Monday, November 30, 2009

“You don’t like me much, huh?”


When the Warner Archive announced that they were releasing all sixty-three Joe McDoakes one-reelers in one honkin’ big box set back in October, I put up a little blurb about this on Facebook…and while the reaction was mostly positive, there was a bit of dissension in the ranks. Author James Neibaur, who will forget more about film comedy than I can possibly ever learn, had a particularly lukewarm response to the news…and when I quizzed him further he offered as his defense was that the shorts were at least “funnier than the Ritz Brothers.” (I took this to mean that Al, Harry and Jimmy represented the nadir of comedic celluloid.)

I’m not entirely ga-ga for los Hermanos del Ritz (they are a bit of an acquired taste) but my yardstick for unfunny comedy teams is measured by the tepid antics of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, two clowns whose previous appearances in films like Kay Kyser’s Around the World (1943) and Lupe Velez-Leon Errol’s Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event (1943) prompted R-K-O to team up the two men in what I can only generously describe as “the poor man’s Abbott & Costello.” (I also like my friend Aaron Neathery’s categorization of Wal & Al as “The Monkees of obscure comedy teams.”) Brown & Carney’s first feature as an official team was The Adventures of a Rookie (1943), a blatant Buck Privates-rip off that makes Laurel & Hardy’s Great Guns look like a masterwork. The two men appeared in a sequel the following year, Rookies in Burma (1944), and wrapped up their hitch in Hollywood service comedies with Seven Days Ashore (1944)—which I happened to catch today as part of the Virginia Mayo birthday tribute.

Ashore gives Brown & Carney top billing, but the story focuses mostly on Gordon Oliver, who plays a gob named Dan Arland, Jr. and is the recipient—along with pals Monty Stephens (Brown) and Orval “Handsome” Martin (Carney)—of seven days of liberty while their ship is docked and repaired in San Francisco. Dan, who’s a bit of a hound, has three girlfriends that he’s constantly juggling in Frisco: Annabelle Rogers (Elaine Shepard), a society deb who was engaged to him but called the whole thing off, and Carol Dean (Mayo) & Lucy Banning (Amelita Ward), a pair of musicians in the all-girl band headed up by Dot Diamond (Marcy McGuire). To decide which cookie with which he’s going to spend his leave time, he composes two notes to Carol and Lucy and has Handsome pick one out of a hat—but wacky complications ensue and both women end up receiving the missives. And if matters weren’t already complicated, Annabelle has returned—she’s staying with Dan’s parents (Marjorie Gateson, Alan Dinehart) during her visit…and Dan decides to have a stab at rekindling the old flame. This turn of events sits none too well with our lady musicians, who serve Dan with subpoenas for breach of promise; Dan fights back by having Monty and Handsome pretend to be millionaires and win Carol and Lucy’s cold little gold-digger hearts…however, the girls fall for Brown & Carney regardless of the fact that they haven’t a red cent. (Yes, I am well aware that falling in love with Brown & Carney requires a major suspension of belief. That’s just the way musicals work, kids.)

Seven Days Ashore differs from the usual Brown & Carney shenanigans in that it’s one of only three B&C films—the others being Step Lively (1944) and Vacation in Reno (1946)—in which the comedic duo do not play “Jerry Miles” (Wally) and “Mike Strager” (Alan), the characters portrayed in the remaining Brown & Carney teamings. That doesn’t make Ashore any funnier than the other films, however, but the movie isn’t completely without merit. There are some first-rate character actors in attendance here, notably Dooley “Sam” Wilson (who sings the As Time Goes By-like Apple Blossoms in the Rain), Margaret Dumont (as a society dowager …surprised?), Claire Carleton, Emory Parnell and Ian Wolfe and blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em bits from Dorothy Malone and Lawrence Tierney. It also has the good fortune to feature Marcy McGuire (whose part should have been much bigger), a sorority sister of all the man-crazy movie dames like Joan Davis, Cass Daley, Martha Raye, etc. McGuire was a popular nightclub entertainer who was cast in a similar R-K-O outing entitled Seven Days' Leave (1942) but whose potential was never fully realized by the studio—her best-known turn is probably as the gal who swoons at the feet of Frank Sinatra in Higher and Higher (1943). She does a couple of swell musical numbers in Ashore, including Sioux City Sue and Ready, Aim, Kiss…and really gets down with her bad self interrupting Dumont’s rendition of Over the Waves with a number she performs with Freddie Slack and his Orchestra, Jive Samba. (The low point of the musical has to be Freddie Fisher and his Band’s The Poor Little Fly on the Wall—performing as “Colonel Corn and His Band,” they demonstrate why there was room enough for only one Spike Jones and His City Slickers.)

Having watched Ashore this morning, there are only two other Brown & Carney vehicles I’ve not seen: Girl Rush (1944) and Reno (which technically isn’t a Brown-Carney match up since they share no scenes together in the film, according to Wikipedia). Of the B&C encounters I have witnessed, I’d have to say that Step Lively is probably the best; again, they’re supporting comics (to stars George Murphy and Frank Sinatra) instead of the main draw but they manage not to be too obnoxious—though I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’d prefer watching the original source for Lively, the Marx Brothers’ Room Service (1938). I also have a soft spot for Radio Stars on Parade (1945) but only because of the old-time radio angle (the film features appearances by Frances Langford, Ralph Edwards, Skinnay Ennis, Don Wilson and Sheldon Leonard). There’s also a large cult following for Zombies on Broadway (1945; a spoof of Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie [1943]) and Genius at Work (1946; a reworking of Wheeler and Woolsey’s The Nitwits [1935]) which team Wally and Don with Bela Lugosi…but it is my firm belief that while Boris Karloff has the supernatural power to make bad movies better than they are, “poor Bela” cannot.
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1 comment:

Kevin Deany said...

Not too long ago I watched a Perry Mason episode called "The Case of the Gilded Lily." One of the suspects looked familiar to me but I couldn't place him. Watching the credits at the end showed it was Wally Brown. He did a good job. It wasn't his fault that RKO paired him with Alan Carney. There was zero chemistry between them.