Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On the Grapevine: I’m From Arkansas (1944)

For the past three weeks here at TDOY, I’ve been reviewing some of the silent feature films I’ve purchased from Grapevine Video—but the company offers plenty of “talkies” as well, and when I received an e-mail last month trumpeting their latest releases, one movie in particular caught my attention: a musical comedy entitled I’m From Arkansas (1944).  With a cast that includes Slim Summerville, SBBN mascot El Brendel, Iris Adrian and Bruce Bennett (previously known as Herman Brix), I thought “What the hey?”—it’s on sale, and I’ll give it a look-see for curiosity sake.

I probably should have done a little more research on this movie.  It’s not completely without merit, you understand—there are some toe-tapping tunes performed by the likes of Jimmy Wakely (before he became a singing cowboy at Monogram) and the Pied Pipers, and a cast crammed with character thesps that give their all despite the paucity of material.  Arkansas was released by Producers Releasing Corporation…known in the movie bidness as PRC, which industry insiders often dismissed as denoting “Pretty Rotten Crap.”  The independent studio could make Monogram look like the M-G-M of Poverty Row, but occasionally the blind PRC squirrel found a nut in films like Bluebeard (1944), Detour (1945), Strangler of the Swamp (1946) and Railroaded! (1947).

The funniest gag in this picture can be found in a blaring newspaper headline casting doubt on Esmeralda's "birthing of babies" (note the name of the paper).

The sleepy little hamlet of Pitchfork, Arkansas provides the backdrop for what sets the threadbare plot of I’m From Arkansas in motion: a pig named Esmeralda gives birth to a litter of eighteen sows, and word quickly spreads across the U.S. of A. because apparently there’s nothing new happening in the theatre of war.  A newspaper blurb mentioning the miraculous blessed event catches the eye of theatrical promoter Willie Childs (Cliff Nazarro), who convinces a troupe of showgirls headed up by hard-boiled blonde Doris (Adrian) to book their show there.  Willie and the gals arrange to stay at the boarding house run by Matilda “Ma” Alden (Maudie Eburne) and her daughter Abby (Carolina Cotton), whose roster of guests also includes Juniper Jenkins (Summerville) and his son Efus (Danny Jackson), and an amiable simpleton who answers to Ole (Brendel).

Great Caesar's Ghost!

As Doris and the troupe are bringing in their luggage, she runs into (literally) bandleader Bob Hamline (Bennett)—who pretends to be a hillbilly named “Eelzebub” after he’s mistaken for a mountain person by Doris (Pitchfork is Bob’s hometown).  His masquerade is revealed, however, at a ceremony where Esmeralda is feted for her birthing achievement by the Commissioner of Agriculture (Arthur Q. Bryan)—an event that also presents Juniper with the opportunity to trick Ma Alden into marriage after he arranges for Efus to hide Esmeralda and her chillun.  Despite her revulsion at having to marry the lazy Juniper (a promise is a promise), it turns out to be a shrewd move on Ma’s part.  The president of a packing company (John Hamilton), having had a pair of investigators look into the matter of Esmeralda’s fecundity, has learned that the mud in which the sow wallers has curative properties not unlike a hot spring.  His attempt to buy Ma’s spread for a mere pittance is foiled because in marrying Juniper, the property reverts to Abby.  As the programmer comes to an end, Bob has persuaded the state’s governor (Douglas Wood) to lean on the legislature into appropriating funds to make Pitchfork “Pitchfork Springs”—the future site for a health spa.  (And he ends up with Doris as well.)

Walter Baldwin (L) plays a skeevy attorney; Harry Harvey (R) one of Hamilton's lackeys.  The actor in the middle is billed as Paul "Tiny" Newlan, who would later co-star as Lee Marvin's superior officer in the 1957-60 TV crime drama M Squad.

I know, it sounds like there’s more plot in this vehicle than there actually is—and you would be right on that score.  The score—musical, that is—is pretty much Arkansas’ saving grace; Wakely performs numbers like You are My Sunshine with the appropriately named Sunshine Girls (Coleen Sumners, June Widener and Vivian Earles), who appeared with Wakely in two of his Monogram oaters (Song of the Range, Lonesome Trail), and solos on tunes like Don't Turn Me Down Little Darlin', which was co-written by The Queen of the Hillbillies herself, Judy Canova.  The Pied Pipers (featured performers on the radio series Johnny Mercer’s Music Shop at that time) warble You’re the Hit of the Season, and a creepy set of identicals billed as The Milo Twins do a serviceable version of Pass the Biscuits Mirandy.  Carolina Cotton, known at that time as The Yodeling Blonde Bombshell, lives up to her billing with contributions like Yodel Mountain and I Love to Yodel; she’d go on to appear in quite a few B-Westerns but I was pretty impressed with her thespic abilities in this one.

The actor with his back to us plays the judge that manacles Juniper and Matilda together in holy matrimony.  He's not identified at the (always reliable) IMDb, but his unmistakable voice is that of OTR veteran Francis "Dink" Trout (A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, The Life of Riley)

Sadly, the comedy in I’m From Arkansas falls flat because there’s just not enough good material (written by Marcy Klauber and Joseph Carole, from a story by Klauber) for a movie jam-packed with great second bananas.  El attempts a ventriloquist act (and fails miserably) while Summerville tries to get by on his patented laconic shtick.  Nazarro does a couple of double talk routines, and Adrian learns that unless her wisecracks have some bite she’s every bit as stranded as her co-stars (for an example of Iris stealing the show, check out my Radio Spirits review of Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous [1945]).  (Still, there is a novelty in seeing Adrian as a leading lady.)  Admittedly, there is also some slight amusement in observing Bennett and his band members (which include country legend Merle Travis and Jimmie Dean, brother of B-movie cowboy Eddie) “hillbilly it up.”  But the only performer I really chuckled at consistently was Eburne, and that’s probably because I recently watched her do a priceless bit in Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, released that same year.  Here’s an indication of how Arkansas doesn’t play to its potential: Al “Fuzzy” St. John (who was sidekicking in PRC’s Buster Crabbe-Billy the Kid franchise at the time) is on hand, and they give him nothing to do.

While I came away from I’m From Arkansas unenthused, it was a pleasant enough diversion for sixty-seven minutes; El Brendel fans will surely want to check it out for completist’s sake (he does have a nice line when a chorus girl asks him what there is to do in Pitchfork: “One can’t do much—but two can have lots of laughs,” followed by a tongue-click).  In the meanwhile, join me here next week when I’ll have prepared a review of a Bebe Daniels comedy that also features one of the unsung silent comedy clowns.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Fun little flick, despite having one of the weirdest romantic couple pairings in b-movie history.