Tomorrow on TCM: Comedies of Red Skelton
Tomorrow is comedian Red Skelton’s birthday. Turner Movie Classics will mark the occasion by screening his films throughout the day. I am grateful for this particular line-up, as it contains four films I haven’t yet seen, bringing me close to having seen the entire Red canon. Times below are all eastern Standard. On the menu are:
6:00am: 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.
7:30am: 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.
9:00am: A Southern Yankee (1948)
This might be my favorite Red Skelton movie. The hand of Buster Keaton (a gag man on many Skelton features) 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.
10:45am: The Yellow Cab Man (1950)
Many of Skelton’s plots were borrowed from old Keaton and Lloyd comedies; the premise of this one bears more than passing resemblance to the W.C. Fields features So’s Your Old Man (1926) and You’re Telling Me (1934). In those movies Fields invents an unpoppable tire and tries to sell it to companies. Here, Red is a cabbie who has invented an unbreakable windshield. Lots of stars in this one: Gloria DeHaven (we’ve blogged about her father), Edward Arnold, James Gleason, Walter Slezak, Jay C. Flippen and Polly Moran.
12;15pm: 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 prinicipal 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.
1;45pm: Texas Carnival (1951)
Red and frequent co-star Esther Williams run at a dunk tank at the carnival, until a series of mix-ups have them masquerading as a couple of Texas millionaires and occupying some dude’s ranch. This one seems to cobble together elements of Maisie was a Lady and City Lights. The cast also eatures Ann Miller, Howard Keel, Hans Conried and Keenan Wynn (as the drunken Texas millionaire).
3:15pm: Lovely to Look At (1952)
A remake of the musical Roberta, with Red playing the Bob Hope role.
5:00pm: The Clown (1953)
The Clown is a remake of The Champ essentially, more of a drama than a comedy. 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.
6:45pm: The Great Diamond Robbery (1953)
Red is a ne’er-do-well assistant diamond cutter; James Whitmore is a crooked lawyer who recruits con artists to play his long lost family so they can get their hands on a big hunk of ice.
For more on silent and slapstick 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 etc