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Monday, April 22, 2024

Category Called Comedy #5


CCC: A Brit Box Plus Duke and Sammy

WHISKY GALORE! (1949) --- Retitled Tight Little Island for US distribution by Universal, this was a J. Arthur Rank-enabled project of Ealing Pictures, a firm lately dedicated to froth-focus on English life, Whisky Galore! set in Scotland and shot there for authenticity. Humor was of droll sort, rather Brit sort as understood by Yanks who kept Whisky Galore! aloft at Gotham artie the Trans-Lux for a remarkable twenty-six weeks, venue a rebranded newsreel theatre and small enough to function nicely as a sure-seater. Comedy was understated enough for oversea offerings to be viewed as real-to-life by comparison with bumptious and increasingly unfunny US humor. Not a few elites shunned comedy unless brought from the Isles, question eventually down to, Is Alec Guinness in it? Not in Whisky Galore!, but spirit to ultimately become his got birth here and would wait for the star to embody it. We watch Ealings and are sometimes amused, charmed by a better few, but what was fuss that kept such a minor piece as Whisky Galore! humming for so many frames? Set-up is island folk dependent on spirits as an only recreation who find themselves fresh out until a passing ship goes aground and they discover its sole cargo is liquor. Varied types respond in ways we expect of eccentrics not of culture as strictly defined by Hollywood. Whisky Galore! seemed truant for showing how oft-earthy characters live very unlike we do, or did. Here was what made Whisky Galore! refreshing with encores a must, thus enter Guinness and others of singular sort to keep kettles cooking. Does Whisky Galore! play today? On TCM, yes, in pleasing HD, where interwoven stories boast a cast familiar to those who Brit-shop: Basil Radford, known/liked as half of the “Charters and Caldicott” team of Lady Vanishes fame, Joan Greenwood, whose part is smaller than her billing, James Robertson Justice, John Gregson (who would later drive Genevieve). Whisky Galore! enhances with hindsight, working better the more times we visit.

--- A comedy sure, but this is wartime, so there is German spying midst the frolic, and they mean deadly business where cornered. Surprise awaits the watching, for few in cottage residence are as they appear. This was barely released in America, and by Monogram yet (called Bombsight Stolen, as misleading as it was inappropriate). Cottage to Let played early television like most of Brit content substituting for Yank pics viewership preferred, but could not yet enjoy. At least that got them seen, and by a far wider audience than would have been case had they played US theatres. Afterward there was William K. Everson to champion obscurity that was Cottage to Let. His NYU class notes are a spur to watch, and happily there is You Tube rendition of Cottage to Let that looks fine, YT a rich resource for British titles. Cottage cast is rich too with names established or on upward move: Leslie Banks as a distracted arms inventor who uses 16mm projection to research but doesn’t explain why, and what heck is he doing with yards of film draped round his shoulders? Alastair Sim has a star-making part, comic and sinister by turns. There is John Mills who will surprise us in a third act, Michael Wilding early on, a lot more Brit faces well known to then, if less so now. Much of UK war seems to have been rooting out German operatives seemingly everywhere and in most benign disguise, not a few planted since the last war and toiling quietly toward success with the current scrap. And what of Huns who were Oxford educated and spoke perfectly the King’s tongue? It may have been better policy to trust nobody till victory was assured. Everson noted Hitchcockian devices and they are there, Cottage to Let more instance of influence AH exerted. Why not him as blueprint for a nation’s thrillers to come? He did a same trick stateside, the label “Hitchcockian” perhaps born in the USA, perhaps not. In fact, I’d like knowing when it was first used. Greenbriar earlier explored the “Master of Suspense” tag and when that was initially applied, but who’s to know where set upon oceans of ads, publicity from so long ago?

THIS MAN IS NEWS (1938) --- Freewheeling (for the UK) mystery-comedy after Thin Man fashion, as in married leads sharing three bottles of champagne over an evening, then brandy cocktails upon awaken next morning (but never sick nor hung over). Ever tried this? Don’t. Pace is quickened, except Brit rush through words is often a trick to decipher. UK slang was seldom adopted across water, or I presume at other Euro sites, England all the more an island unto popular cultural self. We are given that their newspapers operate at even more hysterical pitch than here and I suspect that reflects less authenticity than effort to copy and hopefully best Yanks at their own rapid-fire game. Alastair Sim as harassed editor gives plus value, pushed hard to keep pep at unreal level. What we like about the English is relax-as-a-rule the colonies got seldom from their own product, many to find that refreshing as often still do. This Man is News getting the hypo was novelty at least, Valerie Hobson at dream wife duty, Barry K. Barnes the husband, his name less US known. Powell and Loy they aren’t, but there is part of appeal, and This Man is News seems to have been a meaningful hit, enough so to provoke a sequel, This Man in Paris for 1939. Both got American release, News in 1939, Paris in 1942. US-Paramount financed and subsequently owned This Man is News, television exposure a result of latter put among features sold to syndication in 1959. It is since around on grey-label DVD, but online reviews so far are unsparing re picture-sound quality. My exposure came courtesy You Tube.

IMAGINE … MITCHELL AND PETRILLO IN PERSON! --- Don’t wish to brag, but I once met and talked with Sammy Petrillo, and probably was better off than if it were Jerry Lewis after whom Petrillo was patterned. Sammy as precocious teen teamed with Duke Mitchell, handlers figuring there was enough Martin-Lewis overlap to fill imitator purses. Hal Wallis wanted to sue Duke-Sammy, Jerry also despite initial good will (Sammy TV guesting with him). Had Mitchell and Petrillo kept clear of movies, things might have been calmer, but here was a faux team actively poaching on theatres bound to Paramount and real-thing that was Martin-Lewis, and word is, those venues that hosted the ersatz pair got spanked for doing so, as in no more Paramount product for enablers. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla was produced by Jack Broder, reissue peddler and overall seller of whatever sold, the sort who’d tell a Wallis, or Martin-Lewis, or whoever, to go jump in available lakes. What did high-power Hollywood ever do for Jack? Stick it to them all, he figured. “The Public Is Entitled To See and Judge” says the Midway Theatre’s ad, and what a thrill to have shown up for the gala stage and screen show, only improvement upon announced bill if “Poor Bela” had come along as bonus. And don’t underestimate Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla --- it’s plenty polished pleasure, direction by William Beaudine, funny stuff from Sammy, songs by Duke. There is a DVD, Gorilla a supposed Wade Williams property. Again to Sammy at that Meadowlands show in the early nineties: He could not have been nicer, still doing stand-up with a girl partner. He even gave me a page of jokes used for his shows. It was like someone from a fifties nightclub stage had materialized at a New Jersey hotel ballroom, me older today than Sammy was then. Bless him and good fortune for our having intersected, Sammy's kind of show biz well missed and surely not coming back.

UPDATE: 4/23/2024: Dan Mercer ponders Brooklyn Gorilla and sends some neat fotos.

The Wikipedia article on Sammy Petrillo quotes Jerry Lewis' son Gary as saying that, "When Sammy and that other guy played in that gorilla movie, I remember my Dad and Dean saying 'We got to sue those guys...this is no good.'
...Whenever there was any mention of Sammy Petrillo, it was a tense moment."

There actually was a law suit against Jack Broder to prevent "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" from being released, on the ground that it had appropriated the likenesses of Martin and Lewis, hence the pictures of Duke Mitchell and Petrillo with the charming Charlita, who played a native girl in the film, cavorting outside a Manhattan court room. Mitchell said later that Broder had used him and Petrillo to provoke Lewis and Martin and their studio, Paramount Pictures, into suing him, with the idea that they would buy the movie from him and destroy it to prevent its release. If "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" had become 10,000 guitar picks, he would have been content, as long as he got paid.

It was the sort of deal some RKO Radio executives might have wanted to have made with William Randolph Hearst for "Citizen Kane." However, Broder not only wanted to get his budget back, he wanted a little more. which was where he overplayed his hand. Hal Wallis at Paramount wasn't agreeable to settling for more than the picture's budget. He didn't like Broder, he didn't like being held up, and he thought that the movie stunk and wouldn't make a dime. The talks broke down, the law suit was dropped, and Broder was forced into releasing his film after all, which predictably did no business. So, it was a sort of "Springtime for Hitler" in reverse, with the preservation of "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" its dubious outcome.

ANOTHER UPDATE - 4/26/2024:

Dear John:

For the record, and for those who have never seen the U.S. variation in ad design, here is a crummy image of the U-I New York Times opening day ad for WHISKY GALORE as "Tight Little Island" from December 25, 1949.



Blogger Kevin K. said...

I got a thrill out of seeing Jerry on Broadway in "Damn Yankees" and getting his autograph afterwards. But your interaction with Sammy is something I would have enjoyed just as much.

7:10 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Thanks for the heads up on 'Cottage To Let'. It was a cracking good show!

9:33 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

I knew someone who went through a very annoying phase where the only comedies he would watch were British. Only the British, he would insist, truly understood comedy, and only they were capable of making funny movies.

American comedies . . . ugh. Oh, he would concede that there might be, in the history of the cinema, a dozen or so U.S. comedies that weren't bad, but even they would have been better if the British had made them.

He eventually grew out of that, but as you can imagine, by the time he did the list of people who refused to discuss movies in his presence was a lengthy one.

4:55 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

There was another strain of slightly lower-class British film comedies, starring the likes of Will Hay, Norman Wisdom, and George Formby. These were straightforward vehicles, not always Bs but giving the vibe of side gigs for performers better known for stage and radio. At the lower end was an endless series of "Mother Riley" comedies, starring Arthur Lucan in old lady drag (his last film incidentally costarred Bela Lugosi as a vampire).

I get the impression few if any of these crossed the pond, even in television packages (although Wisdom himself came over for a few American projects). I faintly recall newspaper ads for "Carry On Camping"; now wondering why the "Carry On" movies weren't imported in bulk after the success of Benny Hill in syndication and Britcoms like "Are You Being Served" on PBS.

6:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

CARRY ON CLEO (1964) actually played the lower half of a Liberty Saturday double bill with DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Many British comedy films and TV series used to show up on Canadian TV before cable TV came along in the early 1980s, but other than the "Carry On" films of the late 1960s-early 1970s - which elder siblings got excited about seeing - I am personally unaware of any that actually played in Canadian cinemas.

2:51 PM  

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