Sunday, February 14, 2010

“Because he lived and wrote and acted here, this land will always be a saner place to live. That fact is his true monument.” – Herman Wouk

This is the first post in what will eventually be three entries (knock wood) in the For the Love of Film Blogathon being hosted from February 14 to February 21 by Farran Smith Nehme of Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films. The blogathon seeks to remind both bloggers and their readers on the importance of film preservation, and will hopefully spur on individuals to donate to this all-too-valuable cause in care of the National Film Preservation Foundation. Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is pleased as punch to be allowed to participate in this remarkable event.

Ask any individual at random today to tell you who Fred Allen was, and as likely as not you’re bound to get a blank stare or two. But if you were to ask the same query during Radio’s Golden Age, chances are you’d receive an answer faster than you could say “One Long Pan.” Allen, a veteran vaudevillian and stage comedian who stuck his toe in radio’s wading pool in the fall of 1932 and ruled the roost over the ether for nearly two decades, was one of the medium’s premier funnymen; an individual about whom writer James Thurber once memorably commented: “You can count on the thumb of one hand the American who is at once a comedian, a humorist, a wit, and a satirist, and his name is Fred Allen.”

One of the reasons why Fred hasn’t maintained a presence in the public memory in the way that other old-time radio comedians (Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Bergen & McCarthy) have managed to do is that while Allen was popular on radio, success in other mediums eluded him. He never managed to get a toe-hold in television, spending most of his time on the cathode ray tube as a panelist on What’s My Line? (1954-56) or appearing on programs like The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950), Chesterfield Sound Off Time (1951-52) and the talent show Judge for Yourself (1953-54). (In Allen’s defense, the comedian had suffered from hypertension for many years, so his participation on television was limited due to this condition.) The same thing could be said about Fred’s film career; he appeared in only six feature films—Thanks a Million (1935), Sally, Irene and Mary (1938), Love Thy Neighbor (1940), It's in the Bag! (1945), We're Not Married! (1952) and O’Henry’s Full House (1952; “The Ransom of Red Chief” segment)—and while some of these get short shrift (particularly Million, a Fox musical starring Dick Powell as a crooner who runs for governor; Allen plays his manager and is delightfully paired with Patsy Kelly) the rest can be summed up with the appellation Allen once dubbed Sally: “Sally, Irene and Lousy.”

Of Allen’s film appearances, It’s in the Bag! is considered by most fans to be his finest moment on the silver screen. Fred plays Fred Floogle, a flea circus owner who learns that he’s the heir to a $12 million dollar fortune left to him by his late uncle—and upon hearing the news, goes on a mad spending spree. Floogle gets a rude awakening when his uncle’s lawyer (John Carradine) informs him that because of his uncle’s profligate spending; the estate has been whittled down to a pool table and five chairs (with the pool table to be held in trust). Floogle authorizes his son Homer (Dickie Tyler) to sell the chairs to an antique dealer, but later learns from his dead uncle (via phonograph record) that $300,000 (and the evidence needed to convict the killer) is hidden in the lining of one of the chairs. This leads to a merry chase to track down the individuals who purchased the furniture: memorable encounters with housewife Pansy Nussbaum (the beloved character from Allen’s radio show, played by Minerva Pious), Jack Benny (one of the film’s highlights), Don Ameche, Rudy Vallee, Victor Moore (these three are part of a barbershop quartet at a nightclub) and William Bendix (as a vitamin-popping gangster). There are also fine comic contributions from Binnie Barnes, Robert Benchley (as Floogle’s would-be in-law), Jerry Colonna, Sidney Toler (as a police detective), George Cleveland, Ben Welden (as “Monty the Gonif”—I still can’t believe they got that past the censors), Johnny Arthur and John Miljan…and even appearances from some of Fred’s old radio cronies like John Brown (“Immediate seating on all floors!”), Walter Tetley and Harry Von Zell.

It’s in the Bag! was released on VHS in 1998 by Republic Pictures after undergoing some restoration work at the UCLA Film & Television Archive in the mid 80s, and that’s probably how I managed to see the film for the first time (on VHS, that is). I grabbed a copy of the film by taping it off American Movie Classics sometime in the late 90s…and that’s when I discovered a curious thing: the AMC copy played slightly different from the VHS version. At the close of the opening credits, the movie continued on in its usual fashion but I noticed that there was now a commentary from Fred Allen that could be heard over the main body of the film:

(INT. TRUMBLE ESTATE – NIGHT

FADE IN on a SHEET OF PAPER, clearly marked “Last Will and Testament.” At the bottom of the page a man’s hand signs the name “Frederick Trumble.” A lawyer’s name is also visible: “Jefferson T. Pike.”)

ALLEN (voice-over): The old man signing the will made his fortune with one invention. It’s a soap that doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t bubble, lather, or foam. If you’re lonesome while you’re bathing, this soap just keeps you company in the tub.

(FREDERICK TRUMBLE, a white-haired old man in a smoking jacket, sits at a desk in his posh mansion and finishes signing the will. His disapproving lawyer JEFFERSON T. PIKE hovers into view…)

PIKE (sniffily protesting): But as your lawyer, Mr. Trumble…

TRUMBLE: I know what I’m doing, Mr. Pike. If I want to change my will I can change it.

(Trumble TEARS UP the old will.)

PIKE: But suppose…suppose you don’t find this grand-nephew? Who gets the money?

TRUMBLE: I’ll find him!

PIKE: Well, let’s hope so.

(Pike heads out the door…)

ALLEN (voice-over): You know, I like a commentary with a picture. You don’t have to watch the screen to know what’s going on.

(Trumble watches Pike exit, then collects the papers from his desk, and crosses to a painting on the wall…)

ALLEN (voice-over): Now, if you’re reading a newspaper or a magazine, you go right ahead. I’ll let you know if anything happens.

(Trumble moves the painting aside to reveal a wall safe.)

ALLEN (voice-over): This is a moolah refrigerator. It’s a device that keeps cool cash cooler.

(As Trumble opens the safe, a sinister figure appears silhouetted in a window. From the wall safe, Trumble removes a gigantic wad of cash, an envelope and a photograph.)

ALLEN (voice-over): I counted this currency to save you the trouble. It’s exactly three hundred thousand dollars. Now, if you don’t believe me, watch the picture the next show and count it yourself.

(Trumble looks at the photo. Inscribed on the back: “Frederick F. Trumble—Age Eight Months.” He flips it over to reveal the picture: an eight-month-old baby with the face of Fred Allen, bags under its eyes, etc.

Trumble closes the safe, replaces the painting, and crosses over to a table. Five identical antique chairs surround the table. Trumble inspects the undersides of the chairs, chooses one, and starts to stuff the money into the seat.)

ALLEN (voice-over): Uh uh uh, you see, the old boy’s ready for inflation. He thinks stuffing the chair with money will be cheaper than buying excelsior.

(The sinister figure at the window hovers outside.)

ALLEN (voice-over): Don’t be frightened. That shadow behind the curtain is only the director’s brother-in-law. You see, the director has to find a job for his wife’s brother in every picture.

(The figure slowly opens the window.)

ALLEN (voice-over): Now, if he stays behind the curtain, he gets ten dollars a day. If he comes out, he gets five.

(The figure points a gun through the window [and] FIRES. Trumble clutches his chest and staggers.)

ALLEN (voice-over): Oh! They’re using real bullets. Well, that’s one way to get a relative off the payroll.

(Trumble collapses to the floor, dead. After a moment, the figure approaches and places the gun in Trumbull’s lifeless hand.)

ALLEN (voice-over): This is the plot stuff. You old moviegoers think you know what’s going on. But this trick still fools the police. You’ll see. The cops will think the old boy committed suicide…

The film continues on in this same manner, with whole chunks of dialogue rendered inaudible due to Allen’s stream-of-consciousness voice-over. Some Allen fans prefer this version to the original, enjoying what is essentially pure, undiluted Fred (and oddly, the “alternate” version plays very much like a modern-day DVD commentary track) while others think too much Allen isn't necessarily a good thing. The peculiar thing is that having watched this version, I begin to be a bit convinced that I might be possibly losing my mind; a purchase of the Republic VHS from eBay soon assured me that my mental faculties were sound. (Well, reasonably sound, anyway.)

In the entry for It’s in the Bag! in UCLA’s Film/Television database, there’s no mention of there being two versions of the film—even Stuart Hample’s wonderful compilation “…all the sincerity in hollywood…” (from which the script excerpt was culled) says nothing except that Bag comes closest to “the full range of [Allen’s] wit,” referring to the alternate version. It would be great to have both versions available on DVD but such a project has not yet been forthcoming—it’s a little murky as to who actually owns the copyright on the film; I would assume that since the movie was released by Republic Video it would be part of the Paramount library but the IMDb says the distribution rights are owned by Teakwood Video. (The movie is available on DVD from either The Nostalgia Merchant or Nostalgia Family Video—though I can’t verify if they’re legitimate releases or no.)

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8 comments:

Samuel Wilson said...

It must have been at least 25 years ago when I saw It's In the Bag! on television. I remember most distinctly Allen's running commentary over the credits, including his description of William Bendix as "a three-fisted he man," but I don't remember whether the whole film ran with the "commentary track" on that occasion. The existence of alternate tracks alone should justify a DVD release.

Joe Thompson said...

Thank you for starting with Fred Allen. I read "Treadmill to Oblivion" when I was in grammar school and it scarred me for life. In a good way. I think Fred himself said he had a "face made for radio." I like your comparison of the version with the narration to a dvd with an audio track. Good post.

The Siren said...

This is the strangest, most fourth-wall smashing thing I have heard in a long long time. Definitely want to see this, sounds hilarious. Can't believe you did that transcript; must be many Allen fans thanking you right now! And thanks so much for this and your other posts in support of the blogathon.

Miss Tinky said...

Thanks for this ongoing contribution to the mystery of Fred Allen's non-stardom beyond radio. With luck you'll have encouraged more of us (certainly me!) to seek out It's in the Bag.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

I love IT'S IN THE BAG - its humor is surreal and Kafkaesque - and I just watched the DVD version of it less than 3 weeks ago. Alas, it did not include the "commentary" you describe. We most definitely need a DVD that lets you watch this gem with and without Fred's comments.

Doug the Boug said...

GAWD how I love IT'S IN THE BAG !!! And the script is co-authored by Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock (Alma Reville).

Saint Russell said...

Did you see the Amelia Earhart documentary that's running on PBS? I was startled to hear (briefly) Fred Allen's voice on the soundtrack, narrating an old clip of an attractive young lady getting a haircut at a men's barbershop. He gets no mention in the credits (at least on the website; I didn't watch the program through to the end) but then, most people nowadays won't recognize that voice. I haven't seen the NBC "Jazz Age" program that appears to be the source of the clip.

Vinnie Bartilucci said...

Unaware of your post, I did a review of the film mere days later at my wife's blog, as she covered its fellow adaptation, The Twelve
Chairs

I've never even HEARD of that rolling commentary version, I shall have to see if it's available anywhere. The version that Netflix is offering via instant streaming is the original version.