Thursday, September 7, 2017

So this is Harris


Alpha Video’s Brian Krey—the individual who should take a bow for providing a lot of the product that I review on this here blog—mentioned to me in an e-mail a while back that the company was preparing a collection of two-reel shorts along the lines of their successful “Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies” releases.  The kicker was that since the two-reelers to be included in this set were going to be some released between 1936 and 1938, Alpha Video couldn’t exactly call them “pre-Code.”  (“I don't think ‘Ultra Rare POST-CODE Comedies’ would get anyone excited,” Brian joked.)

Well, this new collection was released in August…and if you’re an old-time radio fan like me, there’s plenty be excited about Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  It’s one of the strongest and most entertaining DVDs released by Alpha, because the first two shorts on the disc spotlight two solid radio favorites.  Rare Shorts kicks things off with Harris in the Spring (1937), a wonderful little musical outing starring Phil Harris—then making a name for himself as the lovable bandleader-comedian on The Jack Benny Program, and later star of his own successful situation comedy, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

“Then making a name for himself” isn’t really accurate, however; Harris was already wowing audiences with a musical aggregation that played to SRO crowds at the famous Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel during the early 1930s.  (Harris co-starred in the 1933 RKO feature film Melody Cruise, and a three-reel short released the same year, So This is Harris, would win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject.)  It’s fitting, then, that “Curly” plays himself in Harris in the Spring (the “Club Ambassador” where he works is a nod to his earlier Cocoanut Grove gig) and because he’s mobbed by female admirers everywhere he goes, he asks his pal George (played by Jack Rice, the brother-in-law in the RKO Edgar Kennedy shorts) to help him hide to avoid some enthusiastic fans.

Phil ends up in George’s office…where he’s given the onceover by socialite Betty Randolph (Ruth Robbins), and once she deems him “acceptable” she invites him out for the evening.  That’s when George informs Phil that Betty is looking for an escort (why Harris’ best friend is in this business goes unexplained) …and that’s jake with Philsie, provided Betty doesn’t learn who he is really is.  I’ll give you three guesses where the couple winds up on their date…the first two do not count.

Ruth Robbins and Phil Harris in Harris in the Spring (1937)
Harris in the Spring is a real delight, with its star performing several numbers (Sweet Like You, Parchesi) and two duets with Robbins in the same lyric-exchanging style Harris did professionally with vocalist Leah Ray (and that Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard also imitated).  (The couple’s rendition of The Woman Who Pays is performed in the back of a taxicab, and they’re joined at the end of the song by cabbie Jack Carson—also a later radio star—who belts out musically “You said it, sister!”)  But the highlight of Spring is Phil’s rendition of his signature tune, That’s What I Like About the South; in later years (on his own series and Benny’s program), Harris raced through the number like he was double-parked—the tempo of South is slowed considerably in Spring, giving it a kind of loping, barrelhouse piano feel.

Goodman and Jane Ace: "The Easy Aces"
On radio, Goodman Ace and his wife Jane were known as the Easy Aces—the stars of a popular radio comedy serial that had its origins on local KMBC in Kansas City in 1930 before moving to CBS a year later and bouncing back-and-forth from the Tiffany network and NBC until 1945.  (The show later became a syndicated series from 1945 to 1947, recycling earlier scripts, and then a half-hour program for CBS from February to December 1948 as mr. ace & JANEEasy Aces had what one would call a cult following—it was never really a ratings smash—but that following did get the duo a series of movie shorts, “first for Vitaphone and then, on a more regular basis, for Van Beuren” as Leonard Maltin relates in The Great Movie Shorts.

Dumb Luck (1935) was a short Goodman and Jane made for Educational…additional two-reelers were planned, but never got off the ground.  Jane has a winning sweepstakes ticket worth $50, but after a literal game of “telephone” (talking to her girlfriends on the Ameche) the word gets out that the Aces are sitting on a nice little nest egg of $50,000.  Two hoodlums (Richard Cramer, George Shelton) put the snatch on Mrs. A and demand a ransom of $25,000 for her safe return…but the demand gets smaller and smaller the longer the kidnappers spend with the scatterbrained Jane.

There are going to be Easy Aces purists who will decry Dumb Luck as not faithfully adhering to the radio show…and I shan’t disagree with them, but I enjoyed the two-reeler tremendously for novelty’s sake.  Jane is…well, Jane; telling one of her friends on the phone of Goody’s frugality she cracks “he's such a tightrope when it comes to things like that” …and later, when she demands her husband allow her to get a dog with her winnings:

ACE: A dog?
JANE: Yes, it's nice to walk down the street with a little dog...
ACE: On a leash, I suppose...
JANE: On a leash?  Oh, no--I thought I'd buy him outright...

I also got a kick out seeing Richard Cramer (billed as “Kramer”)—a character veteran I always remember as the “Constable” in W.C. Fields’ The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)—and George Shelton as the luckless kidnappers.  (To keep the OTR connection going, Shelton was later one of the three panelists on It Pays to Be Ignorant, a radio favorite from 1942 to 1951—“I used to woik in dat town!”)

Jack Norton poses with radio's "Brenda and Cobina"
(Elvia Allman and Blanche Stewart) in the 1940
feature film A Night at Earl Carroll's.
Jack Norton, the silver screen’s favorite inebriate, is stone cold sober in two of the entries on Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood; the closest he comes to imbibing is having a mint julep in Who’s Looney Now (1936), in which he plays a henpecked husband whose next-door neighbor (Jack Good) gives him advice on how to win sympathy from his family—fake a heart attack.  The problem is, Jack’s family is anything but sympathetic…and they eventually become convinced that he’s a toy short of a Happy Meal.  So, the clan calls in a psychiatrist portrayed by Billy Gilbert…and any time you must rely on Billy’s expertise in the science of the mind—the results are not going to be pretty.  Looney manages to deliver the goods despite its timeworn premise; both Norton and Gilbert cannot not be funny, and there’s solid support from future Edgar Kennedy spouse Vivien Oakland (she’s married to Jack), Tempe Pigott (as the mother-in-law), and Dickie Jones—later both the voice of Pinocchio and Henry Aldrich on radio—as the obnoxious son.

Tom Kennedy in the "Torchy Blane"
feature Blondes at Work (1938).
Fight is Right (1936) is another short with a premise you’ve seen before—Norton convinces pal Tom Kennedy to accompany him ringside by snowing the wife (Maxine Jennings) into thinking Tom is sick (and Jack is the faux physician who’ll treat him).  It’s been done to death in every TV sitcom, of course (both Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone went to town with it) but if you execute it right and include some first-rate supporting players (Edgar Dearing plays—and I know this will surprise you—a cop who gets involved after pulling Norton over for speeding) you can always get a chuckle or two out of the finished product (I particularly enjoyed Fight’s windup gag).  Fight (and Looney) was directed by Leslie Goodwins (the later auteur of the Mexican Spitfire franchise), and Goodwins co-wrote Fight with comedian Monte (billed as “Monty”) Collins…which allows me to neatly segueway into…

…the fifth two-reeler on Rare Shorts, a 1935 comedy entitled Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!).  This short was a promotional gimmick funded by B.F. Goodrich, who wanted to alert the public on the dangers of reckless driving.  Monte is pal to Harry Langdon, who’s planning on wedding Diana Lewis…but Collins is really trying to sabotage the nuptials so he can have Diana and hug her and squeeze her and pet her and call her “George”; her father has warned Harry that if he gets one more traffic ticket the wedding is RIGHT OUT!—and of course, Monte is only too happy to get Harry in dutch with the police.  I was not a stranger to this short; it’s on the All Day Entertainment release of Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection and I think I said at the time “it’s not a bad little two-reeler.”  I’m still a fan—it’s got some inventive, Langdon-like gags (the bit with the four top hats produced a hearty chuckle) and as Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde note in Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon, “the film is on par with Langdon’s Educational shorts”—because it was produced by one of Educational’s units (I laughed more during Love than I have during some of Harry’s Roach shorts—that much I know).  Harter and Hayde note that Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!) was filmed before Langdon’s Columbia two-reeler His Bridal Sweet (1935) but released afterward; Sweet is my favorite of the comedian’s efforts for that studio.

Harry Gribbon
The final effort on the Rare Shorts DVD is unquestionably the weakest—Cactus Caballeros (1938), in which Harry Gribbon and Joey Faye (billed as “Fay”) play unemployed actors attempting to capture a notorious bandit in a Western town.  I’ve seen Gribbon in any number of Vitaphone shorts and he can make me laugh (though he’s usually outgunned by Shemp Howard, his frequent co-star) so I didn’t have a problem with Harry…but Faye’s character is so obnoxious, with a collection of verbal and facial tics that get on your nerves within the first five minutes of the short, that you soon start wishing for interactive TV so you can strangle him.  This was one of Faye’s first forays into film (love that alliteration); he made his name as a top “second banana” in burlesque and long claimed that he originated several of the routines popularized by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello including “Slowly I Turn” and “Who’s on First?”  Faye got better in movies and TV with each subsequent appearance…but in Caballeros, he’ll make you wish you were watching Ben Blue in a Taxi Boys comedy…and I do not make this statement in jest lightly.

Thanks again to Brian for providing the screener—Rare Shorts From the Golden Age of Hollywood is a keeper for fans of comedy and OTR (or both).

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