Friday, April 28, 2017

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming

I’m going to have to preempt this week’s installment of Crime Does Not Pay due to a looming deadline for an outside project (mea maxima culpa); I had hoped to be able to squeeze it in but it’s just not going to happen.  So please bear with me, and look for A Thrill for Thelma (1935) in this space next week (this is one of the CDNP shorts that I covered on the blog in the past…though in that post I was a bit more enamored of the Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly two-reeler Beauty and the Bus [1933]).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The spice of the program

In 1919, when Earle W. Hammons founded Educational Pictures, the motion picture studio was dedicated to doing what was indicated in its title—making films for schools.  This didn’t work out too well for E.W., so Educational switched to comedy…and enjoyed great success in the 1920s as a fun factory, with successful generators of mirth like Lloyd Hamilton and Lupino Lane working under its banner.  By the 1930s, however, Educational’s fortunes had changed a bit as Leonard Maltin relates in Selected Short Subjects:

Earle W. Hammons
If one searched for a key word to describe the Educational comedies of the 1930s, the best one might be “cheap.”  Educational films almost always looked cheap, even though they were made in most cases by seasoned veterans.  One problem was the claustrophobia of shooting at the company’s eastern studio in Astoria, Long Island.  In addition, one suspects that the largest chunk of the small budgets went to pay the stars’ salaries, leaving very little for sets, costumes, and technical frills.  Nevertheless, the comedies (which were distributed by 20th Century Fox) always made money, despite the fact that the quality of the material was often downright poor.

I should point out here that film historian/friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts is hard at work writing a reference tome on the history of Educational Pictures similar to his splendid compendium on the Hal Roach Studios, Smile Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter, and I strongly suspect he’ll have a (most welcomed) dissenting opinion (I know, for example, he disputes Mr. Maltin's "cheap" observation with regards to Buster Keaton's oeuvre at the studio) .  For that matter, I’ve watched several of Harry Langdon’s Educational shorts and found some of them darned entertaining.

Ad copy for Educational in that era touted “the best of the old comedy favorites…the brightest of the new stars.”  It was a stage stop for folks on their way up and old-timers on their way down.  Notable among the veterans were Langdon, Mack Sennett (behind the camera), and Keaton (whose Educational shorts are available on the Kino-Lorber Blu-ray/DVD release Lost Keaton), with funsters like Milton Berle, Imogene Coca, and Danny Kaye numbering among the newcomers.  Maltin further observes: “There were also vaudevillians and stage comedians like Ernest Truex, Tom Howard & George Shelton, Buster West & Tom Patricola, Tim & Irene Ryan, and Joe Cook, who were not down on their luck, but whose stage success meant little in the movie world.”

Charlotte Greenwood in Girls Will Be Boys
“It took the hilarious dialect comedy of young Danny Kaye, in films like Getting an Eyeful, the contagious good-naturedness of Joe Cook, or the sheer professionalism of Charlotte Greenwood to overcome bad scripts,” Maltin writes in assessing the quality of Educational’s product.  Greenwood, a lanky comedienne who you might remember as “Aunt Eller” in the 1955 movie adaptation of Oklahoma!, is represented on a new release from Alpha Video—Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 2—with a very funny Educational effort, Girls Will Be Boys (1931).  Charlotte plays a housewife who agrees to swap jobs with her husband (Vernon Dent) …unaware that her hubby is now employed as a piano mover.  There’s a lot of sprightly physical comedy in this one (Char channel her inner The Music Box), and Greenwood delivers some nice wisecracks (it’s also fun to see Dent—who later worked alongside his old colleague Harry Langdon in shorts at Educational—as a milquetoast type) courtesy of a script from Paul Girard Smith and Al Boasberg.  (‘Snub’ Pollard also appears in a small role!)  I don’t know what it was about Charlotte, but she demonstrated an ability to shine even with the weakest material—her antics alongside Buster Keaton in his Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) are a testament to this.

Publicity shot of Marjorie Beebe (and non-talking dog)
The copy on the DVD box describes Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 2 as containing “zany, hilarious, and just plain bizarre shorts from the anything-goes pre-Code era.”  Ghost Parade (1931) certainly qualifies for the “just plain bizarre” designation; this Mack Sennett-directed effort stars Andy Clyde in his ‘Pop’ Martin persona, having to deal with the wackiness in a haunted house that previously belonged to his Civil War ancestor.  And by wackiness, I mean the likes of talking dogs (this kind of tickled me, to be honest—when one of the characters imparts some info to Andy he remarks “I know…the dog told me”), xylophone-playing ghosts, and menacing gorillas (played by Sennett’s big-monkey-for-hire Charles Gemora) running amuck in “Moseby Mansion.”  Harry Gribbon (as a police detective) and Marjorie Beebe (as Andy’s secretary) provide solid support (both were big stars at Sennett during Mack’s talkie era); Sennett distributed his comedies with Educational from 1928 to 1932, then switched to Paramount Publix until 1933.

James Gleason, Harry Gribbon, and Mae Busch
Harry Gribbon returns as prizefighter “Ham Hand McShelly” in 1932’s High Hats and Low Blows—not an Educational comedy, but an RKO Pathé two-reeler that was the sixth and final entry in the brief “Rufftown” franchise based on the stories by Arthur ‘Bugs’ Bear (which began in 1931 with When Canaries Sang Bass).  James “Iz zat so?” Gleason played manager Danny Ruff in these comedy shorts, and in High Hats he’s asked by a pal (Tom McGuire) who’s come into money to crash a tony society affair being sponsored by his wife (Maude Truax).  Gleason, Gribbon, and (the ever popular) Mae Busch show up pretending to be society swells, and the party eventually plays host to an exhibition bout between Gribbon and butler Irving Bacon.  I enjoyed this little two-reeler, particularly the scene where Gleason’s bluff is called by party attendee Gertrude Astor—who plays along with Jimmy’s charade until she tells him his bum of a pugilist needs to “stop leading with his chin.”

The remaining shorts on Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies, Volume 2So This is Marriage (1929) and The Beauties (1930)—resemble those Vitaphone two-reelers that often air on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time; they’re pleasant if unmemorable, though Beauties does have a saving grace in that Billy Gilbert (billed as “Billie”) generates many chuckles as a vengeance-obsessed man whose constant refrain of “For 400 years the blood of a Castilian has run through my veins” gets funnier and funnier with repetition.  The Messenger Boy (1931) stars Benny Rubin as the titular character; he’s hired to look after a brat on behalf of a nightclub performer (Marie Wills), which results in the darling little tot proceeds destroying his tiny automobile.  Later, Rubin must don drag and perform in an act with apache dancers John Sinclair and Bud Jamison (who has a propensity to repel folks due to his onion-eating regimen).  If you like Jewish dialect humor you’ll get a kick out of Messenger…but the high point for me was hearing Rubin use a favorite gag with which I have become most familiar thanks to the Three Stooges (“Tell me your name so I can tell your mother…”  “My mother knows my name!”).

Also new from Alpha Video is Blondes and Redheads: Pre-Code Comedy Classics, Volume 2—a follow-up to the first volume of Blondes and Redheads comedy shorts reviewed here on the blog in March of last year.  I couldn’t get through the entire disc as this was going to press…but this release includes the debut comedy in the franchise, Flirting in the Park (1933), and a very funny outing directed by Sam White in Wig-Wag (1935).  There’s just something about a guy (in this case, TDOY fave Grady Sutton) having to appear in drag that makes for great comedy (Some Like It Hot [1959] taught us this); Sutton is dragooned into the female masquerade by his pal Jack Mulhall, who’s scheming to make his fiancée jealous (not knowing of course, that the bride-to-be—played by Dorothy Granger—is already wise to the gag).  The icing on the cake in Wig-Wag is that it features plum roles for back-to-back Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: Hattie McDaniel plays the family maid (and does a nifty fall into a wedding cake—though it may have been a stuntwoman) and Jane Darwell is Mulhall’s mother, who at one point takes a tumble down a flight of stairs (again—work for a double) while carrying a tiny dog in her arms.  (Bud Jamison is in this short, too, as a butler—the bewildered look Bud gives Grady as Sutton keeps pulling “springs” out of his corset is gold, Jerry.)

Many thanks to Brian Krey at Alpha Video for providing me the screeners (and encouraging my behavior with regards to both the blog and the liner notes I do for Radio Spirits); Brian has informed me that a third volume of Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies will be coming classic movie fans’ way in May, and I’m most looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

“Old Man Depression, you are through—you done us wrong…”

I’ve mentioned a time or two on the ol’ blog that much of my classic movie mania—really, the entire content of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—sprang forth from the nostalgia craze that swept the 1970s, which played host to my formative years.  Hollywood looked to the past for moviemaking (Hearts of the West, Nickelodeon) and radio stations began rebroadcasting many of the great shows of Radio’s Golden Age like The Shadow and Fibber McGee & Molly.  One of the more interesting features to emerge from that period is Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, a 1975 documentary directed by Philippe Mora and now available on Blu-ray/DVD from the good people at The Sprocket Vault.

Brother presents a mash-up of clips from classic Hollywood flicks and newsreels in attempt to chronicle the events of The Great Depression…and to be honest, I’m a little hesitant to call the film a documentary because it’s really more of a cinematic mosaic, relying on images, music, and sound bites instead of going the more traditional doc route.  So I’m going to warn you right now: if you’re hungry for something along the lines of a serious Ken Burns-like presentation, you might want to move along because there’s nothing to see here.  But that would be premature (and very, very wrong), because Brother is a lot of fun: it includes a lot of great songs (a couple of classics from Woody Guthrie, not to mention contributions from the likes of Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday) that would make dandy music videos, and it’s most entertaining trying to identify the film clips included in the movie.

In his 1975 review of Brother Can You Spend a Dime? the late Roger Ebert wrote: “We get a great deal more of Roosevelt than we really need.” Which is kind of silly—FDR was president throughout that era, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that he figures prominently in the movie’s content.  (Now you know why I don’t place Rog on the pedestal that others do.)  Other personalities that turn up in Brother include Huey Long, Joe Louis, John Dillinger, Winston Churchill, and Herbert Hoover along with “more stars than there are in Heaven” via the generous amount of film clips.  (James Cagney gets the lion’s share of these, with nods to vehicles like Taxi! [1932], Lady Killer [1933], and ‘G’ Men [1935], but there’s also footage from TDOY faves like Black Legion [1937—a very effective sequence that blends newsreel footage of the Ku Klux Klan with Bogart’s character’s initiation] and To Be or Not to Be [1942—“Heil myself!”].)

Brother calls it a day once the United States decides to enter WW2 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and curiously wraps things up with footage of Lee Harvey Oswald and past presidents like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.  (Yeah, I didn’t quite understand this either.)  I really think classic movie mavens will enjoy this one, and to sweeten the presentation The Sprocket Vault includes some nice bonus material in the form of fifty minutes of newsreels from Pathe (“On land…on sea…in the air!”).  There’s a lot of great stuff in these time capsules (there’s a notice before the footage that the company is planning future DVD releases of these newsreel compilations), featuring celebrities like George M. Cohan (wowing Broadway in I’d Rather Be Right) and James Stewart (his induction into the service).  The old-time radio fan in me was particularly entertained by the footage of the opening of the NBC Studios at Rockefeller Plaza (a.k.a. “30 Rock”) and a bit with Lucille Ball demonstrating Sonovox (the device used to simulate the “talking train” featured in the Bromo Seltzer commercials of that era).  (I could have done without the footage of “movie czar” Will Hays, though—unless people feel empathy for the charisma-impaired.)

The Sprocket Vault Blu-ray/DVD release of Brother Can You Spare a Dime? has been digitally restored in high definition, and is available exclusively through Amazon.  Many thanks to Kit Parker and his staff for providing TDOY with both the screener and a delightful walk down Memory Lane.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #3: “Desert Death” (10/19/35)

I’m two weeks into the Crime Does Not Pay series here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and already I have been able to gauge its monumental success because the CDNP shorts that had been previously posted at YouTube have been removed.  I swear I’m not making this up.  Some kind soul uploaded some of the two-reelers to the ‘Tube, blissfully unaware that they are owned by legitimate copyright holders…so you could argue that it was only a matter of time before it was brought to someone’s attention and the necessary “cease and desist” letter mailed to the violator.  (As always, cartooners—Uncle Ivan frowns on people who disregard copyrights…unless it’s a movie he really wants to see and can’t become some rat bastard has it locked it away in a vault somewhere.)  I thought that if I refrained from mentioning the shorts’ presence on YouTube, I could continue to conveniently view them in the confines of Count Comfy von Chair and not have to resort to sitting in my painful office desk chair, preparing my weekly snark.  As for those of you who are smugly saying to yourself right now “Well—he’s certainly overstated his importance in the blogosphere, the conceited ass!” I can only counter: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”

This week, even though the “MGM Reporter” is identified at the (always reliable) IMDb, it would not have been necessary for me to consult that reference source because I recognized him right off as actor Richard Carlson—star of TV’s I Led 3 Lives and many science-fiction movie classics like It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  (The [always reliable] IMDb says this is his first movie—believe them if you must.)  In fact, Desert Death (1935) is the first Crime Does Not Pay short to credit performers in its main titles—the lucky winners are character great Raymond Hatton (a silent film veteran best known for his appearances in the “Three Mesquiteers” series) and not-quite-yet-a-character-great-but-on-his-way Harvey Stephens, remembered for his impressive stage work and appearances in movies like The Cheat (1931) and Evelyn Prentice (1934).  And now, let’s see what’s going on down in Pine Ridge…

REPORTER: How do you do, ladies and gentlemen…this is the MGM Reporter drawing your attention once again to the fact that crime is one business in which the final entry must always be set down in the debit side of the ledger…

Suppose you’re using two sets of books?

REPORTER: At this time, it’s my privilege to interview for you Mr. Burton James, chief investigator for one of the nation’s largest insurance companies…

As always, the individual who narrates these shorts is completely fictional—“James” is played by actor John Hyams, whose slightly-more-famous daughter Leila appeared in such movie classics as Freaks (1932) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).

REPORTER: From your experience, Mr. James, do you believe that crime does not pay?

“I’d be a fool to answer ‘no,’ young fella—do I look like I want MGM to stop payment on my check?”  James explains to Reporter Guy that “the criminal, no matter how clever he is, can’t win.”

JAMES: Now in this work of insurance investigation—we deal with some of the brainiest and most astute criminals in the world…
REPORTER: And if the smart criminal can’t win—there certainly isn’t much chance for any of the others, eh?

“That’s right, my boy.  Crime is not a profession for morons.”  Because we have twenty minutes to kill, James has just such a tale to illustrate how not even the best and the brightest can advance in the challenging, dog-eat-dog world of wanton criminality—ace investigator Bob Mehaffey (Stephens) is sent out into “desert country” to probe into the death of a man named John Collins…accompanied by a local sheriff (Erville Alderson) who looks as if he and Chet Lauck share the same makeup man.  The deceased Collins had been living with his cousin, George Lesh, out on Lesh’s sheep ranch for the past six months.  According to “Sheriff Alder.” Collins had been out to pick up some supplies and in his driving haste, badly negotiated a hairpin turn.  He went down an embankment, and might have walked away with nary a scratch had the cans of gasoline in the back of his vehicle not explodiated upon impact.

MEHAFFEY: What can you tell me about Collins?
SHERIFF: Well, nobody rightly knows much about him…and even less about old Lesh…Lesh is a…county mystery, you might say…came here to herd sheep for the Magowan Brothers about fifteen years ago and scarcely a…a soul has as much as laid eyes on him close up in all that time…
MEHAFFEY: How come?
SHERIFF: Well, he’s what you might call a ree-cluse

When Mehaffey inquires as to how Lesh gets his supplies, Alder explains that in addition to his being a lawman he owns the local store (you thought I was kidding with the Lum ‘n’ Abner comparisons, didn’t you?)—and his delivery man makes regular trips up to Lesh’s mailbox.  (Lesh’s box, by the way, is fourteen miles from his spread.  And to think I complain about having to dodge mud puddles to pick up the House of Yesteryear’s mail.)  Old Lesh will leave a list of what he needs in the box and the money to cover it, and once the delivery guy picks that up he returns to town, grabs what the old hermit needs from the Jot ‘Em Down Store’s inventory, and brings it back to deposit at the mailbox.  Lesh then waits until sundown to retrieve the goods.  (I suppose I don’t have to tell you that if Lesh ever needs any dairy products he’s going to be seriously boned, what with living in the desert and all.)

MEHAFFEY: Queer old duck, eh?
SHERIFF: Ain’t no name for it…gets his pay the same way at the mailbox…
MEHAFFEY: Ever see the dead man—Collins?
SHERIFF: Only sorta…

Sheriff Lum relates spotting Collins when he first arrived in Allenville six months ago.  He wasn’t able to identify Collins’ body in the wreck at first—“There wasn’t much left of him as you could see back there in the undertaking parlor”—and originally assumed it was Old Lesh who cracked up in the vehicle (it was his “flivver”).  But there were items in the wreck with Collins’ initials on them (a hat, a ring, and a pocket watch), and upon stopping by the shack, Old Lesh accompanied Alder to identify the body.

The two men arrive at the scene of Collins’ accident.  I strongly suspect that the “large insurance company” referenced by the MGM Reporter at the beginning of this narrative is Central Casualty, the outfit that employs Eric Gregg (Ronald Reagan) in the 1939 programmer Accidents Will Happen.  Why, you may be asking?  Well, because after an examination by Mehaffey…there are elements to this “accident” that do not add up.

A pool of oil clearly visible on the highway…

The ignition switch is in the “off” position…

MEHAFFEY: Strong smell of gasoline, isn’t there?
SHERIFF: Shouldn’t wonder…he had twenty-five gallons in that back seat…

“Twenty-five gallons?  What was he doing, drinking it?”  Mehaffey finds the remnants of one of the cans…with a peculiar gash in the top…

An additional canvassing of the area turns up evidence of some sagebrush that’s been removed from its base…a further search reveals the missing piece, tossed aside a few yards away…

SHERIFF: What’s that you got there?
MEHAFFEY: Piece of sagebrush, isn’t it?
SHERIFF: Sure…country’s all cluttered up with it…

“We are in the desert, you know.”  Finally, Mehaffey locates a teensy scrap of paper on the ground…and breaks the silence with “Sheriff…I’m not sure that was an accident.”

SHERIFF: No?  You think it was planned, mebbe?
MEHAFFEY: I’m not sure yet…
SHERIFF: Suicide?
MEHAFFEY: Might be…guess we better get up and see Old Lesh…

And so our heroes arrive at what used to be the old Haney place—now the address of Lesh the Hermit.  They’re greeted by several dogs, who commence to barking at the strangers until an elderly gent (Hatton) emerges from behind the shack, and adroitly tends to the nuisance by throwing a few rocks at the canines.  Alder makes the proper introductions, and the trio go inside the house.

MEHAFFEY: Mister Lesh?  Sheriff Alder here tells me you’ve been living here alone for a long time…up until about six months ago…
LESH: Yeah…that’s right…
MEHAFFEY: Do you mind if I ask you just how it happened that Mr. Collins came out here to live with you?

Lesh explains that he and John Collins (Arthur Stone) are cousins, and in a series of flashbacks he tells Mehaffey that while he was reluctant to take Collins in, he felt an obligation since he was his only living relative.  Collins wrote in a letter that he was dying and needed a change of climate for his health.  As he strolls merrily along Memory Lane, Mehaffey offers him a cigarette…and Lesh accepts it as if he hasn’t made a trip to Flavor Country in months.

LESH: You been here three days now, John…it’s time I said somethin’…
LESH: The minute I laid eyes on ya I knew there wasn’t nothin’ wrong with your health…’cept maybe a little too much alky-hol…what’s this all about?
COLLINS: Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you all along, George…the fact is I…I didn’t know how you’d take it…I’m…well…I’m in a jam…you see…I got mixed up in a shady deal over some government bonds and…I’ve just gotta have a good, safe place to hide until the whole thing blows over…

Mehaffey informs Lesh that Collins wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie as he produces a piece of paper from his pocket—it’s a notice with Collins’ picture on it, and the words “Fugitive Wanted” printed above.

LESH: Of course…after I heard about this I…told him to clear out…but he begged me to stay…he said he wasn’t wholly to blame…and you know, after he’d been here the first few days…I really enjoyed talkin’ to someone…

“Felons always seem to tell the best stories.”

MEHAFFEY: Did anyone see him during the six months he was here?
LESH: Why…uh…no…not that I recollect…you see, he wanted to avoid seein’ folks…
MEHAFFEY: Did he usually go up to the junction for the supplies?
LESH: No…no…I did…but I got in kinda late and I was just plumb tired out and…he said he’d go up for the stuff so I...I let him…I guess I hadn’t oughta done it…he’d be alive yet…

“Didn’t you wonder what happened to him when he didn’t return?” presses Mehaffey.  Lesh claims he knew nothing about it until Alder came in and woke him up the next morning to report the accident.  Then the investigator goes for the Coup de Gracie:

MEHAFFEY: Mr. Lesh…did you know that John Collins took out a $75,000 life insurance policy…naming you as beneficiary just before he left the East?
LESH: Why…no!
MEHAFFEY: Well, he did…he had a double indemnity in case of accident clause, too…that’s why I’m here…we’ll be paying out $150,000

Mehaffey is puzzled that Collins never mentioned what a grand guy he was to be so thoughtful of his cuz…until Lesh remembers that Cousin John did refer to it in passing:

COLLINS: I’m innocent…but if you turn me out, they’ll put me in jail for something I didn’t do just the same…let me stay…just a little while…you’ll never regret taking me in…I’ve…seen to that…

“But this policy is voided in case of suicide,” continues Mehaffey.  “Now, can you think of any reason—apart from the fact that he was a fugitive from justice—why he might have wanted to take his own life and make it look like an accident?”  George pooh-poohs this notion, recalling that the deceased Collins was feeling “pretty chipper” the last couple of days and had even made noises about returning East.  “You don’t mean that…that he’d take his life to pay me back?” inquires Lesh.  Lesh refuses to entertain such a notion…but let’s be reasonable, old timer—he’s been hiding out from the long arm of the law for six months; I wouldn’t put anything past him.

“Do you mind if I look around a little?”  Mehaffey asks the old man.  “I’ve got to make my report sound like I’m on the job.”  (“And to justify this fat expense account the company affords me, no questions asked.”)  In looking about the cabin, the investigator notices a pipe and a nearly full tin of tobacco.  “Yours?” he asks Lesh, and Lesh replies in the affirmative.  The investigator also asks upon spying a straight razor and shaving brush if the items belong to Lesh, with the bearded Lesh remarking that “I gave those up years ago.”  (They belonged to Collins.)

Having completed his snooping, Mehaffey seats himself at a desk to jot down some notes on a pad…and deliberately breaks the point of his pencil.  “Got a knife?” he asks his host, and Lesh produces one from his pocket.  Mehaffey re-sharpens his pencil, but before returning the knife to George he pulls the piece of the gas canister from his pocket, and inserts the blade in the puncture.  It fits like a glove.  He hands the knife back to Lesh, and remarks to Alder: “Well, Sheriff…guess we can be getting back to Allenville now…”

SHERIFF: Suits me…
MEHAFFEY: …but I think we’d better take this gentleman back with us…
SHERIFF: Him?  Why?
MEHAFFEY: So you can book him on a charge of murder


LESH: Oh, I see…you’re tryin’ to frame me…to cheat me out of that insurance money… (To Alder) I tell ya he’s talkin’ nonsense!
SHERIFF: I’m halfway inclined to agree with ya!

“But on the other hand…it’s possible he’s right.”  (Fence straddler.  Must be a Democrat.)

SHERIFF: I’m right curious, Mister—just how you figure out this murder business…

“He probably didn’t commit any murder.  It’s just that…well, we are an insurance company and we’ll do just about anything to avoid paying a claim.”  No, I’m just kidding—Mehaffey has the goods on old George:

MEHAFFEY: In spite of what you say, you did know that John Collins had taken out a life insurance policy payable to George Lesh…you planned this murder for months…you ordered the gasoline and knew when it would be delivered…so in some way, you either killed your victim or knocked him out…then you drove to the junction in the dark and picked up the cans of gasoline…you drove back and stopped the car where the so-called accident happened…I know you stopped, because I found the little pool of oil that formed in the road while the car stood there…

There’s more, of course.  The ignition switch was still in the “off” position, because the murderer forgot to turn it back on as he was shoving the vehicle over the embankment.  The gasoline cans were gashed open with the knife, and the snapped sagebrush was where the killer used a piece to cover up his footprints.  The scrap of paper Mehaffey found at the scene was what was left of the torch the murderer fashioned to set the gasoline-soaked flivver ablaze.  An outraged Lesh accuses Mehaffey of lying, and concocting the story to get out of paying the claim (hey, there must be some reason why there’s fifty gazillion lawyer commercials on the tee vee warning me not to trust insurance companies).  It looks to be a “he-said-he-said” situation until Lesh stupidly picks up a shotgun by the door and brandishes it at the two men…then makes a run for it…

Get him, Lassie!  Go get him, girl!  One of the barking dogs leaps upon Lesh, sending him to the ground and allowing Alder and Mehaffey to procure his weapon.  Mehaffey asks the sheriff for the handcuffs, and he quickly snaps them on Lesh’s wrists.  “You men are crazy,” snarls Lesh.  “I swear I didn’t murder John Collins.”

“I don’t remember saying that you did,” replies Mehaffey as he grabs the shaving brush and razor and promises the Sheriff “a big surprise” as he moves toward Lesh.  (Yes, this is where Desert Death goes south for me because I seriously doubt Lesh would sit there and allow someone to shave him without struggle or protest.)

“There…you’re nice and clean…although your face…looks…like…it’s…gone…t’ru…a…machine…”  Mehaffey’s back is toward the camera, and when he steps out of the way “Lesh” is revealed to be none other than John Collins.  Since no one had seen “Old Lesh” in years, the two men’s builds and height were virtually identical—and Collins waited six months before he killed the old codger to allow his beard to grow in approximation of his victim.  How did Mehaffey know “Lesh” was Collins?  Well, Collins attacked that cigarette he was offered even though he had a pipe and tobacco within reach.  If the razor and shaving brush did belong to Collins, there would have been signs of use (earlier, Mehaffey touched the bristles on the brush and raised up a small cloud of dust).  But what cinched his suspicions was the reaction the two men got on their arrival from the dogs around the shack: “No sheepherder ever lived that had dogs who wouldn’t obey.”  (So you’re saying the damn dog did most of the work, and you couldn’t even give him a simple “Well, King…thanks to you, this case is closed.”)

And in slipping the handcuffs on Collins, he saw an untanned band around one of his fingers—one that had been accommodating the same bit of bling that Alden found among the effects in the wreckage.  “The sun gave him away.”  (Stupid sun.)

JAMES: Collins was one of the cleverest and brainiest crooks the police have ever had to deal with…but he wasn’t quite clever enough…he died in the electric chair…

It hurts, they tell me.

REPORTER: And if the law finally gets a brilliant criminal like Collins—what chance do the others…the…the less clever ones…of making crime pay?
JAMES: No chance in the world, my boy…no chance

Remember, kids—if you’re going to commit a crime, be sure to take that I.Q. test beforehand.  Next week: A Thrill for Thelma.  G’bye now!

Monday, April 17, 2017

“I wanna tell ya—I’m thrilled to be here!”

One night in 1973, legendary comedian Bob Hope sneaked into the NBC studios to attend a taping of The Dean Martin Show, where fellow mirthmaker Don Rickles (who we sadly said good bye to this month) was appearing.  The studio audience applauded wildly upon spotting Hope, and when the applause had died down Rickles cracked: “Well, the war must be over.”  Despite a lengthy show business career that encompassed stage, screen, radio and TV, the jokester born Leslie Townes Hope in 1903 established a legacy “performing United Service Organizations (USO) shows to entertain active duty American military personnel (he made 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991),” as referenced at Wikipedia.  I don’t have the quote handy (nor can I give proper attribution, sad to report) but the old joke went something like “It’s not officially a war until Bob Hope shows up.”

Bob Hope’s dedication to “entertaining the troops” had its origins in radio, when on his May 6, 1941 broadcast he performed at March Field, California.  Hope never wavered from his earnest belief that “GIs are the greatest audiences in the world,” and I take him at his word that he was sincerely enthusiastic about the goodwill that resulted from his many trips overseas.  But a comedian also thrives on being loved and adored, and a complicated man like Bob (once described by his one-time manager Elliott Kozak as “the most self-centered man” he’d ever known) no doubt fed on the approval from what he admittedly referred to as “captive audiences.”  (My comedy idol Fred Allen once joked that his rival “reeked of” self-confidence.)

Santa, Linda Bennett, Dick Albers, Ann-Margret, Bob Hope
Hope’s television specials performing on USO shows at Christmas time were always tops in the ratings, and this May 2, Time Life is releasing a three-disc DVD set, Bob Hope Salutes the Troops.  My pal Michael Krause at Foundry Communications was generous enough to send me a screener, which features six telecasts that originally aired between 1963 and 1991.  I should be honest: I had reservations about watching these shows—not due to any political differences (though I can state with confidence that Bob and I have differing views with regards to Vietnam), but because I remember watching the entertainer’s small screen specials in the past and wondering why the man whose movies I adored as a kid (and still do) no longer seemed all that funny.  As author Kliph Nesteroff posits in The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy:

By the mid-1960s Hope was one of the wealthiest men in America and one of the largest private landowners in California.  Radio star, television star, movie star—he’d achieved every possible show business goal.  There was nothing left.  And without ambition driving him, the quality of his comedy plummeted.  He was still doing up to six television specials each year, but he was phoning it in.

Dolores Hope (in green) welcomes her husband's troupe home in 1969; Hope's philandering was legendary in the business, and some say he went overseas in the first place so he could fool around out of sight of Mrs. Hope.  (Incidentally, you might recognize that couple to Dolores' right.)

Bob channels Maynard G. Krebs.
Despite the questionable quality of his TV work (his dependence on cue cards, uninspired writing, etc.) I found a few nuggets among the dross.  The earliest special on this set is from January 16, 1963, as Bob and his troupe entertain audiences at nearly a dozen military bases in the Pacific.  Lana Turner is the big draw here, dancing the Bossa Nova and trading quips with Hope in a sketch that casts her as a captive in the clutches of an Asian warlord (Bob), but Janis Page is also in Bob’s entourage (she plays a counterculture chick in a WTF sketch with Bob as a bass-playing beatnik), as are singer/future orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant and Amedee Chabot—Miss USA at the time.  (Hope’s tendency to feature plenty of females in his shows was later satirized in the “Playboy bunnies” sequence in 1979’s Apocalypse Now.)  Hope’s radio sidekick, “Professor” Jerry Colonna, and Stan Freberg regular Peter Leeds handle much of the comedy along with Bob, with music by Les Brown and His Band of Renown. 

Lana Turner, Les Brown, Bob
I have always admired Les—not just because he began with Hope in his radio days (Les also brought along his band’s female vocalist, Doris Day), but because he was seemingly able to play Thanks for the Memory over and over and over again all those years without getting sick of it.  He figures in a funny exchange with Bob and Lana:

BOB: Les, have you been making overtures to Miss Turner?
LES: Bob…I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my career…
BOB: You wouldn’t, eh…well, have you been making goo-goo eyes at Miss Turner?
LES: Bob, I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my career…
BOB: Was that you in the hall in the hotel last night singing Fly Me to the Moon through her keyhole?
LES: Bob, I told you—I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize my career
LANA: Les…honey, why don’t you meet me after the show and we’ll have a nice, long talk…?

Brown glances at Bob…then glances at Lana…then breaks his baton in two, hands it to Bob, and walks off the stage arm-in-arm with Lana.  Doris Day credits Bob Hope with teaching her everything she knows about comedy, and it’s nice to see Les stuck around for a few classes, too.

Show business nepotism: a young soldier asks Bob if he can take a photo of one of the girls for the camp newspaper.  (That solider is Tony Hope, Bob's son.)

Peter Leeds then informs Bob there is no camp newspaper.  ("It's too piercing, Bob...too piercing.")
A January 15, 1965 telecast is next in the lineup—with Paige, Bryant, Colonna, Leeds and Brown all returning.  (Bryant attempts to seduce a pair of MP’s with You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, which made me chortle considering her later morality crusade.)  Jill St. John, Hope’s co-star in 1967’s Eight on the Lam, leads off the eye candy in this one; there’s even an amusing exchange (and a prescient one) in which Jill answers Bob’s query as to how an intelligent girl like her (she had an I.Q. of 162) could play so many daffy redheads in the movies.  “Isn’t it ridiculous?” Bob asks her.

Something new has been added in the form of TDOY fave Jerry Colonna.
“Well, you’re still playing romantic leads—aren’t you?” St. John shoots back, echoing a concern many critics noticed at the time.  (St. John returns to make a guest appearance in a January 17, 1972 special; she’s fresh off the set of Diamonds are Forever, the 1971 James Bond film in which she played “Tiffany Case.”)  To me, the star of Hope’s 1965 Christmas special is the madcap Colonna; there are three routines featuring him and Bob in this telecast, all resonant of the splendid work they did during Hope’s radio years.  Bob, doing a monologue, notices that Jerry is reclining on a coach in the audience:

BOB: Pardon me, sir, but—who are you?
JERRY: I’m the base psychiatrist…
(Wild applause from crowd)
BOB: Well, you don’t look like a psychiatrist to me—I have a hunch you’re a fraud!
JERRY: That’s me—Sigmund Fraud!
BOB (to the audience): I think he shrank his own head… (To Colonna) What are you doing on a couch in my audience?
JERRY: Can you think of a better place to sleep?

A nice moment: Bob gets a hug from his son Kelly, who's stationed at a nearby base.  (Bob: "He's in civvies...I hope he's not AWOL...")

The Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around the World with the USO (01/16/69) is a great little special, and its appeal can be summed up in two words: Ann-Margret.  (Or is that one word?)  My Dad, not a Hope fan by any measure of the yardstick, has had a thing for Ann for many, many years (he often jokes that they “went to different schools together”) and Ann is entertainment with a capital “E” performing Dancing in the Streets.  My favorite part of this telecast, however, is Bob and The Golddiggers’ rendition of Perfect Gentleman—the show-stopping musical number performed by Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom in one of my favorite movie comedies, The Night They Raided Minsky’s.  Also appearing in this one are Linda Bennett (a one-time child actress who worked with Bob in The Seven Little Foys), ex-football-player-turned- warbler Rosey Grier, Penny Plummer (Miss World), and Honey, Ltd…as well as ol’ reliable Les and his Band.

I wasn't able to get a better screen grab of this...but that old fossil is four-star admiral John Sidney "Jack" McCain, Jr.  His son is John III, currently the senior U.S. Senator from Arizona...and also an old fossil.

Les, Bob (not less Bob)
Despite the approval of Bob’s “Christmas with the Troops” specials with TV audiences, the entertainer eventually found that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War discouraged a lot of entertainers from taking him up on an offer to hit the USO circuit—not to mention his own views on both the controversial conflict and the rise of the counterculture back home.  (Some of the bases began to reject the idea of the comedian performing there, and a 1969 appearance in Long Binh found the crowd of soldiers flipping the cameras the bird and giving power salutes.  None of this was shown on American TV, of course.)  But the celebrity wattage had dimmed a bit by the time The Bob Hope Christmas Special: Around the Globe with the U.S.O. aired on January 17, 1972.  This is the show that Jill St. John makes a guest appearance on, but the lineup includes luminaries such as Don Ho (three guesses as to what he performs—the first two don’t count), baseball’s Vida Blue, and former astronaut Alan Shepard.

They pre-empted The NBC Wednesday Night Mystery Movie for this?  Snoop Sisters fans revolt!

Redd Foxx, Bob
It’s fitting that Bob closes his time in Vietnam with a January 17, 1973 telecast that comes to a wow finish with a duet of Cabaret with Lola Falana and a nice retrospective of all the celebs who appeared with Hope on his past USO Christmas specials.  (It’s not all peaches and cream—the comedian is still doing stale jokes with people like football’s Roman Gabriel.)  But there is an amusing sketch with guest Redd Foxx (I’ll bet NBC put a gun to his head) that’s worth the price of admission:

BOB: Come on—crank it up and let’s get started here, huh?
REDD: Okay…if you want to work a man who’s old and…sick…and tired…
BOB: If you’re sick, how did you get in the Navy?
REDD: Instead of a physical, they gave me an autopsy
BOB: Hey—can you imagine giving a man with my I.Q. a job like this?
REDD: Well, what’s your I.Q.?
BOB: Twenty-three…
REDD: Twenty-three?  I didn’t know you were a college man

I realize I'm the only one who's going to find this amusing...but this lookalike duo from Louisville, KY are Cyb and Tricia Barnstable.  The twin sisters were later regulars (as The Bettys) on the short-lived sci-fi sitcom Quark.

Khrystyne Haje, Bob
Included on Bob Hope Salutes the Troops is a January 12, 1991 special, Bob Hope's Christmas Cheer in Saudi Arabia.  With a war everybody liked (well…almost everybody), Hope was able to persuade some big names to appear in this one: The Pointer Sisters (they sing I’m So Excited), Marie Osmond (Crazy), Ann Jillian, and Khrystyne Haje (Head of the Class), who does an amusing routine with Hope (I noticed that Bob, now in his late eighties, has cut back considerably on the leering with regards to his female guests) in which he mentions her environmental activism and in particular, her commitment to the California redwoods.  “You planted them…the least the rest of us could do is try and preserve them,” she cracks, producing a king-sized titter from your humble narrator.  Country singer Aaron Tippin is mentioned in the opening credits of this one though he’s nowhere to be found in the special…which is a shame, since they could have snipped a rather unfunny exchange between Bob and Johnny Bench and let Aaron do a tune or two.  Mrs. Hope, Dolores Reade, is also on hand; she was Bob’s only “Christmas cheer” in Saudi Arabia because the government wouldn’t let the other women in the country (they performed on U.S. naval vessels along the coast).

Ann and Bob duet on The Two of Us in the 1969 special...

...and Bob and Ann Jillian reprise the tune in 1991.

Barney Dean (behind Bob), Jerry, Tony Romano (behind Frances Langford), Patty Thomas
A bonus feature, Bob Hope: Memories of WWII, is also included on the Salutes the Troops collection; first airing in 1995, the Hopes reminisce about Bob’s early years “doing his bit” for WW2 and his first USO tour.  Frances Langford and Patty Thomas are also on hand…though curiously, they’re never shown in the same shot as Bob and Dolores despite it being edited as if they’re all having a conversation.  (For a real reunion between Bob, Frances, Patty, and guitarist Tony Romano check out the DVD Entertaining the Troops, which I reviewed here at the Radio Spirits blog.)

If you’re a fan of classic television, Bob Hope Salutes the Troops is a disc you’re going to want in your collection; it’s the kind of variety special that they literally don’t make any more, though my strong advice would be to watch these telecasts sparingly as Bob likes to recycle jokes from time to time.  Considered by many to be the greatest entertainer of the 20th century, the comedian demonstrates that through his tireless efforts overseas for many so far from home “there was no one like Hope for the holidays.”