by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
The other Karloff movie on our double bill last night was You'll Find Out, a peculiar 1940 production from RKO, produced and directed by musical pioneer David Butler, and a follow-up to the surprise hit of 1939, That's Right-You're Wrong, the feature-film debut of Kay Kyser and his band. Of all the big band leaders of 1939 Kyser -- not Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller or anyone more legendary to later swing fans -- made the most money because he had the most successes in the most media: he had a successful radio quiz show, Kay Kyser's College of Musical Knowledge (depicted in virtually all his movies), and he was able not only to trot his band onto Hollywood soundstages for insertion numbers in big musicals starring other people, he had a strong enough personality to have hit movies on the strength of his own character as the charming rube from Rocky Mount, North Carolina (also, by weird coincidence, the birthplace of modern jazz musician Thelonious Monk) who seemed perpetually overwhelmed by his own success.
For You'll Find Out Butler and James V. Kern (they have joint credit for the film's story and Kern sole credit for the actual script) essentially decided to graft Kyser and his show onto a reworking of The Cat and the Canary (which, probably not coincidentally, had been remade successfully the year before by Paramount as a vehicle for Bob Hope), in which Kyser's manager, Chuck Deems (an almost unrecognizably young Dennis O'Keefe), gets an offer from his girlfriend Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish) for the band to play at her upcoming 21st birthday party at the old-dark-house of her aunt Margo (Alma Kruger). It turns out that Margo has got involved in spiritualism and is being fleeced by phony psychic Prince Saliano (Bela Lugosi), who claims to be able to contact the spirit of her dead brother (Janis's dad).
Janis is initially unconcerned for Margo's well-being because her father's old attorney, Judge Mainwaring (Boris Karloff) -- whose last name the characters pronounce exactly the way it's spelled instead of using the usual British pronunciation, "Mannering," with which the same name is pronounced in Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man two years later -- is there, presumably protecting Margo's and Janis' interests. In fact Mainwaring and Saliano are in league to grab the old woman's money before anyone can discover the secret codicil in her brother's will that gives her control of the Bellacrest fortune only until Janis turns 21, after which it goes to Janis, who's clear-eyed, reality-based and not inclined to pay it to a phony psychic. Janis calls Dr. Fenninger, a well-known debunker of fake spiritualists, but a third member of the conspiracy (Peter Lorre) kidnaps him and impersonates him.
The subsequent goings-on aren't particularly horrific but they do offer a fair complement of thrills, as Kyser unwittingly discovers the headquarters room from which Saliano masterminds his paraphernalia to create the impression that he's actually contacting spirits from the great beyond (a thrilling reminder of the days when fake psychics actually put on a show for their marks instead of just saying vague things like, "Something terrible happened to you once," and eliciting responses like, "Really? However did you know?"), then wrestles Mainwaring to the ground as he, revealing himself as the actor who was impersonating the dead brother's ghost at Saliano's seance, holds a gun on the others -- though the finale features Prince, the dog owned by Kyser's clown singer/trumpeter "Ish Kabibble" (Merwyn Bogue), fetching the bomb the three baddies have set to blow up the house and all the good guys and carrying it over to the villains' hideout, blowing them up instead -- while Kyser decides to use the sonovox, a piece of electronic equipment Saliano had used in his phony seances, to have his instruments literally "sing" his new song, "Like the Fellow Once Said."
Though it's a bit disappointing that the only movie to co-star Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre would be a madcap comedy (albeit one in which their roles are relatively "straight"), You'll Find Out is a charming entertainment, well staged and with good novelty songs by composer James McHugh and lyricist John Mercer -- oddly formal versions of the first names of people who were usually billed as "Jimmy" and "Johnny," respectively!