Pleasant but rather stunted Red Skelton vehicle. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Archive Collection, that caters to movie fans looking for hard-to-find cult and library titles, has released Half A Hero, the 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer comedy from writer Max Shulman, starring Red Skelton, Jean Hagen, and Charles Dingle. Feinting at the promising premise of over-extended couples trying to "keep up with the Joneses" in those much sought-after post-WWII housing developments, Half A Hero's "B"-movie running time doesn't leave a lot of room for comedic development, while giving funnyman Red few opportunities to perform at his zany best. A trailer is included in this good-looking transfer.
New York City-based freelance writer Ben Dobson (Red Skelton) finally lands a steady-paying gig: re-write man at Everybody's Magazine, run by old-fashioned curmudgeon Mr. Bascomb (Charles Dingle). Bascomb wants his employees to be honest and above-all thrifty, so he approves of pennies-saving Ben living in a tenement flat on the West Side, with Ben's wife Martha (Jean Hagen) working, too, to help pay the bills. Martha, however, does not appreciate working once she hears that Ben has a steady, reasonably well-paying job; she wants to quit work to have a baby―an idea that sends cautious Ben for a loop. He agrees, though, and soon, Martha wants a new house in the suburbs in which to raise little Pete (Hugh Corcoran). And before you know it, Martha has hectored her husband into buying too much house (from wily real estate man Willard Waterman), which generates far too many bills, which overextends the Dobsons' finances. Ben wants to sell the place off and move back to NYC, but Martha refuses. Luckily, Bascomb inadvertently comes to the rescue: he wants Ben to byline his own article on the "self-indulgent weaklings" who populate the 'burbs on a thin, thin line of credit, a story idea Ben agrees to in order to embarrass Martha into moving back to the Big Apple.
With a run time of only 71 minutes, it's hard to categorize Half A Hero as anything more than a routine "B" programmer (or perhaps an extended TV sitcom episode) masquerading as an "A"-list comedy with headliner Red Skelton. And as such, its aims seem to be similarly abbreviated; events happen very quickly in Half A Hero's story (entire years pass by from one badly-edited scene to the next), with little opportunity to really fine-tune the jokes or to create any commentary, both of which would seem to be readily available had the premise been more full explored (and what's Polly Bergen's completely unconnected―and frankly oversold―song number doing in here? With only 71 minutes they still needed padding?). Perhaps this was M-G-M's intention all along, since Skelton, already stretched thin doing radio and television, was clearly on his way out under Dore Schary's reign at Metro (Skelton had re-upped under ousted rival L.B. Mayer with an expensive new contract which wasn't reflected in either subsequent box office grosses or in snooty Schary's general distaste for "unsophisticated" slapstick comedies). Maybe as little thought as possible was put into Half A Hero's production because what was the point of throwing "good money after bad," if underperforming Skelton was soon leaving? Maybe the studio whittled down Shulman's screenplay to the barest minimum to satisfy the requirements of a double-bill feature and that's it (or edited it down severely in post)? It's hard to say, but clearly, Half A Hero's herky jerky construction (that exposition narration by Skelton is a dead giveaway, too) indicates that something was off with the production (the best example of this is a strange scene where Red talks about how safe it is to raise a child in New York, while his baby crawls around on the fire escape. There's no context for the visual, no set-up: it just...appears and then just as abruptly disappears, with no payoff).
For years and years Hollywood routinely churned out light comedies about living in the suburbs (with a resurgence of sorts during the Reagan era); Cary Grant's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is probably the one you'll think of once Half A Hero gets Red into his new home and the bills start piling up and the steam radiators keep banging away. However, Half A Hero sidesteps the physical gags inherent in that previous set-up to focus on the monetary complications of "keeping up with the Jones," and it's funny stuff...while it lasts. With a playbook right out of one of those Life magazine color supplements, Hagen takes on the trappings of the model suburbanite wife and mother, insisting that nothing is too good for her family, and that to achieve that perfection, husband Skelton must not only work himself to death, but also become more civic-minded. And under the guise of collector for the "Community Chest" (pre-welfare), Skelton gets a peek at the other harried married men who are losing their minds and wallets living above their means. Jerry Hausner almost-rages about his "activity room" and all its expensive necessities, necessary items in the suburbs so he and his wife Charlotte Lawrence would never be bored (probably the movie's funniest moment is when their young boy enters, attired in full fencing gear, and makes insane parries and thrusts before leaving without a word). King Donovan and Dorothy Patrick rave about the joys of outdoor cooking in their expensive patio barbecue...right before a downpour starts and old Grandpappy Burt Mustin cackles with glee at their foolishness. And the marvelous Dabs Greer, hilariously, quietly desperate, tells Skelton how his wife "helping out" by working in New York is actually costing him 20 bucks a week (times ten for inflation today).
That material is vintage Shulman satire (Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!, TV's The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), but there really isn't time for much more in Half A Hero because before you know it, Hagen finds out about Skelton's article, and the movie leaves behind the promising satire on suburban America to quickly work out the rather tired marital comedy conventions. I wonder how most viewers today will take Red's sudden conversion to a credit-loving homeowner who sees overwhelming debt as not only an inevitability of American life but one that binds families closer together (uh...right), but it's a switcheroo that comes so fast most viewers won't have time to think about it. Perhaps most disappointing of all in Half A Hero is Skelton's too-toned down presence here. Anyone who grew up on his beloved TV series knows what a brilliant clown he was, with more inventive pantomime and hysterical, manic energy in just one of those skits than is in evidence during the whole 71 minutes of Half A Hero. He gets in just one or two moments that suggest his considerable skills (his frantically bouncing the little French girl on his knee made me laugh out loud), but for the most part he plays it very straight here...and that's a mistake. He's certainly pleasant enough in his role, but that's not enough to make the movie stand out as a typical "Red Skelton comedy." We want him crazy, a little nutty. Here, he's just a henpecked boob, reacting with a sort of dazed incomprehension to all the events happening to him, rather than being the active catalyst for the comedy. And that's a shame, because what the severely stunted Half A Hero at the very least needs is a little Skelton craziness.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.