Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: It’s a Joke, Son! (1947)



In the 1921 D.W. Griffith classic Orphans of the Storm, the part of Joseph Schildkraut’s character as a child was played by a young actor born Kenneth Howard Delmar…who as “Kenny Delmar” would achieve great fame on radio, both as an announcer and thesp.  His earliest foray into the aural medium was working as an announcer on The March of Time, but he later appeared in earliest broadcasts of The Shadow as the titular hero’s friendly nemesis, Commissioner Weston.  His association with the program’s star, Orson Welles, no doubt helped Delmar land a few parts in the wunderkind’s famous Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”—Delmar can be heard as National Guardsman Captain Lansing, who is terror-stricken (to the point of collapsing) when he confronts the Martian invaders in the adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic.

Delmar’s greatest fame on radio came when he was hired as the announcer for Fred Allen’s popular comedy program in the 1940s…and because he also dabbled in performing, he suggested a character for Allen’s “Allen’s Alley” segment that blossomed into a national sensation.  Delmar voiced Senator Beauregard Claghorn, a blustering politico who represented the sort of South people hoped would never rise again; he was a one-man Chamber of Commerce for the region, declaring that his favorite actress was “Ann Sothern” and proclaiming that he never listened to radio’s Mr. and Mrs. North.  Novelty items like Claghorn T-shirts and compasses (that only pointed south) were introduced shortly afterward, and Delmar even took advantage of his celebrity by recording records like I Love You, That Is and That’s a Joke, Son!—the latter recognized by radio fans as Claghorn’s memorable catchphrase.  In 1947, the British-based independent film company Eagle-Lion released their first motion picture with It’s a Joke, Son!…and cast Delmar as the windy politician he had made famous, twenty-six years after his movie debut in Orphans.

Joke’s plot takes place before our hero’s precipitous rise in politics—he is just plain Beauregard Claghorn, a garrulous windbag in love with his native South and clinging to the last vestiges of his Southern aristocracy along with wife Magnolia (Una Merkel), the only woman capable of putting an end to his “filibusters,” and daughter Mary Lou (June Lockhart)…who’s in love with obligatory fiancé Jefferson “Jeff” Davis (Kenneth Farrell) despite her mother’s disapproval.  The Claghorn’s palatial plantation is, like the man himself, all bluff—but good news arrives in the form of a special delivery letter from a distillery that offers $1500 for Beauregard’s “mint bed.”  Claghorn lends the money to young Jeff so that he can invest in a frozen food truck (getting a business started and becoming worthy of Mary Lou)…at the same time that Magnolia donates the money to a campaign fund that’s the purview of the Daughters of Dixie, a woman’s organization that asks Magnolia to run against state senatorial incumbent Alexander P. Leeds (Jimmy Conlin).

Leeds is a corrupt politician in the employ of machine boss Big Dan Healey (Douglass Dumbrille), who offers Jeff $3000 to convince Claghorn to enter the race as a third-party candidate to siphon votes away from his Magnolia; Claghorn is powerless to refuse, because he needs the cash to cover the missing $1500.  The problem is Beauregard starts to do well in the polls, threatening to win the race and defeating the crooked Healey machine.  So Healey has his goons (Matt Willis, Ralph Sanford) kidnap Claghorn and keep him under wraps…but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Claghorn escapes their clutches at the last minute and goes on to win the Senatorial seat in the predictably happy ending.

I’m not going to lie to you.  A lot of people don’t think It’s a Joke, Son! is a very good movie…and any argument that I could make against this notion would probably be feeble at best.  The problem that faced screenwriters Robert Kent and Paul Girard Smith was that the Claghorn character was always more effective in small doses, like on The Fred Allen Show. So they decided to tone down the character’s traditional windbaggery and make him more sympathetic—he’s still garrulous when the subject of the South is broached (I like the title card at the beginning that states: “He knows the South did not lose the Civil War—it was called on account of darkness”) but he’s also quite endearing on occasion, loving both his wife (despite their squabbling) and daughter in traditional familial fashion.  The film gets off to an amusing start with Claghorn hectoring a grocer (George Chandler) because he insists on selling “northern” apples, and then he’s confronted by Healey’s goons, who want him to use his gift for oratory in support of Deeds:

GROCER: Mr. Claghorn…I have to get my apples from someplace…and they grow up North…
CLAGHORN: Then something’s gotta be done about it!
GROCER: Well, speaking in general…I grant you…
CLAGHORN (angrily): Don’t ever mention that name in my presence!
GROCER: Okay, then…what can we do, Mr. Claghorn?
CLAGHORN: Eliminate the North!  Make the whole country South!  That way we can call these apples “Southern spies”…
ACE: Hey, you…
CLAGHORN (turning to him): Claghorn’s the name…Beauregard Claghorn, that is… (To Ace’s partner Knifey) Howdy… (Back to the grocer) Now, son…in my plan, you simply move the Mason-Dixon line up around the Great Lakes…move Canada north…
ACE: Mr. Claghorn…
CLAGHORN: …and anyone who couldn’t talk with a Southern drawl would have to get a passport!
GROCER: But what about our maps, Mr. Claghorn?
CLAGHORN: Maps?  You ever look at a map?  You notice how all the rivers flow South?
GROCER: But that’s only because of the shape of the Earth…
CLAGHORN: Nonsense, son!  It’s because they can’t stand it up North!

Kent and Smith should get an “A” for effort; there are other funny moments in the film, which at times is reminiscent of many of W.C. Fields’ classic comedy vehicles.  Keep in mind that I’m certainly not saying Delmar is the equal of Fields—it’s just that they infused Claghorn with many Fieldsian attributes, particularly in the form of the supportive daughter played by Lockhart and a domineering wife who’s never truly unlikable because she’s played by TDOY fave Merkel:

MAGNOLIA (coming into the kitchen and interrupting Claghorn’s singing): What are you so happy about?
CLAGHORN: Oh, I’m sorry, my dear…I didn’t mean to be happy…
MAGNOLIA: Beauregard, I’ve got something to tell you…from now on I’m going to wear the pants in this family!
CLAGHORN: Oh, naturally…dear…I thought you were gonna tell me something new

I think the problem with Joke is that while the first half of the film is fairly standard (but still riotous) stuff it starts to show at the seams just about the time the kidnapping plot is introduced (the writers introduce this silly plot point in which Claghorn has to make an appearance at the Town Hall by a certain deadline or else he will be eliminated from the ballot…something I’m sure happens a lot in politics).  This direction the film takes does it no favors because it separates actors Delmar and Merkel, who provide many of the bright moments in the film.  Joke also benefits from the presence of strong character actors like Dumbrille (whose villainy is on display here every Saturday while we’re still featuring Jungle Queen) and Conlin, whose physical appearance here is hysterical—he looks as if he’d blow away in a stiff wind.  The introduction of Conlin’s senator also inspires one of Claghorn’s more humorous outbursts: “Leeds?  Why that boondoggling, pussyfooting, carpetbagging, pusillanimous—pusillanimous, that is—prevaricator!”  (Conlin also has a laugh-out-loud moment when Dumbrille is introducing him to Farrell…he can’t shake hands with the young man because “my hand’s caught in the desk drawer.”)

June Lockhart—the future TV mom of Lassie—makes an engaging ingénue (complete with charming Southern accent), and manages to be convincing enough to make the audiences believe she’s in love with Farrell’s Davis (the actor is “introduced” the film’s credits even though he didn’t do much else afterward).  Speaking of dogs, the filmmakers were able to borrow one of moviedom’s famous canines in “Daisy,” the dog from the Blondie series.  Two of the silver screen’s most unheralded “little old ladies,” Margaret McWade (from Theodora Goes Wild) and Ida Moore (the bird lady in Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid), are also on hand as a pair of spinster sisters who get schnockered on the punch that a neighborhood kid (Danny Borzage) has doctored with various alcoholic substances.

Kenny Delmar’s cinematic resume was a relatively brief one—he only appeared in one additional feature film after Joke (a 1962 film called Strangers in the City), preferring to continue doing radio (he was also a regular on Alan Young’s program) and early TV.  But he fell back on his vocal talents in the area of cartoon voice-overs; generations who remember “Commander McBragg” will recognize Delmar’s voice, and Kenny was also the doggedly determined canine detective known as The Hunter (or as Delmar voiced it “The Huntah!”) on King Leonardo and His Short Subjects and Colonel Kit Coyote from the Go-Go Gophers segment on Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.  (He could also be heard on Underdog and the lost cartoon series, The Beagles.)  His Claghorn character—inspired by a garrulous Texas rancher he encountered while hitchhiking one day—was appropriated by Mel Blanc for Warner Brothers’ equally-as-talkative rooster Foghorn Leghorn.  Blanc always maintained that his inspiration for Foggy’s voice came from another source; I’ve never completely bought into that, but I do know that because the studio trademarked the character Delmar would have to get permission anytime he was going to do Senator Claghorn in public…a real indignity, if you ask me.

8 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Blanc couldn't've expected anyone to buy that.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Blanc couldn't've expected anyone to buy that.

Blanc also stated on more than one occasion that he never imitated anybody...which simply wasn't so. He did a great Lou Costello, Al Jolson, etc. Why he made that statement is a mystery to me.

ClassicBecky said...

It just doesn't seem that radio personalities and stories can translate well to movies. I really liked the movie with Our Miss Brooks, but it just wasn't the same as the radio shows. Of course there were definitely exceptions that moved smoothly into TV -- Jack Benny is the best one I can think of. I love old radio shows (big surprise to you), and although I am not familiar with this one, it was really interesting and fun to read. (How do you like that? ... I didn't say one mean thing! Maybe it's the headache...)

Matthew Coniam said...

I rather like this one too.
Got it in one of those multi-film boxes and put it on with no expectations and no knowledge of what it was, just curiosity about the title.
Of course, it probably helped that I didn't know how it came about, and wasn't comparing it to any pre-existing ideas I had about Claghorn. Instead I sort of learned about him backwards, starting with the film, which was obviously a spin-off of something, I just didn't know what. (In fact, doesn't it say something in the titles about it being a famous radio character or something?)
Anyway, the upshot is I enjoyed it a lot and still do: Delmar's very funny, the support cast, as you say, is a treat, and it's a good length for putting on in the background if you're cooking or catching up on correspondence...
I liked all that kidnapping/getting to the town hall stuff actually. Easily diverted, me.

So thanks for all the background, Ivan. Fred Allen I must admit is a radio comedian I've not much sampled.
I might go and watch it again.

Mike Doran said...

May I mention one of the other roles Kenny Delmar played in War Of The Worlds?
He was the Secretary of the Interior - who just happened to sound exactly like FDR.
As a fun exercise, I would imagine Delmar delivering the SotI's calming address as Claghorn rather than FDR:
"Citi- I say citizens of the nation! I shall not try - I say not try to conceal the grav- I say the gravity of the situation - Gravity, that is!"
Maybe next time we can talk about Ray Collins's different roles in WOTW ...

KimWilson said...

Ivan, I missed this one. As I was reading your post I kept thinking this Beauregard Claghorn sounded like many a W.C. Fields' character. And, then you discussed it as well.

Stacia said...

We never had a chance to listen to these radio shows, but I'll never forget catching this Claghorn flick on "Matinee at the Bijou" back in the early 1980s, expecting to hate it, and really liking it. What can I say? I was a word geek and anything with the word "prevaricator" in it made me laugh like a hyena.

There is no way Foghorn Leghorn is not Senator Claghorn. Pull the other one, Mel. Sheesh.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I really liked the movie with Our Miss Brooks, but it just wasn't the same as the radio shows.

I like the movie version of OMB as well but the main reason it doesn't work the way it should is that the filmmakers turn it into "Our Mrs. Boynton," which doesn't really interest me.