Friday, April 30, 2004

“My head is made up!”

I finished the last of five DVDs that I purchased recently from Finders Keepers—a great mom-and-pop business that specializes in hard-to-find, OTR-related movies—last night while enjoying time off from work. I’m glad I saved this one for last, because it was clearly the best and most entertaining of the bunch (which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the others, you understand): the 1948 (some sources date it as 1949) feature film-version of the radio sitcom hit The Life of Riley. It was like having dessert after a truly fine meal.

Released by Universal-International and written & directed by the show’s creator, Irving Brecher, The Life of Riley is a textbook example of how to make a really great old-time radio related film. The movie never takes a false step; it’s both well-written and well-paced, its 87-minute running time moving along at a breezy, entertaining clip with no padding whatsoever. Best of all, it takes characters from what I freely admit is your typical farcical sitcom and fleshes them out into three-dimensional human beings; it blends laugh-out-loud comedy with bittersweet poignancy to boot.

Chester A. Riley (William Bendix), devoted and loving husband of wife Peg (Rosemary DeCamp) and father to Babs (Meg Randall) and Junior (Lanny Rees), is determined to advance from his lowly position as riveter for the Stevenson Aircraft Company after being humiliated in front of Sidney Monahan, an acquaintance of the Rileys from Brooklyn (and Peg’s ex-beau). Riley’s boss (William E. Green) has planned to promote Riley to plant foreman as a reward for Riley’s hard work, but his son Burt (Mark Daniels), in debt to a gambler, schemes to have Riley made into an executive—that way, he can get Babs to marry him and he can get at his trust fund. Riley figures out what the son is up to and calls off the wedding, allowing his daughter to marry her true love (Richard Long).

What impressed me the most about this movie was its maturity; the theme of the film centers on career advancement and the achievement of “the American Dream.” Riley’s a blue-collar lug, a little dumb perhaps, but he works hard to get ahead and is crushed that he’s unable to provide a better life for his family. His promotion to executive has him walking on a cloud—even his co-workers congratulate him on one of their own “making good”—but then when people start to believe that the only reason for his advancement is because his daughter is getting hitched to the boss’ son, they turn their backs to him and it really tears him up inside. Babs has offered to marry Burt because she doesn’t want to see her father and mother slide back downward (with Riley’s promotion, he’s able to put a down payment on their house and get Peg that wedding ring she’s always wanted), but Riley refuses to jeopardize her happiness for a life of ease, and announces that he’d rather remain poor—prompting his boss to remark, “Riley—you’re the richest man I know.”

I’ve stated previously in many a blog entry how much of a fan I am of William Bendix, especially in films like The Glass Key (1942) and Detective Story (1951)—but his portrayal of Riley continuously sticks out in my mind. I know that the show had a paint-by-the-numbers quality to it, but there was something about Bendix that really made Riley endearing—here you had this big mule-headed brute whose stubbornness masked a tender, sensitive side. On radio, television, and especially this film—he is simply terrific; he's sensational at using humor as a lemon to cut the occasional sweetness. Rosemary DeCamp (an OTR veteran, known primarily for her work on Dr. Christian) unfortunately doesn’t have much to do, but she does provide solid support for Bendix’s Riley—and she was so good in this role that she was cast alongside Jackie Gleason in the first TV version of the show in 1949 (along with Lanny Rees’ Junior).

Other OTR personalities in the film include Bill Goodwin as the obnoxiously oily Sidney Monahan—and although Goodwin was primarily an announcer/supporting player on such programs as The Bob Hope Show and Burns & Allen, he enjoyed a nice career in films as a character actor, appearing in So This is New York (1948, with Henry Morgan) and It’s a Great Feeling (1949, with Jack Carson, Dennis Morgan and Doris Day—my favorite of the Carson-Morgan vehicles). John Brown, however, steals every single scene he’s in as he brings his Life of Riley character Digby “Digger” O’Dell to the silver screen. Digger is first introduced to the audience in a scene where the Rileys’ electricity has been cut off and the house is plunged into darkness; I thought this was a very clever touch, allowing them to hear his clammy, sepulchral tones before they see his beautifully somber mug on screen. Brown would also make it to the 1949-50 TV series, but for some reason wasn’t available for Bendix’s version, which ran from 1953-58. (Perhaps Brown was in poor health, he passed away in 1957.)

The Life of Riley is also populated with some wonderful character actors—James Gleason (who plays Riley’s best friend and neighbor Gillis—fans know, of course, that Brown played this part on radio as well), Beulah Bondi, Ted de Corsia (who was no slouch on OTR either) and a young Richard Long, before he relocated with Barbara Stanwyck to The Big Valley. (Or set up shop at 77 Sunset Strip, if that’s the way you remember him.) There’s also a great voice cameo by a famous OTR detective, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that surprise. (There are some really good in-jokes in this movie; my favorite is a book that’s mentioned as being written by “Professor Alan Lipscott”—Lipscott being one of the writers of The Life of Riley on radio.)

Making a film based on a radio series was a dicey proposition at best back in the 30s, 40s and even 50s. Radio fans would often find themselves surprised at the physical appearance of an actor or actress (knowing them only by their voice, of course), or would have a completely different impression of how their house or car or whatever looked. And though many of these films were produced simply for their novelty value (with plots flimsier than a politician’s campaign promise), there were a handful that transcended this and provided novel and fantastic entertainment. I’m pleased to report that The Life of Riley most assuredly stands out in this bunch.

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