Monday evening, I was having a chat on the phone with Philip Schweier, a longtime TDOY reader (let’s put it this way—his wife has threatened to name this blog as co-respondent in any potential divorce proceedings) who wanted some information on Cass Daley (you may have seen this request in the comments section of the “Giddy as a schoolgirl” post). We got to talking about various subjects—in particular, the state of the Savannah Morning Snooze, where Phil used to work but was fortunate enough to get a pardon from the Mayor and now engages in far more legitimate journalistic pursuits. Phil mentioned that he spotted a billboard in Florida advertising a “Kollege of Musical Knowledge” that made him do a double-take; old-time radio fans will no doubt recognize that right off the bat as a reference to the popular musical “quiz” show hosted by “The Ol’ Perfessor” himself, Kay Kyser, from 1937 to 1949. (Kollege was originally heard on Chicago’s WGN before moving nationally to Mutual in February 1938 and then NBC for the rest of its long run.)
As luck would have it, TCM ran one of Kyser’s feature films yesterday: My Favorite Spy (1942), described by Leonard Maltin as a “nonsensical musicomedy” in his Classic Movie Guide. Len’s pretty much on the mark with that observation; Kyser (playing himself) has barely enough time to enjoy his honeymoon (with bride Ellen Drew) when he’s informed that he must report for duty as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Kyser’s touch turns everything to merde until it’s realized that there’s been a terrible fox paw: he’s the victim of mistaken identity, so the powers-that-be drum him out of the armed far…er, forces and transfer him to…wait for it…the Intelligence branch, where he’ll work as an undercover spy! (Offscreen, the U.S. Army raised several objections to this plot point…perhaps because they thought the boob played by Kay could be mistaken for one of their real boobs.) Told by the top brass that he can’t reveal his clandestine activities to anyone, our favorite bandleader has his hands full keeping things hidden from Drew—particularly when he’s been assigned to work alongside blond and brassy Jane Wyman (one of the few highlights of the picture).
Spy is a particularly frustrating film, even more so when you consider that the amount of talent that went into the movie should have yielded better results. Produced by Harold Lloyd (which might explain why Kyser apes Lloyd's "All-American Boy" character throughout the movie) with a screenplay co-scripted by William Bowers and directed by journeyman Tay Garnett, Spy includes an amazing gathering of top-notch character actors in its cast: Robert Armstrong (as a bad guy, natch), Helen Westley, William Demarest, Una O’Connor (in scared-shitless-domestic mode), Moroni Olsen, George Cleveland (who, with Hobart Cavanaugh, has one of the funniest scenes in Spy at the beginning), Vaughan Glaser and Chester Clute—plus uncredited contributions from Vince Barnett, Barbara Pepper and perpetual silver-screen inebriate Jack Norton. Demarest is particularly engaging; he’s a cop who avoids a flower pot dropped on him by Kyser and instead of reacting with his usual seeing-red rage, patiently and politely asks the bandleader why he dropped the flower pot in the first place. (I’ve never seen Demarest so mellow—it’s positively hysterical.) Kyser’s band members are also present and accounted for: Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Trudy Irwin (“Miriam” of Bob Hope-Pepsodent fame) and Dorothy Dunn…and of course, Merwin A. Bogue as the incomparable “Ish Kabibble,” who, sadly, has precious little to work with here.
Kyser made a total of seven starring features for RKO Pictures from 1939 to 1944, beginning with That’s Right—You’re Wrong (1939), a romp co-starring Lucille Ball whose title was culled from a Kollege of Musical Knowledge catchphrase. It’s considered by fans to be the best of the Kyser vehicles, though I’ll admit I haven’t seen it—of the three I have watched (this includes Spy), I think You’ll Find Out (1940) is a lot of fun (if overlong)…but then again, a movie featuring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre in supporting roles couldn’t be anything but entertaining. The third Kyser movie I’ve seen is Playmates (1941)—a horrible, horrible musicomedy that makes Spy look like Citizen Kane…but I have to admit that there’s a certain perverse fascination in watching the great John Barrymore shamelessly degrading himself in the final film of his career. Kyser enjoyed great success on his radio show but as an actor-comedian he fell woefully short; in the films I've seen him in he seems to have only one facial expression and in terms of physical comedy/slapstick he's just going through the motions (or watching a stunt man do the heavy lifting). I suppose it shouldn't come as any big surprise that in his later years of retirement he was reticent to discuss his old movies...even with his closest friends.