Friday, June 30, 2017

“…the problem here is little brother, this morning, got his arm caught in the microwave, and grandmother dropped acid and she freaked out, and hijacked a school bus full of...penguins, so it's kind of a family crisis...”

I hadn’t planned to use the “Harold Lloyd More to Come” screen grab so soon but…there will be no Crime Does Not Pay this week.  A combination of outside interference (mi madre wanted me to accompany her to Kroger Nation so I could lift and tote several cases of bottled water) and just plain laziness (my old friend!) conspired to fill me with overwhelming ennui—so I decided to shelve it and do it next week.  (Blog godmother S.Z. is probably wreaking havoc as you read this, stealing high schoolers’ lunch money and selling reverse mortgages to seniors.)  But fret not: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear will return next week with…stuff.  Have a great weekend, cartooners!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Kennedy for me

From 1931 to 1948, beloved character veteran Edgar Kennedy starred in over 100 two-reel comedies for RKO, as part of a franchise originally titled “Mr. Average Man.”  Kennedy was hands down one of the finest second bananas in the history of the movies, brightening even the dullest film by merely being in it.  He worked for Mack Sennett’s fun factory at the start of his movie career (he often played a Keystone Kop, and worked on a few occasions with Charlie Chaplin), and later freelanced in the 1920s before joining Hal Roach’s “Lot of Fun” toward the end of the decade as a supporting player in the classic comedies headlined by Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, and so many more.  Edgar even got an opportunity to demonstrate his talents behind the camera, directing such Stan and Ollie romps as From Soup to Nuts (1928) and You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928).

Harry Harvey, Florence Lake & Edgar in Contest Crazy (1948)
Edgar passed away in November of 1948, about a month after his last RKO two-reeler, Contest Crazy, was released to theaters.  But the studio continued to release shorts from that backlog for years after that, and while it’s not possible to hit one out of the park every time at bat the “Average Man” comedies have an admirably consistent batting average in the laughs department.  Much of their appeal to audiences today lies in the fact that the shorts were a template for what eventually became the television situation comedy.  The plots of the comedies were simple and straightforward—dealing with everyday subjects as going on vacation or celebrating an anniversary—and they eschewed the kind of frantic zaniness that was the modus operandi of Columbia’s two-reel comedies, like those featuring The Three Stooges.  The Kennedy comedies didn’t skimp on the physical slapstick, but it was always grounded in a world of believability, only slightly exaggerated for comedic effect.

The reason why even the weaker “Average Man” comedies generate a chuckle or two is due to Edgar Kennedy, who was the undisputed master of short-fuse stack blowing.  His signature was called the “slow burn,” a gesture where he would wipe his face in frustration in a futile attempt to hold his temper before exploding in rage.  Edgar worked alongside many of the great mirthmakers: Joe E. Brown (When’s Your Birthday?), Eddie Cantor (Kid Millions), W.C. Fields (Tillie and Gus), Raymond Griffith (Paths to Paradise), Harold Lloyd (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock), The Marx Brothers (so memorable as the lemonade vendor who tangles with Chico and Harpo in Duck Soup), Olsen & Johnson (Crazy House), and Wheeler & Woolsey (Diplomaniacs), to name just a few.  He makes feature films such as Twentieth Century (1934), San Francisco (1936), A Star is Born (1937), It’s a Wonderful World (1939), It Happened Tomorrow (1944), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948) a joy to sit down with a bowl of popcorn.

Alpha Video has been releasing several volumes of Kennedy’s RKO shorts to DVD as part of their “Rediscovered Comedies of Edgar Kennedy” series.  (I know that for many they’re not technically “rediscoveries” in that film fanatics like the TDOY faithful are well-acquainted with how delightful they are—but since they don’t make the rounds on any of the classic movie channels on a regular basis some movie mavens may not be familiar with them.)  Volumes One and Two came out in 2010, with Volume Three following three years later and Volume Quatro released this past April.  Brian Krey was kind enough to shoot me a screener for Volume 4, which contains ten of Edgar’s two-reel efforts from 1934 to 1946.  Some of these are the very textbook definition of “doozy.”

The DVD kicks off with In-Laws are Out (1934), a sidesplitting outing that has Edgar returning home from a business trip to learn from his neighbors that wife Florence (Florence Lake) is kicking him out of the house.  The reason?  It’s Ed’s hair-trigger temper, which is always activated by his interactions with his sponging mother-in-law (Dot Farley) and brother-in-law (Billy Eugene).  Florence makes her husband promise that he’ll keep his anger managed…otherwise he’s out the door.  His in-laws scheme to make him blow his top, so between those two and a mantle clock he’s purchased that refuses to chime properly, Kennedy’s disposition is continually challenged.  One of the best gags in this comedy (directed by Jules White’s brother Sam and co-written by Arthur Ripley) has Edgar trudging up the stairs in his house with a priceless vase and some blankets blocking his view of what’s ahead of him…and Eugene placing a stepladder at the top of the staircase, resulting in Edgar’s continued climb.  The first time Kennedy makes the trip he’s stopped by Florence before he falls off the ladder…but on the second go-round, he falls right through the floor and emerges (somehow with the vase intact) from a room below the staircase landing.

Florence & Jack Rice scheme behind Edgar's back
Before his RKO series got underway, Edgar Kennedy appeared in an Educational two-reeler entitled All Gummed Up (1930), in which Florence Lake (Arthur’s sis) was cast as his wife.  Lake would continue in that capacity with the “Average Man” series, playing the delightfully dizzy Mrs. K.  Florence left the studio in the mid-30s, and while she returned for the occasional assignment in the Kennedy comedies she didn’t permanently return until the mid-40s, whereupon she finished out the franchise until it ended in 1948.  Rice was an integral part of the Kennedy comedies, and when she’s not around to chatter a mile-a-minute in her incredible fashion I find I don’t enjoy the shorts as much as I should.  They brought in a few actresses to play Mrs. Kennedy in the 1940s comedies—notably Irene Ryan and Pauline Drake—with Sally Payne even going as far to completely mimic Lake (the DVD features Payne’s turn in Inferior Decorator [1942], which is not one of Edgar’s stronger efforts) in her turns as Mrs. K.

Florence, Paul Maxey, Dot Farley, Jack, Harry Strang & Edgar
 in Brother Knows Best (1948)
I think In-Laws are Out is a delightful short, but in it you can detect one of the handicaps of the Kennedy comedies as noted by Leonard Maltin in his reference book The Great Movie Shorts: “Where the series often failed, however, was in straying too far from credibility, usually in the antics of Edgar’s meddlesome mother-in-law, played by Dot Farley, and his no-account brother-in-law, first played by William Eugene and then by Jack Rice.  In most cases, one could accept their obnoxious nature, and the fact that Edgar was forced to live with it since his wife was devoted to them; but when they blithely wreck a car in Quiet Please, “borrow” Edgar’s life savings in Brother Knows Best, or engage in one of the sundry get-rich-quick schemes in which Edgar always loses, it’s a bit hard to take.”  The pair (Farley and Eugene) deliberately connive to piss off Edgar so he’ll lose his temper in In-Laws, and while this was no doubt done to generate sympathy for his character I think more than a few of us would be practicing our curb kicks.

Edgar & Florence in Poisoned Ivory (1934)
In Poisoned Ivory (1934—a Christmas-themed short!), Florence thinks she’s accidentally poisoned Edgar and Brother (Rice this time) phones the doctor (William Augustin) for help.  Brother knows that Florence didn’t really poison her husband, but he suggests to the doc that he get a little payback for an argument that he and Edgar had the night previous.  The doctor approaches pranking Ed with relish (so much for that Hippocratic Oath) by telling his patient there’s nothing he can do for him…and that he’ll probably shuffle off this mortal coil with a yawn and a yearn to go beddy-bye (he gives Edgar a sedative before telling him this).  Ivory is another gem of a Kennedy comedy; even though I had serious reservations about anyone participating in that kind of foolishness there are some very funny moments in the short including Edgar’s waking up from his sleeping pill and, as his eyes focus, seeing his family and physician.  “And I thought I was going to Heaven,” he mutters.

Edgar Hamlet (1935)
Edgar Hamlet (1935) is another entertaining outing, with Edgar and Mother having an argument over a line of Shakespeare (she’s convinced it’s in Hamlet—he insists it’s Macbeth) that leads to his decision to take the family to see a performance of Hamlet to prove he’s right…but he gets distracted by such simple tasks as getting ice out of the icebox and unwrapping a new dress shirt.  This one is a lot of fun because you get to hear Kennedy recite Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) in the way that only he could.  “I overact,” he once observed of his performance style.  “I know I overact.  But at least I do try to act, and it’s easy enough for a director to say ‘Easy now,’ and I know what he means and calm it down.”

Edgar & Vivien Oakland
Comic actress Vivien Oakland replaced the departing Florence Lake as Mrs. Kennedy in many of the shorts, and in Maltin’s opinion “was rather subdued as Edgar’s wife.”  Three of her efforts appear on the Volume 4 disc; Bad Housekeeping (1937) is a so-so entry (it’s the old “wife-takes-husband’s-place-at-work-while-he-wrecks-the-house” plot) that benefits largely from an appearance by Franklin Pangborn as a piano tuner who proves to be no help when Edgar gets his tie caught in the washing machine or is buried under a bed that falls apart as he attempts to change the sheets.  (The windup gag has Pangborn pleased as punch at the job he did on the Kennedy’s baby grand—all the keys sound the same!)  A Clean Sweep (1938) is a definite improvement; Edgar can’t bring himself to tell Vivien he’s lost his job at the bank and that he’s become a vacuum cleaner salesman…until one of the houses where he tries to peddle his wares is hosting a housewarming party with Vivien in attendance!

An interesting trade ad for A Clean Sweep (1938): Edgar doesn't have a mustache in this short, and the other male character (Eddie Dunn) never interacts with Vivien's Mrs. K.
Underrated silent comedian Billy Franey appears in Sweep as Edgar’s buddy; he asks Ed why he lost his bank job and Kennedy explains it was because he was rooting for the Giants.  (“Oh…he’s a Yankees fan, eh?” Billy asks.  “Nah…it just happened that he was at the ballpark the day I was supposed to be at my mother-in-law’s funeral” is Edgar’s reply.)  Franey also graced several of Edgar’s shorts as his father-in-law, of which Mutiny in the County (1940), included on this set, is an excellent example.  Edgar must appear in court after losing his temper with a neighborhood kids’ ballgame results in his throwing a baseball into the window of a cop car (the gendarmes are James C. Morton and Fred Kelsey).  His trial coincides with the town’s annual “Boys’ Day”—which means the little jamokes who were playing ball are now the judge and prosecutor!  It’s a most diverting short, and what continually make me titter was a running gag in which Franey keeps getting hit with doors as Edgar stomps off in frustration.

Vivien looks over the mess the Kennedy clan made in her kitchen in Home Canning (1948), the penultimate short in the Edgar Kennedy "Average Man" series.
The interesting thing about Vivien Oakland is that once Florence Rice returned to play the Kennedy wife Oakland continued to appear in the shorts, usually as a dowager or upper-crust matron.  That’s the case with the last short on the Alpha set, Social Terrors (1946)—her daughter (Phyllis Kennedy) becomes Brother’s fiancée when Edgar tries to stave off being evicted by the landlord (Chester Clute).  The landlord can’t sleep in his apartment because of some awful woman who sings off-key in the adjacent apartment, and since Brother neglected to tell Ed they’re being chucked out (he received the notice 30 days ago) Kennedy schemes to marry off his in-law, which will free up a room in their house for the landlord to stay in.  The Kennedy clan dines with Brother’s future in-laws (character great Paul Maxey plays the father) with hilarious results, and after dinner his intended decides to serenade everyone with a song.  (I don’t have to tell you who the irate neighbor is at this point, do I?)

All the shorts on this must-own collection are worth watching except for The Hillbilly Goat (1937), one of those “mountain folks” comedies that always grates on this proud son of The Mountain State.  Hopefully I’ll get around to watching some of the earlier Edgar Kennedy volumes (I’ve been collecting them from Alpha since they’ve been putting them out) soon and writing them up for the blog—thanks again to Brian for making my Wednesday afternoon an entertaining one!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

“Heeere's Johnny!”

“And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been…I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”  Those final words rung down the curtain on Johnny Carson’s thirty-season stint as host of NBC’s The Tonight Show (or The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, as it was officially known), when “The King of Late Night” officially retired on May 22, 1992.  Sadly, Carson never returned to TV save for a small vocal contribution (as himself) on an episode of The Simpsons and a cameo on Late Show with David Letterman in 1994; he left this world for a better hosting gig on January 23, 2005 at the age of 79.  (Correction: I wrote too soon; Mark Murphy e-mailed me to let me know that Johnny also did a monologue on a 1993 NBC special feting Peacock institution Bob Hope on his 90th birthday.  Thanks, Mark!)

Johnny...we'd hardly know ye.
I’m a little fuzzy on the exact time frame, but I remember I was on my way home from my night auditor gig at The Landmark Inn a year or two before Carson’s passing.  I took a taxi that day (I didn’t want to wait for the bus), and the cabbie was listening to a couple of radio jocks holding forth about how The Tonight Show just wasn’t the same since Johnny’s departure and that Jay Leno couldn’t carry Carson’s jockstrap.  One of the hosts—who claimed to know people who know people who know Carson—explained that Johnny had not made a return to the small screen because…well, he kind of danced around the reason but the implication was that the former talk-show host had really “let himself go” (see photo at left).  Then came the observation that he (the jock) would rather watch an obese, bloated Carson drooling all over himself than that poltroon Leno any day of the week.  I’m not proud of this—but I laughed like a hyena at his remark.

Those of you who get the substation Antenna TV in your area are aware that they added reruns of Johnny Carson (the retitled Tonight Show) to their schedule in August of 2015 (the shows from 1972 on, since only a handful of the pre-1972 Tonight Shows have survived due to “wiping”), and occasionally a segment surfaces on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (their presentation, Carson on TCM, went great guns at first before eventually doing a slow vanishing act).  Time Life has released several DVD compilations—notably the 22-disc Johnny and Friends (SRP $199.95), with 61 hours of material—and next Tuesday (July 4) they’ll roll out a new-to-retail DVD collection of nine classic Carson telecasts (on 3 discs—the SRP is $29.95) with the emphasis on appearances by comedians Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy.

My good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications graciously gifted me with a screener for this upcoming release, which not only features these telecasts in their entirety (the musical guests are often excised from the Antenna TV repeats for copyright reasons) but the original network commercials as well.  This appealed to the old-time radio fan in me (I love to listen to broadcasts that have the commercials intact), though I admittedly only watched one of the shows with commercials (you have the option of watching without—something that I’m sure would please my father if Carson reruns were his particular meat).  That would be the oldest show in this collection, a July 21, 1976 telecast on the disc spotlighting Steve Martin.  For an hour-and-fifteen minutes (the Carson show was a ninety-minute program from 1966 to 1980) I got to reminisce about taking the Nestea plunge and how Heinz ketchup is “slow good” (voiceover by Casey Kasem) …not to mention seeing familiar faces like Betty White (plugging Spray ‘n Wash) and Doris Roberts (a Glade air-freshener commercial—she won a Clio award for those spots).

I cannot come up with the name of the actor playing Doris' husband in this commercial, and it's nagging at me because I've seen him in so many other things.  (It's hell getting old.)

Wild and crazy guy.
In high school, I thought Steve Martin was the funniest man to walk the planet.  I owned all four of his stand-up albums, mimicked all of his routines (“Excuuuuuse me!”), and relished every time he hosted Saturday Night Live.  With the passage of time, however…well, I find myself pondering what the hell I thought was so funny about the guy.  (Now I know why Los Parentes Yesteryear looked at me so strangely…though that may not have entirely been all Martin’s doing.)  His 1976 appearance on Carson features much of his “wild-and-crazy-guy” shtick, and to be honest, I enjoyed the other guests on that particular telecast more—Jimmy Stewart, plugging The Shootist (1976) but also reminiscing about It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Karen Black…who seemed to be on some sort of narcotic that night but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it was.  A May 21, 1982 program brings Steve back along with Sylvester Stallone—both stars plug their current movies (Sly’s Rocky III; Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid) but again, because I’m just weird this way, I got more of a kick out of the “Stump the Band” segment…because one of the songs suggested to stymie Tommy Newsome and the NBC Orchestra (Doc Severinsen, amusingly enough, was out of town—performing a concert in my home town of Charleston, WV) was Sunday Driving, a novelty tune recorded by Jerry Lewis.  The last show on the Martin DVD is the most fun: a December 19, 1991 outing that allows Martin to plug Father of the Bride (1991) and it also features one of my favorite funny ladies, Cathy Ladman, along with singer Leon Redbone (performing Christmas Island).

Nice threads, Eddie.
The third disc in this collection highlights three 1982 appearances from Eddie Murphy, who at that time was wowing SNL viewers weekly with his shtick—the July 30th telecast mentions that Murphy is working on his first feature film (the one that put him on the map), 48 HRS.  I’m quite fond of many of Eddie’s movies—48 HRS., Beverly Hills Cop (1984), The Golden Child (1986—don’t think I can’t hear you judging me out there)—and enjoyed many of his SNL characters (prison poet Tyrone Green never failed to make me fall to the floor), but his stand-up always left me stone-faced, particularly the homophobic Honeymooners bit he did in his 1983 HBO TV special Delirious.  (Try explaining it to both of your parents, who decided to watch with me.)  A February 10, 1982 appearance has him starting his routine by encouraging the audience to shout out the N-word…and I don’t mean “Norbit.”  (Edgy!)  If you’re a Murphy devotee, you’ll enjoy seeing the twenty-year-old trading yuks with Johnny on the cusp of Murphy’s phenomenal stardom; his January 1, 1982 debut on the Tonight Show is presented in this collection in its entirety.

Robin Williams, circa 1984.
If you need a solid reason to pick up this collection, the second disc—featuring three shows with the manic Robin Williams as guest—more than justifies the purchase.  Just as I prefer Eddie Murphy in movies, I thought Williams was at his best when he was simply turned loose on The Tonight Show, where his machine-gun stream-of-consciousness would always reduce the host to helpless laughter.  (It’s no surprise that Robin was the guest on the penultimate Carson Tonight Show telecast, along with Bette Midler.)  Williams’ April 3, 1984 appearance allows him to plug what I think is his finest film comedy, Moscow on the Hudson (1984—this and the 1983 movie he did with Walter Matthau, The Survivors, are my favorites) and his co-guest Phyllis Newman reminds the audience multiple times that her husband is lyricist-playwright Adolph Green (something that both Robin and Johnny start to mock after a fashion).  A January 10, 1991 show (with Steve Lawrence) coincides with Robin’s turn in Awakenings (1990); Williams relates the incident where he accidentally hit co-star Robert DeNiro in the nose while filming and it’s hysterical.

Comedy greatness.
The final telecast on this disc is a September 19, 1991 free-for-all that allows Williams (plugging 1991’s The Fisher King) to riff alongside his one-time Mork and Mindy co-star (and acknowledged influence) Jonathan Winters.  Honest to my grandma, I laughed so hard during this show I was literally in tears.  Winters enters the stage wearing a Union uniform (his first words are “We lost the fort—the Indians were sober…we were drunk this time.“) and when Park Overall (of Empty Nest) comes out and asks Johnny “Why is he wearing a Yankee uniform?” Jonathan comes back with “Cause I’m a Yankee—we’re gonna go through Chickamauga twice!”  It is classic comedy, and while I’m not a religious or spiritual individual, I like to think that if there is a better world after this one these two mad geniuses are cutting up in the afterlife to thunderous appreciative laughter and applause.  Thanks again to Michael for the screener—if you’re a fan of Johnny Carson, you’re going to want this one for the DVD shelf.

Addendum: Both the Mayor of Toobworld (Dr. Tobias O'Brien) and member of the TDOY faithful Mark Murphy have identified the actor with Doris Roberts in the Glade commercial as character veteran J.J. Barry.  The blog is grateful for their tireless efforts in small screen research.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Please permit us to pause…

I had originally planned a review of an upcoming Time Life DVD release in their The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson series for this space today…but unfortunately, I ran out of weekend before I watched the last disc in the 3-DVD set.  I’ll have it up on the blog Wednesday, so don’t go nipping out to the kitchen, putting the kettle on...buttering scones...or getting crumbs and bits of food out of those round brown straw mats that the teapot goes on.  Once again: normal blogging will resume tomorrow.  (The screen grab above is from a May 21, 1982 telecast that also featured “More to Comes” with Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, and Mae West.)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #7: “Foolproof” (03/07/36)

Well, after all the hassles with my health and the health of my computer, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear returns with our critically-acclaimed dissections of the two-reel shorts in MGM’s long-running Crime Does Not Pay series.  (Spoiler: they are not critically-acclaimed.)  This week’s entry, Foolproof (1936), comes to us via the team of Marty Brooks (story) and Richard Goldstone (screenwriter); both men collaborated on previous entries in the CDNP series (Alibi Racket, A Thrill for Thelma) but Goldstone had the more prolific show bidness career in that he made his way through the ranks of MGM’s shorts department as a producer (he’s credited with several Our Gang one-reelers) before graduating to feature films like The Yellow Cab Man (1950) and The Tall Target (1951).  Dick later went to work for 20th Century-Fox, and in the 1960s was a producer on programs like Adventures in Paradise and Peyton Place.

Oh, and director Edward Cahn gets a separate screen credit.  That should count for something.

Our MGM Reporter (William Tannen)—the man known cryptically as…Jim—is also back with us; they decided to stick him behind a microphone so he would look more reporter-ish.  (He needs it, as you’ll learn in a few.)

JIM: A few months ago, I was seated in the office of Frederick Halliday—who is Captain of Detectives in a large middle Western city…

Even the names of the burgs have been changed to protect the innocent.  The (always reliable) IMDb doesn’t technically identify the actor who portrays Cap’n Halliday, but since Alonzo Price is listed among the players I’m gambling it’s him because a) his name is also listed prominently among the cast in the entry for Foolproof in Leonard Maltin’s Selected Short Subjects, and 2) the IMDb does list his place of birth as Boston, MA (me sainted mother’s birthplace!) …and Alonzo has an accent as thick as clam chow-dah.

JIM: Captain Halliday, I’ve been sent to you to obtain a case history of crimes from your files for presentation to the motion picture public…
HALLIDAY: I think I can do better than that, Jim…the coroner’s jury is just doing an investigation of a very interesting case down the hall…maybe we can sit in on the proceedings…

“But…I’m not properly dressed!”

JIM: Fine—what case is it?
HALLIDAY: The Anderson case!
JIM: Say—that sounds like a mystery thriller…

Or something Anderson drank.  Halliday and his guest are lucky to find a couple of seats up front as the inquiry gets underway.  The actor playing the part of the judge at the inquest is easily identified…

…it’s Stanley Andrews, the character veteran (Meet John Doe, The Ox-Bow Incident) best remembered as “The Old Ranger” on the long-running TV western Death Valley Days.  Andrews’ judge is questioning one of the major witnesses in “the Anderson case”—another TV favorite…

…George Cleveland, who played George “Gramps” Miller in the early seasons of Lassie before his passing in July of 1957.  Cleveland also had plum roles in such TDOY faves as It’s in the Bag! (1945—“Compliments of the management!”) and The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and he turns up in the Crime Does Not Pay series often, notably in 1941’s Sucker List…which I covered previously on the blog.  Here’s the thing: at the time I wrote about this short in December of 2010, Cleveland’s credit at the IMDb hilariously read: “Old Man Not Beaten Up.”  I swear I’m not making this up—except if you look at the entry now, the “Not Beaten Up” portion has been removed.  I don’t know if I had anything to do with this or not…if on the off-chance I do have that much influence on the Internets, I offer my sincerest mea culpa because I thought it was funny as hell.

Back to the particulars of “the Anderson case.”  Cleveland, as Mr. Hanson, testifies he was mowing his front lawn when a moppet named Frances came running up to report that her mother Rita (Donrue Leighton) had been hurt.  Hanson finds Mrs. A bound and gagged in the bedroom, and after untying her he runs to another room to discover her husband Frank is really most sincerely dead.  (And someone’s responsible!)

The coroner identified the presence of “anesthetic in the victim’s lungs” as a contributory cause of his demise… “though not in sufficient quantity to kill him.”  “Apparently the drug was administered to stupefy him…after which, the murderer strangled him,” he remarks.  Further study showed that traces of that anesthetic were present on the gag in Rita’s mouth, which apparently put her out for about six hours (the marks on her wrists and ankles bear this out as well).  Detective Whalen testifies further:

WHELAN: A routine checkup revealed no fingerprints—nor any other clues…Mr. Anderson’s pockets had been emptied…his watch and wallet were both missing…so were Mrs. Anderson’s jewels…all windows and doors were in perfect order, except the front door—where apparently the burglar made his entry by filing through a chain lock…

The Widder Anderson then testifies as to her version of events—she and husband Frank returned home from an evening soiree and as she prepared for bed in front of her dressing table, she was attacked by the assailant from behind and (presumably) chloroformed with the anesthetic (she doesn’t remember anything that happened afterward until Hanson came to her rescue).  That screen grab above reminds me of the lyric in Tom T. Hall’s Ballad of Forty Dollars: “You know, some women do look good in black.”

The dowager who threw the affair that the Andersons attended, Mrs. Layton, is identified at the IMDb as an actress named Lelah Tyler—but you can’t tell me that’s not Esther Howard (Leonard Maltin thinks so, too).  (The comments section awaits dissenters.)  Anyway, Layton’s testimony reveals that there was a small disagreement during her party between Frank Anderson and a sebaceous individual named Terry Spencer (Stephen Chase), who starts to get a little handsy where Mrs. Anderson is concerned.

SPENCER: Come on, Rita…how’s about a little kiss?
RITA: No, no, Terry…please…Terry, please stop…
FRANK (approaching the couple): What’s the idea, Spencer?  That’s my wife
SPENCER: Yeah…I’ve often wondered about that…
(He turns his back to Anderson)
FRANK (spinning him around): Just what do you mean?
SPENCER: I’d bet you’d like to know…or maybe you wouldn’t

The donnybrook is just about to commence when a party guest (Niles Welch) who’s been watching the argument starts to step in and settle things…before being stopped by Rita.  He’s later identified as “John Harwood,” though I should strenuously point out he is not the same guy who’s CNBC’s editor-at-large.  Mrs. Layton, who describes Mr. H as “a friend of Rita’s,” assumes that’s to whom Spencer was referring when he made that cryptic “maybe you wouldn’t” statement.  Judge Ranger presses her a little more, and gets her to reveal that “John thought a lot of Rita…but so did Terry Spencer!”

What amuses me about the above screen grab is that Halliday is furiously taking notes while Jim—who claims to be a “reporter”—does nothing of the sort.  The first name in Halliday’s notebook, by the way, is “Spencer Walden”—the third suspect in la affaire Anderson due to his uncomfortable encounter with the victim earlier at the party:

WALDEN: Frank…I…I just haven’t got the cash to meet your note…can’t you give me a little time?
FRANK: Why, I’ve given you enough time already…
WALDEN: But you don’t understand…I’ll be wiped out!
FRANK (finishing his drink and getting to his feet): Sorry, Walden…I didn’t come here to talk business

He seems nice.  As you can see by the headline, the inquest turns out to be a bust…but that doesn’t mean that Cap’n Halliday can call it a day.  (Particularly since he now appears to be doing Jim’s reporter job for him.)  He questions all three suspects…

…and learns that “getting that note extended” was of vital importance to Mr. Walden—providing plenty of motive for Stew to croak Frank.  Walden claims he was home in bed:

Jim will have to leave the room as soon as Halliday breaks out the oranges and pillowcase.
WALDEN: …I came home early that evening…
HALLIDAY: Can you prove that?
WALDEN (after a pause): Certainly I can…if I’d have come home later than midnight the clerk would have seen me…I would have had to waken him to get in…

Next up is non-CNBC Washington correspondent John Harwood, who works for some sort of chemical outfit as head of the sales division.  Halliday has difficulty pronouncing John’s last name due to his Boston accent; it sounds as if he’s saying “Howard” throughout most of this short.

HALLIDAY: Harwood…do you know of any reason Frank Anderson should have been jealous of you?
HARWOOD: I most certainly do not…

“Well, unless you want to include the fact that I was shtupping his wife.”  Johnny’s got an alibi, too—he was staying at a hotel the night of Anderson’s murder, and the next morning he went over to his company’s warehouse to supervise a shipment.  When the greasy Terry Spencer is brought in for questioning, he, too, has a story—he was in a poker game at a roadhouse outside of town, one that broke up at 3:30am.

JIM: They certainly all have airtight alibis, haven’t they?
HALLIDAY: Well, I didn’t expect them to come unprepared

Yes, I chuckled at that.

JIM: What are you going to do next?
HALLIDAY: Let’s see…I think we’ll assign a man to check on Walden…I want to find out exactly what shape his business affairs are in…as for Terry Spencer…I want to know just who he plays poker with every Sunday night…

As for “Howard,” Halliday assigns a couple of plainclothesmen, Finney and Jorgensen, to pose as salesman so that they can infiltrate Harwood’s “sales force.”  Two more detectives (one a female who watches Spencer with her makeup mirror) shadow Spencer in a nightclub, where’s he witnessed paying off a couple of goombahs from a large wad o’money…

As for Walden, still another dick gets the information on Walden’s business from a mousey bookkeeper who’s told not to mention anything to the boss.  Walden becomes the chief suspect after Cap’n Halliday has had a look at his records:

HALLIDAY: In going over his books, we find that his business is going to the wall…a thirty-day extension on the Anderson note might have saved him…a delay, for example—caused by Anderson’s death and the settlement of his estate…and that isn’t all…Walters reports that he’s been putting his affairs in order…it looks as if he’s going to blow town…

I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.  The only thing Walden is going to blow is his brains out, a delicate little matter that Halliday stumbles upon when he and Jim (I guess he’s going out on police calls now) pay Walden a little visit at his modest digs.  While it looks at first glance as if Stewie committed suicide, Halliday soon rules that out since the bullet hole was in his forehead and the Captain believes it’s a little awkward shooting yourself that way (most suicide attempts occur at the temple, he tells Jim).  “Guess that’s why he was putting his affairs in order,” notes Jim inappropriately.  (The Walden family is gonna love him at the funeral.)  Halliday also observes that Walden was killed at nearly the same time on the same day as the unfortunate Frank Anderson—“I don’t think that’s a coincidence at all.”

So, the finger of suspicion is redirected back to Spencer and Harwood.  Halliday has a funny line when talking to the detective who’s been birddogging Spencer; the dick tells him that everyone in the suspect’s poker game will swear he was there the entire time and the Captain cracks: “That don’t mean much—those guys will swear to anything.”  (Terry is quite friendly with “the mob” …though that could also describe the Chamber of Commerce, to be honest.)  But “Jorgy,” in conversing with Halliday, mentions that Harwood’s first stop on his sales route is in a town with an airport…and that gives Freddie an idea…

Halliday and Jim pay the Widder Anderson a visit, where the Cap’n tells Rita that they’re closing in on the man responsible for killing her husband.  “I can assure you an arrest within 24 hours,” he informs her.  Rita is concerned that the assailant will get away, but the cocky Halliday tells her not to fret.  “He’s completely surrounded.”

He had a reason for telling her this—he now knows it’s Harwood, and he further knows that Rita was in on the caper from the beginning when she foolishly calls John to tell him to be careful and your friendly neighborhood police department has tapped her phone.

Harwood is picked up in the same fashion he utilized when he murdered Anderson and Walden.  He snuck out of his hotel room and hid in the back of one of the company’s truck, covering himself with a tarp that he instructed the warehouse guys to place over the shipment beforehand.  When the truck made its first stop, he exited the back of the vehicle and took a plane from the airport to Marion, where both Anderson and Walden lived.  In the case of Frank, he instructed Rita that he would knock her out with the anesthetic so it would look like a home invasion—though when she’s confronted by the police she swears she had no idea John was going to send her hubby to The Happy Hunting Ground.  So why did he kill Walden?  “Like all criminals, you couldn’t stop at your first crime,” sneers Halliday.  Just like Lays’ Potato Chips—you can’t eat just one.  (Rita and John killed her husband for the insurance—the oldest game in the Big Book O’Crime.)

JIM: Rita Anderson was sentenced to twenty years in the Women’s State Penitentiary…

Presumably under the supervision of the happy-go-lucky female warden in A Thrill for Thelma.

JIM: …John Harwood is in the death house now…

When he’s not hosting Speakeasy with John Harwood on CNBC Digital.

JIM: …waiting for the law to exact the final penalty for his foolproof crime…for foolproof it was, only in the sense that it proved an ingenious criminal…a fool

Sorry I cut this one so short this week…but my ass was starting to get numb.  Next time, Crime Does Not Pay goes to the Academy Awards with the first of two Oscar-winning entries in the series, The Public Pays (1936).  G’bye now!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Lubitsch of Arabia

Janaia (Pola Negri) is a breathtakingly beautiful dancer who travels with other performers in a caravan…and who’s attracted the attention of a Bagdad slave trader, Achmed (Paul Biensfeldt).  Achmed has been commissioned by Zuleika (Jenny Hasselqvist), the current favorite in a harem maintained by “The Mighty Sheikh” (Paul Wegener), to procure women for her hubby…because she no longer wants to be the favorite, preferring instead the romantic attentions of Nour-Ed Din (Harry Liedtke), humble (and handsome) clothes merchant.  His Sheikhness, learning of Zuleika’s perfidy, condemns her to death…but she is spared when the Sheikh’s son, Sheikh, Jr. (Carl Clewing), pleads for her life.  Janaia is not so fortunate—the cruel despot bumps off both her and Sheikh, Jr. (they were having a little thing on the side) but before he can add Zuleika and Nour-Ed Din to the body count he is dispatched to the Great Beyond by the hunchbacked Abdullah (Ernst Lubitsch), who’s avenging the murder of Janaia.

All this palace intrigue has been condensed into a fifty-minute cut-down of Sumurun, a 1920 melodrama directed by Ernst Lubitsch before he emigrated to the U.S. and exhibited “the Lubitsch touch.”  (“Sumurun” is the name of the Zuleika character in the original German movie.)  The movie would be released in America the following year and retitled One Arabian Night; the (always reliable) IMDb lists the movie’s running time as a longer eighty-five minutes (another DVD version clocks it at 105).  The 50-minute version is from an Alpha Video release that came out in mid-May.

The shorter running time on the Alpha DVD really hurts the viewing experience, sad to report.  It makes One Arabian Night confusing and often difficult to comprehend, which is a shame because I had heard a good many positive things about the picture and I was looking forward to sitting down with it.  It’s not entirely unrewarding; it’s interesting early Lubitsch (his later themes of infidelity and naughtiness are on full display in this tale based on the pantomime by Friedrich Freksa), and it also showcases the appeal of Pola Negri, who would go on to a prolific career as a silent screen siren.  It was with the success of Night in the U.S. that Mary Pickford was encouraged to invite the director and his star to make movies in Tinsel Town.  Lubitsch would continue to direct classics like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939) until his death in 1947 (his valedictory feature, 1948’s That Lady in Ermine, was assigned to Otto Preminger after Ernst died during production) but Negri, despite box-office hits like Forbidden Paradise (1924—directed by Lubitsch) and Hotel Imperial (1927—the only other Pola film I’ve seen), went back to Europe to work toward the silent era (her thick Polish accent would have been a problem)—only resurfacing in two later American films, Hi Diddle Diddle (1943) and The Moon-Spinners (1964, her final movie).

Sadly, Lubitsch abandoned a promising career in front of the camera with this film (he made cameo appearances in a few of his talkies and in the Ed Sullivan film Mr. Broadway [1933]; he’s also in the trailer for The Shop Around the Corner)—he’s quite good as the sympathetic hunchback who pines for Negri’s character from afar, then later gets an opportunity to be a hero at the end.  I’ve mentioned on the blog before that while I have a tremendous admiration for Ernst as a director his movies just aren’t my particular cup of Orange Pekoe (it’s not him—it’s me) save for To Be or Not to Be (1942), which I will watch at the drop of a hat.  (In Milt Josefsberg’s The Jack Benny Show, he includes an anecdote from his famous boss in which Lubitsch “acted out” how he wanted Benny to play Josef Tura in To Be…so the director never got performing completely out of his system.)  Lubitsch fans will want to check this one out if they haven’t already; many thanks to my friend Brian Kray at Alpha Video for providing me with the screener for this review.