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Crashing Las Vegas (1956)
Last film featuring Sach and the Chief
This was the first and last Bowery Boys comedy Leo Gorcey made after the death of his father, Bernard. While it can be seen that he is intoxicated during most of the filming, this film is hysterical. Leo and Huntz recite the old wheezy jokes as if they were brand new. The supporting players are poor, but their ineptitude adds to the comedy. This is the first film with Jimmy "Myron" Murphy replacing Bennie "Butch" Bartlett. Murphy and David Gorcey actually get to do more than usual and they even get some good punch lines. True, the story revolves around Huntz Hall, but Gorcey has a lot of funny comments to make during the 63 minutes. It is surprising that the film is so funny since neither Ed Bernds nor Elwood Ullman have anything to do with it. Jean Yarbrough directs this time and he makes it look like his work with Abbott and Costello. The Bowery Boys series was never the same after Leo Gorcey left. He was replaced by that "other guy", Stanley Clements. Clements is OK, but it's like Joe Besser replacing Shemp (not to mention Shemp replacing Curly) in the Three Stooges. Besser and Clements are good performers, but they just don't have the spark of their predecessors. I always wondered why David Gorcey just didn't get promoted; "Chuck" could have been the new chief of the Bowery Boys. Why not?
Of Thee I Sing (1972)
I remember seeing this TV version of "Of Thee I Sing" when I was very young. It helped turn me into a life long Gershwin fan. I even have the LP made by Columbia. Since that time, I have seen and been involved with productions of this brilliant musical comedy. A few of the songs ("Of Thee I Sing", Who Cares", "Love Is Sweeping the Country") have become world class standards. Then there are the hidden gems like "A Kiss for Cinderella" and "Because, Because".
Paramount was supposed to make a movie version. It was discussed as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers. Would Groucho have played Wintergreen or Fulton? Harpo would have been hysterical as a silent Throttlebottom. Chico would have added to the hilarity as an immigrant committee member. Maybe Zeppo would have been Wintergreen! In the 1940s,Bob Hope was to star in a movie version. Hope would have been perfect as Wintergreen, but looking at Paramount 40s musicals, it wouldn't have been great. Musically, we probably would have ended up with only "Wintergreen for President", "Love Is Sweeping the Country" and the title song. Paramount used Hope instead of William Gaxton for its production of "Louisiana Purchase"; Victor Moore repeated his Broadway role. However, most of Irving Berlin's score was unused and Hope did not get one single musical number. What a shame! Paramount also made messes of Broadway hits "Let's Face It" and "Lady in the Dark".
As for the CBS production, the libretto was truncated to fit into a 90 minute slot and the southern senator became the villain, replacing the French Ambassador, which would not make much sense in the 1970s. Peter Matz's musical arrangements are crisp and swinging. They are far superior to the Don Walker arrangements from the 1952 Broadway version. Jack Gilford was so perfect as Throttlebottom that he was used again for the Brooklyn Accademy of Music production in the 1980s. With the Gershwin music still vital at the time, CBS was able to update the story and place it in the 1970s. However, if this show was revived on Broadway today, unfortunately it would have to be treated as a period piece.
Call Her Sausage (1933)
End of the Taxi Boys
Although this was released under the "Taxi Boys" banner, this Ben Blue and Billy Gilbert short has nothing to do with taxis. Gus Meins' production deals with the opening of a deli owned by Billy, who is "helped" by Ben. Billy plays his "Schmaltz" character, a middle European stereotype, which he played in Roach comedies through 1934. I guess Roach knew that the Taxi series wasn't working and tried a couple of films to keep the Blue and Gilbert teaming going. (The other film is "The Rummy", which is not as good.) Besides the typical Roach slapstick, Ben and Billy engage in some verbal acrobatics similar to Abbott and Costello. However, the timing is slower, and it doesn't really work. After "The Rummy", Ben Blue returned to New York where he appeared in some Vitaphone shorts. Roach still tried to promote Billy as a leading comic doing his Schmaltz character or a variation of it. "Apples to You" and "Music in Your Hair" are particularly good short comedies from this period. Gilbert freelanced at most of the studios, even though he was a Roach regular. He even has a showy role in the later Roach comedy "Blockheads".
Taxi Barons (1933)
A Real Misfire
Ben Blue and Billy Gilbert had appeared in a handful of "Taxi Boys" shorts before this one. Why did Billy have to use his "Dutch" dialect in this one? True, he impersonates a European baron in the middle of the film. But couldn't he have used the accent only during his impression? Couldn't he have played "himself" during the opening sequence in the taxi garage? Blue refers to him as "Bill" during the entire film and treats him as a regular American guy. The accent does nothing to improve the comedy in the first reel. Maybe Del Lord, the director, was trying to prevent Ben and Billy from being compared to Laurel and Hardy. But that was already being done! Hal Roach had advertised them as ANOTHER Laurel and Hardy, just as he had advertised Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts as the FEMALE Laurel and Hardy. It is well documented that even from the beginning, Hal Roach had difficulties with Stan Laurel. Was he using Ben and Billy as an insurance policy against Laurel? We can only speculate.
Wreckety Wrecks (1933)
Let's Compare Ben and Billy to Stan and Oliver
Although Laurel and Hardy do not appear in this short, it shows what a unique and brilliant comedy team they were. The whole short seems tailor made for them. Even the macabre plot, which has Ben Blue and Billy Gilbert believing that they killed a man with their taxi is right up Laurel's alley. Much has been written about Laurel's genius as a gagman and the delicacy and depth of his screen character. Hardy seems to often get pushed to the background, and I must admit that I have often done this. But Oliver Hardy created a character who is human and lovable. We feel for him whenever Stan gets him into "a nice mess". (Stan and Oliver are so real and lovable that their characters sometimes counteract some of the more violent and surreal comedy.) I am not trying to imply that Blue and Gilbert are not fine comedians. Blue just reeks of Vaudeville experience and his specialty as an eccentric dancer makes him a graceful slapstick player. He is described in the short as goofy, and he plays this beautifully. Just the way he moves is hysterical. But his vocalizations are cartoonish when compared to Laurel's cry. Gilbert was an extremely versatile character comic who could play a bully, a villain, an idiot, or the unfortunate everyman. He was also adept at dialects. It's nice to see him playing a regular Joe in this short. He is likable, but does not milk the same kind of sympathy we would feel for Oliver Hardy in the same situation. Del Lord keeps the short moving fast. The only thing missing is the LeRoy Shield background music.
Thundering Taxis (1933)
More Sennett than Roach
This one must have been made before Ben Blue and Billy Gilbert became the stars of the Taxi Boys. Director Del Lord was well known in the silent era for his stunts with car chases. As usual, he does not disappoint here. However, this film does not take advantage of the possibilities of sound. It is essentially a silent film. Silent comics Billy Bevan and Clyde Cook are the main focus. It is nice to see Lord favorite Bud Jamison as the manager of a taxi company. This plot less wonder had two reels of car gags with some time out for Cook to do the famous oyster stew routine. It was first done by Bevan at Sennett in the 20s and was done to perfection by Curly Howard at Columbia. Cook has no dialogue at all and Bevan very little. Bevan does not even look like the Bevan character. Where is the walrus mustache? Blue and Gilbert brought some humanity to this series. Without them, it is all about action. A big plus is the familiar LeRoy Shield background music mixed with some lesser known pieces. For once the music editor added some interesting music staying away from the all too familiar "Sliding" which seems to show up in every Roach comedy of this period.
Romance Road (1938)
Warners take on Rose-Marie
This beautiful 3-strip Technicolor two reeler is a variation on the Friml-Stothart-Harbach-Hammerstein musical dealing with Canadian Mounties. This time around there is conflict between the men building a new railroad and the native French-Canadian trappers. Also in the mix, like Rose-Marie, is an abusive relationship between a white man and a Native American girl. The Mountie is summoned to save the day.
It's not a bad film, but the plot may be a bit much for a two reel short and characters are undeveloped. It's all rather melodramatic. The film is also devoid of humor. The songs, with lyrics by Jack Scholl and music by M. K. Jerome, are serviceable, but are not in the class with Friml melodies. Don't get me wrong. Scholl and Jerome wrote tons of music and lyrics mostly for Warners shorts and "B" pictures. Occasionally, one of their songs found its way into an "A" production, like "Knock on Wood" in "Casablanca" or "Some Sunday Morning" from "San Antonio". They are definitely unsung musical heroes of Hollywood and their work should be re-evaluated.
The Lady and the Lug (1941)
Good Slapstick Comedy
This is a rare screen appearance by party giver Elsa Maxwell. Here, she plays herself and is teamed with Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom and George "Superman" Reeves. Warners comedy shorts were hit or miss, but this one is definitely a hit. Who would ever believe Maxwell as a slapstick comedienne? But she's really good here. Reeves plays it straight while Rosenbloom shows good comedy style. It is doubly funny that Maxwell is the butt of a number of the slapstick gags. She's a natural before the camera. If I had been unaware of her, I would have thought she was a vaudeville comedienne. Rosenbloom does his usual punch drunk routine and Reeves is as smooth as silk. The Romeo and Juliet parody in the middle of the film is hysterical. Even the comedy boxing scene, an idea which had been done to death, is fresh and funny. Add to this the always welcome, bass heavy Warners background music, and you have a winning, funny short.
How to Sub-Let (1939)
Mediocre Benchley Short
While Bob's wife is at church, Bob is left to show his apartment to potential new tenants. There really is much here. What should have been a sight gag fest turns out to be boring. Bumbling Bob should have destroyed the apartment while showing it. Unfortunately, the few sight gags there are do not illicit much laughter. Now Benchley really wasn't much of a physical comedian, but his facial expressions could be priceless. He tries, but there just isn't enough good material for him to react to. The comedy clocks in at about 8 minutes, but seems much longer; the pacing is very slow. I guess Benchley just ran out of ideas for this short. He's done better with other films.
Asleep in the Feet (1933)
Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd work with a fairly new director on the Roach lot, Gus Meins. Where directors like James Horne, James Parrott, Lloyd French, and George Marshall were most interested in gags, Meins wanted to present a well defined, motivated story. He does use sight gags, but they are built into the story. Meins' style is certainly a contrast to the other directors on the Roach lot. It can really be seen in his Our Gang and Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly entries. I only wish he had used the stock LeRoy Shield background music more often. He only chooses to use it in a handful of shorts.
In this depression era piece, Thelma and Zasu are late in paying their rent and haven't much to eat. However, their neighbor is about to be evicted from her room if she cannot pay $20. Softhearted Thelma and Zasu become dance hall girls to help her. Anita Garvin is hysterical as a veteran taxi dancer. Also funny are the attempts to make Zasu more appealing. Of course, Thelma is naturally appealing. Billy Gilbert is funny as always as the dance hall manager. But why did he need the accent? The closing gag could have gone in many directions. All I will say is that Meins chose a very good one. It tops off a charming short.