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Monday, July 10, 2023

Category Called Comedy #2


CCC: Radio Revels and Reginald Denny

BREAKFAST IN HOLLYWOOD (1946) --- What’s more gone than radio? And yet we have more of it online than a lifetime’s listening could absorb, at least what survives, which I’d ask how much OTR does survive? Must be a sliver, as look how little of Breakfast in Hollywood floats freely, and this was so popular a program as to inspire a feature movie in 1946, a more-less recital of Tom Breneman’s daily show, thus precious opportunity to watch him interact with listeners turned participants. This then was fan service of most craven kind, a film less film than radio with pictures. Breneman had a restaurant from which broadcasts were heard, ham and eggs at constant fry, so a large entrance marquee promised. He would move among diners daily and engage them re lives, joking mildly at expense of eccentrics exposing themselves to Breneman scrutiny on nationwide radio. United Artists distributed the 1946 feature, for which actors were added to supply narrative where Breneman was not doing his radio thing. Comedy and heart-tug came courtesy ZaSu Pitts, Billie Burke, Beulah Bondi, Hedda Hopper as herself. Music guests were Spike Jones and City Slickers, plus the King Cole Trio. Radio got respect else these would not participate, and like with Phil Baker, we must assume there was ready viewership where on-air personalities consented to be themselves for our looking benefit. Tom Breneman struck me like TV's Art Linkletter, bandy with sweet old ladies rather than emphasis on kids as with Art. He died sudden in 1948 (“Tom Breneman, Famous Radio Star, Drops Dead” said one tactless headline). I don’t know who ended up with the eatery, which was lavish and must have cost plenty to dress up. Did Brenaman wife and two surviving kids see benefits from that?

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT (1944) --- You wouldn’t think a class outfit like Twentieth Century Fox had brass enough to put their logo on such a cheater, yet here it was for 1944, an extended (beyond interest) capture of radio’s Take It or Leave It, a game show which later became The $64 Question. Latter title as popular expression comes down yet to moderns who know not meaning of it, but then how many care re origin of slang so far passed? Height of arrogance is recycled Fox footage, basis for “The Screen’s Greatest Radio Show” to include Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Al Jolson, plenty more … except none appear fresh, and some of relic clips go back ten years, an affront to anyone paying ’44 way in. Loew’s Warfield compensates with eight acts of vaudeville, plus small print promise of Scarface (1932) to bolster Take It or Leave It after 11 PM once live talent went home (imagine their exhaustion). Many war run theatres were a three-shift circus for harried staff and artists performing on stage. Asset, if a small one, of Take It or Leave It is to see radio being staged, a process invisible at home, listeners no doubt thrilled to see what made broadcasts tick. Phil Baker, a voice familiar, and face too, thanks to previous The Gang’s All Here, again was Himself for banter with contestants, Take It or Leave It a popular airwave ritual, but how does that excuse padding that is clips from Tin Pan Alley, Baby Take a Bow, Sonja Henie skating in who-knows-what interchangeable vehicle, all proposed as “Guests” in ads at the least misleading. My bootleg of Take It or Leave It showed up with twenty minutes shorn and enough splices/cue marks to relive ordeal of syndication and 16mm collecting. Thankfully gone are those days, but fun being reminded of reality that was hazard watching.

REGINALD DENNY ON BLU-RAY --- Welcome to bright horizon that is four of Reginald Denny’s silent feature comedies available on Blu-Ray, restoration for each underwritten by Universal, the company that used him most and produced the quartet now before us from Kino. Denny guested on a Batman episode during the last year of his life and that may be where I first noticed the by-then veteran player, known to me also as misleading member of Britain’s “inner counsel” in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, where Denny’s climactic switch of sides sent/still sends chills at least up my spine. Re the war, airplane hobbyist Denny, who built models expertly and had a shop, more factory, dedicated to mass manufacture, turned expertise toward defense projects and designed early incarnation of what we call drones, a male Hedy Lamarr it would seem. Between Denny drones and Lamarr’s frequency hopping, we’d see the Axis out sure. Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By with its intoxicating interior page scent which carries me always to 1968 publication date, tells of the author’s visit with Reginald Denny circa 1964 to which Parade devotes a chapter. Denny had not seen one of his silent comedies (and he made lots) “in twenty years” and was afraid they’d not click when Brownlow arranged for the actor and his family to screen Skinner's Dress Suit. What vivid account this is of a silent luminary who lived to know how still enjoyable his long past work was even unto the mid-sixties. To my reckon, Denny was the great romantic leading man of silent era modern comedy. He practically invented a style to flower fully with thirties screwball. What Happened to Jones? (1926) could easily and profitably have been remade with Cary Grant starring and Leo McCarey directing, being blue chip mirthful through all its 71 minutes.

Jones events lead to wedding ceremony payoff that reminded me much of Four Weddings and a Funeral in its final act, being plenty funny as was that 1994 success. I ask on one hand, where has What Happened to Jones? been all my life? --- simple answer being nowhere, as who could access it before now and Kino’s Blu-Ray? This one is a real discovery. If all Denny comedies are good as What Happened to Jones? and Skinner’s Dress Suit, we’ve got pleasures yet to unearth. 1964 and the Denny screening with Brownlow is now several generations back of us, the films more remote, so question rises as to how Denny plays now, answer via foursome spread across two Blu-Rays from Kino. I’m discovering one feature at apportioned time … rich vintage humor should never be binged. Any Denny is at best a delight, at the least fascinating, being twenties tell of youth at work, domesticity, and eager play. Denny races roadsters here, moves up in business there, all and more of what we expect men of purpose to have done in era one hundred years passed. Reginald Denny was surely salve to those missing Wallace Reid. Both were athletic, engaging at comedy but falling in mud less than slapstick we associate with the period. Denny preferred a light approach and became popular enough to enforce the policy. Fun arose from situations, a young husband out of his debt depth in Skinner’s Dress Suit, the bachelor assuming false guise to salvage his engagement (What Happened to Jones?). More Denny vehicles are extant, so further releases could and should happen. In the meantime, there are these from Kino and all should please.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

"The Parade's Gone By"! That was my #1 favorite movie history book (meaning book, period) when I was a youngster. I read and re-read my paperback copy so much the cover came off. I probably got rid of it years ago, but now feel like going on the hunt for it again.

I grew up a fan of OTR and thought I knew all the names, but Tom Breneman rings no bells. As for Phil Baker... I saw him on YouTube in the awful "Gift of Gab" (Universal's cut-rate version of Paramount's "Big Broadcast" pictures). I don't know what he was like on radio, but onscreen he came across as a sex criminal.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

That newspaper ad for TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT is taking no chances by giving away all the surprise acts! The Fox accessories kept everything quiet: "Surprise Hit! See All Your Favorite Stars as You Love Them Best!" The pressbook ads only hint at who's in the picture. Trade reviewers were wary, not being sure how audiences would react -- people who paid to see a new feature, only to find reels of reels of footage they'd already seen. This was a daring gamble in '44. Most exhibitors used the "surprise" angle and let the audience play along, and moviegoers got into the festive spirit.

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT was extremely inexpensive for a major-studio picture. The only names for the marquee were Phil Baker and Phil Silvers (Silvers appears only in the prologue, explaining what the audience is about to see). The rest of the cast consists of economical young unknowns and character actors. Brynie Foy (formerly of Warners' B unit) had just joined Fox, showing the world how to produce a moneymaking hit on the cheap.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I first remember seeing Reginald Denny as Sir Percival in CAT BALLOU. He was roughly 74 at that time and age had given him a belly and some flab (Jane Fonda encountered the villainous Sir in his rail-car bath tub).

4:05 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The Reginald Denny Collection is also in DVD format for us holdouts. I agree that "Jones" is the real find. Also enjoyed "The Reckless Age", a misleading title for a sturdy old-fashioned romantic farce. "Skinner's Dress Suit" was, ironically, a little too well done for me. The young hero is facing humiliation and possibly ruin because he can't tell his wife he didn't get the big raise; most of it was so natural and identifiable that I worried as much as I laughed.

Denny's stardom as an all-American boy ended when talkies revealed a stage-trained English voice. One wonders if any of the voice experts flocking to Hollywood tried to make him sound like a Yankee.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

In 2009, the invaluable Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto showed Denny's "I'll Show You the Town," the picture it opened with in 1924.

I've seen full houses with Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and even Shaw and Lee, and have never -- never -- heard the likes of the gut-busting laughter I heard that night. The greatest reaction to a comedy I've ever heard or been a part of.

5:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff has very rightly scolded me for not being more specific about the four Reginald Denny films made available so far by Kino:

Dear John:

Greenbriar is obviously not a commercial enterprise, and I admire you for not succumbing to odd temptation and running a passel of advertisements, product links and pop-ups.

[That said, if one day you did decide to accept advertising and the like, I would be no less a faithful reader and would still greatly admire you and your work.]

But this week's post about Reginald Denny is a little frustrating for its lack of specific detail regarding the product you discuss.

You write

"Welcome to bright horizon that is four of Reginald Denny’s silent feature comedies available on Blu-Ray, restoration for each underwritten by Universal, the company that used him most and produced the quartet now before us from Kino."

Sounds great; I'm sold. But when I go to the Kino website, I see a Denny set comprised of three silent features: THE RECKLESS AGE, SKINNER'S DRESS SUIT and IT HAPPENED TO JONES. What about that fourth feature?

I must say, Dave makes that Denny film screened in Palo Alto, I'LL SHOW YOU THE TOWN, sound like a corker. Is this in circulation?

-- Griff

By way of clarification, I would mention the Denny set Griff specifically refers to, plus another Kino Blu-Ray more recently released which includes OH, DOCTOR, featuring Denny and Mary Astor, the disc which includes a bonus feature starring Edward Everett Horton.

With regards I'LL SHOW YOU THE TOWN, I do not know the status of that one, but assume it exists if Palo Alto ran it, and would welcome a release on Blu-Ray.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

By all accounts, there are probably somewhere around 80,000 radio programs circulating among collectors, with an untold amount held by archives or private collectors that haven't divulged all of their holdings. No matter, what is out there is but a sliver to what aired or was transcribed.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

While we're on the subject of OTR... shortly after the US got involved in World War II, the government started recording the radio networks' Washington affiliates 24/7 under the suspicion that the Axis might start broadcasting messages to spies in code. These recordings were saved in a warehouse for decades. The Clinton administration, in its effort to "streamline" the government and cut costs, ordered the recordings destroyed. Two radio collectors tried to raise the $100,000 cost of taking the recordings off the government's hands, but never succeeded. (I learned all this on the Marx Brothers Council Podcast.)

7:14 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've been looking at some of the 'Bulldog Drummond' movies of the 1930s/1940s on Youtube ( with all of which I was previously unfamiliar), as a result of looking over Denny's filmography on the IMDB; Denny plays Drummond's sidekick "Algy Longworth" in a number of those, as a sort of comedy relief, and he held the role (it seems) even though the actor playing Drummond would change as the series went on. His English accent serves him well in these films, the action being set in England.
I was surprised to find that his last role was as a guest villain on the Batman TV show of the mid-1960s - it seems Denny truly was a "working actor", finding gainful employment for many decades in film and television work, pretty much until the day a heart attack killed him.
Knowing some RC model airplane enthusiasts myself, it wouldn't surprise me to find that Denny had kept working solely to enable himself to pursue that hobby, or to keep his RC model shop going, although I have no idea if that was the case. Those guys have a real passion for their hobby.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

There is an app called Vintage Radio. For 20 bucks a year it gives you access to over 60,000 radio episodes.

I've polished off every Bob Hope show, every Bing Crosby show, every Burns and Allen, every Jack Benny, every episode of The Whistler, Light's Out, and Suspense, and I'm working my way through each Lux Radio Theater.

Best 20 bucks I ever spent.

3:19 PM  
Blogger RobW said...

Reginald Denny made two appearances in the Adam West Batman series - he also played Commodore Schmidlapp in the feature film version.

9:24 PM  

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