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This month Olive Films favors us with the crazy comedy It's In the Bag!, the one and only solo starring vehicle for radio star Fred Allen. Unlike Bob Hope and Jack Benny the equally popular Allen never made the jump to film in a big way; as Benny quipped, "Fred Allen has a face made for radio!" An oddball attempt to launch Allen as a film star, the movie makes fun of his hang-dog face as well, in a scattershot farce hung on a plot idea lifted from the Russian fable The Twelve Chairs.
The exact story barely matters, but here goes: flea circus proprietor Fred Floogle (Fred Allen) lives with his demanding wife Eve (Binnie Barnes), his precocious son Homer (Dickie Tyler) and his teenage daughter Marion (Gloria Pope), who is engaged to Perry (William Terry), the son of phony millionaire Parker (Robert Benchley). When rich relative Frederick Trumble (Lloyd Ingraham) is murdered, the newspapers report that Fred has inherited a vast fortune, which leads the Floogles to run up expensive bills, and Fred in particular to place enormous losing bets with his bookie Monty (Ben Welden). At the actual reading of the will no fortune surfaces, except for a set of five dinner chairs. Fred has already had Homer sell the chairs when he learns that one of them has $350,000 sewn into its cushion. The chairs have been sold to various customers, requiring Fred and Eve to scramble to recover them -- all the while shadowed by Trumble's crooked lawyer Jefferson T. Pike (John Carradine). The merry chase leads Fred to the amusing housewife Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum (Minerva Pious) and to pretend to be a fan club official to enter the home of Jack Benny (Jack Benny). Fred and Eve have a traumatic experience in a movie theater (where another chair turns up). Fred then finds two chairs at Phil's Naughty Nineties Café, by pretending to be a singer on stage with 'washed up' personalities Don Ameche, Victor Moore and Rudy Vallee. Having been shadowing Fred from the start, police detective Sully (Sidney Toler) becomes convinced that he murdered his benefactor when one of the lawyer Pike's associates is found dead. Avoiding the cops, Fred pursues the last chair to the underworld lair of Bill Bendix (William Bendix), the leader of a criminal gang. Saving Bendix from his own cronies, Fred enlists his aid in clearing his name with the law.
Silly from one end to the other, It's In the Bag! isn't consistently funny , but when it clicks, it's a riot. Its greatest appeal will be to knowing film and radio fans wanting to catch up on long forgotten personalities and bizarre comedy styles. Fred Allen begins the show with self-referential jokes right during the titles, a gag we thought had been invented by Frank Tashlin in the 1950s. Unlike Tashlin, nothing physically impossible happens - the story simply brings Fred Allen into contact with as many odd personalities as possible. His visit to Jack Benny's home is an extension of the joke wars between the two comedians -- Benny's idea of hospitality is to direct Allen to vending machines for cigarettes and finally to an entire retail sales setup for dispensing souvenirs.
The movie abounds with what were once nationally familiar radio personalities. We recognize voices and faces that followed Jack Benny, Bob Hope and others into TV work in the 1950s. On his big radio show Fred Allen had a feature called "Allen's Alley", where he'd visit briefly with some beloved characters, like farmer Titus Moody and the blowhard southern Senator Claghorn, whose blustery personality and signature phrases "That's a Joke, Son!" and "Pay attention, Boy!" were copied for the Warner Bros. cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn. In It's In the Bag! Fred stops by with Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum (Minerva Pious), a stereotyped ethnic Jewish neighbor lady. The scene is a pleasant memento of a lost popular entertainment skit: Pansy's entrance line is, "You were expecting maybe...?"
The pace is not as fast as Hellzapoppin' but things move at a fairly fast clip. Allen's domestic troubles revolve around his daughter's romantic situation. When the Floogles strike it rich Robert Benchley's Parker suddenly decides that his son's engagement is a good idea -- but Allen then decides that his daughter is too good for the Parkers. Floogle's son Homer loses his memory in an explosion, and only slowly remembers the names of the buyers of the five chairs. To speed up the process, Fred hires a quack psychologist (Jerry Colonna), who promptly moves into the Floogle household and makes a nuisance of himself.
More inside jokes among career entertainers dominate when Don Ameche, Victor Moore and Rudy Vallee pretend to be has-beens working in a dinner club. William Bendix likewise ribs the brute thugs he played on screen, when his ruthless gang leader turns out to be a meek guy who takes vitamins and would rather be in another line of work. No longer particularly funny is the scene in which Bendix shows how to torture confessions from the bad guys by holding candle flames to their bare feet.
Director Richard Wallace stages all of the action for maximum clarity. Among gags that work and others that seem tame is a brilliant sequence in a movie theater. Hailed by a sidewalk tout promising immediate seating, Fred and Eve stop by to check out a matinee of Zombie in the Attic, only to be given the runaround when every seat on five or six balconies is filled -- dozens of patrons are bumping into one another in the dark, looking for seats that aren't there. 1
Fred Allen is a perfectly good screen comedian, with the caveat that he never looks like he's actually having fun. He reportedly suffered from hypertension in real life. But the many enthusiastic performances in the film's overpopulated cast show how much Allen's fellow entertainers loved him. It's In the Bag! was pretty much a one-shot effort. The generations that can remember listening to live 1940s radio comedy are swiftly passing on, leaving the film as a unique record of a corner of American culture now known only to ardent radio fans.
The biggest mystery in It's In the Bag? It's co- screenwriter is none other than Alma Reville, wife and collaborator to Alfred Hitchcock. Unless Alma was a closet expert on radio comedy, we will risk all and presume that her input was in helping to turn The Twelve Chairs into a mystery scenario. So perhaps one aspect of the new movie Hitchcock is accurate -- Ms. Reville was a creative powerhouse in her own right, trying out new assignments as they came along.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of It's In the Bag! is an almost perfect HD encoding of a minor B&W release (originally by United Artists) that we honestly never expected to see in a quality presentation. Its fans will be ecstatic.
The show contains no extras -- Not being familiar with '40s radio myself, 2 I'd have welcomed a commentary or other extra that might identify the players and acquaint modern audiences with topical references and relationships not made obvious in the show itself. For instance, is the over-booked theater just a random joke, or was going out to a movie in 1945 really a struggle to find a decent seat?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It's In the Bag! Blu-ray rates:
1. Horror fans will sadly note that It's in the Bag! shows no zombies on screen. But Fred shouts that Eve has fainted because of a scene in Zombie in the Attic in which "the zombie ate his brother-in-law." Up until that time, nobody had connected zombies and cannibalism -- clearly George Romero owes Fred Allen a debt of appreciation!
2. I did get something of a crash course in Fred Allen and Jack Benny in college, when fellow UCLA film student Randy Cook would play samples from his messy collection of cassette tapes and rave about the brilliant comedy bits therein. As a '50s kid I of course knew the basics about Jack Benny, but Fred Allen at first sounded mean-spirited. The more one listens, however, the more brilliant he seems... he wrote most of his own material and did a lot of improvising and ad-libbing.
4. Savant is wrong again! A note from Ian Whittle, 1.23.13:
Hello Glen. From your review: " Horror fans will sadly note that It's In the Bag! shows no zombies on screen .... Up until that time, nobody had connected zombies and cannibalism -- clearly George Romero owes Fred Allen a debt of appreciation!"
There is a weird joke about cannibal zombies in King Of The Zombies (1941), when Mantan Moreland is told "It's feeding time, and they likes dark meat." It's a crass joke with a subtle inference. I imagine cannibals and zombies were crossed over in some people's minds because both were found in island/jungle pictures. The 1980 Zombie Holocaust (aka Dr. Butcher MD gave us both!
Weirdly, Criswell once predicted Pittsburgh would be overrun with cannibals... well he was right! -- Take care, Ian
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