Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
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Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 9: August 2009

Offtopic Perspective

50 Movie Comedy Classics, Part 1

What makes a comedy? Should you laugh out loud? Are grins enough? Can a movie that’s depressing most of the way through, but with a somewhat happy ending, be a comedy classic? Is a movie a comedy because it stars actors known as comedians?

“Classics” in the names of these 50-movie collections basically means “movies we could get for free,” so I’m not looking for true classic status. A grin now and then: That would be nice. In some cases, I got at least that much. In others, I felt as though “comedy” meant “not a tragedy”: The movie ends somewhat happily with at least one major character still alive.

Disc 1

It’s tricky to watch silent short comedies, particularly slapstick comedies—all the more so when you’re alone. There’s the time gap and change in comedy styles to consider; silents offer fewer clues; and most of all, to be fair to the original flick, you have to wonder what it would be like to watch it in a movie theatre surrounded by hundreds of others, with organ music accompanying the movie. I’m trying to do that; it’s not always easy.

This disc consists of five collections of shorts.

Stan Laurel Festival (all b&w, all silent and presented with unrelated music, all starring Stan Laurel). Includes Mud and Sand, 1922, Gilbert Pratt (dir.), 0:26; Just Rambling Along, 1918, Hal Roach (dir.), Clarine Seymour, 0:09; Oranges and Lemons, 1923, George Jeske (dir.), 0:12.

Mud and Sand would seem inordinately strange if you hadn’t seen Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand. Fortunately, I had—and recently. With Stan Laurel as Rhubarb Vaselino—well, it’s pretty much a plot-for-plot remake but with silly names, lots of titles talking about “bull” in both meanings and Laurel’s slapstick. The print’s poor at times, and this seemed as forced as many single-movie spoofs.

Just Rambling Along is apparently one of the earliest Laurel shorts. Its best moment is in a cafeteria line where Laurel manages to cadge a fairly full meal out of a ten-cent cup of coffee (but the pretty young thing he sits next to swaps his not-yet-paid $0.10 ticket for her $1.25 big meal). Good print and so-so slapstick: I might have been laughing in that theater.

Oranges and Lemons is set in a citrus processing facility and grove and makes no sense at all—but it’s a decent slapstick short with just the kind of physical nonsense Laurel could do well. Generally decent print. All three shorts are accompanied by appropriate (if not directly related) music.

Considering that the whole trio adds up to about 46 minutes and there’s not a gem among them, I can’t give this more than $0.75.

Our Gang Festival. Includes Our Gang Follies, 1937, b&w, Gordon Douglas (dir.), George ‘Spanky’ McFarland, Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, Billie ‘Buckwheat’ Thomas, Doodles Weaver and the rest of Our Gang, 0:21; School’s Out, 1930, b&w, Robert F. McGowan (dir.), Jackie Cooper, Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins, Bobby ‘Wheezer’ Hutchins and the rest of the Little Rascals, 0:20; Bear Shooters, same credits (by and large), 0:20.

I doubt that I’d have been an avid consumer of Our Gang comedies even “in the day,” but I could be wrong. These three have different casts and considerably different qualities. My first inclination, especially given the opening titles, was to believe that one movie was the “real” Our Gang and the other two were “Hal Roach’s Little Rascals in Our Gang”—but it turns out “Little Rascals” and “Our Gang” seem to be used interchangeably for a whole succession of casts.

The first (and newest) movie is the newer group with Spanky McFarland, Alfalfa Switzer and Buckwheat Thomas, while the other two feature Jackie Cooper, Farina Hoskins and the rest of the earlier group—an almost entirely different cast. I couldn’t warm up to Cooper’s crew. (Good grief. There were 221 of these things between 1922 and 1944!)

Our Gang Follies (of 1938, not 1937) is cute and well produced, consisting mostly of song-and-dance routines in a follies run by Spanky. The hook is that Alfalfa, the star crooner, has decided he wants to sing opera (which consists of singing “I am the barber of Seville” three times, followed by “Figaro” twice)—and after getting booed off the stage, he goes to an opera house where the manager, to get rid of him, signs him to a contract 20 years in the future. Comes a dream and flashforward 20 years, where all the kids are still kids, Alfalfa’s bombed as an opera singer (getting vegetables thrown at him) and is put out on the street to sing opera and collect coins. Spanky owns a nightclub and invites him in—but Alfalfa can’t sing there, because the opera impresario won’t allow it. Never mind; it all works out. A clever little two-reeler.

The other two? Well, School’s Out has the credits spoken by a pair of little girls; otherwise, it’s Klassroom Komedy that mostly revolves around kids who don’t want their teacher to get married and think her brother is actually her suitor. Bear Shooters involves a camping trip, sibling rivalries, limburger cheese and, for reasons that aren’t apparent, two men hiding in the woods who want to scare off the kids and do so by one of them donning a gorilla suit. Maybe I would have found it hilarious when I was five years old. I doubt it. Mostly for Our Gang Follies, I’ll say this group might conceivably be worth $0.50.

All-Star Extravaganza. Umbrella title for three entirely different shorts:

The Stolen Jools (aka The Slippery Pearls), 1931, b&w, William C. McGann (dir.), Wallace Beery, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young and dozens of stars (more than 50 in all). 0:20. An odd little all-star short to raise money for a tuberculosis sanatorium, this was funded by Chesterfield (they get a credit and are the only cigarettes mentioned), presumably done for almost nothing by dozens of stars and distributed for free by Paramount. Lots of cameos dressed up as a jewel-theft mystery. Schtick on a stick, but some of it’s decent schtick. With almost two minutes of credits for a 20-minute two-reeler, it presages today’s bloated credits. I’ll give it $0.25.

Ghost Parade, 1931, b&w, Mack Sennett (dir.), Harry Gribbon, Andy Clyde, Marion Sayers, 0:20 [0:17]. This odd item has some people in an old house that appears haunted, lots of slapstick, plot elements that seem to pop up and disappear randomly, mice crawling over a xylophone and somehow creating good music, and Halloween costumes. It might have been hilarious at the time, it may be typical of Mack Sennett shorts, and I wonder whether its status as an early talkie (with a credit for sound synchronization) is important. It’s also missing a few minutes. To be charitable, I’ll give it $0.10.

La Cucaracha, 1934, color, Lloyd Corrigan (dir.), Steffi Duna, Don Alvorado, Paul Porcasi, Eduardo Durant’s Rhumba Band, 0:20. Writing these notes before looking at IMDB, deliberately, this pleasant surprise seems likely to be a very early 3-strip Technicolor short, done partly to show off Technicolor. (Two-strip Technicolor couldn’t handle the full color spectrum.) It has big swatches of deep blue, reds, golds, greens, as well as other colors. The plot’s cute, set in a cantina: Impresario and food snob arrives, speaking of taking a dancer to the big city under contract if he’s good. Dancer’s woman friend overhears this, accuses male of planning to desert her; he calls her La Cucaracha—the cockroach—and shakes her off. She sabotages the impresario’s salad dressing (or, rather, goads him into sabotaging it himself—much better). Her friends convince her to sing a song (guess which one?). Then, the guy’s big dance number comes up, she and her friends try to sabotage it by starting La Cucaracha again, the guy’s dance partner walks off, turns out the two songs blend—and, of course, she winds up dancing the number, the impresario hires both of them, and all’s well with the world. (After checking IMDB: Right on the money. This is the first live-action 3-strip Technicolor film and the color is nicely preserved. It won an Oscar as Best Short Subject, Comedy.) The sound’s not great, but it’s a charming little number and good demonstration of Technicolor, for which I’ll give it $0.40.

So that totals $0.75 for the three shorts put together: Not terrible, not great.

Fatty Arbuckle Festival (all with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, all silent and presented with unrelated music, all b&w). Includes Fatty Joins the Force, 1913, George Nichols (dir.), Dot Farley, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain, 0:12 [0:14]; Fatty’s Spooning Day (also known as Mabel, Fatty and the Law), 1915, Roscoe Arbuckle (dir.), Mabel Normand, Harry Gribbon, Minta Durfee, 0:11; Fatty’s Suitless Day (also known as Fatty’s Magic Pants), 1914, Roscoe Arbuckle (dir.), Charley Chase, Minta Durfee, 0:12; The Speed Kings, 1913, Wilfred Lucas (dir.), Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, several actual race-car drivers, 0:08.

If you find big men falling down a lot, sometimes not having pants and getting hit over the head by cops just hysterical, you’ll love these—or at least the first three. If not… I will say the slapstick is surrounded by plots, although the second one’s plot seems to be a love song to wifeswapping. The last one’s not an Arbuckle short: He’s in it for perhaps 90 seconds and is definitely a minor character. I just didn’t find any of them all that funny, but I’ll give the group $0.50.

Keystone Cops Festival. Misleading umbrella title for four shorts, the longest of which doesn’t include cops of any sort. All silent (presented with unrelated music), all b&w.

The Bangville Police, 1913, Henry Lehrman (dir.), Mabel Normand, Nick Cogley, Dot Farley, Fred Mace, and a cop who looks like Fatty Arbuckle. 0:08. Odd little farm piece with a police chief who summons his troops by shooting into the ceiling several times and what seems to be the standard for gunplay: Guns have unlimited number of bullets, are almost always aimed at butts and never seem to inflict any damage. I’d have to stretch to come up with $0.05 for this seven-minute piece.

Love, Speed and Thrills, 1915, Mack Sennett (dir.), Mack Swain, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Josef Swickard and the Keystone Kops, 0:13. Hunting gone bad and flirtations, plus some use of comedy cops and slapstick driving. Better than the first, but still no more than a dime’s worth of humor. $0.10.

Her Painted Hero, F. Richard Jones (dir.), Hale Hamilton, Polly Moran, 0:21. I dunno. Maybe the Keystone Cops were watching as this two-reeler was filmed, but there are no police in the piece at all. It seems to be about big inheritances, untalented actors, spurned suitors (all gold-diggers) and a woman buying her way onto the stage where slapstick chaos ensues. The chaos is worth $0.10.

Wife and Auto Trouble, 1916, Dell Henderson and Mack Sennett (dir.), William Collier Sr., Blanche Payson, Alice Davenport, Mae Busch, 0:14 . Yes, there are cops—for about 90 seconds near the end of this short about a man with a big domineering wife, mean mother-in-law and a secretary he’d like to fool around with. They’re the Tri-Stone Cops, not the Keystone Kops or Cops, but never mind. Lots of falling down, a fair amount of shooting and some physical comedy. For this they needed two directors? Very generously, $0.15.

Adding it up, I get a paltry $0.40. Maybe if there were actually four shorts starring the Keystone Cops? Clearly I’m not in awe of early silent-movie slapstick; you may feel differently.

Disc 2

Buster Keaton Festival, all silent (with unrelated music), all b&w, all starring (and written and directed by) Buster Keaton. The Blacksmith, 1922, 0:21 [0:19]; The Boat, 1921, 0:20 [0:22]; The Paleface, 1922, 0:20; Daydreams, 1922, 0:18.

Maybe it’s because Keaton doesn’t deliberately act the clown. Maybe it’s because his pictures were really his pictures. Whatever the case, these work pretty well.

I’d seen The Blacksmith and The Paleface on earlier packs (where they counted as full movies). The Paleface is pretty clever, The Blacksmith is good physical comedy; I’d give each of them $0.35 to $0.50. The Boat tells a sad story of boat-building incompetence, very well done for maximum laughs (if you ignore the peril); another $0.50. Daydreams feels like a later picture than either The Blacksmith or The Boat—better photography, more plot, generally very good. Another $0.50. These aren’t slapstick, by and large; they’re something subtler.

That comes out to $1.70 to $2.00—let’s call it $1.75. That’s on the high side, but this is an enjoyable 80 minutes (or so) of silent comedy as done by one of the masters.

Buster Keaton Classics, all silent (with unrelated music), all b&w, all starring Buster Keaton. The Playhouse, 1921, 0:22 [0:20]; The Balloonatic, 1923, 0:22; My Wife’s Relations, 1922, 0:30 [0:23]; The Electric House, 1922, 0:22 [0:20].

The Playhouse (or Play House) begins with an astonishing five-minute sequence in which Keaton plays all the roles—the conductor, members of the orchestra, a comedy troupe, even the audience (men, women and children alike)—and the playbill shows him in all the roles and stage crew. (Given that this had to be done with in-camera multiple exposures, it’s nothing short of astonishing: At one point, there are nine Keatons on stage.) After that dream sequence, it’s another knockabout comedy set on stage, albeit with a cute side plot in which Keaton’s girlfriend is one of identical twins—and he can’t tell them apart. Two problems: The comedy troupe includes blackface, maybe “typical for its time” but still unfortunate—and the print’s bad enough that it blooms to white in the middle at some points. On balance, $0.35.

The Balloonatic starts at a funhouse and involves balloons and the wilderness—and it’s all gags (and, of course, Keaton’s indomitable incompetence) with a plot that barely holds together. Maybe I’ve seen the “holder with no bottom” three or four times too often in Keaton’s shorts. This felt forced. $0.20.

My Wife’s Relations is based on Keaton unwittingly marrying a big woman with four big, mean brothers (it has to do with Polish judges), being generally beleaguered—Keaton always seems to be a hapless creature—and other nonsense. Decent plot, almost entirely slapstick. Maybe the half-hour version makes more sense. $0.30.

The Electric House offers a Keaton newly graduated from college—but handed the wrong degree, certifying him as an Electrical Engineer when he should have been a Doctor of Botany. The bigwig handing out the degrees wants his new house electrified and offers Keaton the job, while he goes on vacation. Fortunately, the bigwig’s daughter tosses Keaton a book, Electricity Made Easy or something of the sort. The family returns to a remarkably “electrified” house—with stairs that become escalators, a dining room with self-seating chairs and a model train to serve dishes from the kitchen, an electrified pool table and more. Of course things go wrong in a variety of ways. This one’s worth $0.50.

Add them up and I get $1.35, which sounds about right: Watchable but somewhat disappointing, except for the first five minutes and the last short.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., 1928, b&w. Charles Reisner (dir.), Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, Tom Lewis. 1:11 [1:09]

Not quite a feature-length film (or maybe it was for the time), this silent has a real plot, loads of physical comedy in Keaton’s best form, and a romance—and this time, Keaton wins out in the end. He’s the son of a steamboat operator, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, with a rundown sternwheeler, just in town (River Junction) from college in Boston—and his girl back in Boston is also in town. She’s the daughter of the bigshot, John James King, who’s introducing a spiffy new steamboat that will put Steamboat Bill’s clunker out of business—especially when King has it condemned. Naturally, King forbids his daughter from seeing Bill Jr. and Bill forbids his son from seeing the girl, in both cases saying “I’ll choose the right mate for you,” so there’s a little Montague-Capulet plot here as well. Father tries to turn son into a proper steamboater (part of which includes a hat-choice sequence that’s remarkably good fun), and there’s lots more.

Add a lengthy, involved storm sequence (with some astonishing and presumably dangerous stunts and special effects) and Bill Jr.’s unexpected bravery and competence, and you have quite a picture. (You may have heard of the classic and potentially deadly shot where the front of a house falls on Keaton, standing in the street—and happening to be just where an open window frame is. No stunt double, and supposedly some of the crew couldn’t stand to watch the filming.) For a change, the music is related to the film—a theater organ track that’s apparently composed for the picture, as it includes appropriate sound effects. Good print. Sigh. This is one I’ll probably watch again and it’s clearly a classic, but I’m hard-pressed to give more than $1.25 to a one-hour flick. Oh well, it’s 1:11 (or 1:09): $2.00.

As You Like It, 1936, b&w. Paul Czinner (dir.), Henry Einley, Elisabeth Bergner, Felix Aylmer, Laurence Olivier. 1:36 [1:27].

From Buster Keaton to William Shakespeare—well, why not? This is not just a filmed play. They expand the scope to natural settings but retain the dialogue. Unfortunately, the first part of the film has a noisy soundtrack, which doesn’t help with something as dialogue-heavy as a Shakespeare comedy.

I won’t trouble you with the plot. It’s all Shakespeare, almost all in the Forest of Arden; the film omits some of the play but apparently adds no new dialogue.

Laurence Olivier—not Sir at that point—stars. It’s a generally lively, solid performance. You need serious suspension of disbelief for the key conceit in the film: That Orlando (Olivier), deeply in love with Rosalind, cannot recognize her as either Rosalind or as a woman because she is wearing tights and a frilly shirt/blouse rather than a dress, even though she makes no attempt to disguise her hairdo or, really, her voice. But hey, it’s a comedy, and there are some fine monologues along the way (including “All the world’s a stage”). Because of the soundtrack and missing nine minutes, I can’t give it more than $1.25.

Disc 3

Speak Easily, 1932, b&w. Edward Sedgwick (dir.), Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Ruth Selwyn, Thelma Todd, Hedda Hopper, Sidney Toler. 1:22.

Buster Keaton—this time in a full-length sound movie (another Buster Keaton Production). He’s Professor Potts, living a sheltered life and without enough savings to broaden his horizons. He gets a letter saying he’s inherited a fortune and takes off (the letter’s actually a phony from Potts’ assistant/colleague, designed to get him to take a vacation).

He encounters a truly awful theatrical group led by Jimmy Durante and falls for one of its players. With his fortune backing it, the group goes to Broadway. There’s a fair amount of Keaton’s physical comedy and fish-out-of-water character throughout, including Potts’ first encounter with alcohol—and it all winds up in a remarkable 15-minute theatrical sequence, physical comedy of the highest order as the Professor unintentionally converts the sad-sack show into a hit comedy.

All in all, an enjoyable movie, and the last scenes are both funny and well-played. The print and sound track are both fairly good (with a few flaws). $1.75.

Li’l Abner, 1940, b&w. Albert S. Rogell (dir.), Jeff York, Martha O’Driscoll, Mona Ray, Buster Keaton, Edgar Kennedy, Doodles Weaver. 1:18 [1:10].

Some IMDB reviewers felt that Speak Easily was an atrocity as a Buster Keaton movie. I disagree. I’m guessing they haven’t seen this—which, if viewed as a “Buster Keaton movie” (the sleeve lists him as the star), really is an atrocity. He plays Lonesome Polecat, a local Indian (I guess)…and about the best you can say is that he’s only in the movie for a few minutes and at least he doesn’t have to deal with phony bugeyes, like Pansy ‘Mammy’ Yokum does, or false noses and other absurd prostheses like many other characters.

It’s a comic strip movie. I get that. They use makeup and whatever to make it look as much like the comic strip as possible—to the point of silliness. And, like some other comic strip movies, it’s…well, just not very funny, unless you’re enormously fond of Appalachian stereotypes. I’ll admit I was never a diehard Li’’l Abner fan; maybe if I was, I’d love this flick. Maybe the missing eight minutes are wonderful. As it is…the print’s not too bad, so I’ll give it a reluctant $0.75.

It’s a Joke Son, 1947, b&w. Benjamin Stoloff (dir.), Kenny Delmar, Una Merkel, June Lockhart, Kenneth Farrell, Douglass Dumbrille. 1:03.

This movie features a self-caricature, Senator Beauregard Claghorn, a Southern gentleman who hates even the word North and orates a fine bold streak—but who’s also totally under his wife’s thumb. It also involves a teetotaling Southern ladies’ club and the effects when Claghorn mixes up the grape punch—aided by a little boy who doesn’t read very well and pours in several different bottles of “grape juice”—all of it highly alcoholic. The main plots are the relationship between his daughter (a lovely June Lockhart) and her beau, who Mrs. Claghorn doesn’t think is good enough for the daughter (but who he rather takes a liking to), money from his mint farm and a race for the State Senate in which the incumbent is an old fool totally in the pocket of a gang and Mrs. Claghorn is put up for election by the ladies’ club.

Thing is, it’s funny. Claghorn thinks North Carolina should be Upper South Carolina; he still buys Confederate Victory Bonds. (He’s slender, well-spoken and fairly good looking; this isn’t playing on physical stereotypes. There are also no racial issues involved in the movie.) The title comes from Claghorn’s line whenever he says something, I say, says something he deems funny and gets the usual silent response. The acting suits the movie, the action is internally consistent, it moves right along. The 22-year-old June Lockhart is simply stunning and also good in her role (but then, wasn’t she always?). (The Claghorn character as played by Kenny Delmar was a regular on the Fred Allen radio show. The Warner Bros. cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn was a takeoff on Claghorn.) The print and soundtrack are both fine. Even though it’s short, I’ll give it $1.75.

Zis Boom Bah, 1941, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Grace Hayes, Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Benny Rubin, Richard Gallagher, Roland Dupree, Huntz Hall. 1:01.

This one’s tough. On one hand, it’s a charming one-hour movie about college, family, song & dance, and kids redeeming themselves—and it has some characters playing themselves. The basic plot: A successful singer whose son (under another name and being raised by his grandfather) is attending college on her dime looks into how it’s going, finds the son is a spoiled young man and the college is in trouble, and cuts off his allowance. She buys the local student hangout (there’s funny stuff here) and, through various means, winds up saving the college and its football team and turning all the spoiled kids into polished entertainers.

So far so good. Decent print. Decent sound—with one big and, in this case, nearly fatal exception: Whenever there’s music, it’s distorted enough that it’s painful. In a movie that relies heavily on musical numbers, including most of the last quarter of the film, that’s a pretty serious flaw. With it, I can’t give this more than $0.75.

East Side Kids, 1940, b&w. Robert F. Hill (dir.), Leon Ames, Dennis Moore, Joyce Bryant, Hal Chester, Harris Berger, FrankieBurke, Dave O’Brien. 1:02 {1:00].

Now I remember one reason I put off buying this set: It has at least seven movies with the East Side Kids, and I thought three such flicks in the Family Classics set was at least two too many.

In this case, there’s the bad-kid-turned-good-cop bit, with him opening up a club to keep the gang off the street—but his friend’s facing execution for something he didn’t do, and if that happens, some of the kids will be completely lost. Meanwhile, there’s another nogoodnik acquaintance involved with a counterfeiting ring. At one point, the cop himself is the suspect.

I guess it’s vintage East Side Kids—but it’s before Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall and is better than the others I’ve seen. But it wasn’t particularly funny. Judged as a comedy, I’m not sure it would get any score at all. Judged as a one-hour flick on its own merits—well, the print’s OK. Being very generous and assuming some folks just love the East Side Kids, $0.75.

Disc 4

Broadway Limited, 1941, b&w. Gordon Douglas (dir.), Victor McLaglen, Marjorie Woodworth, Dennis O’Keefe, Patsy Kelly, Zasu Pitts, Leonid Kinskey, George E. Stone. 1:15.

As a Hollywood starlet (Woodworth) and her producer [Kinskey] (and his secretary [Kelly]) get ready to go from a triumphant premiere in Chicago to one in New York—on the express train, the Broadway Limited—the producer gets the bright idea that the starlet would be more appealing with a baby. A railroad engineer [McLaglen] (who’s wooing the smart-mouth secretary) manages to come up with such a baby. The rest of the movie takes place on the train—in sleeping cars, dining car and lounge car (the engineer—deadheading so he can take a vacation—has his very own sleeping room).

But a child has been kidnapped in Chicago and the kid looks a lot like the “adopted” baby. Did I mention that a handsome but poor young doctor [O’Keefe], who would like to be wooing the starlet, is also on board? I didn’t quite understand the relationship of Myra Prottle [Pitts] to the others, but she’s as funny as you’d expect Zasu Pitts to be. The plot moves forward with that vigor that lots of little compartments on a moving train can give a screwball romantic comedy, with people bouncing in and out of rooms and many misunderstandings—and it’s a pretty good comedy, well played by all involved. Thoroughly enjoyable; not laugh-a-minute stuff, but very good. A few flaws, but the print’s generally fine. (Filmed with the cooperation of the Pennsylvania Railroad using real equipment and trackside shots. Apparently, this flick is loved by railroad fans for its authenticity.) $1.50.

The Stork Club, 1945, b&w. Hal Walker (dir.), Betty Hutton, Barry Fitzgerald, Done DeFore, Robert Benchley, Bill Goodwin. 1:38.

A little old man (Fitzgerald) loses his hat in the wind, and it winds up in the drink—and so does he. A hatcheck girl (Hutton) at the Stork Club, swimming nearby, saves him from drowning. At that point, he looks like a down-on-his-luck type. She gets him a job at the Stork Club as a busboy, which doesn’t work out.

But he’s not all that down-and-out. He’s wealthy, and instructs his lawyer—the wonderful comic writer, Robert Benchley, in a small and relatively straight part—to see to it that the girl’s taken care of, without mentioning him. Next thing we know, she’s in a 12-room penthouse apartment and has purchased two mink coats and a variety of high-end dresses…and, oh yes, has invited the poor old guy to move in (he takes one of the many rooms).

Her boyfriend shows up—he’s a would-be bandleader just out of the service—and makes the natural assumption on seeing a hatcheck girl in an uptown 12-room penthouse with fancy clothes and an old man hanging about. Did I mention that she’s also a would-be singer, and a very good one at that?

You can guess most of the rest of the plot. The band can’t get work for a couple of weeks, so she has them move into the other 12-room flat on the penthouse level. The wife who the old man told to go away four years ago wants him back—and he wants her back, but won’t admit as much. The hatcheck girl begins to assume that the Stork Club’s boss is the mysterious benefactor. Everything, of course, gets straightened out by the end. Well done, well played, decent print, a little lightweight. No belly laughs, but an enjoyable comedy of errors with quite a few songs. $1.25.

The Amazing Adventure (aka The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss), 1936, b&w. Alfred Zeisler (dir.), Cary Grant, Mary Brian, Peter Gawthorne. 1:20/1:02 (1:02 here).

A charming little movie, one that’s a full-fledged feature despite its short length (apparently 18 minutes shorter than the original). Cary Grant plays Ernest Bliss, a wealthy young London socialite, inherited wealth, who feels lousy. A physician informs him that he feels lousy because he doesn’t do anything and is sort of worthless; this physician also runs a clinic for the less fortunate. The physician says Bliss could never last a year on his own devices, without being propped up by his fortune. Bliss makes a bet: 50,000 pounds to the clinic if he fails to do just that, an apology and handshake if he succeeds.

The rest of the movie is about the socialite’s quest to make it on his own, starting with nothing but one suitcase of clothes and a five-pound note. Along the way, he meets and courts a young woman who’s not wealthy either—and who almost rejects him at the last moment because she needs money to care for her sister, and that makes money worth more than love.

All well played, and, come on, it’s a romantic comedy: Of course it all works out in the end. The print is OK, but the sound is distorted whenever there’s music—which, given that portions of the film are set either in a high-class nightclub or in a charming little everyday-folks restaurant that has music, is a real problem. Given that, I’ll say $1.25.

My Love for Yours (aka Honeymoon in Bali), 1939, b&w. Edward H. Griffith (dir.), Fred MacMurray, Madeleine Carroll, Allan Jones, Akim Tamiroff, Helen Broderick, Osa Massen. 1:35 [1:40].

Attractive, independent woman (Carroll) who’s executive VP of a department store, makes lots of money, has no room for marriage or kids—and whose somewhat older female friend (Broderick) notes the regret of being too independent too long. Opera-singer (Jones), dear friend of the VP who’s loved her from afar but knows she doesn’t love him. American man (MacMurray) who lives in Bali shows up, young girl in tow, and immediately falls for her—but he’s skeptical of the whole independent-woman theory. And there’s a young woman from Bali who’s wealthy and wants this guy for her very own. Oh, and there’s a wise middle-aged window washer (Tamiroff, in a good if small role).

Need I bother with the rest of the plot? No, I thought not. It’s a romantic comedy. The print’s fine. The sound’s fine. The acting’s OK (Fred MacMurray is a little too brash for his own good, but that’s in keeping.) And…well, it’s mildly amusing, no more than that. (There’s also a supposedly south-seas song with a one-line lyric repeated over and over, and it’s truly irritating.) A bit of a disappointment. $1.25.

Disc 5

All four movies on this disc star the East Side Kids in various permutations. My tolerance for repeated doses of these charming JDs is limited, so I interleaved Hitchcock and East Side Kids movies.

Clancy Street Boys, 1943, b&w. William Beaudine (dir.), Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Noah Beery. 1:29/1:06 [1:05]

Muggs’ late father used to brag to his brother that he had seven kids, slightly exaggerating from the one. Since then, the brother—a wealthy Texan—has been sending seven birthday checks each year. Now the brother’s coming to town… And Muggs’ uses the Kids to act as his brothers (and one sister). A slick local hoodlum somehow uses this as an excuse to kidnap the Texan. The kids save the day.

Not terrible, but nothing special. Huntz Hall in drag (as the sister) may be a highlight. I guess you have to be a fan. Some missing clips. Very charitably, $0.75.

Pride of the Bowery, 1940, b&w. Joseph H. Lewis (dir.), Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Kenneth Howell, Mary Ainslee, Bobby Stone, David Gorcey, Kenneth Harlan. 1:01 [1:00]

This time, Muggs wants to train as a boxer for the Golden Gloves—and his pal sets up a way to get him fresh air and lots of training. How? By signing the whole gang up for a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. After initial issues, Muggs and the gang take to the situation fairly well (the $22 a month going back to his mom doesn’t hurt). The movie involves boxing and honor, and portrays Muggs as a prince among kids, maybe too much so.

I liked this one better. Maybe it was the outdoors or the filming (which seemed more natural than some, although the print has some damage and a persistent flare in a lower corner). Maybe it was the plot and the acting. It certainly wasn’t a laugh-fest, but it was more enjoyable than I expected. As a one-hour second-feature, I’ll give it $1.

Smart Alecks, 1942, b&w. Wallace Fox (dir.), Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Max “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, Gale Storm. 1:07 [1:05]

The plot this time: The Gang wants uniforms to play baseball, but has no money. Older brother (or friend?) of one of them drops by in suit, offers money—but they assume it’s “dirty money” and they don’t take dirty money. Turns out they’re right—he’s a lookout for bank robbers. One thing leads to another, there’s a scene in which one of the robbers (Rosenbloom) grabs nearly half of a cake that a nurse (sister of one of the gang, played by Gale Storm) baked for the gang and Muggs retaliates by spiking extra frosting (and adding alum to coffee).

The rest has to do with loyalty in various ways. Probably fine for what it is, although unless you’re a big fan of Muggs’ malapropos and gestures, most of the humor is in the cake-doctoring scene. The print’s good and it’s over an hour, but I can’t give it more than $1.

Mr. Wise Guy, 1942, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Billy Gilbert, Guinn Williams, Joan Barclay. 1:10 [0:58].

It’s clear that the only way I could make it through four of these is by breaking them up with early Hitchcock flicks—but it also works the other way around. Still, it’s a relief to get to the last one; if only I wasn’t aware that the next disc has two more.

There’s one good comic moment, very near the beginning: The gang are outside a bakery, a brick comes through the window, the cops show up and start to haul them in—and the baker says “nah, I’m just clumsy, that was me.” After that, the plot revolves around an escaped convict who supposedly drowned trying to swim to shore, a “stolen” truck that the gang gets blamed for (and all get sent to the reformatory, where they have spiffy uniforms and seem happy enough), a robbery gone bad that winds up with an entirely innocent older brother of one of the gang (who was forced to drive a getaway car) convicted of murder…and, of course, the gang saving the day.

I can’t think of anything particularly good or bad to say about this one. It seems like more of the same old, same old, and you really have to love Leo Gorcey to much care about this group of semi-juvenile semi-delinquents. Charitably, $0.75.

Disc 6

Million Dollar Kid, 1944, b&w. Wallace Fox (dir.), Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, William ‘Billy” Benedict, Louise Currie, Noah Berry, Herbert Heyes, Johnnny Duncan. 1:05.

Yet another East Side Kids flick—but one of the more heartwarming, if you can deal with the premise of this large band of young adults with no jobs, no visible means of income but also a firm opposition to any actual criminal activity. (“Young adults” gets to be more of a stretch over time…)

In this one, the Kids hear about muggings taking place on their turf that could damage their reputation. They encounter one of them: three punks taking on an older man. They fight off the punks, rescue the man…and find his wallet in the trash, money intact. Then the cops pick them up, but the man comes to the police station and identifies them as his saviors. He convinces them to drop by his house (there’s a nice little class-warfare scene involving the butler) where he shows them a well-equipped gym and invites them to use it. They also meet his daughter, a looker who Muggs falls for instantly.

Rest of the plot? One son’s a pilot overseas; the other seems a little lost (and spends his time in a pool hall filled with unsavory characters). The daughter’s semi-engaged to a Frenchman who seems a little off…and her father’s managed to alienate most of the servants so she’s not sure who can cook or serve at a party she wants to throw. The Kids provide the cook and servant, and along the way discover that the Frenchman’s a grifter with a phony accent (and reveal that to her in the right way), the son was one of the muggers (but he’s mostly confused, not really bad), and manage to convince the son to clean up his act. All sweetness and light, and occasionally amusing—and for a change the Kids get along pretty well with the cops. Unfortunately, the sound track is noisy and there are just enough missing frames to be annoying. $0.75.

Bowery Blitzkrieg, 1941, b&w. Wallace Fox (dir.), Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Keye Luke and the usual gang. 1:02 [0:59]

This time the plot concerns Muggs being sent to reform school on a phony charge, getting out as long as he’s training (as a Police Athletic League rep) for a boxing tournament, claims by a local hood that he’s getting Muggs to throw the bout and lots more. The culmination: Muggs donates blood to save his pal (that’s all involved with the bout-throwing; it’s complicated and has to do with some of the less ethical or more stupid ESKs) on the day of the Big Bout…but all comes out OK in the end, of course.

That’s a short summary because I didn’t write it up right after seeing the film, and there was really no long-term memory of the movie. It was OK, better than some, and—as with most of these—really for people who love Leo Gorcey and the gang. For that crowd, I’ll give it $1.

Three Broadway Girls (aka The Greeks Had a Word for Them), 1932, b&w. Lowell Sherman (dir.), Joan Blondell, Madge Evans, Ina Claire, David Manners, Lowell Sherman. 1:19.

Not an East Side Kids picture. It’s a comedy about three gold-diggers, whose methods are tipped off by an opening title, noting that half of the women in the world are working women—and the other half are working the men. It’s amusing, and all three women are interesting characters, but it’s also a bit forced: One of the three repeatedly undermines any chance for happiness or love by the others, and you’d think the other two would freeze her out at some point. But that would be serious, and there’s nothing serious about this flick. It’s amusing, it’s distinctly amoral in a pre-Code way, and I’ll give it $1.25.

Swing High, Swing Low, 1937, b&w. Mitchell Leisen (dir.), Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Charles Butterworth, Jean Dixon, Dorothy Lamour, Anthony Quinn. 1:32 [1:22]

Comedy? Really? Maybe a musical romantic “comedy,” but even that’s a stretch. Maggie, working on a cruise ship, meets Skid (Fred MacMurray), just getting out of the army, while on her way through the Panama Canal locks. She winds up with him in a nightclub, there’s a brawl, they wind up in jail, she’s stranded… He turns out to be a great trumpet player.

Events ensue. They get married. He gets a great offer to play in New York—and he’ll send for her later. He’s a big hit. Except that another woman, the singer in New York, Anita Alvarez (Dorothy Lamour), makes sure he’s always broke and, when Maggie takes a ship to New York on her own, makes sure he doesn’t get the telegram to meet her…and takes him back to her room.

Maggie gets a divorce. He falls apart completely—even though he’s really never spent much time with her and has always treated her badly, as far as we can tell. It all ends well, I guess—but I never quite see why she doesn’t just dump this self-centered schmuck and go marry the cattleman who clearly loves her. Maybe I’m just not romantic enough. Maybe the missing 10 minutes is important.

Ah, but it has Lombard, MacMurray, Lamour and more—there’s also Charles Butterworth doing a fine turn as a piano player and others doing good work. Well photographed, reasonably well acted, some good music. As a comedy, though, it’s a washout. Charitably, $1.25.

Summing Up

Twenty-six movies or collections of shorts. One movie I’d call a true classic, Steamboat Bill, Jr.. Three more come close: the collection titled Buster Keaton Festival and the movies Speak Easily and It’s a Joke Son. Also very good and worth rewatching: Broadway Limited. Plus eight more flicks worth $1.25 each (possibly worth rewatching) and three more at $1.00 (so-so).

That’s not bad—figure $20.50 for those 15 movies. The other eleven I could do without, although none were so bad as to get $0 or $0.25 ratings.

One obvious factor surprises me, since I thought I wasn’t particularly fond of Buster Keaton: He’s the star of three of the four best pictures (or collections) in this group. One obvious factor doesn’t surprise me at all: The East Side Kids strike me as neither funny nor uplifting.

Total for this half: $27.50. Not bad for half of a $12-$15 set.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 9, Whole Issue 119, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network.

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