Sunday, February 3, 2008

En Vague

Way back in September 2004, I dedicated the entire month to a history of radio’s The Bob Hope Show…and in this particular post, I concentrated on several of Bob’s regulars—one of which was Barbara Jo Allen, who played man-chasing spinster Vera Vague. Allen began doing the character in 1939 on NBC Matinee (she was based on a female lecturer Barbara Jo had once heard at a PTA meeting) and on Hope’s show (which she joined in 1941) would make her entrance onstage wearing a zany hat and a lorgnette, that would pop up and down whenever she had a funny line. Allen’s character became so popular that the creation eventually overtook the creator, and she often found herself billed on radio and in feature films as simply “Vera Vague.”

“Vera” made a series of sixteen shorts for the Columbia studios beginning in 1943 and ending in 1952, and according to Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, authors of the invaluable reference book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, “the resulting two-reelers are among the unit’s weakest efforts, with a handful of entertaining shorts shining through the general mediocrity.” On the whole, I think Messrs. Okuda and Watz hit the nail on the head with this observation…although to be honest, I’m not entirely certain how they managed to find a handful. The problem with the Vague shorts is that a majority of the entries were directed by the notorious Jules White (whose directorial style is often fiercely debated in certain quarters as somewhat lacking in taste), whose roughhouse manner seemed wholly appropriate for comedians like The Three Stooges but completely out of sync with a female funster like Vera. Vague’s 1946 two-reeler Headin’ for a Weddin’ (which Okuda and Watz consider one of Vera’s better efforts) is a promising comedy but there’s a scene in which Vera places a light bulb in the mouth of her female rival (Claire Carleton) and whacks Claire on top of the noggin, causing the bulb to break inside. There’s really nothing at all funny about that, and it mars any further enjoyment of the short.

I have a higher opinion of Vera’s debut short, You Dear Boy! (1943) than Ted and Ed, which is a well-done remake of Charley Chase’s The Wrong Miss Wright (1937). Granted, the short doesn’t break much new ground, comedy-wise, but Vera is very funny as a girl who falls in love with a man while traveling by train to marry another in an “arranged” marriage. Vera decides that by acting like a lunatic at her wedding reception she can avoid her prearranged nuptials…but naturally, the man she met on the train is one and the same as her betrothed. (One of my favorite lines in this short is when Vera “helps” a departing husband-and-wife couple by loaning them her car…a toy miniature she pulls out of her handbag. “Don’t ride the clutch,” she admonishes the woman who looks at her in astonishment.) Boy is one of the few films in which Barbara Jo Allen used her natural voice, though she does slip into the Vague persona when she gets excitable.

Vera’s second effort, Doctor, Feel My Pulse (1944), would be her crowning achievement at the studio. Again, an earlier Charley Chase effort—Calling All Doctors (1937)—is the blueprint for this thoroughly entertaining two-reeler, with Vera as a businesswoman who suffers from extreme hypochondria. She mistakes a mental patient (perennial screen drunk Jack Norton) for a specialist, and the loony prescribes a most unorthodox “treatment” for which her real doctor (Eddie Kane) and husband (serial hero/villain George J. Lewis) take advantage of as the cure for her all-too-frequent fictional maladies. (There’s a hysterical scene in this comedy where Vera’s character develops a facial tic that several males interpret as her “winking” at them and they proceed to follow her en masse down the hall to her doctor’s office.) I don’t know why Vera’s take on this material worked better than the original effort, but it might have something to do with the fact that in the course of the Chase comedy Charley gets a bit too hysterical and loses sympathy from the audience fairly quickly.

Like nearly all of Columbia’s comedians during wartime, Vera had to appear in the prerequisite propaganda “battling with fifth-columnists” two-reeler, hers being She Snoops to Conquer (1944)…which isn’t too bad when it’s not being absolutely ridiculous. I will, however, confess that I have a soft spot for one of Vera’s later vehicles, A Miss in a Mess (1949)—in which her fiancé (Stephen Roberts) is a dead ringer for a notorious axe murderer. (Mess is a remake of Harry Langdon’s 1935 short His Marriage Mixup—which I’ve not seen but am very curious to do so.)

Boy, Doctor and Miss are pretty much the high points of Vague’s Columbia career; oddly enough, she was the only player in the shorts department to earn two Academy Award nominations for her two-reelers, the first coming in 1945 for a mildly diverting short entitled The Jury Goes Round ‘n’ Round. (Juror Vera is the lone holdout in a murder trial, believing the defendant to be innocent.) The only enjoyment I got out of Jury was seeing OTR veteran Barton Yarborough (One Man’s Family, Dragnet) play the foreman who gets increasingly annoyed with Vera’s antics. As Providence would have it, Yarborough also plays Vera’s love interest in the second Vague short to earn an Oscar nom—Hiss and Yell (1946), in which he plays a magician whose mannequin’s head (he “decapitates” her on stage) continues to ends up in Vera’s possession like a boomerang with bad juju. This short isn’t the lowest point in Vague’s output, but it’s a good contender; heavy-handed and a bit distasteful to boot. (If anything, Yell does have the distinction of featuring the film debut of longtime Stooges foil Emil “Hold hands, you lovebirds” Sitka.)

As of this posting, I still haven’t seen five of the remaining Vague two-reelers…but since four of them are essentially comedies that rework the material I have seen (something Columbia did quite frequently towards the end of its reign as one of the remaining major studios to maintain a shorts department) the only one in which I have any real interest is Clunked in the Clink (1949). Still, when you consider that the majority of Vera’s shorts are pedestrian affairs (Calling All Fibbers, Reno-vated) I may not be missing much. As I’ve mentioned previously, my most profuse thanks to Rodney Bowcock for making copies of these shorts available.

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