This is a three-disc set - albeit on three inferior, video-on-demand DVD-Rs - encompassing MGM's trio of "Whistling" features, comedy-mysteries that helped establish Red Skelton as a major film star after a meteoric rise at RKO and then MGM beginning in 1938. Following rather than setting trends, Whistling in the Dark (1941), Whistling in Dixie (1942), and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943) were all too obviously patterned after Bob Hope's similarly star-making comedy-mysteries over at Paramount, and to some degree Abbott & Costello's over at Universal, especially the wildly popular Hold That Ghost (1941).
Despite its reputation today as the biggest and best studio of Hollywood's Golden Age, MGM was very nearly incapable of making funny comedies and thrilling mysteries in the late-1930s and early-'40s. MGM had famously destroyed the careers of Buster Keaton and the Marx Bros. (among others) and soon after this produced Laurel & Hardy's worst two films. Skelton, more in line with studio head Louis B. Mayer's idea of a middle-American comedian, fared somewhat better but the three "Whistler" films are still a bit disappointing. Like the "Thin Man" mysteries (after the first two), they're slickly made but gratingly homogenized and toothless, frenetic instead of funny.
Odd how these early Red Skelton posters look less like the comedian and more like a young James Cagney (see also below)
The first entry, Whistling in the Dark, operates from an extremely dumb premise and doesn't remotely live up to the spooky comic-mystery its advertising suggests, but it has an above average cast and its climax is lively.
I've not seen the Laurence Gross-Edward Childs Carpenter play from which this was based, nor the 1931 film version which starred Ernest Truex, though it's hard to imagine an actor like Truex engaged in anything like Skelton's clowning in this film. In any case, the Skelton film has an incredibly dumb set-up. Get this:
Religious cult leader and scam artist Joseph Jones (Conrad Veidt)* has reeled in a big fish from his pool of lonely middle-aged spinsters, an heiress who has bequeathed her million-dollar fortune to Jones's phony religion. However, the dead lady's nephew stands to collect the estate's interest and so Jones decides to have the nephew murdered.
What is Jones's ingenious plan? Kidnap nationally-famous radio star Wally "the Fox" Benton (Skelton) along with his fiancée, Carol (Ann Rutherford), and her rival, Fran (Virginia Grey), with the intent of forcing Wally to script the "perfect murder," a homicide to be carried out by one of Jones's minions, and after which Jones promises to release Wally and the girls.
Wha-wha-what's that, you say?
Despite a moderately moody opening at Jones's cult, all the cockamamie business of kidnapping Wally and his girlfriends is distractingly ludicrous and illogical even in early-'40s screwball terms. The senselessness spills over into the art direction. In the main hall of Jones's manor rests a colossal Buddha, but wearing an Egyptian-style "crown" of sunbeams on its head. As the three try to escape through a hidden passageway they find roomfuls of sarcophaguses and mummy dummies (i.e., mannequins). Why does Jones keep all this stuff? Who knows, but ain't it s-p-o-o-k-y!
Skelton is slightly more subdued, less broad than he would be in his subsequent MGM films. He's okay, but the real fun is the supporting cast, particularly Rutherford and Grey (the latter being an especially underrated talent excellent in just about every genre). Minsky-trained burlesque comic 'Rags' Ragland steals enough footage as Veidt's ultra-stupid chauffer that he was brought back for the two sequels. However, as she all too often was in her MGM films, Eve Arden is completely wasted as Skelton's manager.
The climax is better than the rest of the film, ending things on an almost satisfying note. Wally rigs a radio to function as a telephone, and there's some good comedy as he and the girls try to warn Veidt's intended victim. The rescue, with Wally on the line via the rigged radio is broadcast live nationwide, but local police refuse to respond to the scene - they'd already been burned once, by Orson Welles and his War of the Worlds broadcast! (** 1/2 out of *****)
Well, shut mah mouth! Whistling in Dixie is a slight improvement over its predecessor, chiefly because its script (by Nat Perrin) is a bit more acceptable if no more plausible. Like the initial entry, the first reel establishes the setting and mood fairly well, with writer Martin Gordon apparently shot on the spooky grounds of Fort Dixon, a former Confederate military post in Georgia but which more closely resembles Frankenstein's castle in Vasaria. Hattie (Celia Travers) finds the body, but it vanishes before police arrive.
From the southern mansion owned by Hattie's drunkard Southern Colonel-type father, Judge George Lee (Guy Kibbee), Hattie's cousin Ellamae (Diana Lewis) summons former sorority sister Carol (Ann Rutherford), whose fiancé, Wally (Red Skelton), is the famous radio star known as "The Fox." (Ellamae sends her package containing a beetle, apparently some sort of signal. Wally identifies it as a Japanese beetle because "It's got a yellow belly." Ah, wartime.) Wally and Carol were planning on getting married anyway and, Carol reasons, the trip might also function as some kind of honeymoon. Or something.
The pair are met at the airport by Ellamae, Hattie, the judge, and his chauffeur, Chester ('Rags' Ragland). Chester, as it turns out, is the kindly, equally stupid twin brother of Sylvester, the dumb chauffeur from the previous movie. Wally doesn't realize this at first, and there's a big fight in front of an especially fake process screen.
Predictably, clues lead Wally, Carol, and Ellamae to hidden treasure, British gold coins buried at the fort, which the corrupt local district attorney (Peter Whitney) and sheriff (George Bancroft) are trying to get their hands on. Complicating matters further, Sylvester (also Ragland) has escaped from jail - he rides in on the rails, where Our Gang's William "Buckwheat" Thomas is there to greet him - and much confusion results as Sylvester tries to muscle in on the hidden gold.
Not a whole lot distinguishes this entry from the last. The villainy is less preposterous, the business with the twin brothers more but entertainingly so, and the mixing of old southern charm with spooky goings-on doesn't mesh particularly well (as Universal would soon discover when relocating its Mummy series to the Bayou).
As before there are intended chills that make no sense, such as the unexplained presence of a smallish guillotine at the fort that threatens to chop Wally's head off, or Sylvester's inexplicable determination to kill Wally. Like Whistling in the Dark there's an effective climatic set-piece that finds most of the characters trapped in an airtight room at the fort that quickly fills up with water. None of this is particularly funny, but the stuntmen earn their pay during this and the big fisticuffs wrap-up.
In the end though, the only thing that really impressed this reviewer was Ragland's great timing for the split-screen matte shots in which Chester and Sylvester appear in the same frame. Usually there's some hesitation in the actors' performance, but Ragland is so natural the viewer actually forgets they're watching a special effect. (***)
Reflecting Skelton's rising star status, Whistling in Brooklyn has slightly better production values, a better cast, some location work in New York (mostly second unit), and an "A" picture running time of 87 minutes (the others were 78 and 74, i.e., B-movies). Though protracted it holds up best.
Like the two earlier films, Brooklyn begins well, with police arriving at the lonely Sheepshead Bay Lighthouse too late to save a policeman from the "Constant Reader," apparently a serial killer who taunts the authorities with letters leading them to each of the four victims thus far.
Under pressure from government reformer Grover Kendall (Ray Collins, in a big step down after his marvelous performances in Citizen Kane and especially The Magnificent Ambersons), Inspector Holcomb (Henry O'Neill) is desperate to catch the killer.
So desperate in fact, that when he overhears all of 15 seconds of Wally (Skelton) doing a radio play as "The Fox," in which the fictional character discusses a similarly-typed letter, with zero evidence at all Holcomb recklessly concludes Wally is the killer. "There's no question about it!" he decides, "He's a madman!" and a shoot-to-kill APB is ordered, the 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments of the Constitution be damned.
Wally, meanwhile, still hasn't married fiancée Carol (Ann Rutherford, in her last MGM role) though they're still trying. When the police storm in, guns a-blazing (including at least one stray bullet that misses Carol by an inch or two) the pair flee the scene along with Chester ('Rags' Ragland), now Wally's chauffer, and Jean Pringle (Jean Rogers, former Dale Arden), a gossip columnist for the New York Chronicle, who stows away in Wally's car. (During this sequence, Rogers's Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars co-star, Donald Kerr, has a bit as a cabbie.)
Early on, Kendall is revealed as the real culprit, a mobster trying to shift power in the police department, a weird change of direction in a story that starts out with lurid murders and suggests a Jack the Ripper-type killer. The rest of the film is built around three big comic set pieces, each less interesting than the last. The first finds Wally, Carol, Jean, and Chester trapped in an elevator shaft, resulting in lots of suspenseful gags and illogical action that would require Wally to have the strength of Hercules, but it's funny anyway.
The second set piece is a long but amusing sequence with Wally, his identity hidden under a bushy beard, masquerading as a ballplayer in Ebbets Field, in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers (as themselves). Skelton may have shot all his scenes somewhere in Los Angeles, but it sure looks like he may have gone all the way to Brooklyn for a handful of shots, and baseball fans will enjoy this look at the long-gone stadium, demolished more than half a century ago.
The big climax is less interesting, the usual chase and stuntwork extravaganza (with some sloppy doubling) aboard a disused boat.
The film offers a game cast, including William Frawley as a detective, Sam Levene, Mike Mazurki, and Anthony Caruso as gangsters, Morris Ankrum as Jean's boss, and Grant Withers as a reporter. (***)
Video & Audio
Presented in their original full-frame aspect ratios, Red Skelton Whistling Collection has three features on three DVD-Rs, all looking otherwise fine and in good, clean condition with solid blacks and a pleasing crispness. The Dolby Digital mono is serviceable. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options, but as an Extra Feature each disc includes the film's original trailer, complete with narration and text.
I found this trio of comedy mysteries not great but okay, with just enough laughs and a sense of fun to make them worthwhile. Modestly recommended.
* Like Bela Lugosi, Veidt here is given a bizarrely inapt, anglicized name. I doubt anyone ever looked less like a Joseph Jones than Veidt.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.