Red All Over

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I had never seen a Red Skelton movie. In the clips I saw he looked kind of awful, but on the other hand, Buster Keaton liked him. A friend said, “There was talent there, but the volume switch was faulty.”

So, we got on an Esther Williams kick — there’s talent there too — which led us to run ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, which has a nice little water ballet directed by Vincente Minnelli — interesting to see how he handles it, as opposed to Busby Berkeley or Charles Walters or George Sidney. It also has Red Skelton hamming it up in one sketch (like KING OF JAZZ, it intersperses songs and sketches). The sketch is pretty unfunny, and Fiona’s immediate reaction to the mugging was revulsion. But then he actually got a few laughs, overcoming our resistance to his overkill with more overkill. Overandoverkill. And he certainly had some chops as a visual comedian.

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A gag from THE HIGH SIGN! Was Buster working as gag man at MGM in 1943? It seems likely.

So then my same friend mentions DU BARRY WAS A LADY, and that seems like a suitable medium for further investigation. If Skelton gets too much for us, we have his fellow redhead Lucille Ball, and third-billed Gene Kelly, and Tommy Dorsey and his band, and a practically juvenile Zero Mostel doing a really good Charles Boyer impersonation — not just the voice — he kinda morphs his face so as to actually resemble Boyer, albeit a pudgy, ugly Boyer.

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Too bad Zero doesn’t get to sing a note, except as part of the chorus. But maybe best of all, the film has Virginia O’Brien, singing a song not in the Cole Porter show ~

Like KISS ME KATE, this play has had considerable damage done by rewriting, moving of songs, substitution of songs. It’s verging on a revue, like ZIEGFELD GIRLS, but with just enough connective tissue to be able to call itself an actual movie. And Skelton has it dialled down slightly — he’s playing an awful obnoxious dope, though, and Skelton’s particular comic instrument does not reduce the less appealing qualities.

But — in a Twitter conversation I was just defending the musical, but saying that even the worst MGM musical will still tend to have a few jaw-dropping moments. This one has QUITE a few.

Best gag: Red wins the sweepstake, and as he passes out in shock we get the traditional newspaper montage, only each headline carries only a fragment of the story —

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15 Responses to “Red All Over”

  1. “DuBarry Was a Lady” was a big fit on Broadway. Metro bought it and proceeded to plunder it. The film version — a vehicle for the profoundly unfunny Red Skelton — was fairly charmless. It should have been done with its Broadway star, the great Bert Lahr. But that was not to be. Chales Walters was in the Boradway cast and he and a singer-dancer named Bettey grabel stopped the show nightly with a number called “Well Did You Evah.” Fox hired Betty and made her a star. Chuck was hired by Metro and became a director –though he didn’t give up dancing as can be seen in his turns with Judy in “Girl Crazy” and “Presenting Lily Mars.” Years later when making “High Society” he realized a number for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra was required. So Cole Porter did a slight revamping of the lyrics of “Well Ddid Yo Evah” and VOILA!

  2. I fondly remember watching Red Skelton ‘s tv show as a child. He just seemed to be a good soul, and his pantomime seemed clever to a six year old. But, I have generally found his films underwhelming. The exception are his trilogy of “Whistling…” movies. They get funnier with each sequel. His patter with Rags Ragland in Whistling in Brooklyn is straight out of vaudeville, but very funny.

  3. S. Sylvan Simon, the director of the Whistling movies seems to know how to film slapstick and clearly had an appreciation for what Red could do. Again, there are some pratfalls that feel Keatonesque although I have seen no confirmation that he was involved as a gag writer.

  4. Skelton is an acquired taste I never acquired, and I’ve heard his radio show and seen a number of his films (and wrote a piece on the WHISTLING films). Sure, he has his moments, but the din…THE DIN.

  5. He’s comparatively muted in this one, by his standards, but his overdeveloped smile muscles still cause mugging.

    OK, the Whistling films are bookmarked…

  6. And weirdly it was just twoi posts ago I referred to the excellent ORIGINAL of Whistling in the Dark, starring Ernest Truex, who was an unlikely leading man but still likelier than Red…

  7. Randy Cook Says:

    Well, I can see where the re-writing of a classic could cause offense, depending upon who’s doing the re-writing (I’d suggest Ben Hecht and Ernst Lubitsch overhauling Noel Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING had better luck than Leo Gordon and Roger Corman taking a whack at improving Shakespeare’s RICHARD III).

    The number you link to is interesting, and its authorship deserves to be credited. When I first saw the credits of DUBARRY, I noted that there were “new” songs, by different songwriters — including Button Lane and E. Y. Harburg. Will I be able to TELL which song had lyrics by the boisterous word juggler of WIZARD OF OZ and FINIAN’s RAINBOW?

    Well, SALOME gave a hint with the first “perchance”, and sealed the deal with “before Gypsy Rose Lee was alive-a”. Pure Harburg, with words and sounds and rhymes colliding and going off in unexpected directions, in a series of caroming, self-conscious and (for me) highly entertaining verbal and conceptual trick shots.

    With WIZARD OF OZ, Yip Harburg had been accused of turning a beloved children’ classic into a vulgar vaudeville review, but I think most of us who grew up with that film cherish the songs as an integral part of the experience. So what if he vulgarized Baum. His lyrics were funny and heartfelt.

    THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (late Harburg), vulgarized both Aristophanes (LYSISTRATA) and Jacques Offenbach and he caught hell for that one. “Never Trust a Virgin” includes:
    A virgin is an amateur
    whose limitations limit her
    a burning hot thermometer
    with ice on her perimeter

    And he got censored at least once: in LYDIA, THE TATTOOED LADY, “Grand Canyon” had to be changed to “Niagara’, rendering the song simply absurd, rather than whimsically smutty.

    He was also a committed progressive, who could write angry bitter lyrics like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”, and a victim of the
    blacklist. I just wanted to mention his name. Yip was earthier than Cole, and maybe more vulgar, but a hell of a lyricist nevertheless.

  8. revelator60 Says:

    No discussion of Red Skelton is complete without a mention of Mark Evanier’s column about the man:
    http://www.newsfromme.com/pov/col157/

  9. Revelator: On the commentary for “Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”, director Ken Annakin reports that Red Skelton was a non-stop joke machine while being hung on wires for an effects shot.

    Buster Keaton discusses Skelton briefly in an interview about his MGM years (part of a DVD package with “Cameraman”, “Spite Marriage” and “Free and Easy”). He says that “radio was his first love” and he gravitated to talky comedy.

    “A Southern Yankee” is sometimes described as a remake of “The General”, but the only connection is a Civil War setting — there’s not even a train. One very likely Keaton gag has Skelton, clad in two half uniforms and carrying a two-sided flag, walking through the middle of a battlefield as both sides stop shooting and cheer. Besides aggressive mugging, Skelton gets frantically physical when confronted with a stairway or a cap visor that falls below his nose. Certainly not how Keaton would do it, but Keaton seemed willing to write to Skelton’s much different style.

    “Excuse My Dust” is a pretty curiosity, a midsize MGM musical set early in the century and centering on Skelton as a would-be auto inventor. While never a drama, the slapstick doesn’t really play to Skelton’s strengths — most of the gags are left to wacky old cars. Not sure if this was an attempt to class up Skelton, or he was dropped into a movie planned for a standard light romantic actor.

    “The Fuller Brush Man” and “The Yellow Cab Man” tend to blur into the same movie; both are emphatically vehicles for him to mug, fumble and stumble through elaborate set pieces.

  10. Thanks, Revelator!

    It’s a terrific number, with the incredible energy of the Dorsey band and Ginnie’s moves and expressions which punctuate each joke in the lyrics. Manages to be witty across the board.

    Del Ruth’s direction is nice, but a little underpowered compared to the best of the MGM musical directors. But he manages quite a few nice visual moments during the songs, and Gene Kelly’s dances are superb.

    The Fuller Brush Man has the benefit of Frank Tashlin gags, I believe, something he also supplied for Jack Carson in The Good Humor Man, which may have been intended for Red for all I know. Sounds like it.

  11. Just watched this movie, and it was mostly a yawn. The Salome number was definitely the highlight. I first saw Virginia O’Brien in the Marx Brothers “The Big Store” and loved that deadpan delivery of bebop or swing or whatever that was. Again, this film is not doing Red Skelton any justice as a performer. Check out the Whistling movies.

    I noticed that some of Red’s dance movements were Groucho-esque and that started me thinking…. I know this isn’t original, but it seems to me the humourlessness of this film and most MGM “comedies” is that all too obvious bourgeois desire from Louis B. Mayer to be “invited into the club” of the upper class. That sanitized world of suburban contentment he seemed to advocate in things like the Andy Hardy movies completely drains that necessarily rebellious element of great comedy. When Grouch said he wouldn’t join any club that would have him as a member, Mayer was the guy asking who did he have to cosy up to to be admitted.

    Again, that’s where the Whistling movies are a surprise. I assume they were done in the B lot of MGM because they have a bit of that “nose-thumbing” at the powers that be. Consider who the bad guys are each time: a pseudo-religious cult that caters to the rich, the mayor and sheriff of a Southern town, and a respected newspaper publisher, respectively.

  12. That all sounds promising. Been watching a lot of MGM lately (NOT my favourite studio, for most of the reasons you mention, but THE place for a certain kind of musical excess) and have a couple more examples coming up of Mayer attitudes stifling comedy…

  13. Just started to watch It’s Always Fair Weather on TCM tonight. Chosen by Damien Chazelle who is their guest programmer tonight. He considers this sort of the Swan song of the Arthur Freed musicals, and is especially fond of its wistful, melancholy themes. Sounds intriguing.

  14. Oh, it’s great — the feelgood moments have an extra spark from emerging from such a sour narrative. The whole thing is surprisingly dark and dyspeptic. And as far as I can see it’s ALL master shots — no cover at all. An unheard-of thing.

  15. Yes, it was a gem. The tone was amazing. That it was willing to do that MGM musical treatment about regret and mid-life crisis was laudatory. Cyd Charisses’s boxing number was a delight. I would have liked to see more balance in the back story of the three GI’s and at least one scene other than that tossed-off montage of the three during the war illustrating their bond. Of course, storming the beach at Anzio through the beauty of dance may have been difficult to portray. The use of cinemascope was quite clever, I thought. The split-screen where the three of them dance in unison but are clearly not in the same space (and were undoubtedly filmed at different times) was clever and poetic. Showing their sense of loss and regret while having a deep unconscious connection.

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