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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)