Friday, September 16, 2011

Juxtaposition Blogathon: Takin’ what they’re givin’ ‘cause they’re workin’ for a livin’

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Juxtaposition Blogathon being hosted at Pussy Goes Grrr this week from September 12-16.  Profuse apologies to the Grrr crowd for not having this done sooner…I was beset by a flurry of projects this week all competing for equal attention.  To read the other entries in this wonderful event, go here, here, here and here.

On his popular radio comedy program in the 1940s, announcers Truman Bradley and Rod O’Connor invariably would introduce Richard “Red” Skelton as “M-G-M’s star clown” to appreciative laughter and applause from the studio audience.  And though Skelton was quite fortunate to be employed at the “Tiffany’s of film studios” (he was signed by the studio to be the comic relief in their Dr. Kildare series) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer never really used the talented comedian to his full potential.  More likely than not, Red would be put into service in many of the studio’s musicals (Lady Be Good, Ship Ahoy, Panama Hattie)…though occasionally he would get a chance to shine in starring vehicles more suited to his talents; the “Whistling” trilogy (Whistling in the Dark, Whistling in Dixie and Whistling in Brooklyn) and 1948’s A Southern Yankee being the best examples when all the elements came together to make first-rate Skelton films.

In 1948, Skelton was loaned out to Columbia to make The Fuller Brush Man—a zany slapstick romp in which he plays Red Jones, a hapless screw-up who can’t seem to hold onto a job and is jeopardizing his relationship with fiancée Ann Elliot (Janet Blair)…who sees little future with Jones if he’s at the unemployment office most of the time.  Ann works as a receptionist at the Fuller Brush company, and Red is inspired to seek work there; the two of them ask Keenan Warlick (Don McGuire) to show Red the ropes but because Warlick is a rival for Ann’s affections he plots to sabotage Red at every turn.  A chance sale at the home of a prominent local politician (Nicholas Joy) would seem to be Jones’ ticket to success…but when he returns to the house to solidify his sale with the commissioner’s wife (Hillary Brooke) he finds himself the Number One suspect in the ward heeler’s murder.  Red and Ann eventually solve the mystery and bring the murderer to justice…but not after a riotous slapstick sequence set inside a war surplus warehouse where Brush Man’s screenwriters use every prop at their disposal (rubber rafts, flare guns, etc.)—not to mention a coterie of top Hollywood stuntmen—to its full comic potential

Fuller Brush Man compliments Red Skelton’s strong screen persona as a basically decent sort who just has a knack for positioning himself in the center of trouble.  His job as a city sanitation engineer is going well until a mishap with some Beaver Patrol members causes his collected refuse to catch fire and he somehow manages to create a chain reaction of calamities (including setting a city park ablaze) that culminates with his colliding into the car of Commissioner Jay.  Because Skelton’s Red Jones is an earnest individual passionately in love with Ann (he’s even invested in a diamond ring…with a stone that’s unfortunately not visible to the naked eye) he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make good, which is why the audience is able to overlook his occasional obnoxious lapses into idiocy.

The scenarists on Brush Man were Devery Freeman and Frank Tashlin (based on a Saturday Evening Post story by future Maverick/The Fugitive/The Rockford Files creator Roy Huggins)—Freeman would later co-script a pair of Skelton vehicles similar to Fuller in The Yellow Cab Man (1950) and Watch the Birdie (1950) before becoming a TV writer-producer (The Ann Sothern Show, Pete and Gladys), and Tashlin’s name is no doubt familiar to many film buffs as the director of such films as The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). But at this moment in his career, Tashlin was in the process of making a name for himself as a much-in-demand screenwriter (after years of working as an animation director for the Warner Bros.’ cartoon factory); though he had contributed many gags to earlier films, Brush Man is probably his first major onscreen triumph.  His previous animation experience heavily influenced his live-action film work as many of his screenplays are peppered with cartoon-like gags—in fact, many of my personal favorites of Tashlin’s films feature Jerry Lewis (Rock-a-Bye Baby, It’$ Only Money, The Disorderly Orderly), who was pretty much a living cartoon in himself.  Tashlin followed the success of Brush Man with an original screenplay for The Paleface (1948)—which would become one of Bob Hope’s most successful forays at the box office…but when he complained that director Norman Z. MacLeod had butchered his original script (Tashlin had conceived the movie as a spoof of The Virginian) Frank vowed that he would soon sit in the director’s chair himself to make sure it was done right.  (And he did, too…in 1952 with Son of Paleface.)

The chase finale through the war surplus warehouse is undoubtedly the film’s highlight, but pretty much the entirety of Brush Man is hilarious from start to finish—I’ve never been able to understand why Leonard Maltin, whose opinions on film comedy played an important part in my education on onscreen laughter, dismisses the movie as the “usual Skelton slapstick” when it is anything but.  If there is a discordant moment in the film it’s the slightly surrealistic bit where Skelton’s character pays a visit to a house and encounters a troublesome little brat (Jimmy Hunt) who is unmistakably Skelton’s radio alter-ego, “Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid.”  The fact that Verna Felton plays the kid’s grandmother—though it’s disheartening that she is not referred to as “Namaw”—sort of cements this connection, and although it is jarring to see Red essentially square off with himself it’s nice that they were able to find something for Verna in this movie, since she was so outstanding on Red’s radio show (the district attorney in this film is also played by a Skelton regular, announcer Rod O’Connor).

Tashlin reworked the working-stiff-makes-good formula in scripting a pair of follow-up films (both released in 1950) that are also great fun to watch and end with balls-out slapstick climaxes: The Good Humor Man, which stars Jack Carson as the titular hawker of dairy desserts (an underrated film championed by many, including noted lawn-kid scatterer Bill Crider) and Kill the Umpire, with The Life of Riley’s William Bendix as a former pro baseball player forced to become the most hated man in the game (the ump).  Also in 1950, Tashlin revisited Brush Man by changing the gender of the sales rep, which gave us Lucille Ball in the equally entertaining The Fuller Brush Girl.

In an early indication of the wackiness she would later make immortal on TV as Lucy Ricardo, Ball plays Sally Elliot (I’ve always wondered if she might have been a sister to Janet Blair’s character in Brush Man), a receptionist who is sacked from her job on the very same day she nudges boyfriend Humphrey Briggs (Eddie Albert) into demanding a promotion at the company which they both work, in order to make certain they can keep up the payments on their dream home once they’ve made their first installment.  With the payment in escrow, Sally has to find another job quickly…and her pal Jane (Jeff Donnell) suggests that she follow her lead and become a saleslady with the Fuller Brush people, peddling cosmetics.

Sally isn’t making much headway in the cutthroat business of door-to-door sales (I can’t help but think of one of my favorite I Love Lucy jokes when Lucy Ricardo went into a similar line and cracked “One more hour and they’d have reported the death of another salesman”), particularly after a disastrous home permanent exercise that renders her customers completely bald (though the hair falling off the women’s heads does achieve a nice curl).  Meanwhile, beau Humphrey isn’t aware of this but the only reason why he got his promotion with boss Harvey Simpson (Jerome Cowan) is because Simpson, as manager of his wife Claire’s (Lee Patrick) shipping company, has been using the bidness to cover up some slightly shady activities with his partner Watkins (John Litel) and he needs Briggs to be the fall guy once the roof caves in.  But Mrs. Simpson is already wise to her hubby, and when Harvey sends over burlesque dancer Ruby Rawlings (Gale Robbins) to his house to try and pacify Claire by pretending to be Sally (Mrs. S suspects that Sally and Harvey are having an affair) Claire ends up being croaked and Sally is the number one suspect.  It all comes out in the wash, however, as Sally and Humphrey tangle with the bad guys in a funny slapstick sequence set on board a tramp steamer (with a falling-down funny life preserver scene and a voice cameo by Mel Blanc as a saucy Latino parrot).

With Lucille Ball perfectly delightful in the title role, Tashlin ups the ante with the visual gags (one of my favorites has Ball caught in the throes of a sneezing fit on a city bus and from the perspective of the rear of the vehicle you see a multitude of hats shooting out from the windows when she lets one loose) and comedic set pieces…but of course, he received a gift from the Gods of Comedy in getting to work with Lucy (whom he had previously written a screenplay before in Miss Grant Takes Richmond).  My absolute favorite moment in Brush Girl has Lucy pretending to be a burlesque dancer in the same theater where the fake Sally (Ruby) works (she’s trying to get info on Mrs. Simpson’s murder) and forced to perform a “striptease” on stage to Put the Blame on Mame

Co-star Albert doesn’t get much to do (but then, Janet Blair was pretty much along for the ride in Brush Man as well) though he is always good as the straight man (as witnessed his success on TV’s Green Acres) but one thing I’ve noticed about Brush Girl is that the supporting cast is a little stronger in this one; in addition to the performers named there are also some great contributions from Carl Benton Reid (as the manager of the company) and Arthur Space, who not only plays the investigating cop in Brush Girl but also Brush Man as well.  (Girl also has some quick bits from uncredited thesps like Jean Willes, Emil Sitka, Isabel Randolph, Mary Treen and Lucy’s old crony Barbara Pepper…who later worked alongside Albert on the aforementioned Acres.)

The interesting thing in comparing these two films for the blogathon is that I’ve actually come away with a better impression of Brush Girl (the first time I reviewed the film it wasn’t anything particularly special but it improves with a second viewing) and the two comedies really make a wonderful double feature (as witnessed by the laserdisc that packaged the two flicks pictured at the beginning of this piece).  Both movies open with similar sequences showing our heroes valiantly performing their sales duties (the same music, and each of them even has an encounter with a vicious canine that “shakes” the credits momentarily).  Fuller Brush Man and Fuller Brush Girl are also joined at the hip in that the first customer Lucy’s Sally Elliot encounters is none other than Red Skelton…and though the cameo is amusing, I’m not entirely certain why he introduces himself as “Red Skelton” (it would make more sense if he used “Red Jones,” the character he plays in Brush Man) because it nagged at me that Red was having to sell Fuller Brushes as a sideline despite a successful movie and radio career (Red was broadcasting for Tide about that time—maybe they were having to pay him with the product).  You can’t tell in black-and-white, of course, but it’s great seeing these two famous comic redheads together (if only in one short scene)…and their sidesplitting antics in both movies make them must-sees for their devoted fans.

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Stacia said...

Both films look like a lot of fun. For some reason I thought Fuller Brush Girl and Miss Grant Takes Richmond were almost identical films (I am sure someone online said that once) but I see they're not, so I'm much more inclined to actually watch the thing now that I know.

Skelton is great in the Whistling films, so I should check out FBM too.

ClassicBecky said...

Somehow this got past me, Ivan. These are just delightfully fun films, and I would like to see them again. It's been a long time. Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, both redheads, both genius comics. Your write-up was excellent, and I'm going to pull out my old copies and have some fun!