Thursday, April 23, 2009

Queen of the Hillbillies

TCM’s running a tribute to Funny Ladies in primetime this week, and one of the more interesting offerings was trotted out last night, the 1944 Columbia B-comedy/musical Louisiana Hayride (1944—not to be confused with the popular country music radio show of the same name, btw) starring (as one IMDb wag has dubbed her, “The Jenny Lind of the Ozarks”) Judy Canova. I did a write-up on Judy’s radio show eons ago and it’s always nice to catch one of her old films or TV appearances since the radio broadcasts I’ve collected are packed away somewhere in a box in my father’s storage shed (or as we like to refer to it, “no man’s land”). (Back in the late 80s, Savannah’s WTGS used to run a “late, late show” package that consisted largely of old Republic films…and that’s where my introduction to Judy Canova began, with viewings of Oklahoma Annie [1952], The WAC from Walla Walla [1952], Carolina Cannonball [1955] and Lay That Rifle Down [1955]).)

One thing you need to keep in mind when you’re watching a Canova flick is that the comedy material is frequently as corny as Kansas in August, so if you’re expecting something along the lines of Noel Coward perhaps you’d be better off looking elsewhere in the stacks. (An example of the humor in Hayride: Judy remarks that if a certain individual “don’t quit drinkin’ they’re gonna have to take out a liquor license to bury ‘em.”) Hayride is certainly no exception to this rule, but because the film was a product of Columbia it’s a bit better than, say, the usual Judy vehicles from Republic (a studio for which she generated a mega-tonnage of cash). Judy is Judy Crocker, a hillbilly gal whose good nature and utter lack of guile allows her to be suckered by two con men, J. Huntington McMasters (TDOY fave Richard Lane) and Canada Brown (George McKay—the poor man’s William Frawley), into coughing up the necessary scratch to finance a feature film the two hucksters are promoting—ostensibly with Judy as the lead. McMasters and Brown find themselves at the mercy of a wannabe director named Gordon Pearson (future director-producer Ross Hunter) who’s fallen for our heroine and is looking out for her best interests; Pearson, in turn, hires a novice screenwriter named Montague Price…a part that allows the audience to see Lloyd Bridges demonstrating his comic chops. (There’s an amusing exchange between Lloyd and the two con men when he’s first introduced to them: asked if he’s written a lot of motion pictures he replies, “No…but I’ve seen some.” “I’ve been out with a lot of chorus girls but I can’t dance,” McKay snaps back.)

Hayride allows Canova to warble five songs (including the politically incorrect Shortnin’ Bread), one of which is the old standard Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey and the way this number is staged is kind of amusing. Judy can’t remember which studio that Lane and McKay are affiliated with so she has a cab driver take her around to the various independent studios (of which, let’s just say, there are a lot) until she arrives at one that’s waiting for a female singer to arrive and record a number for an actress (an unbilled Christine McIntyre) to lip-synch to in a western. What tickled me about this is that McIntyre, an ingénue who had a lengthy career in both two-reelers and B-westerns, was no slouch as a vocalist—as anyone who’s seen the Three Stooges shorts Micro-Phonies (1945) or Squareheads of the Round Table (1948) will readily attest. That was one of the main pleasures I got in watching Hayride, seeing a lot of players from the Columbia shorts and serials including Minerva Urecal (as Judy’s ma), Matt Willis (Judy’s shotgun-totin’ bro), Ernie Adams, Lane Chandler, Fred Graham, Russell Hicks, Bud Jamison (as a doorman), Eddie Kane, Jack Rice, Gene Roth and (though she’s not credited at the IMDb entry for Hayride), Symona Boniface.

I experienced a couple of moments of déjà vu while watching this entertaining programmer last night—the main one being that the plot seemed awfully familiar, and I thought for a brief moment that I had seen it before. As it turns out, Judy’s 1940 Republic romp Scatterbrain features a similar premise (Judy is mistaken for an actress and is whisked out to Hollywood) and though I haven’t seen that movie I did listen to an adaptation of it via an Old Gold Comedy Theater radio broadcast (dated April 29, 1945 and hosted by Harold Lloyd) a few years back. (It’s possible that I may have seen Scatterbrain in that syndicated Republic films package I mentioned earlier, but I honestly can’t recall.) The other instance was an amusing gag that occurs at the start of the film: Judy’s just purchased a sort of rooming house/kozy kabin franchise for her Uncle Lem (Andy Clyde look-a-like Walter Baldwin) and Aunt Hepzibah (Jessie Arnold), and as she’s getting ready to get on the train to return home to her mom and brother, her conversation with her aunt and uncle keeps getting interrupted by a polite gentleman who first asks where the water cooler is located…and then continues to inquire if he can get another glass of water.

Finally Judy asks him: “Say…are you drinkin’ all that water?” “Oh, no, mum…I didn’t want to bother anybody but…my cabin’s on fire…” is the man’s reply. It’s a gag older than the hills and then some, and its best showcase is in the 1949 Abbott & Costello comedy Africa Screams, with the incomparable Joe Besser delivering the punch line (“Ooooooh, my tent’s on FIRE!”) The director of Louisiana Hayride, Charles Barton, also helmed Screams and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he brought that little chestnut along for the ride.

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