Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM FXM #63 (Dick Shawn edition)

As you can see by the above photograph, I did quite well for myself in the recent Criterion Flash Sale…and by the oddest of coinky-dinks, this installment of “How I Occupy My Spare Time” features one of the stars in the Blu-Ray/DVD movie combo on the right, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

Wake Me When It’s Over (1960) – Dick Shawn’s first film appearance was in the 1956 remake of The Women (1939), The Opposite Sex, so it’s kind of curious that he’s credited in the opening titles as “Introducing Dick Shawn.”  Be that as it may, there’s little doubt that it’s his show all the way—he plays Gus Brubaker, a “registered schnook” who winds up back in the U.S. Air Force thanks to his wife’s (Noreen Nash) insistence he sign up for G.I. insurance.  He’s shipped off to the remote Japanese island of Shima, where he finds a purgatory populated by airmen who have difficulty getting transferred or discharged because the post has simply been forgotten by the top brass.  The officer in charge is Captain Charlie Stark (Ernie Kovacs), a maverick pilot who had also been Gus’ superior during Brubaker’s first hitch in the service.

After discovering a natural hot spring on the island, Gus floats the idea of building a resort hotel nearby to Charlie and medical officer Dave “Doc” Farrington (Jack Warden); they’ll create the inn with surplus materials (damaged parachutes for draperies, etc.), and once construction is underway, a female officer in Lieutenant Nora McKay (Margo Moore) is transferred to Shima so that she can supervise “the woman’s touch.”  The vacation palace is a huge success with the tourist trade until a magazine writer (Robert Emhardt) blows the whistle on the scheme, and Gus finds himself facing a court martial.

While Ernie Kovacs is pretty much acknowledged to have been an innovative comic genius in the field of television, he wasn’t able to bring that gift to the movies despite roles in high-profile films like Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and North to Alaska (1960), settling instead for the life of a character actor.  Wake Me When It’s Over is one of his more entertaining vehicles (Ernie gets top billing), though admittedly he doesn’t get as much screen time as Dick Shawn and Jack Warden.  Shawn—renowned for wacko performances in the aforementioned World and The Producers (1967)—is first-rate in Wake Me; his character is kind of a Tony Curtis-Operation Petticoat clone.  The whole proceedings in the film might remind viewers of You’ll Never Get Rich or McHale’s Navy; in fact, I think if they had been able to nab Phil Silvers to play Kovacs’ part Wake Me would be a better known comedy.

Personally, I enjoyed the film; it’s a sprightly little service romp (adapted by Jack Webb-crony Richard Breen from Howard Singer’s novel) directed by Mervyn LeRoy (Mister Roberts) and featuring an engaging cast that also includes Nobu McCarthy, Don Knotts, Robert Strauss, Raymond Bailey, Marvin Kaplan and Parley Baer.  In addition to Kaplan and Baer, you’ll spot OTR veterans Jerry Hausner (as the desk sergeant processing Shawn’s insurance forms), Sid Tomack, Jay Jostyn and Larry Thor (as the announcer near the beginning).

The Wizard of Baghdad (1960) – Oh, I only wish I had the same enthusiasm for this fantasy comedy as I did for Wake Me When It’s Over.  Our man Dick is the titular character…but sadly, he is not a whiz of a wiz if ever a wiz there was.  He’s Ali Mahmud, an incompetent genie who’s been given an assignment by his superior (William Edmondson) in that the city of Bagdad must be ruled by Princess Diane Baker (!) and Prince Barry Coe, since a wicked sultan named Jullnar (John Van Dreelen) has ridden in and started running the place.  It’s all been decreed by prophecy, you understand, but Ali Mahmud is a bit of screw-up and so he’s stripped of his powers…the only way of restoring himself to genie graces lies in using his wits and the help of a talking horse (I am not making this last part up, by the way).

The Wizard of Baghdad tries to transform Shawn into an ersatz Danny Kaye—he even sings a Kaye-like song, Eni Menie Geni, in the opening scenes—but he’s let down by a dull script by Jesse Lasky, Jr, and Pat Silver (this movie is only about an hour-and-a-half long but it sure doesn’t seem that way)…and because Baghdad was produced by none other than the legendary “Jungle” Sam Katzman you know this was done on the cheap (you can see the wires on Dick’s “flying” carpet).  There’s a scattered chuckle or two, and solid performances from old pros like Robert F. Simon, Vaughn Taylor, Stanley Adams and Don Beddoe…but I’d recommend this one only for Shawn fans and the morbidly curious.  The kid who plays the small role of “Aladdin” is Billy Mumy (in his feature film debut) who later went to work for 20th Century Fox’s TV arm in Lost in Space.  (Oh, the pain…the pain…)

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