Saturday, April 9, 2011

Movies that I've stared at recently on TCM #58 ("Back from the dead" edition)

The last time I did one of these “catch-all” reviews of movies I’ve watched on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (ka-ching!) was back in May of last year…so I’m pleased to announce that it makes its triumphant return, back by popular demand.  (Okay…that may be stretching things a tad…)

Sing and Like It (1934) – Racketeer T. Fenny Sylvester (Nat Pendleton) is robbing a safe with his pals when he happens to hear an amateur theatrical production through an open window and songbird Annie Snodgrass (ZaSu Pitts) murdering a song about a boy’s best friend…his mother.  Fenny is moved to tears, and so is anyone else who hears Annie sing—but in their instance, it’s because she can’t.  The undaunted gangster elicits the backing (though “strong-arm” might be a more apt description) of theatrical producer Adam Frink (Edward Everett Horton, at his prissily snide best) to put Snodgrass in his latest show, and just when it looks as if Frink’s production will receive the critical panning of the century Fenny and his boys convince an influential critic (Richard Carle) to give the revue a hearty thumbs-up.

Sing and Like It just manages to miss the mark of being a truly classic comedy but I don’t want this should discourage you from seeing this little sleeper because it has some first-rate comic dialogue, split up between the mercurial Horton, the delightfully deadpan Ned Sparks and luscious Pert Kelton, who probably should have arrested for grand larceny for her scene-stealing antics in this one.  Kelton is probably better known for her later work in movies like The Music Man (1962; as Shirley Jones’ ma) and as the original Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners (before they Red-baited her and Audrey Meadows took over the part) but she turns in some first-rate performances in many a 1930s film, notably Bed of Roses (1933), Hooray for Love (1935) and Annie Oakley (1935).  (I’m more familiar with Kelton’s radio work; she was a favorite of writer Nat Hiken’s, appearing in regular roles on such programs as The Milton Berle Show and The Magnificent Montague.)  Pert plays Pendleton’s moll in this one, an aspiring thespian in her own right being kept off the stage by Nat because he doesn’t cotton to the thought of her mixing with theatrical types:

RUBY: Look, Fenny—I gotta get back on the stage…why, with legs like mine I couldn’t help bein’ a great actress…gimme a chance…back a show, and put me in it…
FENNY: Listen…in the first place, I got a business of me own to take care of…and in the second place, the theater ain’t no place for a lady…the answer is no…N-O, no…
RUBY: I suppose Sarah Bernhardt wasn’t a lady…
FENNY (accusingly): You been mixin’ up with them show people again?
RUBY: Um…she’s dead, ya lug…
FENNY: See?  What have I been tellin’ ya?  It’s the pace that kills

There’s also an amusing running gag in the film where Pendleton’s character is annoyed by Kelton’s gum-chewing habit (“There’s gum in the telephone!  There’s gum behind the lapels of me suits!  I steps in it…I sits in it…I combs it out of me hair—the only place I don’t find gum you ain’t been!”); in a beautiful throwaway bit he gives her a passionate kiss goodbye and then walking towards the camera, realizes he’s got her gum in his mouth.  Later in the film, Pendleton gets a bit physical with Kelton and when he asks “Did you get hurted?” she snaps back “No, I swallowed my gum!”  I’m going to warn you ahead of time that Nat bats Pert around a couple of times in this movie and I can certainly understand that it will be off-putting for some (then again, he’s a mobster…not a Boy Scout)—but I’ll sheepishly admit that I laughed out loud when Pendleton says things to his girl like “Look at ya—crawlin’ with diamonds and not a bruise on ya…and still ya complains…”

The funny dialogue and situations are there in Like It, it’s just that the pace is a bit laggy and while I bow to no one in my delight for the Zase, hearing her sing that Motherhood song too many times will make you reach for a Bromo.  The movie, adapted by Marion Dix and Laird Doyle from a story by Aben Kandel, features a superlative cast of character pros including John Qualen (as ZaSu’s tomato patch-obsessed paramour), Matt McHugh, Stanley Fields, Joe Sawyer, Grace Hayle and William H. Griffith…with uncredited bits by Walter Brennan, James C. Morton and Dewey Robinson on hand as well.

The Secret Six (1931) – This was one of the movies I had an eye out for when TCM did their Star of the Month tribute to Jean Harlow last month; her role as Anne Courtland, a candy and cigarette counter girl in a sleazy café is pretty small but effective—the only real benefit she received working on the film was that it was her first onscreen encounter with Clark Gable, with whom she would appear in five additional films after this debut.  Most of the story is centered around Wallace Beery’s would-be hoodlum; as Louis “Slaughterhouse” Scorpio he works in the cattle yards (his nickname should fill you in on the type of work he does there) until his gangster pal Johnny Franks (Ralph Bellamy, who has a make-up scar on his face so he’ll look older than twelve) takes him under his wing into the bootlegging business he runs with alcoholic lawyer Richard Newton (Lewis Stone).  (At one point in the movie, Stone’s character is so gassed I couldn’t help but stifle a snicker thinking about how much fun you could have splicing his footage into an Andy Hardy vehicle.)

The nice thing about racketeering is that they do promote from within…but unfortunately they don’t bother with a two-week notice or even severance pay, and that’s exactly what happens to the working relationship between Franks and Scorpio: Franks ends up killing the younger brother (whose name is Ivan—tee hee) of a rival hood (John Miljan) and tries to pin it on Slaughterhouse but when Scorpio survives the shooting he comes back to headquarters and evaluates his supervisor (Johnny) with some lead in his back.  Scorpio then begins his precipitous rise through the rackets with the wily Newton getting him out of scrapes at every turn…but when Lou croaks Jean’s reporter boyfriend (played by future B-western hero Johnny Mack Brown) Harlow turns state’s evidence and that sets the wheels in motion for Scorpio’s downfall.  (He beats a murder rap but when he and his mob try to kidnap Harlow and Gable in retaliation the boys in blue come to their rescue and catch him in the act of murdering his former mouthpiece Stone.)

Six was made by M-G-M to cash in on the success of Warner Bros’ Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931; also with Harlow) but it just demonstrates that the Tiffany of movie studios wasn’t in the same league as Warners when it came to hard-hitting crime drama (a notable exception is Beast of the City, and Harlow's in that one, too).  I found a lot of the film disjointed and a bit hard to follow but I think that might have something to do with the heavy editing the studio was forced to do when the forces of decency got their noses out of joint over some of the material in the movie.  I love Jean in pretty much everything she does and I have to admit Gable wasn’t bad in this one (M-G-M’s boy wonder Irving Thalberg insisted Clark’s part be beefed up and after the film’s release signed “The King” to a studio contract), particularly his amusing byplay with Mack Brown, who’s Gable’s rival for the affections of Jean.  I’m not really a big Wallace Beery fan, however (it always seems to me like Beery wasn’t really a human being but an ape that had been shaved); though I do like him in The Big House (1930)—so there’s his Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ moment.  The title of the picture refers to an organization of bidnessmen who keep their identities secret in order to fight organized crime…and so, naturally, they went down to the Lone Ranger warehouse for some supplies…


Here We Go Again (1942) – Since Look Who’s Laughing (1941), the film that preceded Here We Go Again in memorably teaming two old-time radio duos onscreen (Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy and Fibber McGee & Molly, aka Jim and Marian Jordan), starts out with Edgar & Charlie (performing a reprisal of their famous vaudeville act, “The Operation,” in front of a radio audience) it seems only fitting that Again begin with the McGees.  Fibber & Molly have planned a big shindig to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, but their pals in Wistful Vista have given them the big brush-off, electing to vacation at a swanky lakeside resort instead.  So the McGees decide to head that way themselves (although they can’t afford the tariff to stay there) and upon their arrival, encounter Otis Cadwalader (Gale Gordon, in his film debut)—Molly’s old beau and Fibber’s bête noire.  Otis cons Fibber into getting Edgar (who’s also vacationing nearby, in search of a silk-producing moth) to invest in a formula for “synthetic gasoline”; it turns out to be a bust, but lepidopterist Bergen has discovered a use for it for his moths, and everything comes out in the wash by film’s end.

Again contains some memorable set-pieces: Gildy and Fibber trade insults over a game of pool, Edgar and Charlie play Indian, and Molly cuts a rug with Cadwalader (both Marian Jordan and Gale Gordon do some pretty impressive hoofing in this one). Even Charlie McCarthy has a song-and-dance number—yes, you read that right, dance. Director Allan Dawn, who also helmed Laughing, got the idea to allow both Charlie and Mortimer to be a bit more mobile thanks to some doubling by midget actors.  (This idea to use little people would later resurface in a memorable television episode of The Jack Benny Program; Jack pays Edgar and Francis Bergen a visit and is stunned to see both dummies moving about like real people.)  The movie also contains a novel chase sequence at the end that eschews the traditionally tired use of cars and substitutes horse-and-buggies instead (well, you know how it is with those "A" cards).

Here We Go Again doesn’t quite have the same punch as its predecessor, but it’s still grand entertainment for any OTR fan.  The movie does boast of a boost in star-wattage: Ray Noble, Bergen’s orchestra leader and comic foil, and dummy Mortimer Snerd make appearances, and joining Hal Peary’s Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (it’s sort of odd to see Gildy mingle with the McGees since he had already skedaddled off to Summerfield for his own program at the time of Again’s release) and Isabel Randolph’s Abigail Uppington are Gordon and Bill Thompson as super-milquetoast Wallace Wimple (“Wimp” is the brains behind the formula).  Also in the cast of OTR stars is Ginny Simms, a singer-actress who achieved fame as vocalist for Kay Kyser’s orchestra, and was also featured on The Bob Burns Show and her own self-titled variety show on radio from 1942-47.  Ginny plays Gildy’s sister Jean and is Bergen’s romantic interest in this movie (I guess that whole Lucille Ball thing didn’t work out).  Two other actors from Laughing, Sterling Holloway and George Cleveland, also have small roles in this film as well. Once again, as in Laughing, the comedic strengths in this film emanate from the witty dialogue provided for the stars: Bergen scribe Royal Foster joins Zeno Klinker and Dorothy Kingsley in supplying Edgar and his dummies’ material, and Don Quinn performs the same favor for the McGees.

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4 comments:

Jeff Overturf said...

I dont know if Hollywood cranked out a single film before 1946 that I can't sit down and enjoy the hell out of. Musicals of the 30's (and I include 1928-29 in that grouping) are some of my favorites to watch.

You and I could get in the WaBak machine and haunt naighborhood theatres for days and be happy as clams.

Rick Brooks said...

"an ape that had been shaved"!

LOL, but to quote Big Daddy Beery himself, "Awwwwww....."

Scott said...

Ah, how I envy you access to TCM. It's the only thing I really miss about cable.

MST3K fans will fondly remember John Miljan as the neglectful drunken Dad who hands out 5 dollar bills in lieu of love in the classic episode I Accuse My Parents.

mndean said...

Wallace Beery may be a shaved ape, but Victor McLaglen is the shaved ape that grins.

I enjoyed Sing And Like It, good silly fun, especially when Ned Sparks is "influencing" the reviewer. Haven't watched The Secret Six yet.