In the beginning…

Fred Allen introduces IT’S IN THE BAG in his best pre-post-modern style.

Fred didn’t really make it to the UK — our loss, clearly. We did get Jack Benny, but only through his movies and live appearances, and the fame those brought him didn’t last much longer than their first release. It’s ironic, since one of his favourite jokes, trundled out again during his cameo in IT’S IN THE BAG (Rudy Vallee, Don Ameche and William Bendix also guest), is that his movies are terrible. Which isn’t true, as Lubitsch and Walsh fans can testify.

JB: “Twelve members for a Jack Benny fan club? Are you being too exclusive? Do you keep out the riff-raff?”

FA: “If we kept out the riff-raff we’d only have three members.”

JB: “What about my movies?”

FA: “Ah, even the riff-raff don’t go to see those.”

JB: “Have you tried giving away dishes?”

FA: “Yes, they threw them at the screen.”

JB: “Have you tried not giving away dishes?”

FA: “Yes. They bring their own dishes and throw them at the screen.”

(Benny’s jokes at the expense of his Walsh movie, THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT — and what a great title that is! — are echoed today by Jon Stewart’s dismissive references to his own efforts in DEATH TO SMOOCHIE — which is, itself, not an uninteresting movie.)

Anyhow, IT’S IN THE BAG is just about as entertaining as this opening suggests. Gags which break the third wall are used sparingly, so the film does have a little bit of reality left to disrupt. In general, no joke is too corny or too laborious to be included, but some of the worst ones are some of the best. Alma Reville, power behind the Hitchcock throne, co-wrote, which is fascinating: I don’t exactly know what to make of it, but it’s fascinating.

Here’s an earlier Fred short, just because.

39 Responses to “In the beginning…”

  1. Death To Smoochy is really quite teriffic. Kenneth Anger has cited it as one of his favorite films of recent years.

  2. High time for a remake of Zombie in the Attic!

  3. I little googling shows that Jack Skirball, producer on It’s in the Bag (1945), produced the Hitchcock pictures Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). That’s probably the connection that got Alma Reville involved.

  4. Thanks, Zabby! That clears up how she might’ve been gotten involved, but I’d love to know what she contributed.

    We were very excited at the prospect of seeing Zombie in the Attic, but like Fred, we were destined to be disappointed. All we got was one scarcely audible line, “What does the zombie look like?”

  5. Fred could be pretty sharp-tongued on his radio broadcasts. In a 1941 broadcast where he’s ostensibly giving Jack Benny a 10th Anniversary tribute (he does nothing but insult and ignore Benny the whole hour), he lets out a line about John Barrymore appearing in Svengali in 1931, and adds about Barrymore, “now stooging for Rudy Vallee”, as Barrymore was appearing on Rudy Vallee’s radio program at that time.

    I think one reason Allen isn’t better-known (besides not having a big film or TV career) is that he was pretty topical.

  6. True, even this movie contains a few references which escaped us.

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, Correection. “The Jack Benny Program” did appear on BBC TV in the 1950s as did THE BURNS AND ALLEN show. I remember Benny’s appearance as Gracie in drag along with George Burns in SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE LONDON PALLADIUM towards the end of the 50s.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Also, this is a good start to New Year’s Day. In terms of your reference to pre-postmodern, this goes even further back as with the opening to Marston’s THE MALCONTENT and Kidd’s SPANISH TRAGEDY where a character who has been killed before the action begins arrives before the start of each act to see how revenge will be effected.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Richard Wallace, a name so “generic” as to defeat any attempt to make him one of them highfalutin’ auteurs, actually did direct one other interesting film: THE FALLEN SPARROW (43), in which John Garfield actually plays a . . . (gasp!) leftist!

  10. Mel Brooks’ version of this same story, The Twelve Chiars is really quite teriffic. Frangelella starred with Ron Moody and the much-missed Dom DeLuise — whose wildly gregarious performance as the villainous “Father Fyodor” is the film’s greatest delight.

  11. Ah, Jack Benny’s UK airings were before my time. And I guess he never found his way into the endless cycle of repeats. For some reason, The Phil Silvers Show did, and as a result is slightly better known in the UK than it is in the US.

    Wallace directs deftly here, so I’m intrigued to see what else he has to offer. I do suspect I’ve seen several of his films, but I can’t recall which for the moment.

    It’s been too long since I saw the Brooks movie — reportedly his favourite.

  12. I know of Wallace from The Young In Heart and an old Paramount, The Road To Reno that I never realized he directed until I looked it up.

  13. Christopher Says:

    ha ha..I love those opening credits!!..LOL to Robert Benchley and John Carradine as phone book names.. :o))

  14. Ah, that’s right, Mark. The Young in Heart is terrific, with spectacular design by William Cameron Menzies and amazing performances all round. And the world’s cutest puppy.

    I like the line about the contribution of the butter, Christopher.

  15. John Seal Says:

    The Horn Blows at Midnight is not bad by any means. It holds up better than most ’40s comedies, IMHO…

  16. I must have seen it on TV as a youngster not long after seeing It’s in the Bag. I remember the Benny slightly better than I did the Allen. Been meaning to revisit it.

    Danny DeVito may be a neglected minor genius of modern US film-making…

  17. The War of the Roses is quite amazing.

  18. Yes, it’s incredibly strong. Matilda’s very good. Not sure he was the right man for Hoffa, but there are interesting things in it. Haven’t seen Duplex.

  19. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, The Perry Como Show was also very popular on BBC in the late 50s but it was never reshown. If you saw that documentary of his British tour years ago, one in Scotland where he borrowed a tartan scarf and bottle of whisky from an adoring fan in the audience who applauded him like a rock star, then you will see that one-off entertainments remain in the minds of the audience.

    Ronald Colman and Benita Hume also guested in a Jack Benny TV episode I saw. They also appeared in a popular radio and TV series, THE HALLS OF IVY that never came our way.

  20. There’s apparently an alternate version of “It’s In The Bag” circulating. In the alternate the opening credits Fred Allen commentary extends throughout the film. Here’s a link that describes this:

  21. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen Thanks A Million, a film which Mr. Shreve brings up in that post at TDOY, and Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly really are the best things in that rather mediocre film. Poor Ann Dvorak, she never got much of a break in musicals (I like her in Bright Lights, but it’s really Joe E. Brown’s show).

  22. Christopher Says:

    I’ve watched The Jack Benny Program many times over the years( it had its biggest re-run in the 80s) and its consistently funny..Largely what makes him funny to me is his ability to be made fun of,often sinking to the lowest depths(something modern comics seem unwilling to do..everyone wants to be a wiseguy)..And with all those familiar guests milling about with regulars like Mel Blanc and Frank Nelson,its often like watching a live action warner bros. cartoon.

  23. It is! I’ve never saw reruns in the ’80s, but I did see Benny in reruns (and probably some original eps when I was very small) in the late ’60s/early ’70s era. The funniest I saw was the Christmas Shopping episode they ran (it’s up on YouTube). I found out it was an old chestnut that Benny redid every few years on radio and TV. Even the ad within the sketch is funny (Don Wilson, a huge man dressed as a little boy, sits on Santa’s lap with predictable results while delivering a spiel for car insurance). I also found a Benny episode clip on YouTube with Groucho Marx, having Jack fake his way into being a contestant on You Bet Your Life, while a suspicious Groucho quizzes him. Also found an oddity – when Jack’s Maxwell is stolen and he has to visit the Beverly Hills PD (the swankiest police station anywhere), the desk sergeant is….Lyle Talbot!

  24. Christopher Says:

    My earliest recollection of the Jack Benny show is in the 60s when Peter Paul and Mary appeared and sang an amusing ballad about Jack.In the 80s it ran on a local station for a long time back to back with You Bet your Life,Dobie Gillis and Love That Bob,ironically,almost the same line up as in the early 60s..

  25. I don’t know why, but our local stations didn’t carry much classic TV comedy by the ’80s, but they sure ran a lot of old movies well into the ’90s.

  26. Bilko occasionally turns up on BBC2 in the daytime — and that’s IT for old-time US TV here. I really want to see the alternative IITB! now.

    And I should make time to watch more Benny on YouTube.

  27. There’s a Benny TV episode where he has a bout of sleepwalking, and keeps ending up in a department store window, my favorite….

  28. Benny was a genius.

    Lubitsch didn’t cast him in To Be or Not To Be simply because he was looking for a big star.

  29. My friend Lawrie saw him perform live and said he was amazing. When he came back for a second viewing, he expected new ad-libs, but it was word-for-word, pause-for-pause, exactly the same. The perfect artistic illusion of spontaneity.

  30. That’s the heart of the vaudeville tradition. Once you got an act down pat and it was a success you repeated it for years and years afterwards. That’s because people who saw the act the first time and loved it would bring friends with them the next time you played their town — and they wanted you to do the exact act they first saw and told these friends about.

  31. Tony Williams Says:

    One of Benny’s greatest performances was appearing with two monkeys – all identically dressed – and upstaging the competition. This appeared on a documentary about his work some years ago.

  32. Sounds wonderful! When I get this bunch of articles out of the way (more on them later) I’ll be trawling the web for classic Benny.

  33. Christopher Says:

  34. Found it amusing just reading the synopsis”


  35. Gorgeous! I like all the picture interference too, makes it seem like an alien signal transmitted to us from some strange universe where this actually happened.

  36. Tony Williams Says:

    Let us not forget Rochester. He was great in those TV shows.

  37. I love IT’S IN THE BAG. I think it very likely that Alma Reville was responsible for the suspense plot (loosely derived from “The Twelve Chairs”) that ties together the various comic episodes. It may be the most Kafkaesque comedy made in America up to that point in time – especially the sequence where Allen and his family are made to ascend ever higher and higher levels of the Radio City Musical Hall before finding themselves back on the street. Another film with a Kafkaesque flavor made at about the same time was Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR, produced by the same producer, to which Alma almost certainly contributed.

    @ Tony Williams – completely agree with you re that Jack Benny/chimpanzee sketch.

  38. Tony Williams Says:

    Thanks C, Jerry. I’ve just scrolled down Tom’s list of episodes and remember seeing “Jack takes the Beavers to the Fair.” Color had not arrived for UK TV by the time but I remember the opening when a couple recognized Jack. They then saw him giving each of the Beavers 50 cents. The couple shook their heads saying, “No, it can’t be him” and walked away. The next shot showed Jack make each Beaver sign an IOU for the amount he gave them.

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