Today is the birthday of Red Skelton (for my full bio on the 20th century comedian go here). I thought I would take the occasion to enhance the Skelton presence on Travalanche by talking about most (though not all) off his Hollywood movies.
Now, I know Red’s not every guzzler’s glass of gin, but he’s grown on me a lot with repeated exposure. He was a bigger talent than his films generally allowed for. His physical genius tells me he was a great stage comedian; that’s no secret, and there was no shortage of laughter from the studio audience on his tv show. But film acting is all about the eyes; they reveal a state of mind. Red’s peepers always tell us he’s thinking the part of his character — even when the character is vacant. Most of his scripts are dull, plodding things, but they usually have their moments, and those moments tend to be a result of Skelton’s performance.
Skelton’s screen persona was interesting…essentially he took over where Joe E. Brown left off. Like Brown he usually plays a goofy bumpkin or naif who has to transcend his limitations in order to save the day (the plots are generally variations on those of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton features). Red ruled the cinema for pretty much the entirety of the 1940s. As the 50s wore on, he was such an unrelenting presence on television that he moved away from films (at the very same time he was aging out of his screen character anyway).
Whistling in the Dark (1941)
Since Red’s first fame came from radio it makes sense that in one of his first big vehicles he would play a radio personality. Here, he plays a radio detective named “The Fox” who is kidnapped and forced to devise the perfect murder, and then has to escape and solve it. The climax ends up happening over the radio (the only way for him to get the word out from the killer’s lair where he is imprisoned) so the film has a clever sort of media/meta aspect that is mildly thought provoking. Some cool references to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds incident which had happened only a couple of years earlier. Rags Ragland plays a thug. Skelton reprised this role in two sequels: Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943).
Whistling in Dixie (1942)
As the title indicates, the first “Whistling” sequel has a Southern setting, with the Fox and his gal dispatched to a Gothic mansion presided over by a Judge from central casting (Guy Kibee) to investigate a murder. Rags Ragland returns as a pair of twin brothers, named Chester and Sylvester, of varying degrees of crookedness. The Fox is crackerjack at solving puzzles, but he’s a hilarious coward. Red’s early comedies have a wonderful, unpretentious energy, move right along and clock in at just over an hour. They pack more laughs per minute than the later ones.
Maisie Gets her Man (1942)
The sixth and perhaps the best in Ann Sothern’s “Maisie” series about the heavily traveled Brooklyn chorus girl. When we first meet Maisie she is working in a vaudeville type theatre as a target girl for a professional knife thrower played by familiar bit player Fitz Feld. Red plays her love interest, a comedian with stage fright. With Leo Gorcey, Donald Meek, Walter Catlett, Rags Ragland and Willie Best (Sleep ‘n’ Eat). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.
Panama Hattie (1942)
A screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical with songs by Cole Porter, book by Herbert Fields and Buddy de Sylva, although the film only keeps four of Porter’s songs and replaces the remaining ones with others because the original ones were considered too risqué. It’s about three sailors in the Panama Canal Zone, and Hattie, a singer/might club owner who loves a fellah who has a daughter. There’s something magical about the all-star cast: Skelton, Ben Blue, Rags Ragsland, Ann Sothern, Virginia O’Brien, Alan Mowbray etc. with turns by Lena Horne and the Berry Brothers. Directed by Norman McLeod (with some retakes by Roy Del Ruth) and musical numbers staged by Vincent Minelli.)
Dubarry Was a Lady (1943)
Another Cole Porter musical, originally a stage vehicle for Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman, here replaced by Skelton and Lucille Ball. The cast also includes a very young Zero Mostel as well as Gene Kelly. It’s the old Connecticut Yankee formula–about a men’s room attendant who first wins a sweepstakes and gets a lot of money and then gets a Mickey Finn and dreams that he is Louis XV and the girl he loves is Madam Dubarry. Its fabulous opening number reminds me of the one that opens The Kid from Spain. The book and lyrics are witty but it suffers from what I consider a flaw. How the hell does a guy this dumb and this uneducated know who Louie XV and Madame DuBarry are?
I Dood It (1943)
Essentially a remake of Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage (with Buster on board as gag man, as he would throughout many of these MGM features). Red doesn’t play the Mean Wittle Kid in this but he and the producers do make hay of the popular catch phrase. The film co-stars Eleanor Powell, who makes a pretty unappealing star at this stage – she is sort of drawn and severe looking. The movie is certainly complicated by the fact that Powell’s rival for Red’s affections is vastly more beautiful and sexier than she is. Powell plays a difficult tempestuous star who accidentally marries her stage door Johnny (Skelton) because she thinks he has a fortune (and she wants to make her philandering fiancé jealous). But Skelton’s actually just a pants presser who likes to dress in his customer’s evening clothes and be seen around town (business copped from Lloyd and Chaplin). She tries to drug him on their wedding night and the drinks get switched—here Red reenacts Keaton’s famous Spite Marriage bit. Butterfly McQueen is in it, this being MGM and all. And Powell gets to tap dance in a Hawaiian fantasy number. Of course by the end, Powell falls for him in spite of all.
Bathing Beauty (1944)
A contrived vehicle jerry-rigged to incorporate the special talents of Esther Williams. She plays a college swimming instructor. Red plays her songwriting fiance. When he hears Red plans to retire from show business, a producer played by Basil Rathbone conspires to break them up. I refer to this movie in Chain of Fools as an example of how physical comedy backslid in movie after the advent of talkies. “Bathing Beauty presents the odd spectacle of Skelton ignoring his gifts as a mime throughout the entire movie in order to speak the lines in a none too witty script. Then he is given a three-minute mime routine as a show-within-the-show—as though mime were some alien art form somehow novel to feature in a film (notwithstanding the cinema’s first thirty years). Skelton’s picture (see? We call it a picture) is instead stolen by Harry James and his Orchestra, which one could appreciate just as easily on a radio or a phonograph.”
The Show Off (1946)
Skelton makes a bang-up Aubrey Piper in this fairly excellent remake of the old George Kelly vehicle. It’s been tweaked and updated somewhat from earlier versions, but the casting is excellent, with Skelton’s brash cluelessness butting up against mother in law Marjorie Main’s icy stare. Marilyn Maxwell plays his wide-eyed wife, whom he nicknames “Turner” after Lana Turner, a sort of in-joke.
Merton of the Movies (1947)
The umpteenth version of this old warhorse (although many of the versions simply steal the plot and call it something else). First a short story by Harry Leon Wilson, than a 1922 Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman, then a 1924 silent comedy. And see Mabel Normand’s The Extra Girl and Lloyd’s Movie Crazy for uncredited piracies! Red plays a bumpkin from Kansas who’s just dying to get into movies. By accident he becomes a big comedy star — only he doesn’t know that people are laughing at him. Virginia O’Brien plays his guardian angel and love interest.
The Fuller Brush Man (1948)
A classic! In which ne’er-do-well Red needs to make something of himself in order to proved himself to his sweetheart (Janet Blair) and thus becomes a Fuller Brush salesman (a scenario not unlike Joe E. Brown’s Earthworm Tractors). This teensy step up draws him into an elaborate web culminating in a murder mystery with him as chief suspect. The murder weapon? A Fuller Brush!
A Southern Yankee (1948)
This might be my favorite Red Skelton movie. The hand of Keaton is all over it, and it is just FULL of good stuff, almost every second. Red is a bellboy in a Missouri hotel who wants to get in on the Civil War. By a series of accidents he identifies and captures a notorious Rebel spy. Now he is given a truly dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Along the way of course he falls for a Rebel girl, the daughter of a Confederate general. Even that impossible predicament works itself out. Brian Donlevy is one of the villains.
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
The Yellow Cab Man (1950)
I think this is one of Red’s funnier comedies — the gags, jokes and slapstick are fairly nonstop in comparison with many of his more sluggish films. He plays an accident prone inventor who takes a job as a cabbie in hopes the company will purchase his unbreakable windshield glass. (Complete with the by now hoary scene of the switched glass and botched demonstration, which I’ve seen done in comedies by everybody from Fatty Arbuckle to W.C. Fields). As he declares at the outset it really does have one of his “better casts”: Gloria de Haven. Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Jay C. Flippen, Walter Slezak, and Polly Moran.
Three Little Words (1950)
How’s this for three little words?: Deadly, Dull, Movie. I take the sins of this film personally because its subjects Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby are two of my favorite songwriters and screenwriters. They were screamingly hilarious and clever writers, so I’m assuming they must have come off that way in real life. But you’d never know it from this film, which casts Skelton and Fred Astaire (two normally entertaining men to put it mildly) as the team and then proceeds to present the writers as a couple of yawn-inducing drips. The film was and is much praised as one of the better examples of the genre but I simply don’t see it. I find it a big drag. It’s often praised for its realism, but, um, something tells me Bert Kalmar didn’t dance anything like Fred Astaire does in this movie. And the relationship between the two guys is depressing, with the power dynamic tilted toward Kalmar and Skelton’s Ruby as an insecure sad sack. (Ruby was an advisor on the picture. What’d he do, yell, “More pathos!”?) And what’s with these two conspicuous goys playing the team? They don’t have any Jews in Hollywood? On the plus side, the real life Helen Kane dubs her vocals for “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, lip-synced by an early career Debbie Reynolds.
Watch the Birdie (1950)
Essentially a remake of Keaton’s The Cameraman, with Red as a professional photographer who tries to dig himself out of debt by becoming one of the paparazzi, and ends up getting involved with a glamorous heiress (Arlene Dahl) and a vivacious starlet (Ann Miller).
Excuse My Dust (1951)
Red plays a misfit inventor in the gay 90s. It has a Meet Me in St Louis vibe, and the color in the movie is just gorgeous. It’s all about his drive to invent an automobile. Everyone thinks he’s crazy and silly (there’s even a musical number called “Get a Horse”.) His principal opposition includes the father of his girlfriend (William Demarest) who owns a livery stable, and the rival for the girl, college boy MacDonald Carey. It’s a pleasant enough movie…but it would be so much funnier in the hands of someone like Keaton. The plot is so much the emphasis that it plays like a drama for the most part. And it stops dead constantly for songs. Several jokes about the near-sightedness of people at the time and resistence to change, and several fantasy sequences about the future. The whole movie is just about completely by the numbers
The Clown (1953)
The Clown is a remake of The Champ essentially, more of a drama. In scale it seems sort of a comedown for Red after all his lavish MGM vehicles of the 40s and early 50s. But it also feels like a much more personal work…his clown character is the one we know well from television. He works at Steeplechase Park! He gets fired for harassing customers (and for drinking). Has a kid (Tim Considine). He is a former Ziegfeld star, now he’s a bottom feeding clown scrapping for gigs (and losing them). After bottoming out, his old agent gets him a shot on TV and he collapses and dies. The kid goes back with his mother. It’s a heartbreaker! Red was a real artist — he ought to be better remembered.
For more on classic comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcFor more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.