Saturday, March 20, 2004

“I’m wore to a frazzle…wore to a fraz…zle!”

This morning, I watched the fourth in a series of Lum & Abner films recently released on DVD by Critics’ Choice Video, So This is Washington (1943)—an amusing wartime comedy that has the boys from Pine Ridge traveling to the Nation’s capital after Abner (Norris Goff) invents a synthetic rubber-like substance. While attempting to get in to see Chester W. Marshall (Alan Mowbray), a civilian “dollar-a-year man” who’s promoting the idea of the participation of “the common man” in winning the war effort, Lum (Chet Lauck) and Abner become the talk of D.C. as they offer homespun advice to Congressmen, Senators, etc. from a park bench. They finally succeed in selling Marshall on their synthetic rubber—except that a blow on the head causes Abner to forget the formula he used to make it, and he becomes convinced that he’s an individual named Buster V. Davenport.

I have sort of a soft spot for So This is Washington, as it was the first L&A feature film I saw—and while it may not be as enjoyable as The Bashful Bachelor (which is still my favorite of the four that I’ve seen so far), I still think it’s one of their better efforts. Much of this is due to the fact that it's of relatively short-length; it moves along at a fairly breezy clip and doesn’t get entangled with too many subplots like Two Weeks to Live. If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that its topical gags and wartime plot date the movie somewhat. But there are many inspired bits: my favorite being the scene where a D.C. huckster rents them a “room” for eight dollars, and then they wake up the next morning inside a department store window display.

The director of So This is Washington is Raymond McCarey, younger brother of Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Awful Truth), whose comedy directing talents are in full force here. Ray certainly knew his way around comedy, helming classic two-reelers like Free Eats (Our Gang), Scram! (Laurel & Hardy), In the Dough (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and Three Little Pigskins (Three Stooges). Though his feature film work never matched that of his brother’s, and was limited mostly to B-pictures like Torchy Runs For Mayor (1939) and The Falcon’s Alibi (1946), he did co-direct (with George Marshall) Stan and Ollie’s Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)—and anyone who got the opportunity to direct L&H is aces in my book.

The film also contains a wonderful supporting cast of classic character actors, including Matt McHugh, Bess Flowers (Queen of the “Dress Extras”), Barbara Pepper (later Doris Ziffel on Green Acres and a chum of Lucille Ball’s), Jack Rice, and Minerva Urecal. A couple of the Pine Ridge characters appear in this movie as well: Milford “Grandpappy” Spears, who is played by Dan Duncan (who’s really great, he makes return appearances in Goin’ to Town and Partners in Time), and Aunt Charity Spears, who is portrayed by Sarah Padden. Mickey Mouse Club fans will no doubt get a kick out of seeing a young Jimmie Dodd in the opening scenes as well.

Now I know you’re going to think I made this up, but So This is Washington is the only L&A film to be nominated for an Oscar—James L. Fields received a nod for Best Sound Recording. And if you don’t think that’s prestigious…well, perhaps it isn’t. (But it would have been eligible for a broadcast on Academy Award®, that much is certain.) Still, I’ve had a good deal of fun watching all four of these Lum & Abner features—and hopefully Critics’ Choice Video will release the final two on DVD for the sake of us completists. I think Goin’ to Town looks very promising (the cast alone would cause me to gravitate towards it) and I have heard from a goodly number of people that Partners in Time is the best of the RKO series. Wonderful world!

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