Friday, November 20, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #46 (Johnny Mercer, Tunesmith edition)

Turner Classic Movies has been devoting each Wednesday in the month of November to celebrating the genius that is songwriter Johnny Mercer with both a wonderful special (Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me) and movies with songs written by Savannah’s favorite native son. This past Wednesday (November 18) was particularly noteworthy in that it was the actual centennial of Mercer’s birth, and I caught a glance at a handful of the movies shown on the channel that day. (As always, spoiler warnings apply.)

You'll Find Out (1940) – How does a film featuring three of the all-time best silver screen villains—Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre—end up flatter than the current state of my bank account? Well, for one thing—the movie does itself no favors by teaming the trio with Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge, which features such tried-and-true funny men as Ish Kabibble (Merwyn Bogue), Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason…and the Ol’ Perfessor hizzownself. Kyser and his band mates had one of the most popular radio shows on the air at the time this film was produced, and had made a successful foray into motion pictures with an amusing debut entitled That's Right - You're Wrong (1939). You’ll Find Out was the second of what would eventually be seven Kyser opuses, and already the well of inspiration has run dry.

Kyser and Kompany are hired by a young heiress named Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish) to play at her exclusive birthday party (Kyser’s agent, played by Dennis O’Keefe, has made the arrangements and is a bit sweet on Janis) and no sooner has the band arrived when they meet up with some interesting characters in Janis’ aunt Margo (Alma Kruger) and Judge Spencer Mainwaring (Karloff), an old friend of the Bellacrest family. Auntie Margo fancies herself an amateur spiritualist, and has attached herself to one Prince Saliano (Lugosi), whom Janis is convinced is a twenty-four karat phony. No sooner has the party gotten underway when the only bridge that connects Chez Bellacrest to the mainland explodes, leaving the band and the guests stranded…and the “old dark house” clichés begin. A third individual, a debunker of spiritualism named Professor Karl Fenninger (Lorre) has also been trapped with the guests—and Kyser and his agent ask him to help debunk Saliano’s hokum-pokum, not knowing that Fenninger isn’t quite what he seems.

The story and screenplay of Out is credited to James V. Kern (with producer-director David Butler—a film comedy veteran who helmed the likes of Doubting Thomas [1935] and Road to Morocco [1942]) and also includes this amusing credit: “Special material by Monte Brice, Andrew Bennison and R.T.M. Scott.” I suppose it’s a bit late for an audit, but I think someone should have gone over this movie with a fine-tooth comb to see where the “special material” was used—R-K-O got rooked. The only bit that I honestly laughed out loud at in this film was a sequence where Kyser and O’Keefe are stumbling around in a downstairs secret passage inside the mansion and Kay narrowly misses being hit by a sword brandished by a statue. “Benny Goodman fan,” cracks O’Keefe. Otherwise, your tolerance for Kyser and his band’s antics will depend on your tolerance for Ish Kabibble…who has a dog named “Prince” that shares the same Moe Howard haircut as his master. (Lorre, on the other hand, gets the opportunity to utter one of the best lines of his film career: “Why do I have to waste my time outwitting morons?”) OTR fans might get a kick out of seeing veteran actor Jeff Corey (addressed in the film as “Mr. Corey”) as the contestant on Kay’s show who sings My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean between mouthfuls of cake.

If there’s a saving grace in Out, it’s that the musical numbers are genuinely first-rate as performed by Kyser and his musical aggregation, including Babbitt, Mason and female vocalist Ginny Simms. I’m very fond of Like the Fella Once Said, but You’ve Got Me This Way and I’d Know You Anywhere are also fine testaments to Mercer’s (curiously billed here as “John Mercer”) songwriting talents. Mercer’s material fit Kyser like a glove, and I suppose the fact that Kay was a fellow Southerner (from Rocky Mount, NC) goes a long way in explaining this. In summation, You’ll Find Out is must viewing for any Karloff, Lugosi or Lorre fan—but it’s hardly the finest hour onscreen for any of these superb performers.

Navy Blues (1941) – A pair of conniving sailors—“Cake” O’Hara (Jack Oakie) and “Powerhouse” Bolton (Jack Haley)—find themselves flat broke on liberty in Honolulu, but devise a scheme to make some fast cash when they learn that gunnery turret champion Homer Matthews (Herbert Anderson) has been transferred to their ship…ensuring a cinch win during gunnery practice maneuvers. What O’Hara and Bolton do not know, however, is that Matthews’ hitch is up in twelve days—two days less than the actual contest—and now they’re in agua caliente because they’ve bet heavily on their ship, borrowing money from their nemesis “Buttons” Johnson (Jack Carson) and putting the ship’s previously-winning trophies in hock. In situations like this, men are forced to fall back on the women “behind successful men” and while Bolton’s ex-wife Lilibelle (Martha Raye) isn’t much use (though she has a stake in the contest—her future alimony depends on it), her pal Margie Jordan (Ann Sheridan) is enlisted to convince Homer to re-enlist and save the day for his hapless pals.

Faithful TDOY reader John recommended I catch Blues back in August of this year, and it didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting since I was curious to see the movie on the basis of the wonderful cast alone. It’s a fun little picture—nothing spectacular, and not that much different from the service comedies being made at the same time by Universal (Buck Privates, In the Navy, Keep 'Em Flying —all with Bud Abbott & Lou Costello). Both Oakie and Haley make a swell team—though I prefer Haley’s antics more because Oakie has a tendency to peg the obnoxious meter—and I really enjoyed Sheridan’s rare foray into song-and-dance (I agree with John; it’s a shame she didn’t make more movies like this); I was even surprised to see Anderson (or, as we call him here at Rancho Yesteryear, “The Man Who Would Be Henry Mitchell”) channel his inner songbird (he sings Mercer’s wonderful You’re a Natural with Annie) as well. Raye is her usual vivacious self, and there are also bring-a-smile-to-your-face appearances from Jackie “C.” Gleason (I’ll bet the Great One flipped at the opportunity of working alongside his idol, Oakie, in his film debut), Richard “Inspector Faraday” Lane, future Warner Bros. TV exec William T. Orr, John Ridgely, Ralph Byrd, Howard Da Silva (as the Shore Patrol guy who “arrests” Sheridan), Charles Drake, Tom Dugan, Edward Gargan, William Hopper, George O’Hanlon, Gig Young and Dick Wessel (you’ll have to watch quick for this last one). You may also spot a familiar face or two in the “Navy Blues Sextette”—including Kay “Nyoka” Aldridge, Marguerite Chapman and Georgia Carroll (a.k.a. Mrs. Kay Kyser).

Here Comes the Groom (1951) – Sentimental piece of “Capra-corn” stars Bing Crosby as an overseas reporter who’s determined to put a halt to girlfriend Jane Wyman’s impending nuptials—even if he has to adopt a pair of French orphans (Jacky Gencel, Beverly Washburn) to accomplish his mission. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because Wyman’s fiancé, played by Franchot Tone, is actually a decent sort who extends every courtesy to the Old Groaner…but Crosby quickly susses that Tone’s cousin (Alexis Smith)—fourth cousin, twice removed—has been carrying a torch for Franch and he agrees to help her land him. Will Crosby win Wyman and the day? (Come on, it’s Frank Capra we’re talking about—is there any doubt?)

Groom is one of those films that sort of runs hot and cold with me; I don’t dislike the film—particularly since it features one of my favorite Mercer tunes (with an assist from Hoagy Carmichael), the Oscar-winning In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening—but revisiting it the other night I was prodded into remembering the elements of the film that I do dislike: the scenes with the orphan kids are sticky-sweet, and Crosby and Wyman’s performance of Evening doesn’t have the impact it once had (it doesn’t help that the song is “previewed” earlier on in the film as part of Crosby’s constant a cappella versions). In fact, the outstanding musical number in Groom isn’t a Mercer tune at all—it’s Misto Cristofo Columbo (written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, the men who brought you Que Sera Sera and the Mister Ed theme song), performed with gusto by Der Bingle and some surprise musical guests: Louis Armstrong, Dorothy Lamour, Phil Harris, Cass Daley…and Frank “Crazy Gugenheim” Fontaine.

But on the other side of the ledger, Bing and Jane make a great pair and there are sensational acting turns from Smith (Bobby Osbo and I reached a rare point of agreement when he mentioned that she practically walks off with the film…and she does), Robert Keith (as Crosby’s wisecracking editor; I love his response to Smith when she asks him if he plans to stick around: “Of course—running the newspaper is just a hobby of mine”), Connie Gilchrist, H.B. Warner, Ian Wolfe, Walter Catlett, Ellen Corby and Irving Bacon. I also enjoy the scene (I have to admit, it makes me tear up) when the blind orphan girl (Anne Maria Alberghetti) performs Verdi’s Caro Nomo for her prospective American parents—played by Minna Gombell and Alan “Fred Flintstone” Reed. You may also get a kick out of bits contributed by uncredited character greats like Charles Lane (I’m not sure if you can count his part as one of his bad guy roles or not), James “D’oh!” Finlayson, Charles Halton and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer.

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2 comments:

The Baby said...

Navy Blues is so adorable. I love those Navy musicals <3

Kliph Nesteroff said...

I love You'll Find Out and I can't help but think that if the maltin guide gave it four stars then maybe other film fans would call it a classic as well. No, it's not great but it's pretty damn entertaining. The scenes using the sonovox are great. Peter Lorre is captivating no matter what (as is Lugosi in a turban). And it is probably better than 90% of what Lugosi ever appeared in. Great Late Late Show fodder, a fun Halloween screening and a wonderful, very flawed and hokey, but deliciously campy, highly entertaining movie.