Turner Classic Movies ran a pair of films back-to-back last night showcasing the talents of “Uncle Miltie”—that’s right, Milton Berle hizzownself—and while I am fully aware that Mr. Berle is somewhat of an acquired taste among comedy fans, I don’t possess the animosity toward him that many of my colleagues do…though I will readily acquiesce that a little of him goes a long way. (I continue to argue that if you really want to enjoy Berle, you should check out two of the radio shows he headlined in the late 1940s: his self-titled series sponsored by Philip Morris [1947-48] and the little-known but most worthwhile Texaco Star Theater [1948-49]. Jerry Haendiges has the nearly-complete run of this series—only the broadcast of
Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) – Berle plays Kipling “Kip” Cooper, a third-rate comic who freely “liberates” material from other, better comedians (any resemblance to the real Milton Berle is, of course, purely coincidental) in a surprisingly good film that my Facebook pal Tom Sutpen describes as “the only Comedy ever made with 'Noir' implications.” Kip is extremely ambitious and wants to climb quickly to the top (he certainly has the ego for it) but can’t catch a break until he’s asked to fill in for veteran comedy great Eddie Eagen (Bert Lahr)—who’s suffered a heart attack on the eve of a Broadway stage hit that, in the tradition of the the-a-tah, “must go on.” Kip’s girlfriend, Fay Washburn (Ruth Roman), gets him in to see the show’s producer (Jerome Cowan) and Kip passes muster—but Eagen’s bored wife (and straight woman) Nancy (Virginia Mayo) finds Kip more to her liking than Eddie, who’s lost all appeal to the young gold-digger. When Eagen announces he’s well enough to continue with the show it looks as if Kip’s on his way back to nightclubs and juke joints—but Eagen snuffs it personally while performing a strenuous musical routine with Kip on Cooper’s last night and Nancy-bless her heart…buh-less her little heart!—offers Kip the opportunity to continue on as an Eagen knockoff. Kip realizes that copying Eddie for the rest of his life will open no further doors in his quest to hit the big time, and he gives
If the storyline to Laughing sounds a tad familiar it shouldn’t be too surprising—Berle was enjoying the fruits of his success as the star of NBC’s Texaco Star Theater when Warner Bros, approached him with the idea of starring in his own feature film, curious to learn if audiences would pay to see what they could normally get for free in their living rooms every Tuesday night. As it turns out, people weren’t interested—Laughing didn’t do as well at the box office as the studio hoped, and Berle’s movie career came to a temporary standstill. But it remains a fascinating film, especially since that Berle doesn’t particularly seem to mind that his character is a bit of a louse at times (the comedian was probably satisfied with the knowledge that Kip turns over a new leaf by the film’s end) and occasionally comes on a little too strong (which is more a hallmark of Berle than the actual character). Berle gets ample opportunity to demonstrate why it was at one time necessary to be versatile in show business rather than showcase one particular talent; he’s an impressive hoofer and not-too-bad a singer—some of the musical numbers he performs with Mayo (I like You’re Too Intense) are pretty lively, and some of the supporting cast members display some impressive footwork as well.
I enjoyed seeing Alan Hale and Grace Hayes (mother of Peter Lind Hayes) as the ex-vaudevillian parents of Roman’s character, as well as Lloyd Gough (as Berle’s agent), Ransom Sherman, Iris Adrian, Wally Vernon and Max Showalter (a.k.a. Casey Adams) in support. The only blemish on this film is that Lahr’s character is a bit underused; he performs a bit of his classic “Stop in the name of the station house!” routine but I wish his character had really been fleshed out more. Truth be told, it was amazing to see both men (Lahr and Berle) work together at all; Lahr harbored an intense dislike for Berle because “The Thief of Bad Gags” had ripped off some of Lahr’s material and the comedian—best known as The Cowardly Lion in the immortal The Wizard of Oz (1939)—carried that grudge for the rest of his life.
Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941) – Berle is relegated to second banana status this time around; he’s Frosty Welch, right-hand stooge to gangster “Shep” Morrison (Cesar Romero) in a funny Runyonesque comedy that pits Morrison—a thug with a vicious reputation as a killer (though he’s actually a creampuff)—up against “Pretty” Willie Williams (Sheldon Leonard), his rival who’s itching to muscle in on Shep’s territory. Shep falls for a young woman, Judy Miller (Virginia Gilmore), working in the nursery of a department store and convinces her to take a position as “governess” to his two children…which are two too many than he’s already got. With Frosty’s help, he manages to secure one kid (future Bowery Boy Stanley Clements) and a housekeeper (Charlotte Greenwood) to assist in the deception, but Judy soon finds out about the ruse and starts to give him the freeze. She doesn’t stay mad at Morrison forever, and in fact learns that his rep is a load of road apples; the men that he’s supposedly “bumped off” are actually living in comfort downstairs in a cell, including two members of Willie’s gang (Frank Jenks, Marc Lawrence). But when his “houseguests” make a break for it, Shep’s future as the top man on the Southside of Chicago looks none too bright when Willie and Company take him for a ride.
Tall, Dark and Handsome was a surprise sleeper hit for 20th Century-Fox in 1941, but in retrospect it’s difficult to see why it wouldn’t have been—it’s a breezy, entertaining comedy that’s well-cast, with swift direction by Fox journeyman H. Bruce Humberstone (who directed several of the studio’s Charlie Chan films) and an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware. Romero demonstrates both a sly comic sensibility and that romantic idol beauty that made him a heartthrob; Gilmore’s irresistibly cute and Leonard is playing a role he probably could have done in his sleep. The real star here is Charlotte Greenwood, the rubber-limbed supporting comedienne whose best-known role for movie fans is that of Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! (1955); I think she’s falling-down funny in Handsome and she even gets a specialty musical number that allows her to showcase her famous high kicks. Other familiar faces in the supporting cast include Barnett Parker (as Quentin, the gat-packing butler), Paul Hurst, Anthony Caruso, Marion Martin, Leon Belasco, Charles D. Brown, Addison Richards, Stanley Blystone and Mary Treen. (If you’re quick enough, you can glimpse Bud Jamison as a bartender!)
The success of Handsome led to a sequel nine years later entitled Love That Brute (1950), which also featured Romero—only this time he played the “bad” gangster role essayed by Leonard in the original. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen the film—and I generally prefer the original over re-makes—but I remember it being just as entertaining, with a standout cast that includes Paul Douglas (in the Romero part), Jean Peters, Keenan Wynn, Joan Davis, Arthur Treacher and Jay C. Flippen (Leon Belasco is in this one, too).