Red Har-Fest

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On Shadowplayer GSPegger’s recommendation we ran WHISTLING IN THE DARK, and that led us to watch the sequels, WHISTLING IN DIXIE and WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN.

We’re fans of the original WITD, which stars the superb Ernest Truex, a fleeting attempt to make a movie star out of the Kick the Can/HIS GIRL FRIDAY actor, so we weren’t sure how we’d take to Red doing the same material. Also, the casting of Conrad Veidt as villain gave us pause — would this be tragic and mortifying like John Barrymore playing stooge to Kay Kyser? In the end, no — the movie isn’t too heavily indebted to its source, swapping gangsters for a sinister cult, and Veidt gets to retain his dignity by playing it straight, while still suggesting that he might just possibly be having some fun. “We part in radiant harmony.”

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We overcame our animosity to Skelton — OK, he still mugs a lot and projects an over-eager “Like me! Like me!” vibe, but the writing MAKES him likable, and he is given a warm relationship with co-star Ann Rutherford.

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How to characterise these things? Well, they are a lot like Bob Hope’s comedy-thrillers. Films two and three are mainly written by Nat Perrin, of Bilko fame. In fact, many of the wisecracks are only so-so, with Skelton’s devotion sometimes putting over weak-ish material and sometimes trampling it. But the comic situations are good, and Rags Ragland is an effective, if gruesome foil.

All the films have spectacular brawls, which get more and more protracted as the series goes on. Rutherford gamely throws herself into these Donnybrooks — literally. A fight involving both Ragland and guest heavy Mike “the murderizer” Mazurki in BROOKLYN threatens to burst the screen with sheer plug-ugliness. Director S. Sylvan Simon isn’t too subtle with the slapstick, but gets laughter building by piling on energetic knockabout stuff until it reaches the ceiling. Similar to the excess of Preston Sturges or the furious chases at the end of some W.C. Fields flicks. 30s and 40s visual comedy just isn’t as elegant as the silent kind, but works by a kind of aggressive overegging.

Also, Simon is very good at the light-hearted spookshow stuff, aided by very good sets and lighting, so there’s plenty of the requisite old dark house atmosphere. He’s a director I’ll have to look into some more.

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If Veidt emerges with dignity intact in DARK, the same can’t be said for George Bancroft in DIXIE. It’s kind of pitiful — the big hambone, who’s been impossible to work with during his “glory” years, is actually trying to give a performance in this nonsense, complete with southern accent. For his pains, he gets stripped to his long johns in a flooded chamber and repeatedly punched unconscious. All of which is pretty funny, and it’s George Bancroft it’s happening to, so it’s, you know, acceptable.

What beats the wisecracking and even the punch-ups is the terrifying situations Red and Ann keep getting into — the flooding chamber is just one. An elevator threatens to crush them against an iron grid in BROOKLYN, and then they’re bound with chains and threatened with disposal down a dark chute into the sea. Quips are funnier when there’s an edge of hysterical panic to them.

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The bit that got Fiona in hysterics was Red having trouble with a set of joke shop false teeth while trying to pass incognito through a police station while wanted for murder. Best falsers gag since MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE. But there are several hilarious and kind of nerve-racking bits in each picture. Later in BROOKLYN, Red has his head compressed in a vice, and his dramatic rendition of the sensation — talking in a deep, slurred voice like a brain-damaged boxer — is funny yet horrific.

Also, an addendum to my observations on HULLABALOO, in which MGM spoofed Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, Skelton here is playing a radio sleuth perhaps modeled loosely on Welles’ turn as The Shadow, and at the end of the first film he manages to broadcast to the nation while held prisoner by Veidt’s cult. But the local police don’t believe anything they hear on the radio, having made fools of themselves the previous year…

(Fake news is not new.)

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14 Responses to “Red Har-Fest”

  1. I don’t know why, but I love Red and Rags dialogue in “Brooklyn” when Rags says he got the idea for the publicity stunt in the bathtub. A great example of a joke that builds with each line, and surprises. As I recall:
    Red: What were you doing in a bathtub? [inflection suggesting Rags does not consider personal hygiene a priority]
    Rags: Making beer!

  2. I just realized, thanks to Hilary Barta telling me, that Nat Perrin is not Nat Hiken! But Perrin wrote for the Marx Bros, and so what we have here is a Groucho-Chico crosstalk routine repurposed for a different dummy!

  3. Two Simon recommendations: his last film, Lust for Gold, an oddly-structured Western with Glenn Ford, Ida Lupino, and Gig Young, and Grand Central Murder, a lively, seriocomic murder mystery with Van Heflin, Sam Levene, and Tom Conway, which is filled with startlingly energetic mobile camerawork, much more artistically ambitious than the usual MGM programmer.

  4. kevin mummery Says:

    The power of your writing is so strong I’m fighting an urge to watch one of the Red Skelton “Whistling” movies…maybe after that, I’ll watch a Sturges movie like Palm Beach Story to see how Red compares to say, Rudy Vallee. Or how the Wienie King compares to Mike Mazurki.

    Great article, David…keep ’em coming.

  5. I can recommend the Whistling movies as on a par (though it’s been DECADES) with something like My Favorite Blonde.

    Grand Central Murder sounds particularly enjoyable, though I’m a bit weary of Van Hef.

  6. In that case, I’d better warn you that Heflin plays the wisecracking private-eye hero of Grand Central Murder, so there’s no shortage of him onscreen. May I ask what induced your Heflinian ennui?

  7. Oh there I go. First I mix up my Nats, then my Vans. I’m a little tired of Van JOHNSON, who I’ve seen being (often literally, in the water) supported by Esther Williams in at least four films recently.

    Van Heflin is fine, if not exactly a treat for the eyes.

  8. Ah, now I understand. Thanks for the explanation.

    Johnson isn’t at his best in any of Esther Williams’s films, so I can see why his appeal has faded for you.

  9. I did quite like his Buster Keaton-scripted duck hunting routine in Easy to Wed.

  10. Yes, that’s a good one. Keaton may have come up with the routine, but Johnson plays it very well, with just the right mixture of resolve and exasperation.

  11. bensondonald Says:

    Story is, Red Skelton was paired with Jack Benny for the movie of “The Sunshine Boys”, but reportedly was “difficult”. At that point in his career he was booked solid with state fairs, which paid big and which gave him the instant gratification of a big live audience (and he was addicted to live laughs).

  12. He apparently didn’t like the character’s moments of vulgarity and bad behaviour, including some mild swearing. Though he loved to tell dirty jokes in semi-private, it seems.

    S. Sylvan Simon allowed him to throw in ad-libs, which made him Red’s favourite director — it gave him that “live” feeling. Can’t imagine anyone else at MGM doing that.

  13. Some years ago I wrote an article about the Whistling series but it never sold. If I only had a film blog…
    I second the rec for GRAND CENTRAL MURDER. It’s essentially a B with a big budget and big cast, but it is a lot of fun. Wikipedia sez “Grand Central Murder is a sequel of sorts to Kid Glove Killer, in which Van Heflin played a similar part.” Well, yes and no. The earlier film is a sort of CSI, one of the first as far as I know.

  14. I like Kid Glove Killer a lot, and would have welcomed sequels. So an equal is the next best thing.

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