Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grey Market Cinema: Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)

In The Jack Benny Program’s 1936-37 season, writers Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin instituted “Buck Benny Rides Again,” a spoof of movie westerns that would go on to become one of Benny’s most popular running segments.  Jack played the titular hero, of course, and on one broadcast character actor Andy Devine was introduced as a sheriff who always greeted Benny’s hero with an enthusiastic “Hiya, Buck!”  It would soon become one of the program’s many catchphrases, and between 1936 and 1942 Devine functioned as a semi-regular on the program.  Andy was certainly no stranger to the world of show business, having appeared in movies as far back in 1926.  His Benny appearances, however, made him a beloved radio personality—he would later be a regular on such shows as Lum ‘n’ Abner and The Fitch Bandwagon, and more famously played “Jingles,” the sidekick on the juvenile radio favorite The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.  (Devine would also reprise his radio role when Hickok transitioned to TV as well.)

Morrow and Beloin decided to bring “Buck Benny” to the silver screen in 1940 (with help from Zion Myers, who adapted an Arthur Stringer story) with Buck Benny Rides Again, a most enjoyable Paramount musical comedy romp that features Benny, Devine…and several other members of Jack’s “gang”: Phil Harris, Dennis Day (in his feature debut) and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.  (Announcer Don Wilson is also on hand in an amusing credits sequence, along with the voices of Mary Livingstone and Fred Allen—to which Jack responds: “Fred Allen???  So long, folks…”)  It’s Harris who puts the admittedly paper-thin plot in motion; Phil is trying to talk Jack into taking a vacation out west in Nevada—but Jack is on to him…he knows that Phil just wants to make time with a brunette named Brenda Tracy (Kay Linnaker), who’s trapped there until her divorce is final.

Jack is in a hurry to get to the studio, but he has a little fender-bender with his Maxwell and a taxicab…whose passenger is lovely Joan Cameron (Ellen Drew), an aspiring vocalist who performs in a trio with her sisters Virginia (Virginia Dale) and Peggy (Lillian Cornell).  Jack becomes smitten with Joan, but she won’t give him a tumble—she’s from out west, where men are men and sheep are nervous.  The fact that Jack manages to smash into her taxicab a second time (the driver, played by James Burke, complains that Jack is getting “oiksome”) and inadvertently scotches the sisters’ audition with a radio program isn't lighting any amorous fires either.  Realizing he needs to make amends with Joan, Jack obtains her address from a radio page and later sends Rochester with a box of candy up to her apartment to smooth things over.  Roch, however, becomes distracted by the Cameron sisters’ maid, Josephine Templeton (Theresa Harris)…and poor Jack ends up drenched to his undies when he’s caught in a downpour outside the building.

Virginia surmises that knowing a celebrity of Jack’s status could be tremendously helpful to their careers, so she phones Jack, pretending to be Joan, and Jack invites the three of them to dinner to discuss a possible job with his radio show.  Phil runs into Jack and the sisters at the same club and decides to crash the gathering.  While the Camerons are performing, a former reporter, Charlie Graham (Charles Lane), tries to ingratiate himself with Phil because he now works as Fred Allen’s press agent.  Jack, trying to impress Joan, brags about his (non-existent) western upbringing and his Nevada ranch in front of Graham…and is then mortified to learn from Phil that Charlie works for Fred Allen.  Allen uses Jack’s boastings as fodder for jokes on his radio show (this is at the height of their famous feud), and the positive reaction from both their listening audiences convinces Jack’s sponsor that he should take his show west, much to Phil’s delight.

Jack, Phil and Rochester make the trek out Nevada way, and arriving at “dude ranch” B-Bar-M, run into Andy Devine (who owns a spread nearby) and Dennis Day (who’s spending the summer with Andy).  Devine’s ranch will soon be co-opted by Jack, because Joan and her sisters have arrived in Caldwell (Virginia slyly arranged for them to sing at the B-Bar-M) and Jack needs to keep up the appearance that he maintains a spread in the area.  (He’s awarding $5 to every ranch hand of Andy’s who picks a fight with him, just to show you how serious he is about Joan.)  During a horse-riding outing with the Camerons, Phil and Brenda, Jack inadvertently becomes a hero when he comically manages to rescue Brenda from a runaway horse.  Joan begins to soften toward Jack…but then eavesdrops on a phone conversation Rochester is having with Josephine and learns that he’s been pretending with regards to his Western roots all along.

Joan hires a pair of tough outlaws (Ward Bond, Morris Ankrum) who had a run-in with Jack earlier (Jack mistook them for a couple of Andy’s employees) to stage a phony robbery at the B-Bar-M the next evening, with the intention of embarrassing Jack for being deceitful.  But press agent Graham turns up, looking to dig up some dirt for his boss, and she has a change of heart…she also tells Jack that she knows he’s been dishonest all along.  The outlaws, however, have every intention of robbing the hotel and they bind and gag Joan when she tries to blow the whistle on their plans.  Jack miraculously manages to save the day and subdue the “hombres”…with a little help from his pet polar bear, Carmichael.

Jack Benny was one of the most successful radio and TV comedians of the 20th century—but he was never really able to duplicate that same accomplishment in films.  Part of the problem is that the roles assigned to Jack were little more than slight extensions of the character he played on radio (the vainglorious cheapskate), and Benny was never really happy with any of his movies (save for perhaps 1942’s To Be or Not Be, his finest hour onscreen).  Buck Benny, despite its success at the box office (it was the tenth highest grossing picture that year), was an example of the kind of film Jack was not particularly fond of, but speaking only for myself it’s one of my particular favorites.

Radio shows provided fertile material for the movies, though there was always the danger that audiences—who already conceived in their “theaters of the mind” what characters on shows looked like—would reject such films (even if the authentic radio actors played the parts) because of dissatisfaction with the casting or objecting to something they could get at home for free.  But I think Buck Benny Rides Again is a great example of a radio-to-film adaptation that succeeds—it helps that Morrow and Beloin, Benny’s writers, wrote most of the jokes and that so many of the show’s elements were brought into the film.  I sort of feel sorry for Dennis Day, in that he doesn’t get much to do outside of singing My Kind of Country…heck, Carmichael figures more in the plot than Dennis.  (In defense of Beloin and Morrow, Day had only joined the program in the fall of 1939 and his character as the distaff Gracie Allen who drove Jack crazy hadn’t yet been fully developed.)  Director-producer Mark Sandrich's participation is also a huge plus...though he was deft at handling musical comedies, having helmed over at R-K-O several of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals (Top Hat, Shall We Dance) and my favorite Bert Wheeler-Robert Woolsey collaboration, Cockeyed Cavaliers.  (Benny liked working with Sandrich—they made the previous Man About Town together in 1939, and Sandrich was also at the helm of Love Thy Neighbor, the heralded Benny-Allen “feud” picture.  It was Old Home Week for Sandrich and Harris as well—Mark directed Phil in the 1933 feature Melody Cruise and an Oscar-winning short subject featuring the future Benny bandleader, So This is Harris!.)

Heap pretty...and also heap politically incorrect.
Most of the main players are essentially performing as the same characters from the radio show; but in the leading lady part is Ellen Drew, a Paramount starlet who may not have been the most remarkable actress in motion pictures (her best-known role as Dick Powell’s girlfriend in Christmas in July wouldn’t be seen until after Buck Benny’s release) but she’s always been a particular favorite here at Rancho Yesteryear if only for her turn opposite Joel McCrea in my favorite of his films, Stars in My Crown (1950).  She’s pretty, vivacious and quite at ease in her role, and she gets good support from Virginia Dale and Lillian Cornell as her sibs.  (The sisters, it should be pointed out, don’t actually do their own singing—the lead vocals were dubbed by Martha Tilton.) Charles Lane is at his unlikable best, with Ward Bond and Morris Ankrum (billed as “Morri”) equally good as the film’s villains.  There are plenty of character favorites in this one, too: Eddie Acuff, Billy Bletcher, Eddy Chandler, Monte Collins (as the bellboy helping Jack pack his suitcase), Edward Gargan (William’s bro) and Ernie Whitman, to name a few.

Handing a towel to Jack's polar bear "Carmichael," Rochester warns him that "that hand belongs to Daddy."
My, my...
Even if Buck Benny wasn’t the kind of vehicle Jack had hoped would make him a moviegoers favorite, there’s a lot to recommend in this film: toe-tapping musical numbers (the Drums in the Night show piece, featuring the Merriel Abbott Dancers, is pretty amazing—I’d love to know who the architect was that decided to stick that Indian sculpture on the stage floor), hilarious comedy set pieces (the runaway horse sequence is a lot of fun, as well as the climactic fight between Benny and the outlaws)  and particularly spirited exchanges between Benny and Rochester—Anderson gets most of the funny lines, and also is allowed plenty of room to demonstrate his fancy footwork (he has a nice tap-dancing solo during Drums) and unique vocalizing (his duet My, My with domestic Harris was a minor “chart hit” and the two of them would be reunited for Love Thy Neighbor).  The Benny-Allen material is pretty funny, too; as much as I revere both comedians, for some odd reason they seem to work better in small sequences when it comes to movies (like in Allen’s It’s in the Bag!).  Their teaming in Neighbor, while an interesting curio, doesn’t quite work because Fred plays Daffy Duck to Jack’s Bugs Bunny…it should have been the other way around.

I purchased my copy of Buck Benny Rides Again from Nostalgia Family Video, a company of which I’ve heard almost as many good things as I have bad.  NFV doesn’t offer the movie anymore but an online outfit known as the Nostalgia Merchant does…Merchant also has Benny & Allen’s Neighbor available on DVD (I own a copy…it’s not the best quality but it’s watchable).  I can’t vouch for Merchant’s Buck Benny print but the NFV was quite nice, and even included the theatrical trailer and chapter stops (rare for that kind of Mom-and-Pop outfit).  You can score a copy at Merchant for $14.95…or if you’re Rich at Wide Screen World, it’s all cued up and ready at YouTube.


Jeff Overturf said...

Benny movies need a good box set treatment! Though they're usually not as enjoyable to me as his radio program, they still deserve a better treatment than they've gotten. This one is a particular favorite of mine because of the cast from the radio joining him.

And as much as Jack would have made fun of a blue-ray release...has "The Horn Blows at Midnight" ever been made available?

As a proud holder of nearly 700 mp3's centering around Jack's radio days, I dearly need something MORE to obsess over. :)

ClassicBecky said...

I ADORE Jack Benny. His radio shows are great, his TV show was one we never missed ... he was such a comic and a gentleman! I've never seen Buck Benny -- is it shown very often? I've always been really fond of "George Washington Slept Here" with Ann Sheridan. I can't help watching it every time it is on. I particularly just love Rochester. He was such a huge part of Benny's success. I'm going to try to find Buck Benny.

Caftan Woman said...

Morri?! Morri Ankrum? Good ol' friendly Morri Ankrum.

"Buck Benny Rides Again" - the title alone is worth the price of admission.

We're crazy about Jack around here, although we rarely refer to him by his first name. I recall a time when my daughter was in junior high and we thought she was using the computer for homework until we heard her laughing. "What are you doing?" we demanded. "Watching Mr. Benny", she replied. What parents in their right mind could object to that?

KimWilson said...

OMG! Those costumes are a riot.

Brent McKee said...

I was going to mention "George Washington Slept Here" after you brought up that Jack didn't like most of his movie roles. That was a part that he actively sought out to the point of reversing the genders of the main character - in the play it was the woman who was so enthusiastic about the house not the husband - and bringing Percy Kilbride to Hollywood.

And of course how could he hate "Casablanca"? (Jack apparently had an uncredited extra role in the movie, probably as a waiter.)

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I was going to mention "George Washington Slept Here" after you brought up that Jack didn't like most of his movie roles.

Jack didn't dislike every movie he did -- Washington was a fave, as was Charley's Aunt -- but why he never cared for Buck Benny (apart from it not given him a chance to stretch his acting muscles) has always puzzled me. I really think it's an entertaining film.

Of course, Benny always joked about what a turkey The Horn Blows at Midnight was, too...and the people I know who've seen it all say it's a pleasant little fantasy-comedy.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

We're crazy about Jack around here, although we rarely refer to him by his first name.

Just like Dennis Day!

I recall a time when my daughter was in junior high and we thought she was using the computer for homework until we heard her laughing. "What are you doing?" we demanded. "Watching Mr. Benny", she replied. What parents in their right mind could object to that?

You had cats named Buddy and Sally. You let your kid neglect her studies to listen to one of the funniest men who ever walked the planet. How come I didn't have cool parents?

Stacia said...

Wwwwwaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiitaminnit... you haven't seen The Horn Blows at Midnight?

I... you... Ivan! This is a calamity!

Horn was released on VHS back in the day but there has been no DVD release. Used VHS goes for like a bajillion dollars; you know how it is. Your best bet is to get a copy of it from TCM or, ahem, have a friend send you a copy.

George Washington Slept Here is the movie that really turned me on to Jack's film roles. The uber patriotic ending is corny, but the rest of the film is wonderful. Artists and Models is... well, it's problematic, but Jack is very good and if it wasn't for that horrifying Martha Raye thing, I'd recommend it.

Speaking of calamities, I have yet to see this film, but I am sure I have it on DVD around here somewhere.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Wwwwwaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiitaminnit... you haven't seen The Horn Blows at Midnight?

Oh, I have seen it...several times! I looked back at what I wrote and realized that when I said "the people I know who've seen it all say it's a pleasant little fantasy-comedy" I phrased that wrong. Why I said it in that fashion is because I didn't want people just taking my word for it ("Well, of course he liked it...his standards are practically non-existent.").

Stacia said...

Whew, that's a relief. I thought I'd slipped into an alternate timeline or something.