Comedy

Judy Garland’s Comedic Gifts

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Judy Garland wears her Sunday Best to impress her new fiancé. Image: denverlibrary.org

Judy Garland made everything look easy.

She could sing and dance and make you believe she flew to an emerald city in a tornado. Combined with her dramatic talents, it’s easy to forget how funny she was.

We marvelled at her comedic gifts when we screened The Harvey Girls (1946), a delightful musical-comedy Western.

Garland plays a young woman travelling from Ohio to the Wild West to marry a man with whom she’s corresponded, but has never met. On the train, she meets a group of spunky-but-respectable gals who are training to be waitresses at a Harvey House restaurant in Arizona. (These railroad-stop restaurants, established in the 1870s, are regarded as the first restaurant chain in the U.S.)

Garland is utterly charming. In an early scene, she sits on the westbound train, glancing enviously at the fried chicken the Harvey girls are eating, while she pokes at a single leftover crust in her lunch basket. Nevertheless, she spreads her napkin with a flourish over her lap and peers into her basket as though she can’t decide which imaginary delicacy to eat first.

When she arrives in town and sees her rough, unglamorous betrothed (Chill Wills), she is horrified. This man is the opposite of his letters, which are romantic and full of curlicues. She realizes she can’t hide forever from her husband-to-be, and she’s too stubborn to get back on the train, so she swallows her alarm and disappointment. But Wills ain’t no dummy; he gracefully asks Garland not to marry him.

Garland promptly joins the Harvey Girls and dons the employee uniform:

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Judy sings and serves steak in the Old West. Image: Sweethearts of the West

However.

The Harvey House is not welcome in town because it represents Manners and Keeping Elbows Off The Table. The saloon across the street, the feather-boa Alhambra, hates the starched-white Harvey House because townsfolk might turn into Respectable People. (You see, the Harvey House is to Civilization what the Alhambra could be to Vegas.)

And yet.

The Alhambra is owned by Ned Trent (John Hodiak), a smirky fellow whose greatest pleasure is sabotaging the Harvey House generally, and Judy Garland in particular.

But.

It was Hodiak who wrote those letters for Wills, the same letters that made Garland fall in love and board a train to the middle of nowhere to marry someone she’d never met.

Oh boy, we’ve gotten off topic. We were talking about Garland’s comedic talents. We’ve only time to describe one more scene, the one where John Hodiak steals all the Harvey House steaks!

Don't mess with Judy. Image: lskdjf a

Don’t mess with Judy. Image: YouTube

When Garland discovers the famous Harvey House steaks are missing, she decides to get ‘em back. She snatches two pistols and grimly marches across the street to the Alhambra, guns drawn. She’s All Business, yet she shrieks when she accidentally drops her weapons.

Garland reaches the Alhambra as someone is being forcibly removed. She squats under the saloon-style doors, surveying the territory, pistols cocked in the air à la Yosemite Sam. She finally musters the courage to stand and enter the bar. “Stick ‘em up,” she announces, and is almost knocked flat by bouncers trying to eject another patron. “Come on,” she pleads, “stick ‘em up now.” But everyone is having too much fun to notice.

If you haven’t seen The Harvey Girls, we urge you to do so. It is a wonderful film that showcases the very amusing and charming Judy Garland.

The Harvey Girls: starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Chills Wills. Directed by George Sidney. Written by Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon, Samson Raphaelson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1946, Colour, 105 mins.

Ginger Rogers, Ace Detective

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 Ginger Rogers can’t believe her luck sometimes. Image: What Ginger Wore

Tell us this is not one of the best opening scenes ever:

It is night on a deserted street in New York. The camera is positioned as though you were leaning out a window of an apartment building, looking down at the sidewalk.

There is a scream and a man’s body falls, from above you, onto the pavement.

This, in our opinion, is the best kind of introduction to a movie. No chit chat, no how-do-you-do nonsense. Let’s just get down to business of murder.

Such is our introduction to A Shriek in the Night (1933), a clunky but charming pre-code murder mystery/comedy. The premise is something that wasn’t new then and is still familiar today: a rich man who may have shady dealings with criminals meets an unexpected end.

Fortunately for the police (and for the deceased), a newspaper reporter (Ginger Rogers) is On The Case. She had been investigating the man’s ties to the underworld but, now that he’s dead, she realizes she’s got a Bigger Story.

Except.

Her ex-boyfriend (Lyle Talbot) works for a rival newspaper. Talbot may not be as smart as Rogers but he has an audacious charm – and scoops her front page story to publish it in his own newspaper!

Despite this treachery (or because of), Rogers is determined to solve the mystery while trying to out-maneuver Talbot. BUT! Sinister forces discover Rogers is snooping around and, naturally, they feel they must dispose of her.

This movie was made in 1933 and, frankly, you can tell. Some of the dialogue is stilted and the scenes aren’t staged as smoothly as we’d like. However, A Shriek in the Night is still a barrel o’ fun. It winks at famous detectives (e.g. Philo Vance) and pays tribute to the popular detective magazines of the day.

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Lilian Harmer loves to read about grisly murders before going to sleep. Image: Old Films in Pictures

A good movie detective, like any detective, needs brains and guts. Rogers has both, and is très amusing in a smart-alec kind of way. In one scene, the lights suddenly go out in the rich man’s apartment. The maid (Lilian Harmer) shrieks.

Harmer: “There’s a man in the apartment!”

Rogers: “He’s a friend of mine. Keep your hands off him.”

There’s also fantastic Gangster Speak in the script. Look at this note sent to one of the characters:

“You don’t know me but I know you – and you and the mob that pinned the rap on Denny Fagan are going to get what he got – the juice.”

(Getting “the juice” means going to the electric chair. Fantastic stuff, no?)

Rogers and her nemesis, Talbot, have great chemistry; an entire movie could be made from their banter alone. One evening, Talbot arrives at the rich man’s apartment with plans to stay the night so he can protect Rogers and Harmer. An amused Rogers asks him not to wake her if he needs saving, then tells him not to drink all the scotch.

However, the movie soon gets tense as Rogers finds herself alone with the murderer – and it’s not anyone we suspected. We, as the audience, are genuinely fearful for Rogers. How will she escape?!

A Shriek in the Night may not be the slickest mystery ever produced, but it’s still a terrific film – and an excellent showcase for both Ginger Rogers’ and Lyle Talbot’s comedic talents.

A Shriek in the Night: starring Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Harvey Clark. Directed by Albert Ray. Screenplay by Frances Hyland. Allied Pictures Corp., 1933, B&W, 70 mins.

This post is part of the Sleuthathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions in this Celebration of the Big-Screen Detective.

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1929: Americans in Paris

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Will Rogers (centre) would rather eat a snack on the stairs than attend his wife’s dinner party. Image: cinemasparagus.blogspot.ca

(This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon.)

In September, the London Stock Exchange crashed; Wall Street was to follow before the end of October.

1929 was the year Greece outlawed political insurrections, Afghanistan suffered civil war and revolution, and Joseph Stalin kicked Leon Trotsky out of the Soviet Union. And in the West? There was a colossal economic implosion and the start of the Great Depression.

The signs were there: a small-scale market crash in March of that year; dubious Wall Street decisions; overextended consumer credit. But society rolled merrily along, and why not? You can’t blame anyone for wanting to believe the economy will always charge over the hill to save the day.

Hollywood movies reflected this optimism. Gold Diggers of Broadway was the highest-grossing film of the year, followed by Sunny Side Up and The Cock-Eyed World. The first Academy Awards were hosted that year (Wings won Best Picture), and Hallejuah! was released – the first film with an African-American cast.

Actor/humorist Will Rogers made his first talking picture in 1929: They Had to See Paris. This well-dressed comedy, the 27th top grossing film of the year, could almost be the story of the Western World during this period of uncertainty.

Rogers plays an small-town-Oklahoma auto mechanic with two grown children. When his newly-constructed oil well literally becomes a gusher, his wife (Irene Rich) decides they must take their children to Paris so they can meet All The Right People. Although Rogers firmly believes all the right people live in his small Oklahoma town, he accompanies his family to the City of Lights.

This is an amusing film, with some poignant moments and real exterior shots of 1920s Paris. But Director Frank Borzage is telling a bigger story than what appears to be a feel-good, America-is-the-best-country-in-the-world romp.

Example: When Rogers’ well is first put into operation, his fellow townspeople gather to watch. The oil derrick sits at the top of the hill, while the townspeople stand below.  A man slides a metal weight down the well and oil immediately sprays upwards, spewing barrels of the stuff. As oil runs down the hill, the townspeople seem to welcome the black liquid, scooping it up with their their hands, almost as if in an act of worship.

Another notable scene hints at the sizeable economic loss France suffered as a result of World War I. When his wife throws a party for French aristocrats at their country château, Rogers is shocked to discover she is paying honorariums to many of the guests, a practice that started after the war.

The film also gives a nod to the sizeable American ex-patriate community living the bohemian life in Paris at the time. Rogers’ son (Owen Davis, Jr.) gives his parents the slip and secretly moves in with an attractive young artist in the Quartier Latin.

They Had to See Paris is more than a vehicle for Will Rogers. It offers a glimpse of the Western World just before the stock market crash. The film’s themes of helping those in need, and placing importance on family and friends, were the traits folks needed to help grind their way through the Great Depression.

They Had to See Paris: starring Will Rogers, Irene Rich, Owen Davis, Jr. Directed by Frank Borzage. Scenario by Sonya Levien. Dialogue by Owen Davis. Fox Film Corp., B&W, 1929, 95 mins.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly. Please be sure to read the other contributions:

The Silent Era (1915-1926): Hosted by Movies, Silently

An Uncertain World (1927-1938): Hosted by Silver Screenings 

The War Years (1939-1950): Hosted by Once Upon a Screen

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The Dual Edward Fan Club

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Edward G. Robinson squares off against Edward G. Robinson. Image: thatguywiththeglasses.com

Let us be clear about one thing: We adore Edward G. Robinson, and we cannot abide anything negative said about him.

One reason for our adoration is his performance in the 1935 comedy, The Whole Town’s Talking, where Edward plays two characters: (1) a ruthless gangster who has just escaped from prison; and (2) a submissive office clerk who lives with a canary and a cat. Dual Edward is utterly convincing in both roles.

The plot: A subservient office clerk is arrested by police when he is mistaken for Public Enemy No. 1. Poor Office Edward has a time of it at the police station, trying to convince police he’s not the man they’re looking for. Happily, Office Edward’s supervisor arrives at the station and makes a positive ID.

Unhappily, though, Office Edward becomes a minor celebrity due to his striking resemblance to Gangster Edward. He is given a special “Police Passport” so he won’t be arrested again.

Of course, when Gangster Edward realizes he has a twin – with police protection! – he decides to move into Office Edward’s apartment. Here he can come and go unnoticed with the use of the Police Passport. He’s really living the life now; he sleeps by day and robs banks at night.

Things do not look hopeful for Office Edward, as he is bullied and browbeaten by his unwelcome roommate. However, Office Edward has a powerful ally – his lippy, couldn’t-care-less co-worker (Jean Arthur).

Jean Arthur is delightful in this film, as she always is, but we don’t want her interfering with our Dual Edward gush-a-thon.

As the docile clerk, Office Edward tugs at your heart. He works an adding machine with precise, deliberate motions; he is careful not to intrude in others’ personal space; he speaks hesitantly, with a slight stutter. He is orderly, self-effacing and completely endearing. When police arrest, then release him, he apologizes for causing them “all this trouble”.

But as the malicious criminal, Gangster Edward scares us. When a tipsy Office Edward comes home one evening, he is startled by Gangster Edward, who has broken into his apartment to wait for him. Office Edward stops abruptly, and we do too. Here is the gangster we’ve heard so much about, fresh from prison, seated – almost coiled – in a chair, with a look of I’ll-kill-whoever-I-gotta determination on his face, his eyes practically glinting like sharpened steel. It almost makes your blood run cold.

So convincing is Dual Edward in these roles that you’re persuaded you’re watching twins and not one man. We’re able to enjoy both Office and Gangster Edward at the same time thanks to split screen, a technique developed in the silent era.

The Whole Town’s Talking reminds us why Edward G. Robinson was so famous. Not only was he a superb actor, he knew how important it was to give an audience their money’s worth.

If you haven’t yet seen this film, we plead with you to watch it immediately. You’ll become a lifelong member of the Dual Edward Fan Club.

The Whole Town’s Talking: starring Edward G. Robinson (x2), Jean Arthur, Arthur Hohl. Directed by John Ford. Written by Jo Swerling & Robert Riskin. Columbia Pictures Corp., B&W, 1935, 95 mins.

This post is part of the Dueling Divas Blogathon hosted by the lovely & talented Backlots. Click here to see the other contributions to this event.

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Jack Carson: King of the Double Entendre

Jack Carson listens as Ginger Rogers blah blah. Image: YouTube

Jack Carson has an eye for the ladies, while Ginger Rogers moons over his cowboy outfit. Image: YouTube

Do you get the feeling that when Jack Carson says something, he actually means something else?

Look at the 1951 comedy The Groom Wore Spurs, wherein Carson plays an actor who specializes in Westerns. In one scene, Carson says he’d like to remove his cowboy boots because “they’re a real pain in the arches.” (See what we mean?)

In our opinion, no one can deliver a line like Carson. Carson, in case you’re not familiar, was a popular comedic actor in the 1940s and 50s, but he also did some excellent dramatic work in films like Mildred Pierce.

The Groom Wore Spurs is the male “counterpart” to the 1946 comedy, The Bride Wore Boots. In our movie, Carson owes a large sum of money to a Las Vegas gambler, so he hires an attorney to make the problem go away. This attorney is played by Ginger Rogers.

These two characters couldn’t be better cast or better written. Carson’s character is shallow and obsessed with his movie image. Get this: He wears cowboy outfits with his name embroidered on the back in lasso-type font. On screen he’s a Western Hero, bringing Justice To All. Off screen he doesn’t even remember the plots of his own films.

Rogers, on the other hand, is smitten with the idea of having a Big-Name Movie Star as her client. She remembers the plots of his movies; we suspect she analyzes them in her diary.

Carson explains to Rogers that he lost in a game of dice and signed a $60,000 IOU which he can’t pay. He asks her to fly to Vegas with him where they can approach the gambler (Stanley Ridges) and hopefully settle the debt without violence.

The pair fly to Vegas and meet with the charming and dapper Ridges. He is articulate and pleasant, but when he leaves the table he warns, “Enjoy yourselves. It’s a short life.”

Still, it is Vegas after all, and after a moonlit drive to Hoover Dam, Carson and Rogers suddenly get married. (We didn’t realize Hoover Dam had that effect on people!) But the marriage is off to a rocky start; she suspects he married her just to erase his gambling debt. She storms back to L.A., while he stays in Vegas and gets drunk.

Even though Carson’s character plays a hero onscreen, he is, in reality, a coward. Rogers is braver and smarter than he is, and we feel a bit sorry that she rushed into marriage with such a man.

Sadly, this movie doesn’t end as well as it begins. We are treated to a contrived plot twist, then the whole movie falls apart. It’s like the filmmakers threw up their hands and said, “Whatever.”

However. The Groom Wore Spurs is still worth it because Jack Carson is too much fun. He struts around in his cheesy, over-the-top wardrobe, tossing out folksy sayings in a phoney southern accent. But it’s his double entendres that make us laugh the most.

For example, when Carson checks into a Vegas hotel, he tells the clerk that Rogers “is my [pause] attorney.” He says it as though he can’t believe he hasn’t used this line before.

The Groom Wore Spurs may not be the best comedy from the early 1950s but, in our opinion, it’s a classic example of Jack Carson doing what he does best.

The Groom Wore Spurs: starring Ginger Rogers, Jack Carson, Joan Davis. Directed by Richard Whorf. Written by Robert Libott and Frank Burt. Universal Pictures, B&W, 1951, 80 mins.

CMBA Blogathon: A Passion for Laurel & Hardy

Oliver Hardy (left) and Stan Laurel .... Image: alsdfjk as

Two of our favourite scamps, Oliver Hardy (left) and Stan Laurel. Image: fanpop.com

During our angst-ridden teen years, which were complete with thick brown glasses and imaginary social life, we discovered Laurel and Hardy.

We had seen classic films before, but didn’t realize how seemingly free-wheeling and fun these films could be. Laurel and Hardy showed us something new: filmmakers in the silent era were clever and witty, and didn’t need spoken dialogue to make great movies.

Our discovering Laurel and Hardy is a long story, so if you’d like to skip the next two paragraphs, we understand.

When we were growing up, Sunday mornings at our house were nothing but tumultuous. There were five children in our family, all of whom had to be washed, fed and packed into the car so we could go to Mass and learn how to Behave. In order to have some bathroom privacy before the mad pre-church rush, we (as in, yours truly) would get up at 6:00 a.m.

But one morning, in a cranky and rebellious mood, we turned on the television instead of brushing our teeth – and our world changed. We discovered that one of our local television stations showed Laurel and Hardy shorts. Not only that, these good television folk dedicated thirty minutes to Laurel and Hardy every Sunday morning. Watching these shorts became our new Sunday morning routine. We embraced it more enthusiastically than going to church, we’re afraid to say.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were a hugely popular slapstick comedy duo during the early years of Hollywood film. Laurel, the thin Englishman, was goofy, naive and endearing. Hardy, the stout American, was wily and often a little too smart for his own good.  They made over 100 films together, 32 of which were short silents.

One of their shorts, Liberty (1929), is the one we most remember from our childhood. It may not be the most celebrated Laurel and Hardy short, but we feel it should be. Liberty has all the elements we love about the duo, including a fairly twisted ending.

Liberty is only 19 minutes long, but what a wild 19 minutes! It’s a crazy little flick about two escaped prisoners, portrayed by our lads Laurel and Hardy. During the first half of the film, the two try to exchange pants. During the second half of the film, they try not to fall off an under-construction skyscraper.

Here’s how Liberty captures our first impressions of Laurel and Hardy shorts:

  1. It’s filmed outside, which gives us an interesting view of 1920s Los Angeles. As a teenager, we were fascinated by these outdoor scenes.
  2. The gags are fresh and clever, and make us laugh out loud.
  3. The skyscraper scene, which appears to be filmed at least 20 stories above the street, makes us feel like a kid watching a magic act for the first time.
  4. We identify with Laurel and Hardy. We know all too well what it’s like to be in a ridiculous situation of our own making.

Laurel and Hardy in general, and Liberty in particular, made us hungry for classic film. They knew how to give movie audiences a good time. They seem to have so much fun, which makes it fun for us.

And for opening a new world to a teenage girl with thick brown glasses, we are eternally grateful.

Liberty: starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Directed by Leo McCarey. Titles by H.M. Walker. Hal Roach Studios, B&W, 1929, 19 mins.

This post is part of the FILM PASSION 101 blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Be sure to read all the other fab entries!

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Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man

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Bud Abbott (left) tells Lou Costello (right) there’s no such thing as an Invisible Man (centre). Image: fanpop.com

In 1933, Universal Studios released a horror film about a scientist who develops a serum that makes him invisible. The film was based on a novel by H.G. Wells, and starred Claude Rains as a man who loses not only his body, but also his mind.

In 1951, Universal Studios decided to pull the Invisible Man concept out of the drawer and try it on again, this time featuring comedy superstars Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, they of “Who’s on First” fame. Abbott and Costello had already made several comedy/”horror” films for Universal, such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

But Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is not a horror film, and it’s not much of a mystery. It’s actually an amusing film about the world of boxing. Or, rather, Invisible Men in the world of boxing.

In this madcap adventure, Abbott and Costello are detective school graduates. While they move into their new office and brag about how smart they are, a man bursts through the door. They don’t realize that this intruder (Arthur Franz) is a boxer who has just escaped from jail, where he was imprisoned for the murder of his manager.

Franz hires the pair to drive him to a doctor’s home – the same doctor who has uncovered Claude Rains’ Formula That Makes People Invisible. Franz, desperate to clear his name, takes the serum so he can better spy on people. Meanwhile, Abbott and Costello learn Franz’s identity and plan how they can turn him over to police so they can collect a hefty reward.

The usual Abbott and Costello formula is at play in this film: Costello discovers the Invisible Man first; Abbott doesn’t believe him. When the Invisible Man plays tricks on Abbott, Abbott blames Costello. There are lots of fun, if low-tech, visual effects: doors opening by themselves; floating cigarettes in the hallway; and Costello fighting with the Invisible Man over a plate of spaghetti.

We also cheer when the Invisible Man lands some terrific punches on an opponent (a bad guy) in the boxing ring. The opponent is in a fixed boxing match with the hapless, in-waaay-over-his-head Costello, and we can’t wait until the Invisible Man shows this thug a thing or two.

The dialogue is pretty good, too. In one scene, Abbott and Costello are in a car that is being pursued by police and driven by the Invisible Man:

Abbott: [motioning to Invisible Man] I hope he has his driver’s license.

Costello: I hope he’s in the car.

One thing that bothers us about the Abbott & Costello schtick is that Abbott always comes across as SO unsympathetic. In this movie, he refers to a woman as a “swell-looking dish” whom he wants to “order as a side dish”. A line like this would be more palatable coming from the likes of Jack Carson, but from Abbott it sounds a little creepy and it makes you say, in your out-loud voice, “Eww.”

Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man has a completely ridiculous ending, but what Abbott & Costello movie doesn’t? Besides, if you’ve bought into the premise of an Invisible Man, the ending shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man: starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Nancy Guild. Directed by Charles Lamont. Screenplay by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, John Grant. Universal Pictures Co., B&W, 1951, 82 mins.

The Sky in Billie Burke’s World

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Billie Burke (2nd from left, seated) offers no sympathy to Pola Negri (standing). Image: polanegri.com

Sometimes, when we watch Billie Burke on screen, we feel a little envious at her ability to portray blithe characters who skate across life, leaving barely a scratch.

These are not people who burden themselves with the Deep Questions Of Life. They take life as it comes, refusing to get sucked into its undertow. Fortunately for us, scriptwriters usually endow these characters with very witty dialogue.

In the 1943 wartime comedy, Hi Diddle Diddle, Burke plays the mother of a young bride-to-be (Martha Scott), whose wedding is planned during her fiancé’s 48-hour leave from the navy. Alas, this will be the ultimate econo wedding because Burke has been swindled out of $50,000 by a young man infatuated with Scott. Said young man believes the naval fiancé to be after Burke’s money, so he’s going to spend it all first. (?!)

(Burke, however, is still able to put on a lavish pre-wedding breakfast by telling guests not to accept the invitation without giving her food coupons – and people oblige!)

Hi Diddle Diddle, like the nursery rhyme of a similar name, is a movie that does what it wants and doesn’t seem to care what you think. It’s a comedy that operates under its own set of rules, made by independent filmmaker Andrew L. Stone, who didn’t have a major studio meddling in things.

The tone is set in the opening title card: “[This] is a picture with a purpose… Try to find it.” Stone is winking at us; he knows he’s whipped up a frothy confection and he ain’t going to to pretend otherwise. We respect that in a picture.

Billie Burke is a perfect fit in this madcap film. Her warble-y dialogue is a treat, a wonderful contrast to the other characters. The cast includes Adolphe Menjou as the naval fiancé’s father, a gruff man with dodgy business practices. Pola Negri is Menjou’s new wife, an over-the-top-but-endearing opera singer who wonders about Menjou’s extra-curricular activities.

In a film brimming with great dialogue, Burke is not the only one with laugh-out-loud lines, but hers are the most memorable. For example, when she meets a new mother holding twins, she chirps, “Twins are so practical. It’s always nice to have a spare.”

This film is not about Burke, sadly, which means she doesn’t have much screen time but we, as an audience, are so busy trying to keep up with all the subplots that we don’t notice it till later. There are so many questions:

  1. Burke: Will she recover her swindled fortune?
  2. Menjou: Will his scam prove to be a money-maker?
  3. Negri: Does she believe Menjou is having a dalliance with a nightclub singer?
  4. Scott: Will she discover her naval fiancée is not, in fact, on a secret government mission?

See what we mean? All of this in 73 minutes. The mind reels!

Still, there could have been a wee bit more room made in the script for the talented Burke who made a career out of playing fluffy, rich women. Burke was married to Florenz Ziegfeld, who died in 1932 and left her deeply in debt. Even though she loved the stage, Burke worked in film to pay off Zeigfeld’s debts, and even received an Oscar nomination for 1938′s Merrily We Live. Her impressive filmography includes Dinner at Eight, The Wizard of Oz, Topper and, of course, our movie today.

We’ve been wondering why Hi Diddle Diddle isn’t more well known. Perhaps the title makes people gag – but don’t let that put you off. We think you’ll like this unconventional screwball comedy featuring the gifted Billie Burke.

Hi Diddle Diddle: starring Adolphe Menjou, Martha Scott, Pola Negri. Directed by Andrew L. Stone. Screenplay by Frederick Jackson. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1943, 73 mins.

The Smallest Show on Earth

Projectionist Peter Sellers (left) waxes nostalgic about the good ol' days. Image: Vintage Norwich

Projectionist Peter Sellers (left) waxes nostalgic about the good ol’ days at the Bijou Kinema. Image: Vintage Norwich

Hey, guess who’s on this week’s Forgotten Filmcast?

We are! Whee!

Forgotten Filmcast, hosted by Todd at Forgotten Films, is a podcast that looks at movies abandoned by time.

This week’s film is The Smallest Show on Earth, a 1957 British comedy about a young couple who inherit a derelict movie theatre. There are lots of fab British actors in this film, including a young Peter Sellers.

Here’s how you can listen to the discussion of this delightful movie:

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If you haven’t been following the smart and witty Forgotten Films blog, click here to sign up. You can thank us later.

The Smallest Show on Earth: starring Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers, Peter Sellers. Directed by Basil Dearden. Written by William Rose and John Edridge. British Lion Release, B&W, 1957, 80 mins.

 

A Bird Movie Starring – er – Birds

You really haven't seen anything like it. Image: moviepostershop

You really haven’t seen anything like it. Image: moviepostershop

Have you ever become a fan of a movie that is everything you dread in a film?

We did when we screened the 1948 comedy Bill and Coo, a movie starring, well, birds.

We (as in, yours truly) have nothing against birds. We’re just a little fussy about animal movies, is all. If they’re not animated or packed with Important Information About Nature, we have no use for ‘em.

Bill and Coo is about birds but it’s not a documentary or animated feature. It’s a live-action film where trained birds act out the story. Yup, actual birds are the stars here – lovebirds, mostly, but parakeets, owls and ducks have supporting roles, too.

It’s not much of a narrative, as far as narratives go. The birds live in Chirpendale, a quaint town that has all the amenities. There is a beauty parlour, public transportation and a dodgy-looking “juice” bar. In Chirpendale (and we quote), “love, happiness and contentment blend together in harmony.” We don’t doubt this, judging by the popularity of that juice bar.

Even The Starling Bros. circus rolls into Chirpendale with its acrobatic birds and caged animals…one of which, ironically, is a cat.

But Chirpendale lives under a dark shadow. The town must contend with the ever-looming threat of the Black Menace, a large black crow, who destroys houses and carries away baby birds. The Black Menace is the worst kind of villain; he waits until everyone is happily enjoying the circus, then he attacks with vigor. EEEK! How will the good citizens of Chirpendale fight him off?

See? The film sounds silly, yet we don’t intend to mock it. The narration is amusing, the music is cheerful and the sets (which are the world’s second smallest, according to Wikipedia) are carefully done to scale.

You want to see something weird? Do a search for Bill and Coo on any major search engine, and this little movie appears at or near the top of the search results. One can only assume folks are still curious about these crazy birds.

The birds were trained by George Burton, a one-time silent film actor. In the short before the film, Burton gives a demonstration with his birds. Using a wand, Burton plucks the lovebirds from their perch and sets them on a mini tightrope. The birds don’t even flinch when Burton transfers them onto a new surface; they stick to it like velcro.

Now, you may have objections about birds being forced to wear little hats and pulling each other around in little wooden carts. Perhaps we should be morally outraged, but we’re not. This 60-minute Trucolor film is utterly fascinating. Why?

It’s because of those busy little birds. They are Just! So! Cute!

Burton’s lovebirds are terrific actors. They run fast and do neat tricks. (One of them turns somersaults, for pete sake!) Clearly, these are smart birds. Sometimes you swear they KNOW they are filming a movie.

We hope you’ll make a Note To Self to see the quirky Bill and Coo at your next opportunity. Like the poster says, you haven’t seen anything like it.

Bill and Coo: starring George Burton, Elizabeth Walters, Ken Murray, and  George Burton’s Birds. Directed by Dean Reisner Written by Royal Foster & Dean Reisner. Republic Pictures Corp., Colour, 1948, 60 mins.