the job.”  (“And to justify this fat expense account the company affords me, no questions asked.”)  In looking about the cabin, the investigator notices a pipe and a nearly full tin of tobacco.  “Yours?” he asks Lesh, and Lesh replies in the affirmative.  The investigator also asks upon spying a straight razor and shaving brush if the items belong to Lesh, with the bearded Lesh remarking that “I gave those up years ago.”  (They belonged to Collins.)

Having completed his snooping, Mehaffey seats himself at a desk to jot down some notes on a pad…and deliberately breaks the point of his pencil.  “Got a knife?” he asks his host, and Lesh produces one from his pocket.  Mehaffey re-sharpens his pencil, but before returning the knife to George he pulls the piece of the gas canister from his pocket, and inserts the blade in the puncture.  It fits like a glove.  He hands the knife back to Lesh, and remarks to Alder: “Well, Sheriff…guess we can be getting back to Allenville now…”

SHERIFF: Suits me…
MEHAFFEY: …but I think we’d better take this gentleman back with us…
SHERIFF: Him?  Why?
MEHAFFEY: So you can book him on a charge of murder


LESH: Oh, I see…you’re tryin’ to frame me…to cheat me out of that insurance money… (To Alder) I tell ya he’s talkin’ nonsense!
SHERIFF: I’m halfway inclined to agree with ya!

“But on the other hand…it’s possible he’s right.”  (Fence straddler.  Must be a Democrat.)

SHERIFF: I’m right curious, Mister—just how you figure out this murder business…

“He probably didn’t commit any murder.  It’s just that…well, we are an insurance company and we’ll do just about anything to avoid paying a claim.”  No, I’m just kidding—Mehaffey has the goods on old George:

MEHAFFEY: In spite of what you say, you did know that John Collins had taken out a life insurance policy payable to George Lesh…you planned this murder for months…you ordered the gasoline and knew when it would be delivered…so in some way, you either killed your victim or knocked him out…then you drove to the junction in the dark and picked up the cans of gasoline…you drove back and stopped the car where the so-called accident happened…I know you stopped, because I found the little pool of oil that formed in the road while the car stood there…

There’s more, of course.  The ignition switch was still in the “off” position, because the murderer forgot to turn it back on as he was shoving the vehicle over the embankment.  The gasoline cans were gashed open with the knife, and the snapped sagebrush was where the killer used a piece to cover up his footprints.  The scrap of paper Mehaffey found at the scene was what was left of the torch the murderer fashioned to set the gasoline-soaked flivver ablaze.  An outraged Lesh accuses Mehaffey of lying, and concocting the story to get out of paying the claim (hey, there must be some reason why there’s fifty gazillion lawyer commercials on the tee vee warning me not to trust insurance companies).  It looks to be a “he-said-he-said” situation until Lesh stupidly picks up a shotgun by the door and brandishes it at the two men…then makes a run for it…

Get him, Lassie!  Go get him, girl!  One of the barking dogs leaps upon Lesh, sending him to the ground and allowing Alder and Mehaffey to procure his weapon.  Mehaffey asks the sheriff for the handcuffs, and he quickly snaps them on Lesh’s wrists.  “You men are crazy,” snarls Lesh.  “I swear I didn’t murder John Collins.”

“I don’t remember saying that you did,” replies Mehaffey as he grabs the shaving brush and razor and promises the Sheriff “a big surprise” as he moves toward Lesh.  (Yes, this is where Desert Death goes south for me because I seriously doubt Lesh would sit there and allow someone to shave him without struggle or protest.)

“There…you’re nice and clean…although your face…looks…like…it’s…gone…t’ru…a…machine…”  Mehaffey’s back is toward the camera, and when he steps out of the way “Lesh” is revealed to be none other than John Collins.  Since no one had seen “Old Lesh” in years, the two men’s builds and height were virtually identical—and Collins waited six months before he killed the old codger to allow his beard to grow in approximation of his victim.  How did Mehaffey know “Lesh” was Collins?  Well, Collins attacked that cigarette he was offered even though he had a pipe and tobacco within reach.  If the razor and shaving brush did belong to Collins, there would have been signs of use (earlier, Mehaffey touched the bristles on the brush and raised up a small cloud of dust).  But what cinched his suspicions was the reaction the two men got on their arrival from the dogs around the shack: “No sheepherder ever lived that had dogs who wouldn’t obey.”  (So you’re saying the damn dog did most of the work, and you couldn’t even give him a simple “Well, King…thanks to you, this case is closed.”)

And in slipping the handcuffs on Collins, he saw an untanned band around one of his fingers—one that had been accommodating the same bit of bling that Alden found among the effects in the wreckage.  “The sun gave him away.”  (Stupid sun.)

JAMES: Collins was one of the cleverest and brainiest crooks the police have ever had to deal with…but he wasn’t quite clever enough…he died in the electric chair…

It hurts, they tell me.

REPORTER: And if the law finally gets a brilliant criminal like Collins—what chance do the others…the…the less clever ones…of making crime pay?
JAMES: No chance in the world, my boy…no chance

Remember, kids—if you’re going to commit a crime, be sure to take that I.Q. test beforehand.  Next week: A Thrill for Thelma.  G’bye now!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

From the DVR: Ducks and Drakes (1921)

Back in November of 2016, I plugged a Kickstarter project instituted by author/silent film collector Edward Lorusso to restore the 1922 Marion Davies film Beauty’s Worth…and while I would have loved to throw a few coins into Ed’s guitar case to help with this worthy goal, I found myself woefully short of funds at the time.  (A condition I often describe here at Rancho Yesteryear as “weekly.”)  I was heartened to learn, however, that the DVD of Worth will eventually be made available via Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions, so maybe I’ll be “healthy” (to channel my inner Damon Runyon) by that time to grab a copy.  (If you happen to be flush with cash, you might be interested in Lorusso’s latest campaign to bring life to Davies’ April Folly [1920]—which will conclude tomorrow at 12:58pm EDT.)

Edward Martindel, Bebe Daniels
The Lorusso project that I was able to contribute to, The Bride’s Play (1922), recently made its debut on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™…along with an earlier film Ed applied paddles to—the 1921 Bebe Daniels romp Ducks and Drakes.  The review of Play is here, but I DVR’d Drakes to be viewed at a more convenient time…and found it a diverting romantic comedy that gets by largely on the charm of its star.  Ducks and Drakes is one of Bebe’s earliest feature films as a leading lady, after appearing in nearly 150 shorts opposite Harold Lloyd and roles in Cecil B. DeMille films like Male and Female (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920).

W.E. Lawrence, Daniels
Ducks and Drakes (1921) is the story of Teddy Simpson (Bebe), a vivacious if flaky young flapper whose disapproving “Aunty Weeks” (Mayme Kelso) is pressuring her to become lawfully wed to her fiancé, Rob Winslow (Jack Holt).  Teddy has little tolerance for that foolishness, and to relieve the suffocating boredom of her existence, indulges in playing telephone pranks on unsuspecting doofuses (doofi?) like Dick Chiltern (Edward Martindel), a man old enough to be her father, and Tom Hazzard (W.E. Lawrence), amusingly posing as an “anarchist.”  With the kind of coincidences found only in movies, Rob, Dick, and Tom all belong to the same gentlemen’s club…and learn that they’ve all been dealing with the same girl.  The trio—along with a fourth member, Colonel Tweed (Wade Boteler)—decide to mother-hen a plan that will teach young Teddy a well-deserved lesson.

Jack Holt, Bebe
Because Teddy’s shenanigans really don’t do any long-term harm to anyone, you sort of have to prepare yourself for the wincing “taming of the wild gal” plot in Ducks and Drakes.  However, Daniels is so mesmerizing onscreen that I was a little lenient with the “battle of the sexes” direction the movie eventually heads towards.  The title of the feature is a tip-off; it originally was a quaint colloquialism used to describe a squandering of money or resources, but in this particular instance it’s used to describe Teddy’s wild lifestyle.  (The “ducks and drakes” is also reinforced in the title cards accompanying Elmer Harris’ screenplay; Harris is perhaps best known as the author of the stage hit Johnny Belinda, whose 1948 film adaptation scored a Best Actress Oscar for Jane Wyman.)

Director Maurice Campbell had previously directed star Daniels in Oh, Lady, Lady (1920) and She Couldn’t Help It (1920), and his comfort level with Bebe would continue with five additional films: Two Weeks with Pay (1921), One Wild Week (1921), The March Hare (1921), The Speed Girl (1921), and The Exciters (1923).  Campbell acquits himself nicely with the staging of the various comedy set pieces—the highlight being a sequence (filmed at California’s Big Bear Lake) in which Bebe’s Teddy is trapped in a houseboat/water cabin and at the mercy of an escaped convict.  Jack Holt, a one-time stuntman best known as Columbia’s top he-man star in the late 1920s/early 1930s (he’s also the father of Tim and Jennifer), is serviceable as fiancé Winslow (even if he does seem a bit too old for his twenty-year-old leading lady).  I was also amused by the presence of character thespian Boteler; I kept muttering “Sufferin’ snakes, Reid!” throughout the action (a reference to Wade’s role as “Michael Axford” in the 1940 serial The Green Hornet).

Ducks and Drakes wraps up its antics in less than an hour, and it’s made me more curious to check out more of Bebe Daniels’s available silent film output (I know her from the Lloyd comedies, 1925’s Miss Bluebeard, and her BBC radio work with husband Ben Lyon).  Kudos to Ed Lorusso for bringing this one out of the mothballs, a most engaging and energetic vehicle with a fine musical score from David Drazin.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Movies I’ve stared at recently on from TCM #74 (John Litel Edition)

It’s back by popular demand!  (Spoiler alert: it’s not really…it’s not even that popular, to be honest.)  The last one of these I did was back in November of 2015, and since I have been availing myself of some of the splendid B-movie fare from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ of late (if you work it right, you can fit two second features on one disc), I figured why not apply some paddles to this long-dormant Thrilling Days of Yesteryear feature.  (I have also taken the liberty of cleverly changing its title; I have become terribly spoiled with our DISH Hopper—it allows me to transcribe a lot of TCM’s movies to play back at a more convenient time—so it's more accurate to say “from the DVR.”)

I have kind of a running joke here on the blog (I use “joke” in the loosest sense, since I may be the only person who chuckles at it) where I occasionally comment on whether or not character veteran John Litel is playing a lawyer in a movie.  I realize Litel demonstrated much versatility in his cinematic endeavors (as well as scads of TV appearances) than I give him credit for…but there’s no getting around the fact that he seemed to be the go-to guy for playing onscreen attorneys.  He was Carson Drew—father of Nancy in Warner’s brief attempt to bring the popular teenaged sleuth to the silver screen.  Later, in Paramount’s Henry Aldrich series, he was the awkward adolescent’s pop Sam (also a member of the bar).  Still later, he portrayed Hugh Mitchell in Columbia’s “Rusty” franchise…still poring through the ol’ legal books to pay the rent.  (Fans of the blog might remember that Mr. L was also the diabolical Spencer Merlin in our Serial Saturdays presentation of Don Winslow of the Navy [1942].)

The four features I DVR’d from Tee Cee Em not only feature Litel but Dick Purcell—the unofficial “King of the B’s” at Warner’s.  Here in the House of Yesteryear, we remember Dick as the titular hero of the 1944 serial Captain America—one of his last movie roles before his untimely passing that same year when he succumbed to a heart attack after finishing 18 holes of golf.  I recorded these programmers during a day-long tribute to Purcell on the channel, which also featured Accidents Will Happen (1938)—reviewed in this space last week.

Alcatraz Island (1937) – John Litel gets top billing in this Warner’s effort released by the studio’s B-picture unit after their success with another “ripped from the headlines” vehicle, San Quentin (1937).  Our man John is ‘Gat’ Brady…and though he should write “notorious racketeer” in the ‘Occupation’ portion of his income tax returns, he’s also a doting father who’s stashed his daughter Annabel (Mary Maguire) in a private girls’ school lest she learn the truth about what her pop does for a living.  (It don’t make no never mind to Ann, though—she’s been clued into her father’s activities and loves him just the same.)  Gat is planning to take Ann to visit Europe when he gets a visit from the Feds: it turns out he hasn’t been filling out those tax returns I mentioned earlier, and though Gat’s clever attorney Fred MacLane (Addison Richards) cuts a deal for Brady to get a slap on the wrist (six months in the pokey and a $50,000 fine) the judge (Walter Young) winds up throwing the book at the Gatster, sentencing him to five years in Leavenworth.  (Just like real life, he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.)

Ann Sheridan, John Litel
Being in stir is bad enough…but Gat’s troubles have just started.  ‘Red’ Carroll (Ben Welden), a hood out to settle a score with Brady (Gat refused to help Carroll’s brother, who was facing a murder rap), tries to put the snatch on Ann for revenge…and because he took her across state lines, he winds up doing a stretch in Leavenworth as well.  Red and Gat have a scrap, resulting in the loss of Brady’s “good behavior” time and a transfer to the titular pen of this movie…and Red arranges to follow him not long after, just to be a constant burr under Gat’s incarceration saddle.  In the meantime, Ann, MacLane, and Gat’s moll Flo Allen (Ann Sheridan) are hard at work trying to make things easier for Brady while he’s in the slammah, with Ann cozying up to lawyer George Drake (Gordon Oliver)—the legal eagle responsible for Gat’s internment in the first place!

In a review of Alcatraz Island Variety observed that “due to weakness of story, an average directorial job and failure to inject desired menace, it has its drawbacks as entertainment.”  That’s a tad harsh; I’ll admit my interest in the story started to subside once Gat was put behind bars (I liked the gangster-daughter angle of the tale, and wished that had been explored in further detail) but going in I didn’t expect anything more than the usual slam-bang Warner Bros. prison picture, scripted by Crane Wilbur and helmed by journeyman director William C. McGann…so I was thoroughly entertained for its 63-minute running time.  Island’s prison sequences are aided immeasurably by the presence of Purcell, everyone’s favorite “Runt” George E. Stone (as a philosophical inmate: “It's just the same in here as being in your grave—only you miss the fun of being dead”), and Vladimir Sokoloff as a convict known as “The Flying Dutchman.”  Having Ann Sheridan on hand is always a plus—my favorite “Oomph Girl” movies are always the ones where she plays the hard-as-nails, take-no-guff gal from the wrong side of the tracks.  (I know—this is a little like admitting “I like the Woody Allen films where he plays the funny, neurotic Jew.”)

Missing Witnesses (1937) – Litel is on the right side of the law in this entry; he’s Robert L. Lane, an inspector who’s been appointed by the governor as a special prosecutor to head a law enforcement unit that will deal with complications stemming from the reluctance of eyewitnesses testifying against a trio of hoodlums—‘Little Joe’ Macey (Raymond Hatton), Chivvy Prado (Earl Gunn), and Heinie Dodds (Louis Natheaux)—who have been shaking down merchants for protection money on behalf of an anonymous “Mr. Big.”  Assigned to Lane’s unit is ‘Bull’ Regan (Purcell), a hard-nosed cop who’s faster with his fists than his brains…and his continued capacity with the department hinges on his success at his new job (if he f**ks up, Lane will make certain his future employment opportunities involve the lucrative field of nighttime security).

Jean Dale
Regan is obsessed with locating a woman he spotted during an incident involving the protection stooges (the witness [Michael Mark] in that case was prosecuted for perjury after chickening out of testifying) and he finally tracks her down in the form of Mary Norton (Jean Dale), who’s been working as a secretary under the gentleman running the racket—Ward Sturgis (Harland Tucker).  Bull’s investigation into Sturgis runs into a brick wall when Ward’s corpse turns up a-floatin’ in the bay…and it appears Mary may be responsible!

Missing Witnesses is an unofficial remake of Bureau of Missing Persons (1933).  Both feature hothead cops (Pat O’Brien in Persons, Purcell in Witnesses) who are dangerously close to getting the heave-ho from the force…and while O’Brien’s favorite phrase is “I’ll bet you a dollar six bits” Purcell prefers “Well, there’s no harm in tryin’.”  (The characters played by Bette Davis [Persons] and Jean Dale [Witnesses] are also quite similar, even both hiding in closets at points in the action.)  Missing Witnesses was purportedly based on several cases investigated by then-Big Apple D.A. (and future New York Governor/Presidential nominee) Thomas A. Dewey.

William Clemens, the auteur behind Accidents Will Happen, also directed this film (and the evil dame from Accidents, Sheila Bromley, appears in Witnesses as the wife of Ben Welden’s character—another reluctant “witness”) scripted by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan.  Making return appearances from Alcatraz Island are Welden, Hatton, Young, Lane Chandler, John Harron, Al Herman, Stuart Holmes, Edward Keane, Milton Kibbee, Jack Mower, Willard Parker, Edwin Stanley, Myrtle Stedman, Elliott Sullivan, Joan Valerie, Tom Wilson, and William Worthington.  (You can’t say Warner’s didn’t keep actors busy—TDOY favorites like Veda Ann Borg, John Hamilton, and Mary Treen also have small roles.)

Litel, June Travis, Dick Foran
Over the Wall (1938) – Litel is back in stir…but this time, he’s prison chaplain Father Neil Connor, trying to straighten out an inmate named Jerry Davis (Dick Foran).  Davis, an aspiring pugilist with a quick temper, was wrongly sent to the jug after killing his manager, Eddie Edwards (Ward Bond)—but the responsible party is gangster Ace Scanlon (Purcell), who croaked Edwards after Eddie started making major moves toward taking over Ace’s racket.  Jerry’s assimilation into the prison population does not go smoothly at first—partly due to his prickly disposition and partly due to his protestations of innocence—but under Father Connor’s tutelage Davis reveals an unknown knack for carrying a tune and soon becomes a favorite with audiences via his radio performances.  Jerry’s best girl Kay Norton (June Travis), is convinced of her beau’s innocence…and even gets a secretarial job in Scanlon’s office to ferret out evidence that will free her man.  But after a deathbed confession from Ace’s henchman ‘Gyp’ Hatton (George E. Stone), Davis stupidly decides to crash out at the exact moment the governor (Jonathan “Mr. Dithers” Hale) is considering re-trying the case due to Kay’s discoveries.  (I never cease to be amused when the wrongly convicted are given a second chance in the movies…because it rarely happens in real life.)

Mentioning that Foran’s character becomes a singing sensation in this film naturally means that Dick is going to warble a few tunes (four by my count, including Ave Maria) …so if you’re not a fan of prison musicals (if that’s even a thing) consider this your caveat emptor.  I don’t care for Foran’s singing…but I soldiered on because I already paid the rent on the hall; truth be told I would have enjoyed Over the Wall more if someone other than Warners’ resident singing cowboy had played the part.  (For a prison break picture, it also takes its sweet time getting Foran’s Davis out of the joint; he never technically goes “over the wall” but makes a run for it while on the outside as a prison orderly on special assignment.)  The movie’s story was written by real-life Sing Sing Prison warden Lewis E. Lawes (personified in Wall by John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton), who had to be one of the savviest civil servants when it came to self-promotion (his pop culture contributions include the radio programs Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing [also a 1933 movie] and The Crime Cases of Warden Lawes and the films Invisible Stripes [1939] and You Can’t Get Away With Murder [1939]).  Despite the handicap that is Dick Foran, Wall is a diverting little flick with good performances from Litel, Purcell, Bond, Stone, Hamilton, and Veda Ann Borg (as the dame what spills the beans on Purcell).  (I also giggled at seeing Preston Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin as Foran’s “handler” and a young, thin Dick Wessel as the inmate responsible for Stone’s “accident.”)

Marie Wilson, Sheridan, Margaret Lindsay
Broadway Musketeers (1938) – John Litel might have been stymied in his pursuit of settling down with Ann Sheridan due to a stretch in the sneezer in Alcatraz Island…but he gets to sashay down the aisle with that Oomph Gal in Broadway Musketeers, a fun little B-pic once you accept that it’s not going to be as racy as its pre-Code predecessor, Three on a Match (1932).  Annie gets John on the rebound once wife Margaret Lindsay runs off with gambler Richard Bond; Sheridan, Lindsay and third wheel Marie Wilson bonded as friends while growing up in an orphanage and are reunited when Margaret and Marie attempt to help Ann out of the lockup (she’s convicted of doing a striptease act at the nightclub where she works—Ann sings two numbers, which were a tremendous treat after having to put with up with Dick Foran’s caterwauling in the previous entry).

Janet Chapman, Litel, Sheridan
Margaret’s affair-on-the-sly is revealed when she makes newspaper headlines after a crack-up in Bond’s car; she heads for the hills to get a divorce (Reno, baby!), allowing Ann to assume her matriarchal duties with her only daughter, a cloying little moppet played by Janet Chapman.  Later, Margaret stops by her former home (Sheridan remarks that she looks ill, downplaying the effects of the drug dependency that plagued Ann Dvorak in Match) and persuades Ann to let her spend some time with young Janet…but then some goons in the employ of racketeer Dick Purcell stop by the house to collect a debt owed by Bond.  There’s a scuffle, knives are drawn…and soon Poor Richard is…well, even though it doesn’t sound like it will fit the phrase “sucking up the sawdust on the floor” does work, considering the untidy state of his and Lindsay’s apartment.

Litel takes a backseat to the three female stars of Musketeers…and, again, if you refrain from comparing them to the trio from Three on a Match (Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis) I think you’ll find it’s a most serviceable little B.  (A pin-prick of a nitpick: I love Marie Wilson like nobody’s business, but her character in the film fluctuates from smart cookie to the kind of dumb blonde she made famous on My Friend Irma.  However, her boyfriend, who appears toward the end of the movie, is played by the aforementioned Jimmy Conlin.)  I also enjoyed seeing Dewey Robinson (who has some nice moments where he bonds with little girl Chapman) and Horace McMahon as two of Purcell’s henchmen in this spirited little mellerdrammer scripted by Missing Witnesses auteurs Garnet and Ryan and directed by John Farrow.n cases supervised by New York D.A. (and future Presidential nominee) Thomas A, Dewey

Monday, April 17, 2017

“I wanna tell ya—I’m thrilled to be here!”

One night in 1973, legendary comedian Bob Hope sneaked into the NBC studios to attend a taping of The Dean Martin Show, where fellow mirthmaker Don Rickles (who we sadly said good bye to this month) was appearing.  The studio audience applauded wildly upon spotting Hope, and when the applause had died down Rickles cracked: “Well, the war must be over.”  Despite a lengthy show business career that encompassed stage, screen, radio and TV, the jokester born Leslie Townes Hope in 1903 established a legacy “performing United Service Organizations (USO) shows to entertain active duty American military personnel (he made 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991),” as referenced at Wikipedia.  I don’t have the quote handy (nor can I give proper attribution, sad to report) but the old joke went something like “It’s not officially a war until Bob Hope shows up.”

Bob Hope’s dedication to “entertaining the troops” had its origins in radio, when on his May 6, 1941 broadcast he performed at March Field, California.  Hope never wavered from his earnest belief that “GIs are the greatest audiences in the world,” and I take him at his word that he was sincerely enthusiastic about the goodwill that resulted from his many trips overseas.  But a comedian also thrives on being loved and adored, and a complicated man like Bob (once described by his one-time manager Elliott Kozak as “the most self-centered man” he’d ever known) no doubt fed on the approval from what he admittedly referred to as “captive audiences.”  (My comedy idol Fred Allen once joked that his rival “reeked of” self-confidence.)

Santa, Linda Bennett, Dick Albers, Ann-Margret, Bob Hope
Hope’s television specials performing on USO shows at Christmas time were always tops in the ratings, and this May 2, Time Life is releasing a three-disc DVD set, Bob Hope Salutes the Troops.  My pal Michael Krause at Foundry Communications was generous enough to send me a screener, which features six telecasts that originally aired between 1963 and 1991.  I should be honest: I had reservations about watching these shows—not due to any political differences (though I can state with confidence that Bob and I have differing views with regards to Vietnam), but because I remember watching the entertainer’s small screen specials in the past and wondering why the man whose movies I adored as a kid (and still do) no longer seemed all that funny.  As author Kliph Nesteroff posits in The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy:

By the mid-1960s Hope was one of the wealthiest men in America and one of the largest private landowners in California.  Radio star, television star, movie star—he’d achieved every possible show business goal.  There was nothing left.  And without ambition driving him, the quality of his comedy plummeted.  He was still doing up to six television specials each year, but he was phoning it in.

Dolores Hope (in green) welcomes her husband's troupe home in 1969; Hope's philandering was legendary in the business, and some say he went overseas in the first place so he could fool around out of sight of Mrs. Hope.  (Incidentally, you might recognize that couple to Dolores' right.)

Bob channels Maynard G. Krebs.
Despite the questionable quality of his TV work (his dependence on cue cards, uninspired writing, etc.) I found a few nuggets among the dross.  The earliest special on this set is from January 16, 1963, as Bob and his troupe entertain audiences at nearly a dozen military bases in the Pacific.  Lana Turner is the big draw here, dancing the Bossa Nova and trading quips with Hope in a sketch that casts her as a captive in the clutches of an Asian warlord (Bob), but Janis Page is also in Bob’s entourage (she plays a counterculture chick in a WTF sketch with Bob as a bass-playing beatnik), as are singer/future orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant and Amedee Chabot—Miss USA at the time.  (Hope’s tendency to feature plenty of females in his shows was later satirized in the “Playboy bunnies” sequence in 1979’s Apocalypse Now.)  Hope’s radio sidekick, “Professor” Jerry Colonna, and Stan Freberg regular Peter Leeds handle much of the comedy along with Bob, with music by Les Brown and His Band of Renown. 

Lana Turner, Les Brown, Bob
I have always admired Les—not just because he began with Hope in his radio days (Les also brought along his band’s female vocalist, Doris Day), but because he was seemingly able to play Thanks for the Memory over and over and over again all those years without getting sick of it.  He figures in a funny exchange with Bob and Lana:

BOB: Les, have you been making overtures to Miss Turner?
LES: Bob…I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my career…
BOB: You wouldn’t, eh…well, have you been making goo-goo eyes at Miss Turner?
LES: Bob, I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my career…
BOB: Was that you in the hall in the hotel last night singing Fly Me to the Moon through her keyhole?
LES: Bob, I told you—I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my career
LANA: Les…honey, why don’t you meet me after the show and we’ll have a nice, long talk…?

Brown glances at Bob…then glances at Lana…then breaks his baton in two, hands it to Bob, and walks off the stage arm-in-arm with Lana.  Doris Day credits Bob Hope with teaching her everything she knows about comedy, and it’s nice to see Les stuck around for a few classes, too.

Show business nepotism: a young soldier asks Bob if he can take a photo of one of the girls for the camp newspaper.  (That solider is Tony Hope, Bob's son.)

Peter Leeds then informs Bob there is no camp newspaper.  ("It's too piercing, Bob...too piercing.")
A January 15, 1965 telecast is next in the lineup—with Paige, Bryant, Colonna, Leeds and Brown all returning.  (Bryant attempts to seduce a pair of MP’s with You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, which made me chortle considering her later morality crusade.)  Jill St. John, Hope’s co-star in 1967’s Eight on the Lam, leads off the eye candy in this one; there’s even an amusing exchange (and a prescient one) in which Jill answers Bob’s query as to how an intelligent girl like her (she had an I.Q. of 162) could play so many daffy redheads in the movies.  “Isn’t it ridiculous?” Bob asks her.

Something new has been added in the form of TDOY fave Jerry Colonna.
“Well, you’re still playing romantic leads—aren’t you?” St. John shoots back, echoing a concern many critics noticed at the time.  (St. John returns to make a guest appearance in a January 17, 1972 special; she’s fresh off the set of Diamonds are Forever, the 1971 James Bond film in which she played “Tiffany Case.”)  To me, the star of Hope’s 1965 Christmas special is the madcap Colonna; there are three routines featuring him and Bob in this telecast, all resonant of the splendid work they did during Hope’s radio years.  Bob, doing a monologue, notices that Jerry is reclining on a coach in the audience:

BOB: Pardon me, sir, but—who are you?
JERRY: I’m the base psychiatrist…
(Wild applause from crowd)
BOB: Well, you don’t look like a psychiatrist to me—I have a hunch you’re a fraud!
JERRY: That’s me—Sigmund Fraud!
BOB (to the audience): I think he shrank his own head… (To Colonna) What are you doing on a couch in my audience?
JERRY: Can you think of a better place to sleep?

A nice moment: Bob gets a hug from his son Kelly, who's stationed at a nearby base.  (Bob: "He's in civvies...I hope he's not AWOL...")

The Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around the World with the USO (01/16/69) is a great little special, and its appeal can be summed up in two words: Ann-Margret.  (Or is that one word?)  My Dad, not a Hope fan by any measure of the yardstick, has had a thing for Ann for many, many years (he often jokes that they “went to different schools together”) and Ann is entertainment with a capital “E” performing Dancing in the Streets.  My favorite part of this telecast, however, is Bob and The Golddiggers’ rendition of Perfect Gentleman—the show-stopping musical number performed by Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom in one of my favorite movie comedies, The Night They Raided Minsky’s.  Also appearing in this one are Linda Bennett (a one-time child actress who worked with Bob in The Seven Little Foys), ex-football-player-turned- warbler Rosey Grier, Penny Plummer (Miss World), and Honey, Ltd…as well as ol’ reliable Les and his Band.

I wasn't able to get a better screen grab of this...but that old fossil is four-star admiral John Sidney "Jack" McCain, Jr.  His son is John III, currently the senior U.S. Senator from Arizona...and also an old fossil.

Les, Bob (not less Bob)
Despite the approval of Bob’s “Christmas with the Troops” specials with TV audiences, the entertainer eventually found that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War discouraged a lot of entertainers from taking him up on an offer to hit the USO circuit—not to mention his own views on both the controversial conflict and the rise of the counterculture back home.  (Some of the bases began to reject the idea of the comedian performing there, and a 1969 appearance in Long Binh found the crowd of soldiers flipping the cameras the bird and giving power salutes.  None of this was shown on American TV, of course.)  But the celebrity wattage had dimmed a bit by the time The Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around the Globe with the U.S.O. aired on January 17, 1972.  This is the show that Jill St. John makes a guest appearance on, but the lineup includes luminaries such as Don Ho (three guesses as to what he performs—the first two don’t count), baseball’s Vida Blue, and former astronaut Alan Shepard.

They pre-empted The NBC Wednesday Night Mystery Movie for this?  Snoop Sisters fans revolt!

Redd Foxx, Bob
It’s fitting that Bob closes his time in Vietnam with a January 17, 1973 telecast that comes to a wow finish with a duet of Cabaret with Lola Falana and a nice retrospective of all the celebs who appeared with Hope on his past USO Christmas specials.  (It’s not all peaches and cream—the comedian is still doing stale jokes with people like football’s Roman Gabriel.)  But there is an amusing sketch with guest Redd Foxx (I’ll bet NBC put a gun to his head) that’s worth the price of admission:

BOB: Come on—crank it up and let’s get started here, huh?
REDD: Okay…if you want to work a man who’s old and…sick…and tired…
BOB: If you’re sick, how did you get in the Navy?
REDD: Instead of a physical, they gave me an autopsy
BOB: Hey—can you imagine giving a man with my I.Q. a job like this?
REDD: Well, what’s your I.Q.?
BOB: Twenty-three…
REDD: Twenty-three?  I didn’t know you were a college man

I realize I'm the only one who's going to find this amusing...but this lookalike duo from Louisville, KY are Cyb and Tricia Barnstable.  The twin sisters were later regulars (as The Bettys) on the short-lived sci-fi sitcom Quark.

Khrystyne Haje, Bob
Included on Bob Hope Salutes the Troops is a January 12, 1991 special, Bob Hope's Christmas Cheer in Saudi Arabia.  With a war everybody liked (well…almost everybody), Hope was able to persuade some big names to appear in this one: The Pointer Sisters (they sing I’m So Excited), Marie Osmond (Crazy), Ann Jillian, and Khrystyne Haje (Head of the Class), who does an amusing routine with Hope (I noticed that Bob, now in his late eighties, has cut back considerably on the leering with regards to his female guests) in which he mentions her environmental activism and in particular, her commitment to the California redwoods.  “You planted them…the least the rest of us could do is try and preserve them,” she cracks, producing a king-sized titter from your humble narrator.  Country singer Aaron Tippin is mentioned in the opening credits of this one though he’s nowhere to be found in the special…which is a shame, since they could have snipped a rather unfunny exchange between Bob and Johnny Bench and let Aaron do a tune or two.  Mrs. Hope, Dolores Reade, is also on hand; she was Bob’s only “Christmas cheer” in Saudi Arabia because the government wouldn’t let the other women in the country (they performed on U.S. naval vessels along the coast).

Ann and Bob duet on The Two of Us in the 1969 special...

...and Bob and Ann Jillian reprise the tune in 1991.

Barney Dean (behind Bob), Jerry, Tony Romano (behind Frances Langford), Patty Thomas
A bonus feature, Bob Hope: Memories of WWII, is also included on the Salutes the Troops collection; first airing in 1995, the Hopes reminisce about Bob’s early years “doing his bit” for WW2 and his first USO tour.  Frances Langford and Patty Thomas are also on hand…though curiously, they’re never shown in the same shot as Bob and Dolores despite it being edited as if they’re all having a conversation.  (For a real reunion between Bob, Frances, Patty, and guitarist Tony Romano check out the DVD Entertaining the Troops, which I reviewed here at the Radio Spirits blog.)

If you’re a fan of classic television, Bob Hope Salutes the Troops is a disc you’re going to want in your collection; it’s the kind of variety special that they literally don’t make any more, though my strong advice would be to watch these telecasts sparingly as Bob likes to recycle jokes from time to time.  Considered by many to be the greatest entertainer of the 20th century, the comedian demonstrates that through his tireless efforts overseas for many so far from home “there was no one like Hope for the holidays.”