Buried Treasure --- Standing Room Only
We all find out eventually how subjective humor is. I learned long ago never to guarantee an audience laughs, as there's no faster route to a hosting Waterloo. One comedy I'll always walk the plank for, however, for fact it's so utterly forgotten if nothing else (especially by owning Universal) , is Standing Room Only, a delight worthy of revival on TCM, if not DVD release through their Vault Collection. This wartime frolic (released 1944) enjoyed underground renown among 16mm collectors who called it hilarity's improvement on better known The More The Merrier, which has run on TCM and is available via Sony disc. Maltin's Movie Guide gives Standing Room Only but two stars and calls it "dated." Well ... duh. That's half this movie's charm. How does SRO play to an audience? Mine have liked it lots. Given a crisp digital alternative to the milky spliced-up print I had to run this weekend for lack of anything better, they'd have cheered more. Presentation is crucial to enjoyment, but what can you do when a thing's not available save battered 16mm remnants someone snuck out of a warehouse thirty years ago? And how many signatures would adorn petitions to exhume a farce about Washington housing shortages during WWII? It's when advocating on behalf of a Standing Room Only that I realize how alone in the world we fully-vested fans are. No wonder civilians think we're a little cracked.
Is anyone at TCM or Universal listening? I sometimes wonder if those behind corporate walls read movie blogs, let alone GPS. Maybe one of you in contact with decision makers can forward my earnest plea. As it turns out, Standing Room Only as a 16mm option sort of crashed when my take-up reel froze and a thousand feet of film cascaded onto the projection booth floor, a reminder as if one were needed of why I stopped collecting film in favor of DVD. We did get through the show, but only just. A big disconnect between folks that live with old movies and those that don't is fact the latter can't know character faces as we do, recognition of these being well past adjustment to conventions of dialogue, pacing, and fashions long out of fashion. Linger enough on TCM and shows like Standing Room Only wear as comfortably as fleece robes (all the more reason it would fit ideally there). Hey, there's Roland Young ... we know pretty well what he'll be up to, having seen Topper, The Philadelphia Story and two-dozen others where he's type-cast ... and here comes Edward Arnold, a known quantity welcome for us as surely he was to 1944 audiences. Still, I can't blame people who reject past Hollywood. There's nothing familiar for them to latch onto, and it's worse now than even a few decades ago when at least a handful of veterans were alive to stir memory of work they'd done more recently. I was able to sit Ann down for Standing Room Only largely because of Fred MacMurray being the lead, his name and face she'd recall from My Three Sons, but how many others as of 2010 still know My Three Sons?
Shows like Standing Room Only were customized for theatres aspiring to SRO conditions of their own. On-screen players paused for laughs same as if they were on a stage. Paramount especially paced their comedies to the rhythm of packed houses. Modern viewers wonder why Bob and Bing halt a beat after sock lines. Well, it's because they didn't want two thousand then-patrons to miss the next sock line. There are moments in Standing Room Only that I'll bet took roofs off flagship venues like the Chicago Theatre (ad below). SRO played mid-May 1944 as part of an entertainment smorgasbord that headlined live-appearing Gil Lamb, eccentric comic of much Paramount exposure (having been in Riding High, Rainbow Island, others), along with the Glenn Miller Band's crooner Ray Eberle, a frequent attraction on Chicago's stage (clicked well with the femmes and begged off after four curtain calls, said Billboard). Broadway's Deluxe Tapsters Lathrop and Lee rendered "Darktown Strutter's Ball," with plenty of flash and high-class stepping, followed by Lamb joining harmonica whiz Bob Coffey for a go at Rhapsody In Blue to accompaniment of a farcical jitterbug dance. There was also the Glenns, whose remarkable acro (batic) work ... stopped the show. Bandleader Lou Breese had signed a year's contract to front the theatre's orchestra and was performing a record eight shows a day (imagine his fatigue at conclusion of that). Buying a Chicago seat to Standing Room Only yielded 83 minutes of feature plus such gravy to swell entertainment well past two hours, surely a bargain at whatever the price.
Few remember Paulette Goddard beyond appearances as Chaplin's leading lady (offscreen as well), but war years saw her emblazoning marquees in crowd pleaser A's that vaulted PG to most valued distaff name on Paramount payrolls. Fred MacMurray never forgot her wangling favored billing in Standing Room Only, even if the film itself was more or less a blur. Paulette had ways of managing ... always ... what was best for Paulette, and talent or lack of it figured but lightly into equations. Her birthdate was cited as 1910, but closer scrutiny, done after stardom's closure, suggested 1905 as likelier date of arrival. Goddard might well have been easing toward forty by time of Standing Room Only, but looks wouldn't betray age until a few seasons later and 1947's Unconquered, her last of consequence for Paramount. She'd got by with va-voom and ready willingness, although insiders swore Goddard had ten times said appeal behind cameras. There may be sauce beyond even that if visiting friend Dan's randy interpretation of a certain "whipping cream" line she utters in Standing Room Only is correct, though I'd prefer thinking that's just D's baser instincts at work yet again. All this yammer, by the way, and I'd forgot to mention what SRO is about. The set-up, not simplicity itself, but productive of much misunderstanding, close calls, and prat-falling, has hard-charging Fred and pretend secretary Paulette forced to become butler and maid for "hen-pecked wolf" Roland Young. Now a kicker here, though not one felt until a decade later, is fact Fred plays a toy manufacturer, just as he would in There's Always Tomorrow (1956), a foolproof companion for Standing Room Only that I'd hereby commend to TCM and revival house programmers. Book these end-to-end and put your own reading to go-getter Fred's 1944 character beaten down by 50's conformity and family obligation as calendars roll round twelve years --- and all the while he's moving toys. There's got to be monograph potential there for Sirk (and maybe Sidney Lanfield!) scholars.
Some more nice images of Paulette Goddard at Greenbriar Archives here.