Sunday, April 25, 2004

“Oh…is that you, Myrt?”

This weekend, I decided to watch another one of the DVDs that I purchased recently from Finders Keepers—the 1941 RKO feature film comedy Look Who’s Laughing, starring Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy, and Jim and Marian Jordan as Fibber McGee & Molly. I’d seen the film previously—it shows up frequently on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), though I think the time I watched it was when Turner Network Television (TNT) still showed classic movies (no, I’m not dating myself, am I)—and after treating myself to an encore I found it to be just as delightful as ever.

In fact, let me go a bit further and praise this movie as one of the best radio-based films ever made. It’s difficult to reach a consensus on just what makes an OTR-themed movie great or successful—a good many folks often have harsh words for films of this type, falling back on the “it isn’t as good/it can’t capture the essence of the radio show” gripe. Personally, I tend to be a little lenient in this area, I think probably because of the sheer novelty and because I’m also a sucker for a well-made B-film. For example, most of the Lum & Abner feature films fall woefully short of what critics would call great or even good movies—but I don’t mind; they’re short, sweet, and endlessly entertaining.

The plot of Look Who’s Laughing—well, I’m not going to lie to you: it’s painfully thin. Edgar & Charlie are forced to land Bergen’s plane in Wistful Vista during a vacation trip, and naturally meet the town’s best-known residents, Fibber & Molly McGee. The Fibster, as president of the Chamber of Commerce, has been out beating the bushes to get an aircraft manufacturer to build a factory in town; Edgar is very good friends with same and so he agrees to help the community out. There are, of course, numerous complications along the way (the movie is 78 minutes, they gotta do something)—but finally the deal is struck and everything comes out in the wash.

In addition to the movie’s four major players, there are also appearances by other old-time radio stars: Lucille Ball (though she’s seven years away from her hit sitcom My Favorite Husband) has a plum role as Julie, Edgar’s secretary and love interest, and Harold Peary is along for the ride as famed Fibber nemesis Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. (Ball and Perry were later re-teamed in a 1942 musical-comedy, Seven Days’ Leave, in which Hal once again played Gildy, and Lucy is a girl that star Victor Mature has to marry in order to collect an inheritance—shades of the Buster Keaton classic Seven Chances!)

This movie also includes appearances from many of the actors that populated Fibber and Molly’s burg: Isabel Randolph, Harlow Wilcox, Bill Thompson and Arthur Q. Bryan. Of these four, only Randolph reprises a radio role as one of the residents of Wistful Vista, society dowager Abigail Uppington; both Thompson and Bryan (who didn’t start playing the town’s medico, Doc Gamble, until 1943) have uncredited bits (as a veteran and a mayor’s aide, respectfully) and Harlow is Mr. Collins, the bank president (no Glocoat pushing here!) Thompson would appear in 1942’s sequel Here We Go Again as Wallace Wimple (“Hello, folks…”). Other great character actors and old-time radio personalities include Neil (Batman) Hamilton, Charles Halton, Jed Prouty, George Cleveland, Sara Berner, Charles Lane and Sterling Holloway (as a soda jerk).

Though the plot of Look Who’s Laughing isn’t particularly compelling, the comedy material provided for Edgar, Charlie and the McGees is first-rate—Zeno Klinker and Dorothy Kingsley, two scribes from Bergen’s radio show, keep him and his dummy supplied with plenty of laugh-getting quips, while Fibber & Molly receive assistance from creator-writer Don Quinn and Leonard L. Levinson (Levinson would later assume the post of head writer for Hal Peary’s spin-off The Great Gildersleeve). There are a couple of prized physical comedy sequences here as well; one involves an out-of-control dishwasher and the other a wild airplane that’s so well-done I didn’t even mind that it involves obvious stuntmen, miniatures and process-screen work.

Look Who’s Laughing was the second feature film showcasing the Jordans as the famous radio couple (their debut was 1937’s This Way Please, which also features solo work by Mrs. Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone) and the notion of teaming them with Edgar & Charlie was a stroke of genius. The film did well at the box-office, prompting the four stars to re-team for Here We Go Again. An attempt at future Fibber & Molly vehicles fizzled out with 1944’s Heavenly Days, a bouncy wartime comedy-musical that has its moments, but can’t hold a candle to its earlier celluloid siblings. I'd heartily recommend Look Who's Laughing, though, and I would most enthusiastically recommend purchasing it from Finders Keepers; their print is simply superb.

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