Tomorrow on TCM: A Welter of Skelton
Tomorrow, starting early in the day, TCM will feature a day long marathon of Red Skelton 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.
6:00am (EST) Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)
The best of Ann Sothern’s Maisie series – – at least I may have enjoyed this one the most. It contains the most entertaining elements. We get to see Maisie at work in a vaudeville type theatre. When it starts out she is a knife thrower’s target girl, in full showgirl get-up. Fritz Feld (the character actor best known for his mouth popping routine) plays the knife thrower. Red Skelton is Maisie’s love interest, a comedian with stage fright, and the cast also includes Leo Gorcey, Donald Meek, Walter Catlett, Rags Ragland and Willie Best (a.k.a. Sleep ‘n’ Eat). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.
7:30 am (EST) Dubarry Was a Lady (1943)
A 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?
9:15am (EST) 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.
11am (EST) 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.”
1pm (EST) 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.
2:30pm (EST) 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.
4pm (EST) 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.
5:30pm (EST) 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).
6:45pm (EST) Half a Hero (1953)
One of Red’s last starring vehicles and you can see the old comedy machine grinding to a halt. It’s an attempt at a more mature comedy, and they were doing a lot of these kinds of movies in the 50s and 60s (Bob Hope is in about ten of them): middle aged writer moves to suburbia and is vaguely dissatisfied with his life, vaguely almost decides to make a change, and then decides not to. C’mon! That’s a movie?