Road Worriers

A prime candidate for the most successful teaming in Hollywood history would be Paramount’s randomly tossing a trio of supremely popular entertainers into one show.  Of course, we’re talking about Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour and the ROAD series (trivial “funnily enough” fact: although they’re known internationally as the Hope and Crosby pics, Bing always got top billing).  The movies, especially the first four, now available in excellent new Blu-Ray transfers from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and Universal Home Video, not only accurately depict the coolest 1940s hep lingo, music and overall culture, but additionally show the evolution from three major stars into a smoothly honed human triad of laffs and (scripted) gaffs.  While other studios lamely tried to imitate Paramount’s candle-power (most infamously at Warners with Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson), no one could come close to the chemistry and camaraderie on display in the ROAD flicks; simply put, there’s never been anything like it.  The ultimate “cool kids” movies (I guess a modern comparison would be something the Hangover pics, but, again, nowhere near the inspired, risqué clowning that Bing, Bob and Dottie spouted and strutted), it’s a pleasure to briefly discuss, and, more so, be able to own 1080p editions of ROAD TO SINGAPORE, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, ROAD TO MOROCCO and ROAD TO UTOPIA.

If there’s one genius responsible for the classic status that resulted in the critical and box-office kudos of the above, it’s perhaps cinema’s number one unsung hero writer – my personal comedic movie God – Barney Dean.  Yeah, you’ve never heard of him (except, possibly, in my columns), but he’s the master of sitcom wackiness, one-liner gold, breaking down the third wall, off-camera asides, talking animal quips, anachronistic barbs and taking on the Production Code without them even knowing it.

Dean was once the king of vaudeville (or half of one, part of a comedy duo).  Then-teenagers Hope and Crosby individually idolized the man, and both (but mostly Hope) based much of their schtick on his delivery.  Talkies killed vaudeville, and practically did the same to Dean.  Near death, he was literally rescued by Bing and Bob in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction manner that would insult the diabetic mentality of Frank Capra.  But it happened.  Not (as in the case of Gable and Colbert) one night, but midway through the second ROAD trip.  He would spend the rest of his days working for the two stars.   Incredibly, you can actually see the major shift in the Hope and Crosby personas during the duration of ZANZIBAR.  Much must have been shot in continuity, for the first act plays like a straight follow-up to SINGAPORE; then, the snarky, take-no-prisoners hilarious dialogue kicks in and…OH, BOY!

Dean, from what I’ve been able to learn, was a really nice quiet, decent guy who never understood why writers hated him.  Actually, the reason is simple:  jealousy.  They could never come close to his brilliant off-the-cuff bon mots and surreal sight gag evocations.  It’s been the stuff of legend that Hope, when dining with bigwigs and stuck for a retort, would excuse himself and retreat to the nearest telephone where he would call his writers.  This is true, except it wasn’t his army of writers – it was ALWAYS Barney Dean, who never let him down.  Crosby, too, relied on Dean for support; hating to appear at benefits or hoi polloi events, Bing always made it a prerequisite that Dean accompany him.  The eccentric satirist never let him down either, commenting on guests in ways that would often have the crooner collapsing on the floor with laughter.

Dean’s death in 1954 (coincidentally, the year I was born; screenwriter Ric Menello once told me that I was Dean’s reincarnation – the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.  If only…) caused a dip in Bob’s and Bing’s verbal banter – their patter never being as snappy as it once was.  Hope always credited Barney Dean (along with Frank Tashlin) as a cornerstone to his success.

Okay, don’t wanna put a damper on this piece; these are pure fun movies, so leave us move on.

 

Certainly no relation to the Warner Bros. 1931 pre-Code Road to Singapore, the 1940 names-the-same edition was originally planned for Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie.  This only goes to show the plug-in vehicle the suits at Paramount imagined.  The ultimate recasting of three of their most popular stars created a Tinsel Town cocktail that to this day is still heralded in the Biz as the perfect example of casting nirvana.

The premise for the pic is beyond standard and definitely atypical of the series.  Instead of stranded show business bums, Josh Mallon (the Crosby character) is the filthy rich “black sheep” son of a shipping magnate, engaged to a beautiful, but cold heiress (Judith Barrett).  He far more prefers hanging with roustabout, uncouth Ace Lannigan (Hope), who doubles as his wingman for untold amorous encounters in faraway places.

Indeed, much of the plot is given to Bing’s family – pop Charles Coburn defiantly attempting to salve the angered Bing’s fiancée as his spawn sows those nasty wild oats.

Yeah, there are some funny lines and entertaining songs (“Captain Custard” by director Victor Schertzinger; lyrics by Johnny Burke), but the wicked asides to the camera, the unsavory traits of Alpha Bing and the zaniness of Hope still lay down the road(s).  Lamour (the only time she would receive second billing in the series), renowned for her exotic “island” beauty (she was born Mary Slaton in New Orleans) is perfect as the abused damsel in distress – her jealous, sadistic lover being Anthony Quinn.  For Bob’s expanding fan-base, Jerry Colonna, Hope’s beloved radio sidekick, turns up in an elongated cameo supporting role.  The only thing that would remain intact for further excursions was the “patty-cake” punch-ups, sort of pre-WWII John Wick display of crowd-pleasing violence, sans assault weapons.

The script was written by Don Hartman and Frank Butler, two reliable comedy veterans; it was produced by Harlan Thompson, soon to be replaced by ace Paramount laff-pic mogul Paul Jones.  The photography by William C. Mellor is lovely, as is the background score by Victor Young.  Nothing to complain about, ROAD TO SINAPORE is a pleasant flick; yet, I’m sure not even Paramount wags anticipated the result.  Calling it a 1940 box-office smash would be an understatement.  In a year dominated by the likes of Rebecca, The Letter, The Grapes of Wrath, Northwest Mounted Police, The Philadelphia Story, High Sierra, His Girl Friday, Pride and Prejudice, Foreign Correspondent, Northwest Passage, The Shop Around the Corner and others, ROAD TO SINGAPORE slayed ’em in the cash-coffers department, rivaling or outgrossing them (in some burgs, it even killed the competition from the still-going-strong Gone with the Wind). The hit tunes, record sales and constant promotions on the Hope and Crosby radio shows didn’t hurt either.

 

1941’s ROAD TO ZANZIBAR is important to series aficionados as well as students of movie comedy, since it’s a pic where the characters begin to seriously evolve into the Hope-Crosby-Lamour threesome that we snark-lovers worship.  And, again, it’s all due to Barney Dean.

The picture had already begun production when Dean was saved (no other word for it) by the two lead male stars.  He was immediately put to work, and the results are startling.  What underlines this fact is the likelihood that the movie (at least up until that point) was, as indicated earlier, filmed in narrative continuity; in effect, you can see the characters change within several scenes.  Gone are the two besties out to help one another.  Bing is no longer a slumming rich kid but, a denizen of equal stature to Hope.  They’re now forever struggling vaudeville holdovers (where Dean achieved his fame) desperately trying to get out of the desolate exotic lands they’re stranded in.  Lamour, too, is no more a victim of male domination, but a con-artist of equal stature, working her own grift (here with fellow cohort Una Merkel).  Most importantly, Crosby’s persona takes the darkest hit; he’s now someone never to be trusted, who will willingly put his pal in danger to line his own pockets.  This will become even more pronounced as the series moves on.

The plot revolving around winning/stealing and searching for an African diamond mine takes second place to the verbal bitch-slaps, sight gags and the beginning of the breaking-down-the-fourth-wall audience connections.

The credited screenplay by (once again) Hartman and Butler (from a story by Sy Bartlett) is appropriately slick, but the gems and howlers are pure Barney.  One bit still amazes me as to how it got by the censors.  In a nightclub, celebrating their new friendship with a diamond entrepreneur millionaire (a fraud, played with aplomb by Eric Blore), the boys are beside themselves with giddy joy.  Ogling a hot dancer (Iris Adrian) on stage, while a head waiter brandishes a magnum of champagne is a simultaneous pip.  “Piper Heidsieck,” declares the restaurant employee while a panting Hope’s eyes bug-out at the shimmying specimen of female pulchritude on-stage. “[I’d like to] pipe her Heidsieck,” he lustily confesses.  For years, friends claimed I made this up – that there was no way it was in the final cut.  But it is.

ZANZIBAR has its prerequisite of hep tunes, some which became hits.  The pic was photographed by Ted Tetzlaff.  I’ve never seen a great print of this title; don’t know what happened, they all look occasionally murky.  This Blu-Ray is no exception, but is certainly the best quality I’ve ever laid my peepers on.  The score by Victor Young was, like its predecessor, contains input from director Victor Schertzinger, once again, on-board to handle the show.  While certainly competent, he lacked the pizazz to keep up with the cool asides, antics and rapid-fire pacing needed to take the series to the next level.  This would be his last ROAD.

 

As far as I’m concerned, 1942’s ROAD TO MOROCCO is the first true surreal Hope-Crosby-Lamour gag-a-thon – in essence, what comes to mind when one thinks of the ROAD flicks.  It’s the series’ initial full-throttle Barney Dean epic, and his touch is evident from fade-in to fade-out.  Not only do we have the broken fourth wall, animals commenting on the action to the camera, supernatural happenings, and over-the-top risqué dialog, we also have that nudge-nudge connection with the audience.  Furthermore, the clever asides spill over onto the movie’s score – easily the best of all the ROADs, (with Crosby’s “Moonlight Becomes You” topping the charts for weeks, perhaps only bested by Bing’s “White Christmas” from the studio’s other ’42 blockbuster Holiday Inn; certainly, a good year for Paramount) The inspired lines (credited once more to Hartman and Butler) absolutely match and blend into the lyrics from the score by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke.  The ditties are indeed wonderful and contain a number of personal references, how they’re not worried of on-screen peril (“Paramount has us signed up for five more years”), blossoming romance (“I bet you ten to one that we meet Dorothy Lamour”) and, perhaps one of the greatest lyrics ever (“like Webster’s Dictionary we’re Moroccan-bound”).

The director, David Butler, was a big step up from Schertzinger – faster-paced, amenable to kitchen sink gags, laffs and mishaps (an outtake of a camel spitting in Hope’s face – causing Crosby to lose it – was left in the final cut, and fits perfectly).

Topical stuff is admittedly cringe-worthy with radio announcer Richard Loo, having to don an oversized badge announcing “I am Chinese.”  And, for once, there’s hope for Hope; a dangerous liaison with Lamour (she’s a princess, supposedly head-over-heels in love with the turkey – in reality to appease a prophecy that her first husband will die a quick, horrible death) results in a not-so-shabby rebound. Turkey’s (oh, that’s actually his character’s name) standby babe is the gorgeous starlet Dona Drake.  Hubba-hubba!  Anthony Quinn, once again, plays the villain – a nefarious, sadistic sheik.  But the real menace, especially to Hope, is what Martin Scorsese termed as the unravelling of Bing Crosby’s truly nefarious demeanor.  Unquestionably, Bing is borderline psychopathic in this entry, selling his pal to white slavers (“You can’t sell me.  You don’t own me,” shrieks a terrified Hope.  “I know, he does,” calmly replies Crosby, counting the cash as he nods over to a Bluto-esque looking grotesque).  Crosby additionally refuses to give his partner a split of the money just in case a purported unshackling escape plan goes south (“Why throw it away?”).  The boy’s dead Aunt (also Hope, replete with Here Comes Mr. Jordan references) must shoot lightning bolts into Bing’s derriere to get him to behave.  The crooner later tries to sell Turkey on damsel-in-distress heroics by suggesting skinning a horse alive and having Hope trot into the Arab camp inside the pelt.  Yikes.  And, yep, to back up my previous Hangover mention, there are actual fart jokes (a la whoopie cushions) and allusions to reefers.

ROAD TO MOROCCO was the biggest ROAD ever; by year’s end, it was cuddling up with Mrs. Miniver, Reap the Wild Wind, Now Voyager, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Woman of the Year, Bambi, Casablanca, Major and the Minor, The Palm Beach Story, Wake Island, Holiday Inn, Pride of the Yankees, etc.

The Kino Blu-Ray looks terrific, with the genuine desert photography (Yuma, Arizona) and interior-exterior sets by Hans Dreier and Robert Usher displaying every grain of sand. Audio commentary by Jack Theakston completes the package that also includes trailers and related featurettes.

 

The best of all the “Roads” (and, not surprisingly, my personal favorite), 1946’s ROAD TO UTOPIA took everything that made the series great, and packed it up in one hilarious, tuneful package that still bowls me over to this day.

The only entry to be a period piece, taking place during the Yukon gold rush from the early twentieth century, viewers are surprised in the opening to see elderly Hope and Lamour as a successful happily married couple.  Then, after 35 years, they hear the crooning pipes of Crosby in the distance.  “Can it be?,” coos an excited Dotty.  “Who’d be selling cheese this time of night?” reponds Bob (Bing’s radio sponsor was Kraft).  In struts a dapper seventy-ish Crosby with two smokin’ hot twentysomething helpers.  And before Bob can mumble the priceless “And I thought this was going to be an “A” picture,” away we go, via flashback, as the flea-bitten vaudevillians end up in the frozen north with the finest array of comic villains ever (Douglass Dumbrille, Hillary Brooke, Jack LaRue, Robert Barrat, Nestor Paiva).  The movie also features the final screen appearance of Robert Benchley, who provides narration and iris-in-and-out cameos.

The score includes what would become the Hope and Crosby anthem, “Put It There, Pal” among other hits (by van Heusen and Burke).  The terrific screenplay was nominated for an Oscar (it helped make credited scribes Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; but, would they have thanked Barney Dean at their acceptance speech?), and the movie made The New York Times annual 10 Best list.  While praiseworthy in any period, remember that this was also the year of The Best Years of Our Lives, Notorious, The Big Sleep, Stairway to Heaven, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda, My Darling Clementine, The Killers, Great Expectations, The Razor’s Edge, etc.  UTOPIA also guaranteed continuous employment for house director Hal Walker (an a.d. on ZANZIBAR and MOROCCO, who would go on to direct several of the Martin & Lewis smash hits.

True, there’s some lip-biting sexist byplay (referring to the pic’s stunning females as “stoves”), but that ain’t a patch as to what went on off-screen.  Paramount knew it had a blockbuster when UTOPIA wrapped in early 1945.  With the war winding down, the studio realized that this would be the ultimate reunion/date pic, and held up the release until March, 1946.  It proved to be a wise decision.  They couldn’t crate up the cash quick enough it was coming in so fast.  Both Hope and Crosby weren’t unaware of this either, and, from here on it, demanded that they get a piece of the “Roads,” to be divided between their own production companies.  Unfortunately, no such compensation was similarly made for Lamour, who was an integral part of the franchise.  And she didn’t stay quiet about it.  It would be a justified bone of contention betwixt her, Paramount and Hope and Crosby until the actress’s passing in 1996.

ROAD TO UTOPIA looks fantastic in 1080p; d.p. Lionel Lindon would be beaming.  Extras on the disc include audio commentary by Greg Ford and Will Friedwald, a Hollywood Victory Caravan short with Bob and Bing, and more.

A bona fide riotous classic, ROAD TO UTOPIA deserves a spot in any comedy library, regardless of what you think of the series or its stars.  And, as with “pipe her Heidsieck,” how the hell they got by the censors with that final gag remains a mystery to me!

ROAD TO SINGAPORE (CAT # K23625).

ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (CAT# K23626).

ROAD TO MOROCCO (CAT # K23627).

ROAD TO UTOPIA (CAT # K23628).

All black and white; full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.  SRP: $24.95@.

 

 

Half a Two-Strip Triple Slap

A cause for celebration, especially for slapstick comedy fans, is the Warner Archive Made-to-Order DVD-R release of CLASSIC SHORTS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY, VOLUME 3 (Featuring Howard, Fine and Howard).  More precisely, it might be entitled VOLUME 3 STOOGES.  Yep, that’s one of two reasons to rejoice; it’s a 112-minute collection of all five of the Stooges shorts the trio made with their (then) handler Ted Healy at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, plus a solo Curly effort (Roast Beef and Movies).  But that’s not the main attraction.  This third volume features the long-thought-lost 1933 two-reeler Hello Pop!, recently discovered in excellent condition in Australia.  This alone should have Stooges fans smacking each other silly.  But we’re not done yet.  Half of these extravagant shorts were filmed in two-strip Technicolor.  Indeed, the weird but pleasing look of the process (missing blues, only reds and yellows) prompted many ignorami (Moe’s word) to conclude that they were colorized.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Why were the Stooges given the Technicolor treatment?  Simple.  To balance, in part, a white elephant lead celluloid balloon called The March of Time.

In 1929, MGM embarked on one of its most ambitious experiments in talking pictures.  An opulent roadshow musical, entirely filmed in Technicolor, the aforementioned March of Time was to be an even more lavish follow-up to that year’s Hollywood Revue.  And did we say “All Color”?

As the musical started filming, the budget rose; rather than set a cap, the ignorami (there’s that word again) at Metro actually approved additional numbers and bucks.  Soon, the movie was out of control.  Worse, by 1930, audiences had already tired of musicals, and Technicolor.  But MGM kept plugging on, hooking more All Singing and All Dancing onto the now-overlong epic.  When the devastating effects of the Depression finally hit the Hollywood 1%, daylight began to break.  By June of ‘30, Irving Thalberg at last pulled the switch and shelved the opus.  The only problem was that now the MGM vault was packed with unusable, Technicolor musical numbers sticking out like multi-hued sore thumbs.

And here’s where the genius “save whatever we can” idea kicked in.  Why not film additional bumpers around some of the numbers, and release them as short subjects?  It would recoup some of the dough, even if each two-reeler breakdown would often dwarf the main feature it was supporting.  Enter Healy and his Stooges.  The incorporation of their bits of business bizarrely worked like a charm.  It should be noted that Moe (who often scripted many of the Stooges material without credit) wrote many of these sequences either himself or with Matt Brooks and (in name only) needy Healy.  The shorts proved a hit, and even inspired cheaper Stooge black-and-white incorporations of original numbers, plus Technicolor sequences from MGM talkers that never stood a chance of being reissued; as indicated, all are included here.

More importantly for the act, Healy and his Stooges (as they were known then) were given the op to hit the big time – appearing in 1933’s Dancing Lady, opposite Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire; it’s one of cinema’s mind-boggling casting coups.  They also were given feature screen time in Meet the Baron (made immediately prior to Dancing Lady) before mercifully splitting with Healy (whose trainwreck personal life ended in 1937 when he was found dead under mysterious circumstances), signing with lowly Columbia and eye-gouging their way into motion picture history.

NOTE: The shorts are described as they appear on the disc, which isn’t (for some reason) in chronological order. N’yuk, n’yuk, n’yuk.

 

1933’s Plane Nuts, breezily directed by (future Metro producer) Jack Cummings (he would supervise all but one of the Stooges shorts), offers us bumpers of an authentically awful Ted Healy reciting an authentically awful ballad.  Mercifully, he’s interrupted by the Stooges and Bonny (aka Bonnie Bonnell, Healy’s no doubt long-suffering first wife), an occasional female fourth Stooge (think Una Merkel crossed with Lucille Ball).  The premise is, as indicated to give viewers a gander at the opulence of March of Time (here only in black-and-white).  Without the Technicolor to fully make the material pop (containing Busby Berkeley-esque overhead tableaus), the highlights of the short comprise Moe, Larry and Curly’s bits of business and uncharacteristic use of wit (courtesy of Moe’s screenplay).  There’s loads of Depression Era and pre-Code dialog, some that warrants mentioning.  When aping George Washington, Curly is asked if he chopped down the cherry tree.  “I ain’t worked in a year and a half,” replies the beloved Stooge.

The pip, however, comes a bit later when Moe asks Healy (whom he beautifully calls ‘Ted Heel’) what he would do if a hot babe kissed him.  “I’d kiss her back,” responds straight-man Ted.  “What if she’s a big, tall girl?” adds Moe with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge.  The smacking around stuff is already evident, but, sans those amazing and outrageous Columbia sound effects, is wayyy less effective.  That said, just the sound byte where the Stooges drop the name “Noel Coward” makes it attention worthy.

 

1934’s Roast Beef and Movies (a goof on the 1930 Billy Rose revue Corn Beef and Roses) presents us with a Curly solo effort, but, then again, not really.  The head-shaved Howard is part of a trio (with slapping and hitting) of restauranteurs who aspire to be movie producers. Healy-ed by the word-mangling Greek dialect comedian George Givot (aka Parkyurkarkus) and supported by  Moe and Larry wannabees Si Jenks and Bob Callahan, the Technicolor two-reeler is a mere excuse to present several numbers (supposedly shot by the trio) to impress a mogul (he and his “yes men” turn out to be escapees from a lunatic asylum).  The faux Berkeley kaleidoscopic numbers include “The Chinese Ballet,” as created and choreographed by Sammy Lee and the Albertina Rasch Dancers with music by Dimitri Tiomkin.  The pic’s comedy add-ons (including a Mae West parody with Dorothy Granger as Easter Wester) were directed by Sam Baerwitz and written by Richie Craig, Jr.  The above ballet and another Technicolor number (“Dust”) hail from two by-then already forgotten 1930 musicals Lord Byron of Broadway and Children of PleasureSIDEBAR: Ann Dvorak is one of the chorines in the clips.

 

1933’s Beer and Pretzels is the boys’ two-reeler debut and very Stooge-y, with Curly’s first “victim of circumstances” utterance.  There are also some musical numbers with lyrics by Gus Kahn.  The “plot” revolves around Healy and the da boys being thrown out of vaudeville (literally, by Ed Brophy), due to Ted’s constant hitting on the ladies (which apparently wasn’t that far from the truth).  They end up at a chic nightclub eatery as inept waiters after Healy tries to make a move on a hot number (who turns out to be the club’s star performer).  The “number” is the team’s hands-down winner of Good Sportery, the much put-upon Bonny (here looking her most Joan Crawfordish, courtesy of the MGM glam department).  Another trio, the singing Three Ambassadors stop the show – like to a dead halt.  The Stooges slapstick is great, Healy’s schtick – not so much.  As usual, Moe had a hand in the writing (with antics that later ended up in the Columbia shorts), and it looks like even at this early stage, that the trio was definitely trying to engineer a Healy-free existence.

 

1934’s The Big Idea presents Healy as the untalented head of The Big Scenario Company (accent on the BS).  His office is dump site for the building’s janitorial staff, as personified by the ubiquitous Bonny (she likes to know where the garbage is).  Healy also has (unbelievably) a Harlow-esque girl friend (Muriel Evans), who desperately wants him to propose (oy).  The Stooges intermittently interrupt the proceedings as musicians, whose constant rendition of “Marching through Georgia” ends with their instruments’ squirting Healy (and later Bonny) in the puss.  No, it’s not THAT pre-Code, merely a water gag (what COULD you have been thinking – and SHAME on you!).  Sammy Lee gets credit for the dancing bits (again, likely culled from March of Time, sadly only in monochrome).  Yet another trio, The Three Radio Rogues, do their parodies of Arthur Tracy (here wittily called The Street Cleaner), Amos ‘N’ Andy (yikes) and Bing.  By year’s end, Moe, Larry and Curly would already be pumping out their 200-plus two-reelers at Columbia; in fact, Idea (directed by the prolific William Beaudine) was released theatrically a week AFTER Woman Haters, the initial Columbia Stooges short.

 

1933’s Nertsery Rhymes is a great word-play title, and gives us our first glimpse of the Stooges as children (a role they would later play in several Columbia entries); Moe is obviously the man who wrote most of this stuff, with Healy listed as a writer to generously take the credit.

The lads are awakened by their “pa-pa” Healy, who arrives in top hat and tails from a night on the town, thus, a cinematic example of child abuse.  Like an evil Ted Lewis (with the Stooges as three shadows who get smacked around), he reluctantly agrees to tell them a story.  His material is terrible, and, his participation is only heightened when he agrees to call on the disembodied voice of a fairy godmother for assist.  The voice materializes as a gorgeous-looking Bonny, who volunteers to help get the kiddies to sleep.  A gentle kiss for Moe culminates with him practically jumping her bones.  “How old are you?!” she screams.  “35!,” he replies, as Larry and Curly battle to get in on the action.

Eventually, she calms them down and relates two stories:  “The Tale of the Fan” (oops) and the “Old Woman in the Shoe.”  Both dissolve into elaborate Technicolor numbers from March of Time and Lord Byron of Broadway, respectively, each risqué – with the latter going from traditional storybook to jazz age baby update.

 

The Holy Grail title, 1933’s Hello, Pop!, continues the Stooges-as-children scenario – this time with Pa-pa Healy producing and starring in a show about the Venetian renaissance.  Much backstage shenanigans take place (featuring the great character actor Henry Armetta and Grace Hayes as a diva a la Margaret Dumont), as the boys end up in period costumes and on-stage.  It’s probably the most Stooge-esque short of the MGM bunch, so it’s great to finally be able to see it – and in the original two-strip Technicolor (“I’m normal,” minces Larry in a pink Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit).  Fortunately, Metro didn’t throw out or revise any of the gowns for the chorus girls, as they perfectly match the March of Time number (“Moon Ballet” with the Albertina Rasch Dancers); another Technicolor segment (“I’m Sailing on a Sunbeam,” sung by Lawrence Gray) is from 1929’s It’s a Great Life, with music by Dimitri Tiomkin in the former and Dave Dreyer on the latter.  Once again, Ann Dvorak is in the chorus, dancing her tootsies off.

The 35MM print, rescued from an Australian depository in 2013, is in amazing shape, considering its languishing for 80 years.  Only slight surface wear/minor emulsion scratches contrast the quality from the other shorts, which are virtually mint.

This is a great collection for movie musical buffs, fans of Technicolor, and, natch, the 3 Stooges.  Can’t imagine a slapstick library without it.

CLASSIC SHORTS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY, VOLUME 3 (Featuring Howard, Fine and Howard).  Black-and-white and Color. Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono.  The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment.  CAT# 1000534935.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

CLASSICSHORTS3STOOGES_COVER

 

 

 

Taint the Season

God bless Mitchell Leisen.  Seriously.  The acclaimed set designer-turned-a.d.-turned director is responsible for giving us many a fine flick; but, more importantly, he gave us auteurs Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.  Both were aspiring directors whose scripts were made into Leisen pics.  And that did it – but not the way you think.  Each man was appalled by the “Leisen touch,” figuring “if this guy can direct, anybody can!  And I’m anybody!”  For Wilder, the movie in question was 1939’s Midnight (the beginning of Billy’s directing career commenced three years later with The Major and the Minor).  For Sturges, the Mitch-match was 1937’s Easy Living (it should be noted that both these movies are swell in their own right, but, at the same time, I totally get what they were saying).  Preston’s lobbying to direct was finally granted in 1940 with the The Great McGinty; this was almost instantly followed by a modestly budgeted 67-minute gem entitled CHRISTMAS IN JULY, now on Blu-Ray (and in an excellent new 4K transfer) from the moguls at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics and Universal Home Video.

Of course, like location-location-location prime real estate is to moving – so it is to movies.  Wilder and Sturges were fortunate enough to be under contract to Paramount, easily the most convivial dream factory in Hollywood.  Known for comedies and opulent Euro fantasies, the studio was home to The Four Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, etc.  When one sees movies about what fun it was to work at a studio, only Paramount rings true with the home-away-from-home playland.  Granted, Wilder and Sturges left the company under less than ideal circumstances, but both emphatically declared that, while at full steam, the Paramount years comprised the happiest times of their working lives.

Preston Sturges’ situation at the studio was quite the cat’s meow.  Once firmly entrenched in the director’s chair, he managed two classics per year between 1940-1944.  And what a haul.  Although CHRISTMAS IN JULY (possibly my favorite Sturges romp, due, in part to it being the underdog of the group) got rave reviews, and certainly recouped its costs, JULY was eclipsed by McGinty, which brought him an Oscar (for Best Original Screenplay) along with an armored car of impressive box-office receipts.  1941 gave us The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, 1942, The Palm Beach Story and Miracle at Morgan’s Creek although the latter wasn’t released until 1944 (when Sturges’ fortunes rapidly began to change).  That final Paramount year of 1944 additionally gave us Hail the Conquering Hero, and the director’s most controversial (and misunderstood) Hollywood pic The Great Moment.

The premise of CHRISTMAS IN JULY goes beyond the affable boy-meets-girl scenario (actually, they’ve already met, and are struggling to afford to get married) and encroaches upon the hypocrisy and downright stupidity of big business.

In images that rival Vidor’s The Crowd, we see Jimmy MacDonald and Betty Casey jobbing it at The Baxter Coffee Company, a thriving Manhattan-based caffeine cartel.  Their rival is the Maxford House brand, whose famed slogan is “good to the last drop.”  Befuddled Dr. Maxford is railroaded into upgrading their ubiquitous catchphrase via a national contest – the winner receiving a grand prize of $25,000 (or, a few grand shy of a half-million in today’s kopeks).

Jimmy, whose brainy ideas go unnoticed at his company, enters the contest with a doozy.  Having read about a Viennese doc’s theory that a mug of Joe really puts one to sleep, MacDonald composes “If ya don’t sleep at night, it’s NOT the coffee – it’s the bunk.”  The fact that no one understands or believes it is beyond the point.  It’s catchy.

Tom, Dick and Harry (Michael Morris, Rod Cameron and soon-to-be Sturges regular Harry Rosenthal), three mischievous coworkers, decide to take their fellow Baxter numbers cruncher down a few pegs by faking a telegram announcing that he’s the winner.  This causes a wrath of commotion and comic complications, involving both companies’ employees and employers.  On a personal level, the event reveals that Jimmy’s hard-boiled exterior is actually of the good egg variety, and he unselfishly buys everyone in his Queens hood gifts (being especially proud of the davenport sleeper he gives his mom).

As a further reward for his achieving fame and the American Dream, MacDonald is promoted to Baxter copy department executive, and immediately comes up with another winner, “It’s bred in the bean.”

All seems good until Maxford realizes he’s been hoodwinked; his crew of wisecracker contest judges are, in fact, still arguing over submissions.  And here is where CHRISTMAS excels, offering viewers their early glimpses of what would iconically become the Sturges Players, headed by the great William Demarest as loudmouthed Bildocker (presiding over a smoky boardroom also featuring Robert Warrick, Dewey Robinson and Arthur Hoyt).  “It stinks!” he critiques of a possible contender.  “Why does it stink?”  “Because it’s putrid.”  “Why is it putrid?”  “Because it stinks!”  It must be mentioned that Dr. Maxford is portrayed with genius by Raymond Walburn, perhaps my favorite character actor of all-time (I mean, the guy steals scenes from Spencer Tracy in State of the Union by simply staring at him with his jaw dropped).  Others who would likewise soon become Sturges regulars include Franklin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin, Torben Meyer, Victor Potel and Fred Toones.  Frank Moran, another fantastic Sturges alumnus, is terrific as local cop on MacDonald’s/Casey’s beat.  Accusing any member of the 1% attempting to take back their merch of Nazism, he compares each one to a reigning fascist (the plum being his delivery of “Listen, Mussolini!”).

Obviously, the script (from Sturges’ own play A Cup of Coffee) is brilliant with lines that bring tears of joy to my eyes with every screening. The key confrontation comes when the bad news about the telegram is finally exposed.  There’s so much truth in the comments by Jimmy’s employer and the office manager (Ernest Treux and Harry Hayden respectively) – the coolest aspect of their characters being that they’re not stereotyped as the usual evil asshole superiors.  They’re actually fairly decent guys.  That said, honesty rears its ugly head when Jimmy’s questions Baxter about liking his work; initially, he’s given a gung-ho thumbs up.  When then further queried as to whether he still would have received the promotion even if he hadn’t won the contest, the answer is a verbal slapdown.  “I think they’re good,” reasons a cautious Mr. Baxter (marvelously enacted by Treux), but when “other people say so, I KNOW IT.”

The surprise finale is a howl and quite a lovely one (and with a lot of heart).

The two stars of CHRISTMAS IN JULY are upcoming starlet Ellen Drew (who’s wonderful) and slipping Dick Powell (also terrific, and already displaying some of the snark and cynicism that would sensationally reinvent him in noir four years later).  While the pair act extremely well together, it’s interesting to note that they were last-minute replacements for William Holden and Betty Field, who were originally announced for the pic.

The movie was exquisitely photographed by Victor Milner, and scored by John Leipold and Leo Shuken (with background music from the Paramount stock files, composed by Sigmund Krumgold).

The Kino-Lorber Blu-ray, not surprisingly, looks pretty damn good, and only occasionally displays some graininess and minute decay from decades of neglect in the MCA vault (all pre-1948 Paramounts were sold to Universal in 1957).  Extras include audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan and a trailer gallery of related Kino titles.

An on-the-surface charming comedy that nevertheless skewers the world of advertising and corporate politics, CHRISTMAS IN JULY underlines a fact that the majority of humans have known all along: that most of the people at the top don’t know what the hell they’re talking about!

Highly recommended, it’s a wacky, fun-filled celluloid ride with plenty of replay mojo.

CHRISTMAS IN JULY. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition] 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K23726. SRP: $29.95.

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Dirty Old Men-hattan

Even without the Republican House, this has been prime time for comedy fans – particularly movie comedy collectors. And, it seems, the hits just keep on coming. Having set this mirthful scene via the above opening statement, I now heartily announce the existence of the Blu-Ray (and DVD) release of the wonderful (albeit obscure) 1948 laff-riot gem SO THIS IS NEW YORK, available via the groovy folks at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

This rarely seen classic has been a favorite of mine ever since I first saw it on TV throughout the 1960s. Unfortunately, its lack of big-name stars, its low-budget limitations, its being in black-and-white (blah-blah-blah) caused it to be banished to oblivion, leaving only my cobwebbed-cake Havishamian memories.

Actually, the behind-the-scene credentials are quite high-profile and deserve mentioning. The movie, an adaptation of Ring Lardner’s satiric novel The Big Town, was coauthored by Carl Forman and Herbert Baker. Forman, best-known as a writer for Stanley Kramer (Home of the Brave, The Men, High Noon), before being blacklisted (coming back big time with The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone) had quite an ear for cynical dialog (to say nothing of that embryonic celluloid masterpiece Spooks Run Wild). Baker was a full-blown ace when it came to farce, gags and buffoonery, penning a number of Martin & Lewis titles, including Jumping Jacks and Artists and Models; his deserved ascension to the pratfall pantheon would be his script for Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

As for the aforementioned Kramer – this was his first picture as a producer, and quite a praiseworthy one, if I do say so myself (and I will). With a nothing budget, he achieved a fairly opulent look (drolly relying upon decomposing stock footage, vintage stills and simple but hugely effective camera trickery). The cinematographer was none other John L. Russell (billed as Jack Russell, later to do minimum budgetary wonders for Hitchcock on Psycho). The intentionally overdone bombastic music was composed by soon-to-be-dean of 1950s hit movie soundtracks Dimitri Tiomkin. Most importantly, the dark, sardonic humor brought forward with enthusiastic panache, represented the directorial debut of noir expert Richard Fleischer (billed as Richard O. Fleischer, and with more than a snarky nod to his dad’s surreal and often disturbing pre-Code Paramount cartoonery). If one needs anymore badass participation, Fleischer was aided by assistant director Robert Aldrich. This is certainly not amateur night.

The previously indicated cast, while not A-picture status, was been cherry-picked from a splendid array of popular character folk. The male lead was then rising radio humorist Henry Morgan, whose greatest fame would come a decade later as one of the permanent panelists on TV’s What’s My Line? and I’ve Got a Secret (it was Morgan’s prominence that forced M*A*S*H/Dragnet actor Henry Morgan to change his name to Henry “Harry” Morgan – and then simply to Harry Morgan). Besides a guest shot as himself (in 1959’s It Happened to Jane), Morgan’s only other large-screen bid (indeed in CinemaScope) was as the surprisingly hard-boiled prosecutor Burton Turkus in the brutal 1960 crime drama Murder, Inc.

Thus, as one might suspect, SO THIS IS NEW YORK is a nasty but consistently hilarious look at a suddenly nouveau-riche Midwestern family’s journey to the title hamlet, in search of a suitable suitor for Morgan’s sister-in-law, the luscious and eternally pouty Dona Drake, who, for my dough, put Dorothy Lamour to shame in Road to Morocco (Drake is forever etched in my brain as the leader of an all-female aircraft work force in 1942’s Star Spangled Rhythm, spectacularly displaying her leggy charms in 1940s hot pants and straddling a fuselage while warbling “I’m Doing It For Defense.” No wonder we won!). It’s a prime example of players getting played – with the guffaws coming from the get-go and never letting up until the fade-out. Morgan’s wife, played with great aplomb by the terrific actress Virginia Grey, has many of the pic’s quotable punchlines, one literally (and physically) painful.  Added to this merry mix is a marvelous gallery of familiar faces who pop up throughout the proceedings, including Arnold Stang, Frank Orth, William Bakewell and Will Wright.

In a nutshell, the plot, opening in the post-war America of 1918, concerns the inherited wealth of the Finches. Their good fortune is the fortuitous result of the unexpected death of a meat-packing relative, whose demise curtailed his expansive dream of “selling baloney to the country.”

Finch, who still works at a penny-pinching cigar company, takes time off to assist his wife in marrying (well, pimping) Drake to the highest bidder. This disturbs the hormonious lass, as she pines for local dullard butcher Dave Willock, whose sausage-filling expertise is doubly desired by the burger-meister’s resident panting vamp assistant.

Almost immediately (in fact, on the New York-bound train), the Finches’ wishes are fulfilled by meeting the first of four potential breeders, aging stockbroker Jerome Cowan. Aging is the operative word in SO THIS IS NEW YORK, since the metropolis is depicted as nothing less than a brothel for privileged, dithering, old white dudes. Cowan, who redefines the phrase “Wolf of Wall Street,” wastes no time springing into action – one that ends with an abrupt slapstick encounter of the Jack Dempsey kind in a hotel room.

Old money valiantly attempts to rear its decrepit head with their second choice, barely breathing millionaire Hugh Herbert (referred to as the ancient mariner). One choice moment is when Morgan and Herbert engage in a game of dice. “Faded!” shouts Morgan, who then apologetically adds, “No offense.”

Herbert’s revived loins result in a Hawaiian luau for two in his sprawling apartment, replete with native musicians and dancers. An impressed Drake is about to let him seal the deal when Herbert’s never-mentioned battle-axe wife returns unannounced from an elephant hunt.

Third up is too-good-to-be-true Southern race horse fancier, slurped with perfection by a honey-tongued Rudy Vallee. Deceptively, we are led to believe that Vallee is merely reprising his Preston Sturges impersonation from The Palm Beach Story. Alas, t’aint so. Whilst this romance is fermenting (and I DO mean fermenting), Drake is getting it on the side from Sid Mercer, Vallee’s drunken primo jockey – an amazing performance by Leo Gorcey (near the end of a period where his weight still allowed him to play jockeys).

A soused and besotted Gorcey reveals Vallee’s evil plans to Morgan during a drinking session at a local Bowery pub. Smooth talker Vallee is, in actuality, a penniless louse, i.e., an admirable cretin who plans to seduce Drake and throw Morgan and Grey into the nearest stable manure pile. To prove his point, Gorcey supplies Morgan with insider information about an upcoming fixed race, and, when next we see Vallee, he’s being violently escorted off-screen by a pair of unscrupulous cohorts.

The final jerk is middle-aged never-was Ziegfeld flop banana Bill Goodwin. The flea-bitten comic feigns untold coin (changing his Ziggy salary every time he opens his pie-hole). Goodwin, looking for the golden fleece, cons the Finches into funding his god-awful play – a hoary Victorian holdover entitled Bridget Sees a Ghost. The plum pudding of the deal is that Drake will star as the title ectoplasm-plagued viewer – the servant of a wrecked family who appears throughout adorned in a skimpy maid’s outfit (a superb outlet for enjoying the actress’s formidable gams). What makes this segment the piece de resistance (at least for me) is its devastating take on New York theatre critics, basically seen as three personifications of senility. While the terrible histrionics unfold onstage, the movie cuts to the city’s top trio of noted scribes in the audience: one maniacally tries to master a cat’s cradle ball of string; another is diddling an underaged girl and the third remains unconscious, slumped in his seat.

Suffice to say, Bridget is deader than the ghost, and with their inheritance now depleted, the Finches face their worst-case scenario, having to “live in New York the rest of our lives!” Only the arrival of the reluctant Willock suggests a likely positive alternative – and I won’t say more.

SO THIS IS NEW YORK is the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. My fond memories justified, this movie gets better with every screening. Fleischer’s direction is spot-on, rife with inventive touches that include (then unusual) slow-motion and freeze-frames. Bolstering the visual laughs is the cynical script, bursting with terse one-liners. I earlier mentioned Preston Sturges, and this movie could be the greatest Sturges picture he never directed. No doubt, Vallee’s casting was due to his earlier-mentioned appearance in The Palm Beach Story. I wonder if the celebrated motion-picture satirist ever saw this pic (I pretty much figure he must have, or at least would like to think he did). Some of the prose smacks of his wit and genius – specifically the motto of skinflint-run tobacco company where Morgan is employed: “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke!” (Shades of Christmas in July). Another bon mot occurs when Grey goads her spouse into the big-town trek (“Your idea of a good time is taking off your shoes!”). Unquestionably methinks Morgan had more than an uncredited hand in the screenplay.

The idea of average smarty-pants folks trying to game a rigged system was likewise exploited in 1945’s It’s in the Bag, another dark comedy with wacky, sinister guest stars (one, coincidentally, being Vallee) and also featuring a renowned humorist in the lead (Fred Allen). It’s the perfect companion piece to SO THIS IS NEW YORK (both are available through Olive Films).

Excluding some minor imperfections, the Blu-Ray of SO THIS IS NEW YORK is (as it should be for the format) razor-sharp with fine contrast (opticals compromise this a tad, but present nothing to complain about). The mono soundtrack is okay-plus, with the opening credits exhibiting a dash of sibilance (which fortunately subsides).

SO THIS IS NEW YORK was one of a slew of amazing movies made by the short-lived company Enterprise Pictures (co-founded by actor John Garfield). Their brief progressive slate of titles, the majority of which were distributed by MGM (much to Louis B. Mayer’s horror), included Body and Soul, Force of Evil, de Toth’s Ramrod and Ophus’ Caught. SO THIS IS NEW YORK would be one of their only two comedies (the other being Lewis Milestone’s truly bizarre No Minor Vices), and, to paraphrase a famous soup slogan, not just mmm-mmm good, but mmm-mmm GREAT! Okay, I didn’t mean to compare this movie to a cupboard-friendly canned good, but, that said, it does contain a saucy flavor and, I might add, features quite a tomato.

SO THIS IS NEW YORK.  Black and white.  Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition. Mono:  DTS-HD MA.  UPC: 887090078603. Cat #: OF786.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Also available on DVD:  UPC: 887090078504.  Cat #: OF785.  SRP:  $24.95.