Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Twenty Five Dollar Mistake.

Okay, I admit it, sometimes my memories (faulty as they are) of a movie are actually better than the movie itself - MUCH better. Yeah, it happens. Sometimes movies are best left locked away in a vault, never to see the light of actual day again. There's a reason why God invented memory haze.

But no, I kept thinking of a certain trilogy with a certain actor, so sure that I needed to view the movies again. Have you ever felt that way? When I couldn't find the movies anywhere online - did that stop me? No. My movie memories are infallible. (Ha!)

So I threw caution to the winds and plunked down some cash.

I remember WHISTLING IN THE DARK (1941), WHISTLING IN DIXIE (1942) and WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN (1943) starring Red Skelton, Anne Rutherford and Rags Ragland  as light-hearted mystery comedies kind of in the style of Bob Hope's THE CAT AND THE CANARY and/or THE GHOSTBREAKERS. I was eager to view them again - that's my only excuse. I was in a mood that required instant film gratification. (Or almost instant.)

My friends, even Conrad Veidt playing a charismatic cult leader and low-life bad guy could not save WHISTLING IN THE DARK, the first film in the trilogy. Worse yet, even the great Eve Arden can't save this thing. The plot is not only non-sensical (which is really par for the course and to be expected in these sorts of 'fun' mysteries) but it is totally lacking in FUN.

In all three films, rubbery-faced Red Skelton plays radio personality Wally Benton. He is known as 'The Fox' a howling (literally) radio detective who supposedly sees all and knows all about murder - there's not a plot he hasn't turned into a radio play performed by himself, his girlfriend Carol Lambert (Anne Rutherford) and an assortment of actors, live at the radio station. Each film has the same set-up, Wally is just about to run off and marry his long-suffering girlfriend when a real crime interrupts their elopement.

In the first film, Veidt and his cohorts kidnap Wally, Carol and another woman (the sponsor's daughter) in order to force Wally to invent a fail-proof murder plot (as he does on the radio weekly) which the bad guys will then use to kill a guy who stands between them and a million dollar inheritance. (This was back when a million bucks was a chunk of money.)

Told you it made no sense. But with such a good cast, it should have worked. (In my memories it was a light-hearted romp.)

Except for an amusing first ten or so minutes (better than the rest of the film) in which Conrad Veidt's nefarious character conducts a tree planting ceremony before a worshipping, gullible audience of elderly women all garbed in white robes, the rest of the movie is not only deadly dull but completely unfunny.

Even so, I held out hope for the second and third films, still to be viewed. I hunkered down with a bowl of popcorn and Rocky at my side.

Let's get to the main point which I seem to be avoiding: the young Red Skelton. This is definitely not the puckish and very talented comedian who went on to star in some MGM comedies (usually with Esther Williams) and later became part of television history with a weekly comedy show. My family and I were great fans.

To my surprise, the young Red Skelton, in these early films, comes across as someone lacking not only screen presence, but finesse, timing and oh yeah, talent. At least talent enough to carry a movie. In addition, he makes for a dismal 'romantic lead'. There is no reason why any woman would want to marry him.

Skelton is all bumbling technique and no warmth. You and I both know that if you're going to 'bumble' you need warmth to carry the day. See Cary Grant in BRINGING UP BABY, as an example. But here Skelton just seems weird, klutzy and unlikable. (It might be that with his red hair he needed technicolor, but that wouldn't explain his enormous success later on b/w television.)

If Skelton was meant as a potential rival to Bob Hope, who was working in films at the same time, Hope had nothing to worry about. Hope was always likeable and oddly attractive, even at his most cowardly and egotistical. He was also superb at physical humor. And as for delivering quips, well, Hope was the master of that particular art form so maybe it's unfair to compare.

I'm rambling, I know. But it's been a long time since I watched movies which lived so well in memory and disappointed so much in reality.

The second film, WHISTLING IN DIXIE takes place in Georgia and has an even less sensical plot than the first but contains one sequence which works pretty well: Wally, his girlfriend and a couple of others are trapped beneath a fort in an underground room which is slowly filling up with water. Very well done. But not enough to save the movie.

As for the last film in the trilogy, even the Brooklyn Dodgers can't save WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN. Yes, the 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers, Leo Durocher and his boys. There's a ridiculously unfunny sequence which takes place at Ebbits Field, the old stomping grounds of the Dodgers once upon a time, in which Wally (in disguise) is forced to pitch an inning while trying to save a police inspector from being killed. NOTHING about it works.

Okay, you may ask: why did I sit through these three stultifying movies?

Besides being a glutton for punishment, I guess I wanted to make sure that what I was seeing was what I was seeing, that it wasn't my mood that was tarnishing the films, that my expectations weren't too high. Dammit, I was eager to enjoy them.

All I can say now is I wish I had my twenty five bucks back again. But I learned my lesson. No more impulse movie buys based on memory. Never again. 

But of course, there may be someone out there who disagrees with me completely and actually LOVES these movies. Hey, it's possible. I'm no arbiter. If so, please let me know and I will happily send you the three films (which came packaged together) free of charge, just because I'm a nice person. If there be more than one of you, leave comments and I'll use that number thingy to pick the 'winner'. The films are brand new, only viewed once. I don't want them in the house as a reminder of my folly.

Worse comes to worse, I can donate them to the library.

Has this sort of thing ever happened to you? Come on, 'fess up. We're among friends here.

P.S. As for the 'whistling' in all three titles, it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything. Go figure.


  1. Oh dear oh dear, Yvette. Sounds like an awful way to spend an evening. You do have my sympathy! (And, no, I don't think I'll be viewing those films any time soon... HA!)

  2. I've also been disappointed by films that I remembered as wonderful. Perhaps it's just a matter of growing more discerning as we experience greater variety.

  3. Nostalgia colurs so many of our memories, Yvette. But what a disappointment...

    On to something good: Please add another star-award to your growing collection. Over here:

  4. Hello Yvette:
    The past does play tricks with the memory and, or so we find, this applies to films as to much else. Do we actually become more critical as we get older?

  5. Oh, dear, my sympathy to you. But these things happen to us all; mine happen with books, not movies, as I don't buy movies -- or haven't yet.

    But one suggestion: Next time you get a yen to buy movies, try season one or two of the Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe TV series.

    It got me through the holidays quite well and I laughed, then getting more of the Wolfeman out of the library in book form.

  6. I understand completely! I so adore Red Skelton, fond memories of watching the TV show with my dad. But have been sorely disappointed with the 'actual' compared to the 'memory'. Nice post! I love your header pic!

  7. Thank you, Les. It's nice to know you understand. Ha!

  8. Mark, some things are better left lost in the mists of time. :)

  9. Oh thank you, Neer. Yeah, 'nostalgia just ain't what it used to be.' :)

  10. Jane and Lance, sometimes we become hyper-critical which does not, I hope, apply here. :)

  11. Don't worry, Kathy. It's on my 'to-do' list. :)

  12. Thanks, Peggy Ann. We watched the Skelton show regularly and loved it. Same as we did with Milton Berle and Sid Caesar.

    Of the three it's probably Skelton who hasn't withstood the passing of time as well.

    Though I haven't seen any Milton Berle lately. :)

  13. Yvette,

    I've had similar experiences, and I suspect you're right--nostalgia is very powerful.

    I remember Red from his radio shows, along with Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and others. However, when Red went to TV, I didn't find him nearly as funny as he was on radio. I've never been able to figure out why. I never did see any of his films, and to be honest, I'm not sure I ever knew that he had made films.

  14. Netflix streaming has allowed me to watch old movies I remembered as great, only to find them boring - which is worse than bad if you ask me. I feel your pain.

  15. Fred, he made a bunch of films, most in Technicolor which suited his looks better than b/w. But still he never was a very strong film presence.

    I do remember watching every week with my family, we did enjoy Red's television show.

  16. Amy, that happens to me with Netflix every now and then. Movies I loved in memory now seem not so lovable.

    I'm thrilled when a movie holds up to what I remember. :)

  17. I haven't seen those particular movies, but generally I have never been a big fan of the films that featured Red Skelton. As for shelling out a lot of money to only see a bad film...well, welcome to my life. Having grown up in the heyday of the drive-in movie, my tastes tend towards b-movies in general. And while there are many gems to be found, there are many more dogs out floating around. Will I ever learn? Probably not.

  18. This was an entertaining post. I too bought this DVD set, but I enjoyed the movies more than you did. Did not love them, but found things to enjoy in each of them. My husband liked parts of one of them. I still have I Dood It to watch sometime... Hope it is OK.

  19. I rarely do this, Mark. When I want to see a film I usually spend time first looking for it online or at Netflix. If I can't find it there then I put it on the backburner. There's always something else.

    But this time out, I got burned for not following my usual routine. :)

  20. Tracy, I'm glad there's someone out there who enjoyed these things. :)

    Admittedly, since I had such fond memories, I must have enjoyed them too at some point in the long ago past.

    Too bad you bought them, I could have sent you my mine.

  21. Yvette, I haven't seen the WHISTLING trilogy though Red Skelton's name pops up often during my visits to various blogs and websites. I don't remember him at all but he seems to have been very popular in his time.

  22. I would send them to you, Prashant but I'll bet it costs the earth to mail something like this to your neck of the woods. Also would they play on your DVD equipment??

  23. Actually, I loved the first movie when I saw it on TCM last year I think. Never saw the other two movies though.

    Sorry they didn't live up to the memory.

  24. Yvette, it's been quite some time since I watched the WHISTLING IN THE DARK movie series, so I'm both surprised and disappointed that it's turned out to be a bummer for you. Still, just for the heck of it, since I happen to have the trilogy on DVD anyway, I'd like to watch them from start to finish just for the record. Maybe this was before Skelton learned how to act? Anyway, the worst film I've ever seen (that wasn't a horror movie :-)) is a tie: the original 1969 film version of Elmore Leonard's THE BIG BOUNCE, and the film version of HEAVEN'S PRISONERS. Don't you hate it when a book you love becomes a disappointing movie? Anyway, your reviews are always worth reading. Thanks for the warning, my friend! :-)

  25. Ryan, I'll send you the three-pack. Send me your address, kiddo.

  26. Dorian, you're welcome. I'd love to know what you think of the trilogy once you see them again.

    I've never seen the two movies you mentioned or read the books but yeah, I can relate to movies not living up to the book. It's happened plenty of times.

    Plenty. :)


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