James Gleason is one of the most fondly remembered character actors from Hollywood's golden age. I consistently enjoy his screen work, but he's not on my personal list of all-time favourite character players: Gleason worked in many films, but I find his performances too similar and predictable from one film to the next. His wife (and occasional screen partner) Lucille Webster Gleason was a film actress of no significance at all, remembered only as James Gleason's wife and as the mother of their son Russell Gleason. The younger Gleason was a highly intelligent and handsome young man who had begun a promising screen career as a juvenile lead when he got conscripted into World War Two. He completed basic training, and then - the night before his regiment were to ship out for a combat posting in Europe - Russell Gleason died in a fall from a Manhattan hotel window. Officially his death was ruled an accident. I've often wondered if Russell Gleason's death was suicide (to avoid being sent into combat), or if it was merely a failed attempt to go AWOL. Russell Gleason's widow Cynthia Lindsay, a former Busby Berkeley chorus girl, later wrote an excellent biography of Boris Karloff.
In the 1920s, James Gleason wrote several Broadway comedies with roles for himself (and occasionally for his wife). Gleason's plays were popular and successful in their day, but have dated badly and are no longer revived. All evidence indicates that James Gleason's skills as a playwright were far less notable than his talents as a comedian and character actor. Regrettably, Gleason squandered the royalties from his Broadway hits, and was forced to keep working as an actor when his plays fell out of fashion and brought him no further income.
'The Shannons of Broadway' was originally a Broadway play, written by Gleason as a comedy vehicle for himself and his wife. In this film version, they repeat their Broadway roles as Mickey and Emma Shannon, a couple of vaudeville artistes. (Precisely what sort of turn they performed on the boards is never clearly established.) When one of their vaude bookings is abruptly cancelled, the Shannons are stranded in a small town where the only hotel is run by curmudgeonly Pa Swanzey, aided by his beautiful daughter Tessie. But the Shannons are denied lodgings in the hotel, which has a strict policy against 'bum actors and dogs'. I found this very plausible. In the days of barnstorming theatre, actors and vaudeville performers had a well-deserved reputation for skipping out on their bills.
The Shannons learn some interesting information: Swanzey's hotel is heavily mortgaged, and the bank are about to foreclose. Also, the tract next door over from the hotel is scheduled to become the site for a new airport. Mickey and Emma splash out their savings to buy up the mortgage, planning to run the hotel (at a loss) until the airport arrives, then make large profits.
The 'comic' complications ensue when the Shannons learn that the airport isn't arriving after all, forcing them to unload the unprofitable hotel on the first sucker they can find. None of this is especially funny, although it's helped somewhat by Gleason's irascible manner. There's an insipid romantic subplot involving Mary Philbin and John Breeden. The sadly underrated Tom Kennedy is very funny as a local yokel, and Walter Brennan is impressive as Hezekiah Davis, the local bootlegger. Some of the alleged humour is to do with Prohibition, and there's some annoying slang-filled dialogue. Although James Gleason is not one of my favourite performers, he consistently impresses me with his skill and timing within his very narrow range as a performer. But Gleason as a playwright -- and as the author of the original material for 'The Shannons of Broadway' -- impresses me much less. I'll rate this dismal comedy 4 points out of 10.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?