Tomorrow on TCM: Slapstick in the ’40s
E’en as we are in the midst of today’s TCM slapstick offerings, we give you a sampling of tomorrow’s, wherein they will be showing several slapstick classics from the 1940s. The pickings begin to be slim in that decade (and would grow to be even slimmer in years to come) but the programmers have done a good job of grabbing a cross section of some of the principal physical comedians turning out movies in Hollywood:
8:00pm (EST): The Bank Dick (1940)
W.C. Fields‘ second-to-last starring film from his brilliant late period at Universal, directed by Eddie Cline. One of Fields’ most subversive and hilarious films (undoubtedly because he was old and sick and no longer gave a damn) Fields lays into small town hypocrisies and even (as he would do with even more force in his last film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break) Hollywood itself. Fields gets away with murder in this film, naming his favorite watering hole The Black Pussy, and telling young Og Ogilvy (Grady Sutton) that his name “Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub” — what can he be referring to but a fart? Somehow this stuff got past the censors, as did Fields’ much more dangerous example as a human being — getting the bank examiner (hilariously played by Franklin Pangborn) drunk so he won’t notice the money Fields (the bank’s security guard) embezzled so that he can invest in the Beefsteak Mines. The terrific ensemble includes Shemp Howard (who really sacrificed a decent solo career when he stepped in to bail out the Stooges–see here), Jack Norton and Una Merkel, among many others. A couple of nods to the Father of Slapstick Mack Sennett here too.
9:30pm (EST): Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
This should have had a better title, because they also meet Dracula and the Wolf Man (Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney) and in the film’s closing gag, the Invisible Man (Vincent Price). This is the last film to use the original classic horror monsters, and their original actors (or, heh, their original replacements). Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are baggage handlers who have to deliver two crates to an amusement park House of Horrors. The crates turn out to contain Dracula and Frankenstein (Glenn Strange). The Wolf Man shows up to try to warn everybody. Costello’s girlfriend is a female mad scientist who wants to transplant his brain into the monsters. Several, tedious, endless scenes with Costello seeing the monsters, being scared, and trying to tell a disbelieving Abbott. Finally Abbott does believe him—when he gets abducted and he rescues him in the end. There is one inspired scene—a Halloween party, making for amusing confusion between real and costumed monsters. But most of it is pretty irritating.
11:00pm (EST): 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.
12:45 (EST): The Inspector General (1949)
I haven’t seen this one since I was a kid, and very much look forward to renewing my acquaintance. Loosely adapted from the play by Nikolai Gogol. Danny Kaye is a trouble prone Gypsy who gets mistaken by the crooked officials of a village for a visiting powerful functionary whom they’re informed is making a tour of inspection inspection in disguise, resulting in much fol-de-rol. Also in the cast are Walter Slezak, Gene Lockhart, Elsa Lanchester and Alan Hale, Sr.
2:30am (EST): Always Leave Them Laughing (1949)
This was neither Milton Berle’s first nor only starring vehicle; he’d done several broad comedies in the early 40s (and had started out as a bit player in early childhood) , but these efforts didn’t make much of a stir. But Always Leave Them Laughing was Berle’s first movie after becoming a big television star however and this altered the equation. Always Leave Them Laughing is an ambitious picture, a drama about a comedian, as opposed to a comedy. Berle was a fine dramatic actor, at least a competent one, as he was glad to show on the few occasions when he got the opportunity. But it’s hard to transcend a vehicle like this, which casts him as a thoroughly unsympathetic scoundrel who stabs anyone and everyone in the back in his drive to get ahead in show business. The only (supposedly) positive facet of his character is that he is funny, but not really — more like insecure and obnoxious.
The fact that the character becomes a comedy star on tv gets awfully confusing. Is this supposed to be his autobiography? Interestingly, the only similar film I can think of with a main character as heinous as this is The Oscar (1966), which has almost an identical story, and which Berle also appears in (as the manager who gets stepped on the star, Stephen Boyd). Cinematic karma, of a kind. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, the film also stars Bert Lahr (as the show biz vet that Berle screws over), and Ruth Roman and Virginia Mayo as his TWO bodacious love interests. So the picture is a little self-indulgent and I hope Berle enjoyed every moment of it, for he never had such an opportunity to star in a picture again.
4:30am (EST): The Palm Beach Story (1942)
In a way, with the exception of The Bank Dick, I’d much rather tomorrow’s program consisted entirely of Preston Sturges pictures. As it is, we’ll just have to settle for just this one. But a great one! Many people say it is their favorite and I love it as well. However, Sturges’ comedies are always more than just comedies. He has a knack for tapping into powerful emotions that keep us on the hook. In this case: insecurity and jealousy. I can assure you any heterosexual man who is not a member of the 1% watches The Palm Beach Story with anxiety bordering on queasiness. In this screwball comedy, practical wife Claudette Colbert leaves her husband, a failed, broke architect played by Joel McCrea. Her plan is to divorce him, marry a rich man, and then help him out financially so that he can realize his dreams. Which is somehow simultaneously selfless and cynical in a way that is uniquely Sturges. So many characteristic touches — an absurd disorienting framing device which begins and ends the film. Events set in motion by a millionaire “Weenie King” who wanders into their apartment and finances the travels of both members of the couple like some geriatric Good Fairy. An enormous digression on the train to Palm Beach, where Colbert is the beneficiary of the largess of a charter group called the Ale and Quail Club, which proceeds to get shit-faced and shoot the train up with their hunting rifles. And then both Colbert and McCrea briefly become romantically entangled (respectively) with wealthy brother and sister Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor — until they come to their senses, ironically helped along by Vallee’s crooning. In the end, a most satisfying picture.
For more on slapstick film history please check out 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