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A slightly unscrupulous promoter hopes to be FLYING HIGH
selling stock in a half-crazed inventor's aerocopter.
The rather bizarre humor of comic Bert Lahr is showcased in this fast-moving little comedy. Rather an acquired taste, Lahr's antics will either delight or depress the viewer, who should not be expecting to see an early version of the Cowardly Lion. Lahr's style of humor might be best described as moronic and those who enjoy laughing at the feebleminded should find him quite amusing.
What helps to ameliorate Lahr's antics is his teaming for much of the film with the great Charlotte Greenwood, who excelled in deadpan physical comedy. With her long legs and horsy features, Greenwood makes her man-crazy character into a real source of fun. Whether it's chasing Lahr around an airport, enduring a riotous Wedding Morning, or flailing about in his contraption thousands of feet in the air, Miss Greenwood never fails to pack in the laughs.
Pat O'Brien seems rather uncomfortable as Lahr's straight man and his romantic scenes with spunky Kathryn Crawford are somewhat less than enthralling. Charles Winninger catches the viewer's attention as a naughty, pre-Code doctor interested in examining a bevy of young aviatrixes. Cherubic Guy Kibbee & stately Hedda Hopper do credit to their short screen time as Miss Crawford's parents.
Movie mavens will recognize an uncredited Clarence Wilson as Greenwood's bad-tempered lunch counter boss.
Busby Berkeley has provided some fairly decent dance sequences whose sole motivation seems to be to reveal as much feminine flesh as possible, but the overhead kaleidoscopic shots are pleasant harbingers of the classic work he would perform a few years later at Warner's.
Lahr's aerocopter, which may or may not be technically feasible, is based on the gyrocopter or Autogiro, both of which actually did fly but have now been almost completely superseded by the helicopter.
This seems like an opened-out play. The opening out is fine. There are
highly entertaining Busby Berkeley dance routines and Pat O'Brien is
Bert Lahr is an acquired taste never acquired by me. But Charlotte Greenwood is utterly delightful in this, as the spinster who sets her sights on him as her last best chance for marriage.
Her physical, somewhat self-mocking comedy is a precuser to that of Joan Davis a decade of so later. Both are treasures.
FLYING HIGH (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931), directed by Charles Reisner,
marked the motion picture debut of comedian Bert Lahr (1892-1967), best
known today for his memorable performance as the Cowardly Lion in the
musical fantasy, THE WIZARD OF OZ (MGM, 1939). Reprising his theatrical
role of Rusty from George White's 1930 Broadway musical, the screen
version is very much a showcase for Lahr, with co-star Charlotte
Greenwood, who can always be counted on to deliver a hilarious
performance, coming a close second as a man-chasing spinster whom
Lahr's character describes as a woman who "makes love like an alley
cat." Greenwood's role parallels what she'd previously done with
another Broadway gone Hollywood entertainer, Eddie Cantor, in PALMY
DAYS (Samuel Goldwyn, 1931). While Cantor continued to perform steadily
in films through most of the 1930s, FLYING HIGH was to be Lahr's sole
venture into the new medium until his return to the screen by 1937 in
secondary roles. What PALMY DAYS and FLYING HIGH have in common is not
so much having Broadway comics in the lead and Greenwood as their foil,
but the benefit of dance director Busby Berkeley, in his pre-Warner
Brothers days, whose two production numbers benefits FLYING HIGH more
than the plot itself.
Bert Lahr stars as Emil "Rusty" Krause, a hack-eyed inventor of the "aerocopter" who's unable to find a backer for his product. He becomes partners with "Sport" Wordell (Pat O'Brien), who doesn't have any money either. Sport acquires an investor named Fred Smith (Guy Kibbee), who's just as broke as he is. After falling in love with Smith's daughter, Eileen (Kathryn Crawford), Sport works out an angle acquiring the much needed $500 through Pansy Potts (Charlotte Greenwood), a tall, homely waitress having just inherited $1600 from her late uncle, by promising her a would-be husband in that of Rusty (by using a photo of Clark Gable!!). With additional tunes by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, the motion picture soundtrack is as follows: "Happy Landing" (sung by Kathryn Crawford); "It Will be the First Time for Me" (sung by Charlotte Greenwood and Bert Lahr); "Examination" (recited by Charles Winninger and female patients); "Dance Until the Dawn" (sung by Kathryn Crawford) and "Happy Landing" (reprise/cast).
Kathryn Crawford, no relation to Joan, (though slightly resembling vocalist Kitty Carlisle), sings two songs choreographed by Berkeley. "Happy Landing" contains some of the best Berkeley ingredients, including overhead camera shots of the chorus resembling airplanes and spelling out the names of great aviators of Byrd, Hawks, Lindy in formation. "Dance Until the Dawn," which comes a half hour later, is another Berkeley highlight, with chorus in dance formations with airplane propellers. Portions of this sequence were used in the theatrical documentary of THAT'S DANCING (1986), with the commentator concluding that, "Flying High never really got off the ground." Although portions of this 80 minute feature tends to drag, it's brought to life by its lively tunes, for the most part are as forgotten as the film itself.
Notable comedy highlights belong to Bert Lahr. Aside from he being chased around by Greenwood (having some experience going through the motions with Eddie Cantor), and his unusual medical examination by the doctor (played by a young looking Charles Winninger), he gets his chance to demonstrate his "aerocopter" at the air show by flying high enough to be out of this world. Other participants in the cast include Hedda Hopper; Gus Arnheim and his Orchestra; Clarence Wilson and Tom Kennedy (as the bully who picks on Rusty).
Rarely seen on commercial television since the 1960s, and never distributed on video or DVD, look for FLYING HIGH the next time it tail spins on Turner Classic Movies cable station. (** landing gears)
Bert Lahr starred in several musical revues on Broadway, but one of his rare successes in a 'book' musical (with a plotline) was 'Flying High', a topical comedy which scored points off the aviation contests and wing-walking stunts that were so popular in America at this time.
The plot is some froth about rival aviators competing for a transcontinental air race; the winner to receive a large cash prize, fame, and so forth. Gordon is the wealthy playboy pilot who wants to sink his skyhooks into sweet little Eileen Cassidy.
Bert Lahr, in fine form and looking surprisingly athletic, plays Rusty Krause, the airfield mechanic who is (somewhat unwillingly) engaged to Pansy (Charlotte Greenwood), who seems to be some sort of airport groupie. Rusty, who has no piloting experience, accidentally goes aloft in an experimental 'aero-copter'. Not willing to let her man fly away that easily, Pansy jumps on the tail of the 'copter just before it leaves the ground. Once they're up in the air, something goes wrong with the 'copter. While Rusty moans in terror, Pansy climbs out on the fuselage and fixes the rudder.
Charlotte Greenwood is one of my favourite actresses: funny, intelligent, and extremely athletic despite her tall gawky physique. She often played super-competent women strangely attracted to weakling men. She's an utter delight here, doing her airborne acrobatics (despite some bad process photography). When 'Flying High' ran on Broadway, Lahr's leading lady was Kate Smith ... yes, the moon-mountainous singer. I can't imagine how the stage production managed the climactic scene in the aero-copter, high above solid ground ... and I also can't imagine the very plus-sized Kate Smith as Pansy, enacting a stagebound version of Charlotte Greenwood's acrobatics in this movie. That's not a cheap crack about Kate Smith's girth; I'm forced to assume that her characterisation was very different from Greenwood's.
The funniest scene in this film is Lahr's medical examination, in which Doc Brown straps him into a revolving drum and sends it spinning rapidly while Lahr howls in agony. But the best gag of all comes in the same scene, while Lahr's feet are on the ground. (I'll set up the joke by mentioning that this movie was made during Prohibition, when every red-blooded American male carried a hip flask full of booze.) The doctor hands Lahr an empty bottle and tells Lahr to give him a 'specimen'. Lahr doesn't know what this means. Just as the doctor is about to explain, his phone rings. While on the phone, Doc Brown pantomimes to Lahr that he must fill up the bottle. As the doctor looks away, Lahr whips out his hip flask and fills the bottle with amber fluid. (I assume it's amber; this is a monochrome movie.) Doc Brown rings off the phone, just in time for Lahr to hand him a full bottle and announce: 'Here y'go, Doc. I could only spare a quart.' The sophisticated audiences on Broadway gave this line the biggest laugh of Lahr's career. It's a pity that Lahr is remembered only as the Cowardly Lion, and his brilliant comedy portrayals are forgotten. I'll rate 'Flying High' 8 out of 10.
I have not seen FLYING HIGH yet, so no opinion there, but wanted to
respond to Lonesome Prospector's ridiculous and ignorant speculation
that Bert Lahr could be copying Curly Howard. Just because you saw
Curly first doesn't mean he came first.
Bert Lahr began his performing career in 1910. He worked in vaudeville for 17 years, before making his Broadway debut in 1927. According to his biographer (and son) John Lahr, Bert Lahr had established his "gnong gnong" sound before 1920, as he is working it into his cop-and-dancer vaudeville act with his then-wife in the late teens and early 20's.
Curly Howard had not thought about being a performer until 1932, when brother Samuel (Shemp) left Ted Healy's Stooges, and brother Moe asked little brother Jerry (Curly) to join. At this time, Bert Lahr had already made his feature film debut, and was midway through a career as a Broadway headliner. The Stooges were scrambling through various short subject departments until they wound up at Columbia in 1934. A careful observation of their development shows that Curly had not really set his "schtick" until 1934 or 1935.
You might not think he was a big deal because he made few successful movies, but dollar for dollar Bert Lahr was a much, much bigger star than Curly Howard. Moreover, at the conclusion of his career he performed in the American premiere of WAITING FOR GODOT, did Shakespeare. Aristophanes and Feydeau. Not to say that Curly Howard couldn't have done such things, but he was long dead of a stroke, perhaps precipitated by the years of beatings he'd received from his fellow stooges.
FLYING HIGH might not be much cinematically, but it is priceless artifact of theater history, preserving Lahr as he appeared on stage in his early peak years.
This was Lahr's first starring feature film. It is based on his stage hit of the same name. He is completely over the top. This wild stage persona can also be seen in his shorts for Educational, but by the time he made "The Wizard of Oz", he had begun to calm down. Charlotte Greenwood plays the role originally done by Kate Smith on Broadway. She and Lahr make a fine combination. This film includes a doctor's office sketch which is quite risqué and is of questionable taste. Lahr keeps the film from being boring, but his energy can become very tiring. The De Sylva, Brown and Henderson musical numbers from the original show have been deleted, but there are a couple of new Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh songs, with Busby Berkeley style "choreography", and of course, Lahr gets a musical number to show his stuff. All fans of the Cowardly Lion should check out this film.
This is the rarest of beasts - a musical comedy film from 1931. Hardly
any were made in either 1931 and 1932 due to the bad reputation the
earliest musicals had earned in 1929 and 1930. However, almost all of
the American musical films made in 1931 and 1932 featured the
choreography of Busby Berkeley, and indeed this one does too.
Pat O'Brien is the best known of the three stars here, but he basically plays a supporting role in this one, prior to his recruitment by Warner Bros. first as a smart guy in the precode era and then as a father figure after the code. Sport Wardall (O'Brien) rescues Rusty Krouse (Lahr) from a group of bullies. The two team up with Wardall looking for financial backing for Rusty's aerocopter, a flying machine that ascends straight up. Ultimately Wardall finds backing from homely but man-hungry waitress Pansy Potts (the lanky Charlotte Greenwood). Her fee for the needed five hundred dollars - marriage to Rusty sight unseen.
If you've seen Greenwood chasing Buster Keaton in "Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath" or Eddie Cantor in "Palmy Days" you've seen this act before, but it's always funny. What must have seemed very odd to the audiences of 1931 was Lahr's brand of humor. Here he is carrying on just exactly like the cowardly lion in "Wizard of Oz" right down to his voice and mannerisms, so modern audiences will probably not be put off by his performance since most people today are familiar with Lahr in that part.
I rate this 4/5 for fans of the early talkies and precodes, but if you are a modern film fan you just might not appreciate this one that much.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Originally hearing with deep disappointment that the many exciting
sounding titles on the label could only be brought on the US exclusive
website,I was thrilled to recently discover that Amazon UK had put up a
good number of titles from the Warner Archive label onto its own
site,which would give the opportunity for non-US citizens such as
myself to take a look at the "burred" titles being dug up by the label.
With being keen on choosing an intro title to the label that was at a mid-level price,I was pleased to stumble upon a 1931 Comedy going at a surprisingly cheap price on Amazon UK,which would hopefully allow me to enter the Archive world at its Pre-Code Comedy best.
Attending an air show where inventors display their inventions in the hope of attracting people willing to invest in "the world of tomorrow",slick businessman Sport Wardell hears about a creation that is getting laughed out of the building.
Pushing aside all of the other businessmen howling with laughter,Wardell discovers that the cause of their laughter is a aero-copter invented by Emil "Rusty" Krouse.Taken by Rusty's nervous and overly excited manner about his creation,Sport decides to take a roll of the dice by investing money in Emil's "mad" invention,and also promises to find more people who will be happy to invest in the project.
A few days later:
Struggleing to get any fellow businessmen interested in investing,and also finding questions of "loan repayment" starting to be asked for the cash he has put into Krouse's invention,Wardell begins to remember a waitress (named Pansy Potts) who he met near by the air show,who said that she would pay good money to anyone that agreed to get married to her.
View on the film:
Along with showing an ahead of its time slickness in riffing pop culture icons, (from Sport making Pansy believe that she will soon be getting married to Clark Gabel thanks to him showing a pic of her new "husband",to Potts calling Rusty Scarface!) the screenplay by A.P. Younger,Robert E. Hopkins,lyric writer Dorothy Fields and co- writer/director Charles Reisner , (based upon the stage musical by Lew Brown,Buddy G. DeSylva,Ray Henderson and John Mcgowan) strikes a terrific balance of free-falling,delightful Screwball moments, (such as Rusty messing everything up on his first meeting with Wardell,to Rusty almost falling out of a window when attempting to escape from Pansy's wedding night plans) with a real sense of "World Fair" wonderment which was going on at the time.
With the writers also cleverly making sure,that no matter how many times he messes up,the centre of the movie stays on Rusty getting his invention to work,which leads to the viewer rooting for Rusty to set his aero-copter into the air right to the end.
Directing 2 songs for the movie,Busby Berkly gives an early preview of what he was to become famous for in a few years time,with each of Berkly ultra-stylised showing immense precision,with a particular highlight being Berkly creating multiple spinning circles,just by having the extremely talented dancers move what looks to be pieces of wood in different directions.
Whilst Berkly goes full flow for his distinctive moments,the directing by Charles F Riesner initially appears surprisingly detached,with Resner shooting a good amount of the films opening from wide shoots,which make the film feel very "stagey" and also leads to the film not fulling being able to pull the viewer into the story.
Shortly after the films first 30 minutes,a noticeable amount of skin and double entoundras begin to get exposed,which thankfully leads to Riesner waking up from his slumber and delivering an ending,that whilst funny is also pretty nailbitting.
Reconising the sound of Rusty's voice,I quickly began to relies that the person who was bringing Rusty to life here,was also the actor who would bring The Cowardly Lion rawing to life in The Wizard of Oz.Showing in his debut performance that he had a real sharpness with slap-stick, (with a great highlight being Rusty trying to get away from Potts at every turn) Bert Lahr also gives Rusty a big heart,with his interest in his invention being a success changing from just wanting it to work for himself,to Lahr showing Rusty desperately trying to make Sport's roll of the dice on him pay off.
Working in a wonderful double team with Lahr,Charlotte Greenwood (who beat Lahr to the world of Oz by having a large role in the L.Frank Baum co-written play The Tik-Tok Man of Oz) impressively keeps Pansy from becoming a grating character,by showing Potts to be someone who is offbeat,but also keen in ending her search of finding Mr.Right,so that she and Mr.Right can go on flying high adventures together in life.
For those who only associate Bert Lahr with The Wizard Of Oz this film
from MGM gives one a chance to see him repeating his role on Broadway
from one of the many shows he starred in. Lahr other than The Wizard Of
Oz was far more a success on Broadway than on the big screen.
Flying High ran for 355 performances on Broadway during the 1930-31 season and on Broadway Lahr's co-star was Kate Smith. Lahr's barbs whether they came in the script or were ad-libbed for the performance about fat girls caused some wounding to Kate. It was here she decided that radio would be her best medium of expression.
Rawboned Charlotte Greenwood of the Bruce Lee like kicks in her dancing takes Kate's role and she's looking for a husband and she'd like to settle a dowry on him. Lahr becomes the object of her attentions. And Lahr needs the money in order to help his partner and friend Pat O'Brien promote the aero-copter that Lahr's invented.
DeSylva, Brown and Henderson wrote the Broadway score which was completely chucked for the film with new songs by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. I was disappointed not to hear items like Without Love and Thank Your Father on the screen. Nothing memorable came from Fields and McHugh.
Busby Berkeley did the choreography and there is a definite hint as to what would be coming in the way gaudy numbers like in his Warner Brothers period.
Pat O'Brien played Bud Abbott in this film, but Lahr's comedy style was more like Curly Howard than Lou Costello. During the Thirties, O'Brien was a fast talking promoter of something even if it was himself until he slowed down the pace to a crawl when he played a priest. O'Brien was new on the big screen himself after playing Hildy Johnson in The Front Page.
Flying High didn't quite weather the transfer from the Broadway stage to the big screen. Still it's a chance to see a Broadway hit with its original star and that's rare enough for the era this film came out in.
As I watched this film, my wife sat nearby and made MANY comments about
why she hated this movie. Among the many things she said about the
film, words like subtle and entertaining were NOT among them! And, in
hindsight, she was right--this is an awfully bad film.
Originally, "Flying High" was a stage production put on by George White. Much of the staginess remains--along with some bizarro song and dance numbers where no audience could have possibly seen the choreography. Like so many films of the day, there are lots of Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots--and they are all pretty ridiculous. Only two years later, RKO also made an airplane theme musical, "Flying Down to Rio" and although it's also totally ridiculous, these over the top dance numbers were fun. In "Flying High" they become a bit tedious.
The plot is slight. Sport (Pat O'Brien) has built an 'aerocopter' (an early type of helicopter) and is trying to get the money to market it. So, in a last-ditch effort, he gets his subhuman friend, Rusty (Bert Lahr) to romance Patsy (Charlotte Greenwood) because she has some money to invest. Unfortunately, all of Sport's contributions to the plot are minor and the main focus on the film is on Lahr and Greenwood. I say unfortunately because Lahr is simply awful most of the time--making nonsense noises like Curly from the Three Stooges and over-acting incredibly. Greenwood comes off a bit better as the man-crazy spinster--but they aren't the least bit interesting as a couple. Combine this with the god-awful use of rear projection in the amazingly unfunny 'funny' finale and you've got a film that is just tedious in every way.
By the way, the only interesting thing about this film is its pre- code sensibilities. In the doctor skit there is some risqué language and later, there are some double-entendres about sex in some of the scenes with Greenwood and Lahr. This doesn't necessarily make the film good...but at least it is interesting to hear words like asinine and narcotics--words you simply wouldn't have heard in films post mid- 1934.
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