Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I got plenty of Sutton

When future Academy Award-winning director George Stevens arrived at Universal Pictures in 1932, he was already a seasoned motion picture veteran—having worked for many years at the “Lot of Fun,” the Hal Roach Studios, where he served as a writer, cinematographer and director on many of Roach’s classic two-reel comedies.  Stevens left Roach for bigger opportunities…but at Universal, he pretty much did what he did at his former studio, direct two-reel comedies featuring the likes of Frank Albertson, Henry Armetta and James “Is zat so?” Gleason.  (Though Universal is where George held the reins on his feature film debut, The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble.)

Stevens’ stint with Universal lasted only a year before he gravitated to R-K-O, which afforded him many more opportunities in the feature film department: he directed two of Wheeler & Woolsey’s finest comedies, Kentucky Kernels (1934) and The Nitwits (1935), and later made his mark with such classics as Alice Adams (1935), A Damsel in Distress (1937), and Gunga Din (1939).  But before he could do that…it was back to the world of two-reelers.  George receives directorial credit on several of Edgar Kennedy’s “Average Man” comedies (Quiet Please, Grin and Bear It) …not to mention a pair of Tom Kennedy (no relation to Edgar) shorts.  Stevens also instituted a short-lived series that was quite reminiscent of some of the comedies he helmed in the Roach “Boy Friends” franchise (High Gear, Air Tight, Mama Loves Papa) that was known as “The Blondes and the Redheads.”

The series is also referred to in reference books as “The Blonde and the Redhead”—which makes a bit more sense, as there were only two women starring in the shorts.  The platinum blonde was baby-voiced Carol Tevis, while the gal with the crimson tresses (the common sense dame) was played by June Brewster…who left the series after the first five shorts and was replaced by Dorothy Granger, a Boy Friends alumnus.  Stevens also used another Boy Friends player in the Blondes and Redheads comedies, Grady “Alabam” Sutton, who in most of the shorts was the unlikely object of affection of the two women.

In his book Selected Short Subjects (a.k.a. The Great Movie Shorts), Leonard Maltin has effusive praise for the inaugural Blondes and Redheads effort, Flirting in the Park (1933)—which I have not had the pleasure of seeing but is available (along with three other B&R shorts) from Encore Home Video as part of their “R-K-O Comedy Classics” collection.  I’m sure Encore puts out a nice product…but the tariff on these shorts is a bit out of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s price range (I know you think blogging is the glamorous life…but it’s anything but, I assure you).  So I had to go with a collection in keeping with the TDOY budget: a set of four B&R shorts from Alpha Video at Oldies.com (it costs me a five-spot) culled from the collection of “The Movie Man,” John Carpenter.  (Full disclosure: Mr. Carpenter is a Facebook friend.)

Buying product from Alpha is always a hit-or-miss affair (I’ve heard some unpleasant stories about how they operate…but now is not the time or place) so I was pleasantly surprised with the content on this DVD, which kicks off with the third short in the B&R series, The Undie-World (1934).  This one is a lot of fun: Grady plays a violinist hired by mobster Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (who also worked quite a bit at the Roach studios, notably in the 1936 feature Kelly the Second) to ply his trade while Williams attempts to fool June and Carol (who live in an apartment across the way) that he’s the virtuoso.  Complications set in when June and Grady have an encounter in the hallway (upon seeing her, he’s a smitten kitten), and she’s convinced he’s the gangster—not “Big Boy” (who answers to “Bugsy McHugh” in the short).

Bugsy and Grady “double-date” with June and Carol, taking them to a “tea room” (where they encounter Roach Studio stalwarts Charlie Hall and Tiny Sandford—not to mention serials/B-Western veteran Ernie Adams)—with Bugsy a little ticked at Grady for becoming a serious rival for June’s affections (Grady also accidentally shot Bugsy in the foot, which doesn’t help his disposition any).  He asks several of his fellow gangsters seated at a nearby table to keep an eye on Grady…and then tells Grady that he paid one of the men to take a sock on the jaw from Grady in order to impress June.  You can probably guess where this is going: the mobsters take a powder and another gang, led by Palermo (Dewey Robinson), makes itself at home.  The twist is that when Grady slugs Palermo, Palermo congratulates the creampuff for his Moxie…and he asks Grady (after seeing his violin case) to help “put one of his boys to sleep.”

The Undie-World has some first-rate farcical situations and slapstick gags—not to mention some snappy comic dialogue (courtesy of Jack Townley and Jean Yarborough):

GRADY: Excuse me…I was detained by a misadventure in the hall…
BUGSY: Miss who?
GRADY: I was delayed by a mishap
BUGSY: Never mind the dames…let’s get down to business…

As enjoyable as Undie-World is, the second short on this DVD (the fourth in the series) is even better: Rough Necking (1934) casts June and Carol as sisters, and June is gaga for Grady despite her father’s (Spencer Charters) objections.  Father orders June confined to quarters, and hires a formidable female detective (who else but Hope Emerson?) to keep watch over her.  Carol, on the other hand, convinces Grady to help her put Madame Bodyguard out of commission…and then Grady will take her place.

Despite Grady’s nancy boy persona in movies (a character in one of the shorts refers to him as “Lollypop”), you wouldn’t think he could pull off the female masquerade…but he does, even to the point where June and Carol’s pop starts to flirt with him.  The fun begins when an old friend of Father’s (Roach veteran Fred Kelsey) and his idiot son (George Chandler) stop by for a visit…and discussion soon gets around to a “merger” between June and the Idiot (apparently she was betrothed when the two were kids).  So Carol gets Father out of the way, and Grady now impersonates June…and again, because myopia ran rampant in those old days of the flickers, Junior falls for Grady’s charms.  There’s some exceptional slapstick in Rough Necking (both Charters and Sutton execute funny slides down the stair bannister) but for me the laugh-out-loud moment finds Charters offering Grady-in-drag a swig of some of “the good stuff” and Grady, breaking female character for a few seconds, declares “I need it!”  Townley also co-wrote the story for this one, with an assist from yet another Hal Roach veteran, Fred Guiol.

The Dancing Millionaire (1934) is the only short on this DVD not directed by George Stevens—Sam White, brother of Columbia shorts department head Jules White, sits in the director’s chair and does a nice job with a story by Guiol, Townley and Leslie Goodwins (the future director of R-K-O’s “Mexican Spitfire” series).  Grady is the titular character (“Ronnie Graff”), who meets up with Carol and series newcomer Dorothy Granger at a dance studio after a run-in with a wrestler named Crusher McGee (Tom Kennedy).  Graff has McGee arrested and placed in the pokey…but McGee and his manager (Harry Bowen) get out and head for the same nightclub where Graff and his chauffeur (Jack Mulhall) have taken the girls.  This necessitates that Dorothy and Carol switch back-and-forth between two tables (“Pardon us while we powder our nose,” Dorothy says when they excuse themselves) so as not to alert Crusher to Ronnie’s presence—supplemented with a subplot in which Dorothy drops an engagement ring into a soup tureen.  Having Kennedy in this one amps up the enjoyment (what can I say—I’m a fan of Tom), but comedy veterans like Jack Duffy, Billy Franey and Spec O’Donnell also make appearances…as does Jack Rice as the dance studio manager (Rice would soon find steady employment in the Edgar Kennedy shorts as Edgar’s obnoxious brother-in-law).

The fourth and final two-reeler on the Blondes and Redheads DVD is Ocean Swells (1934)—the penultimate short in the series directed by Stevens and the first to feature Granger.  It’s probably the weakest of the bunch from the DVD, though it does have its moments; in this simple story of Dorothy, Carol and their “Auntie” (Zeffie Tilbury, the “Grandma” in the Our Gang comedy Second Childhood) vacationing at Catalina (before having to return to their dreary jobs in a laundry), the girls meet “wealthy” Bunny De Puyster III (Grady) and Hopping B. Hoppy Jr (Cully Richards).  The gentlemen are actually swabbies on a yacht; while the ladies are mistaken for the mother and daughters of the boat’s captain (Edgar Dearing).  The girls decide to throw a party on board…and then the captain comes back unexpectedly (the interaction between him and his “mother” is hysterical).  The problem with Swells is that it’s a little disjointed, plot-wise, (I’m not sure if it’s the print or the way it was actually written) but there’s still plenty of funny business—the highlight is a spill captain’s assistant Landers Stevens takes on deck after stepping on a bar of soap.  (The wrap-up on this one is kind of sweet, too.)

Stevens’ final B&R short was Hunger Pains (1935; another one I’d like to see), which also gets a nice write-up by Maltin in Selected Short Subjects—then it was off to feature films for him fulltime (and Oscars for A Place in the Sun [1951] and Giant [1956]).  After two more entries, Wig-Wag (1935; Sam White) and Pickled Peppers (1935; Ben Holmes), R-K-O decided to end the series…which was a curious thing, since the Blondes and Redheads comedies offered a nice contrast to the Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol two-reelers (both of which had a tendency to work the marital comedy formula to death).  Still, I was genuinely surprised by the hefty laugh quotient on these short subjects, and I’d highly recommend them for fans of two-reel comedies.

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