Thursday, February 26, 2004

“Oh, they cut down the old pine tree…”

The Bashful Bachelor (1942) was the second of six Lum and Abner feature films released by RKO Pictures from 1940-46, and after watching it last night, I must admit that it’s the best of the ones I’ve seen so far (this opinion is subject to change, of course). It definitely comes a lot closer to capturing the feel of the radio series than the previous Dreaming Out Loud (1940), due no doubt to the larger contribution of creators Chester Lauck and Norris Goff (they are given story credit on the film).

The film features several plot threads: one involves Lum (Lauck) attempting to woo his girlfriend Geraldine (ZaSu Pitts) by thinking up various scenarios in which to portray himself as a hero, and the other concerns a horse, Skyrocket, Abner (Goff) acquires (by “swapping” with some gypsies) that the two men later enter in the County Sweepstakes horse race. A third plot details Lum giving Abner a note of a marriage proposal to present to Geraldine, but Abner—who’s wearing a cheap pair of glasses for which he’s also “swapped”—hands the note instead to the “Widder” Abernathy (Constance Purdy), who threatens to sue the hapless Lum for breach of promise if he backs out of the wedding. I won’t give away the ending, of course, but if you’re familiar with similar story threads from Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Great Gildersleeve the conclusion won’t surprise you much. (The bit where Lum, Abner and Cedric experience problems after buying eyeglasses from a vendor probably originated from a similar story arc on the radio show as well.)

Two of my favorite characters from the radio show are featured in this movie—Cedric Weehunt and Squire Skimp. Cedric was the resident Clem Kadiddlehopper/Mortimer Snerd of Pine Ridge, and though he was voiced in the radio version by Lauck, he’s portrayed here by the great comic character actor Grady Sutton. I have to admit, though, I was a little disoriented hearing Sutton imitate Lauck doing Cedric; Sutton usually speaks in a much higher and softer hick-oriented tone as witnessed by his appearances in the Hal Roach Boy Friends two-reelers (High Gear, Air-Tight) and classic W.C. Fields films like The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) and The Bank Dick (1940). But that aside, he makes a perfect Cedric, and he would appear twice more in the role in the L&A features Goin’ to Town (1944) and Partners in Time (1946). Actor Oscar O’Shea essays the role of Skimp, Pine Ridge’s resident con man/huckster, a part voiced by “Tuffy” Goff on the radio show—while I think O’Shea does a fair job (he encores in the next L&A movie, Two Weeks to Live) he’s not quite capable of capturing the role as well as Goff did in the radio version. There’s also a brief appearance from Uncle Henry Lunsford, but the IMDb does not credit the actor playing him.

Other standout performers include Louise Currie as Skimp’s niece Marjorie (Currie is probably best-remembered as a heroine in classic serials like The Adventures of Captain Marvel and The Masked Marvel), Irving Bacon (previously seen in Dreaming Out Loud), and longtime Jack Benny Show stooge Benny Rubin as the eyeglasses pitch man. The direction is by Malcolm St. Clair (who would encore with Two Weeks to Live), an accomplished comedy film director who once worked at the Mack Sennett studios during the silent era and later went on to direct several of the Stan Laurel-Oliver Hardy 1940s features at 20th Century-Fox. I was sort of intrigued in that ZaSu Pitts (Geraldine) is presented as a love interest for Lum in this film, but on the radio show (in the 1949-50 season) she was used for more comic effect, with Lum fending off her constant attempts to march him down the aisle. I was also pleased with the transfer of this film to DVD; although it’s a beat-up public domain copy, it’s still in better shape than the previous Dreaming Out Loud. If you’re a Lum and Abner fan like me, I guarantee you will enjoy it.

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