It's In the Bag! (1945) is a real surprise, an unexpectedly wild, frequently hilarious comedy starring popular radio comedian Fred Allen in his only leading movie role. Though a highly regarded humorist of his day and a master ad-libber, admired by Groucho Marx, Franklin Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, Allen is remembered today chiefly for his long-running (but fictitious) on-air "feud" with comedian Jack Benny. Benny, of course, later successfully adapted his own successful radio show for television, and frequently appeared on other programs as well as his own TV specials up until his death in 1974. Allen, on the other hand, died of a heart attack in 1956 at age 61, without ever quite matching the success he enjoyed on radio in the new television medium. "You know," he said, "television is called a new medium, and I have discovered why they call it a medium - because it is neither rare nor well done."
I'd only heard of It's In the Bag!, but if this film, co-written by Allen, is any indication, it's a crying shame Fred Allen didn't star in a dozen more features like this one. His rapier wit, contrasting stern intimidating features (he looks like Hamilton Burger's older brother), is something to behold. Movies fashioned as vehicles for radio stars often don't work. Allen seems to have kept his radio humorist persona largely intact here, along with a few characters from his radio series, but the movie is more along the lines of the anything-goes screwball comedies Olson & Johnson were making for Universal around this time. Also something of an antecedent to the later Airplane! and Naked Gun movies of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (and others), It's In the Bag! fires its jokes machine gun-style, and a surprisingly high percentage manage to hit their target. Despite its big cast of major stars, the movie itself seems to have been made quickly and cheaply. It has several glaring goofs (more about this later) and was at least partly financed by shady criminal types, including Abner "Longy" Zwillman, an ex-bootlegger and New Jersey racketeer.
Originally a United Artists release, It's In the Bag! somehow landed at Paramount and is sublicensed here to Olive Films. The black and white, 1.37:1 image on the Blu-ray is a pleasing, crisp transfer. There's intermittent slight film damage here and there, but overall it looks and sounds quite good.
The movie freely adapts Ilf & Petrov's 1928 satirical novel The Twelve Chairs (Двенадцать стульев), which has been made into at least 18 movies, most famously filmed by Mel Brooks in 1970. It's In the Bag! stars Allen as Fred F. Floogle, a flea circus proprietor who learns he's the sole heir to a long-lost granduncle's $12 million estate. Delighted, Fred moves his wife (Binnie Barnes), daughter Marion (Gloria Pope), and bookish son Homer (Dickie Tyler) into the same fancy hotel where Marion's fiancé's pompous father, exterminator Perry Parker (Robert Benchley), also lives.
However, it turns out a) the uncle was murdered and Fred is Police Inspector Sully's (Sidney Toler) chief suspect; and b) the dead man's shady lawyer (John Carradine) claims the uncle squandered his entire fortune, leaving Fred only five seemingly worthless chairs. Fred later receives a hand-delivered phonograph record, with the voice of the late uncle revealing that he's hidden $350,000 in cash in one of them. Alas, Homer has already sold the chairs to an antique dealer who in turn has sold them yet again.
At this point, It's In the Bag! becomes increasingly anarchic, with Fred frantically tracking down the chairs in a series of comic episodes: One of the chairs was sold to a Mrs. Nussbaum (Minerva Pious, a Jewish-dialect comedienne from Allen's radio show) who in turn sold hers to comedian Jack Benny (himself). Fred masquerades as the president of a local Jack Benny Fan Club in an effort to flatter Benny into donating the chair for the "club lounge."
Two more have been sold to a packed 1890s-style nightclub, where to get in Fred pretends to be a last-minute replacement bass singer in a barbershop quartet consisting of "has-been" entertainers: Don Ameche, Victor Moore, and Rudy Vallee (as themselves). Gangsters purchased the last chair as a birthday present for their super health-conscious boss, Bill Bendix (William Bendix), whom they secretly plan to electrocute with the antique chair.
But the plot is inconsequential, serving only to move the film from one comic vignette to another. Indeed, the narrative stops dead for one hilarious episode that has nothing to do with anything. Fred and his wife, killing time while Homer is examined by a wild-eyed psychiatrist (Jerry Colonna), try to take in a movie, Zombies in the Attic, at a downtown movie palace claiming "immediate seating on all floors." Only the place is absurdly overcrowded, with the couple left helpless at the highest balcony, the "Stratosphere," with the movie screen a distorted, distant postage stamp from their vantage point.
It's In the Bag! gets off to a wonderfully silly start, with Allen cynically complaining over the opening titles: "Who knows who these people are? Who cares? You can find names like these in any phone book." Allen comments throughout ("Get a load of this mob. They're all relatives of the producer"). When Morrie Ryskind is credited with "special material," Allen notes, "Ryskind's contribution. In one scene, the family is eating dinner. Ryskind loaned us a half a pound of butter so the bread would look yellow in the close ups." Rare is the movie to combine the writing talents of Allen, frequent Marx Bros. scribe Ryskind, and Alma Reville, Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock.
Just why It's In the Bag! is so funny is difficult to describe. In one scene Fred threatens the antique dealer (Johnny Arthur) over the telephone. There's nothing inherently funny about this, but Allen's exaggerated outrage is somehow hysterical, amusing in a way that just has to be experienced. Similarly, Allen's scenes with Mrs. Nussbaum are uniquely funny, almost an exaggeration of an already exaggerated dialect routine. Allen's reactions are priceless, reportedly influencing Johnny Carson's performance and interviewing style; their reactions to such absurd characters is certainly similar.
Despite the name cast, the movie looks real cheap. One street scene is clearly filmed on a soundstage where a wide angle shot plainly reveals the buildings "end" about halfway up their second floor, exposing studio lights and rafters. The same tiny street is redressed, barely, for another sequence near the end, and boom mikes (or their shadows) are visible in a couple of shots.
Allen's celebrated scene with Benny is doubly amusing when one considers their long-running, insult-filled radio feud. Cleverly turning the tables, here Allen is a man pretending to be a huge fan, playing off Benny's vanity, with Benny's skinflint persona on view when Benny offers Fred a cigarette - then directs him to a vending machine on the other side of his living room!
Video & Audio
It's In the Bag! gets a crisp black-and-white, 1.37:1 transfer offering a pleasing, film-like look. There are some negative scratches and other imperfections here and there, all minor and hardly noticeable. The audio, English only with no subtitle options, is likewise perfectly adequate. No Extra Features.
Catch it in the right mood and you may laugh yourself silly, It's In the Bag! is a true delight that had me dashing off afterwards in search of some old Fred Allen radio shows. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.