“It’s In the Bag!” with Fred Allen

Today we celebrate the great stage and radio comedian Fred Allen; our biographical post on him was one of our first ever on Travalanche. But that’s going back a ways; we thought we’d augment his footprint here today with a spotlight on his only starring screen vehicle, It’s In the Bag (1945).

While definitely fitting into the category of “comedy classic”, the oddest thing about It’s in the Bag is its…oddness. As I hope you already know, Allen was widely regarded as radio’s greatest comedian, and certainly the peer, sometimes more, of top rivals Jack Benny and Bob Hope. Both of those comedians however had much more such success in the movies. At this point, Benny had been starring in pictures for 15 years, with at least a couple of them becoming lasting classics. Hope had started in shorts in 1934, began starring in features in 1938, and would continue doing so through 1972, with one TV movie as late as 1986. But Fred Allen…just the one. And it is a strange one. It reminds me of other anomalies of the time, things like The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940), the 1940 Li’l Abner, Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), Ed Gardner’s Duffy’s Tavern (1945), and It’s a Joke Son (1947, starring Fred Allen regular Kenny Delmar). It’s also not unlike early 30s Paramount “nut” comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1933) or Meet the Baron (1934), or like W.C. Fields’ last few pictures at Universal (1939-1941). It is brilliantly written and full of hilarious people, but it is also strange, even eerie, and somehow avoids being a real movie.

The plot is based on the same Russian novel on which Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs is based. It’s a farce about a man who inherits a large sum of money but it’s hidden in one of the chairs that he has already released from his possession, necessitating a frantic search. In Allen’s version the hero is a gambler with massive debts, so it is urgent that he locate the dough. Better than this: his character is the proprietor of a flea circus named Fred Floogle (like the street in the burlesque sketch). The rest of the once-in-a-lifetime cast includes Binnie Barnes as his wife, fellow Boston humorist Robert Benchley as the snobbish and yet greedy father of the boy Floogle’s daughter wants to marry, Hollywood actor/director Lloyd Ingraham (whose credits stretched back to 1915) as Allen’s rich uncle, John Carradine as a crooked lawyer, Jerry Colonna as a shrink, Sidney Toler as a flatfoot, and Minerva Pious from The Fred Allen Show in her regular role as Mrs. Nussbaum. Jack Benny, Don Ameche (who shared a birthday with Allen), William Bendix, Victor Moore, and Rudy Vallee all have cameos as themselves, and in bit roles you will spot the likes of Johnny Arthur, George Chandler, Bess Flowers, Wilbur Mack, Emory Parnell, Dewey Robinson, and Harry Von Zell.

And naturally the script is full of Allen’s patented sense of humor, whimsical, surreal, and arch. While there is a plot, and there are characters, Allen above all prizes the one-liner and the gag over the story. This, and the comedian’s aloof, sarcastic delivery (which constantly broadcasts the message that he is above all this) subliminally convince the audience that none of what we’re watching is of the slightest importance. As does the fact that Allen’s character is kind of divided; he’s also sort of playing himself from the radio, so we get comedy routines with Pious, Benny and so forth, which make no sense if this story is about what it’s theoretically about, not that we should want or expect logic!

Ought the director to be blamed? Richard Wallace had started out on shorts for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, and directed features like Raggedy Rose (1926) with Mabel Normand, McFadden’s Flats (1927) with Charlie Murray, and the screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man (1928). Presumably he understood comedy, although in the sound era he directed mostly non-comic B movies. A Girl, A Guy and a Gob (1941), with Lucille Ball, George Murphy, and Edmond O’Brien was one of his few comedy talkies, and it’s a very different creature from It’s in the Bag. A Preston Sturges might have wrestled this thing into shape, but Richard Wallace was no Preston Sturges.

Why watch it then? We’ve already said! It’s Fred Allen’s only starring vehicle! You have to watch it at least once! And fortunately you can. At this writing it’s available on Youtube, courtesy my old friend Derek Davidson. And to find our more about the significance of Fred Allen, go here.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.