Monday, December 19, 2011

RED SKELTON WHISTLING COLLECTION (MGM 1941, 42, 43) Warner Archive Collection

Whistling with the likes of Red Skelton is to observe a master comic plying his craft with the nimblest slights of dialogue, giddy, absurd and peppering our appreciation for good humor with scathing double entendre. By the time Skelton donned the persona of Wally 'the Fox' Benton in S. Sylvan Simon’s Whistling in the Dark (1941) the story was already twice removed from its source material. The original Broadway 1932 play had been such a smash that it was quickly turned into a middling film the following year. Undaunted by the previous film's lackluster performance, MGM dusted off this time honored chestnut and gave it to Skelton - then a rising star on their back lot. The results: sheer comedic poetry - a laugh-a-minute festival of the obtuse.
It is important to note that although solving crimes is part of the mélange of these movies the crimes themselves are incidental - or generally speaking, unimportant. The screenplay for Whistling in the Dark by Robert MacGunigle, Harry Clork, Alber Mannheimer, Eddie Moran and Elliot Nugent is a patchwork of one liners and warhorse stage humor that make short shrift of the thriller aspects in Lawrence Gross/Edward Childs play. In Whistling in the Dark Wally (Skelton) is a radio personality perennially engaged to sweetheart, Carol Lambert (Ann Rutherford). Carol is jealous of the sponsor's daughter, Fran Post (Virginia Gray) - a contrivance soon jettisoned when Wally gets himself kidnapped by cult leader, Joseph Jones (Conrad Veidt). Joe has led an exemplary life dedicated to the cheap swindle, pitching phony religion to the feather-headed while lightening their pockets at his out of the way religious retreat.
But when one of his 'parishioners' dies, Joe learns that he will have access to her millions once her only living heir - nephew Harvey Upshaw (Lloyd Corrigan) bites the dust. To hasten the inevitable and get his hands on the money, Joe sends his driver Sylvester (Rags Ragland) and henchman, Noose Green (Don Costello) to kidnap Wally. Joe has decided from listening to Wally's latest broadcast that he is the only one capable of concocting a diabolical murder plot that the police will be unable to solve. To secure Wally's compliance, Joe also has his goons take Carol and Fran hostage.
The rest of the plot is inconsequential at best, with too many plausible loopholes in its construction to be believed. Wally, Carol and Fran trade barbs and skulk around Joe's religious retreat, biding their time with futile plans of escape while Noose and Sylvester go after Upshaw, intent on carrying out whatever plot Wally concocts. Whistling in the Dark was so successful that MGM immediately green lit a sequel almost immediately, Whistling in Dixie (1942). If anything, the crime story concocted by Nat Perrin, Wilkie C. Mahoney, Lawrence Hazard and Jonathan Latimer is even more unremarkable this second time around. After Carol gets a phone call from her old sorority sister, Ellamae Downs (Diana Lewis) she convinces Wally to head to Georgia to solve the murder of Martin Gordon (Mark Daniels) who was doing some sort of excavation at an old Confederate Fort.
Wally and Carol are met at the station by Ellamae, her cousin Hattie Lee (Celia Travers), her father, Judge George Lee (Guy Kibbee) and their driver, Chester Conway (Rags Ragland) - Sylvester's twin brother. Having sent Sylvester to prison at the end of the first movie, Wally is concerned that his twin harbours the same murderous feelings toward him. On the contrary, Chester proves congenial and harmless. But wait - Sylvester has escaped prison and is currently on his way to the old southern plantation. Meanwhile Sherriff Claude Staggs (George Bancroft) and DA Frank Bailey (Peter Whitney) are in cahoots to unearth a buried treasure of real gold confederate coins - the real reason Gordon was murdered in the first place. The plot of Whistling in Dixie may be pure pulp. But the nonstop cavalcade of sharp shooting jokes is smart and hilarious. At one point the narrative balances a case of mistaken identity (Wally gets Chester and Sylvester confused) and a brawl between Carol, Hattie and Ellamae that no man, much less Wally, can break up with predictable, but riotous results.
As a narrative, Whistling in Brooklyn (1943) is the third and weakest of the three films. Wilkie Mahoney, Nat Perrin and Stanley Roberts' screenplay doesn't even try to be clever, but instead relies almost exclusively on Red Skelton's comedic brilliance to carry off what can only be described as a convoluted mish-mash of a plot. Wally and Carol have decided to get married. But before they can make it to the altar Wally is accused of being 'Constant Reader': a terrorist who taunts the police with letters that foreshadow upcoming crimes.
Jean Pringle (Jean Rogers) is the reporter assigned to cover Wally's story. But she quickly becomes part of the plot, being hunted by thugs loyal to DA Grover Kendell (Ray Collins - entirely unsuitable as the heavy). To escape incarceration Wally joins The Beavers; a professional baseball team who all sport very long beards and are pitted against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a game that laughably goes awry once Wally has shaved their star pitcher. Predictably, Wally solves the mystery behind 'Constant Reader', leading Inspector Holcomb (Henry O'Neill) to a retired tub moored at the Brooklyn docks where Kendell and the real Creeper (Sam Levene) are hiding out.
Viewing these films today is like a peering into a window from another more innocent time. Skelton's comic genius is timeless to be sure. But he is surrounded by 40s pastiche that attempts - mostly in vane - to set up and then dismantle the premises of vintage film noir while standing the conventions of the crime thriller on end. I never understood Wally's radio persona nickname 'The Fox' since his character seems to howl more like a wolf. Oh well, a minor point, I suppose. The rest of the cast, particularly Rags Ragland, are a veritable who's who of bit players that really enjoy their fleeting moments of notoriety in these otherwise one man shows dedicated to Skelton's brilliance as a comic. Ann Rutherford is forgettable, but we catch glimpses of Eve Arden (Buzz Baker in 'Dark') and Lucien Littlefield (Corp. Lucken in 'Dixie') as well as other memorable faces in support that make these films a loving catalogue of old favorites paraded for our amusement and entertainment.
If you go into any of the ‘Whistling movies with the premise that they are detective thrillers with a comic edge (as, say, The Thin Man series) you will be utterly disappointed. The 'Whistling' trilogy is nothing more than a narrative excuse for the writers and Red Skelton to pitch their hats and jokes on. Both the writers and Skelton do this extremely well, like tossing horseshoes at the fair. And if you want to laugh then the Whistling series definitely attains a high water mark that few films past or present can lay claim to. These are fun flicks - though nothing more.
Warner Home Video has made all three movies available in one MOD archive collection with fairly impressive results. Whistling in the Dark has obviously been the benefactor of some digital restoration beforehand and the results are impressive. The gray scale is beautifully balanced. The image is crisp and mostly free of age related artifacts. Contrast levels are bang on. The other two movies in this collection don't fare as well, but they're hardly write offs. Whistling in Dixie's image is a tad softer but not deplorably so. Age related artifacts are present throughout but these don't distract either. The last film in the series also adds a modicum of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. But again, these distractions are kept to a bare minimum. The audio on all three movies is mono and adequately represented with minimal hiss and pop. The only extra features are theatrical trailers for all three movies. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Whistling in the Dark 3.5
Whistling in Dixie 3
Whistling in Brooklyn 2.5
Whistling in the Dark 4
Whistling in Dixie 3
Whistling in Brooklyn 3

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