Monday, January 16, 2012

All Over Town (Republic, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually ran a movie last night, a download from called All Over Town, a 1937 film for Republic that was the second and last film made for them by the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. “Not in the wide open spaces nor in the depths of the vast wilderness,” reads the printed foreword — thereby eliminating the two most common settings for Republic movies! — “but in a remote section of Manhattan Island struggle the last of their tribe … the true vanishing Americans.” The true vanishing Americans turn out to be vaudeville performers, living at a boarding house owned by the battle-axe Mrs. Wilson (Blanche Payson, one of those formidably butch landladies in 1930’s Hollywood movies whose fearsome demeanors made it hard to believe that there had ever been a Mr. Wilson), who’s trying to eject her newest tenants, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (playing themselves, or at least using their own names for their characters à la Laurel and Hardy), not only for being behind on their rent but also for harboring “Sally, the World’s Only Singing Seal” (she doesn’t actually “sing,” she just bites a set of taxi horns in succession to produce something vaguely resembling a melody), who’s a key part of their act. Olsen and Johnson hear about a potential job at the Eldridge Theatre, and they and singer/songwriter/pianist Don Fletcher (Harry Stockwell, a tall, rail-thin juvenile with an oddly shaped face that probably kept him away from major stardom — he was originally slated for the romantic lead in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races and actually performed on the live tryout tour the Marxes did to hone the material before they made the actual film, but by the time it became a movie the better-known Allan Jones had replaced him) set out for said theatre, only to find that it’s been boarded up for two years, ever since an actor was murdered by a mysterious assailant during rehearsals for an upcoming show, and the place has acquired a reputation for being both haunted and jinxed.

The theatre is owned by Joan Eldridge (Mary Howard), who inherited it from her late father (no, he wasn’t the guy who was murdered!) but owes money on it to William Bailey (Eddie Kane, the detective from The Stolen Jools, playing essentially the kind of role Walter Woolf King and Douglass Dumbrille played in the MGM Marx Brothers movies), who’s trying to get her to sell the theatre to investor Pete Phillips (Otto Hoffman). Thanks to a conversation Don overheard at Mrs. Wilson’s, he’s convinced that Olsen and Johnson are oil millionaires, and so when they go to Joan’s theatre she thinks they have the financial wherewithal to back her in a show that will enable her to pay off the money she owes Bailey and save the theatre — only Bailey and Phillips have them investigated and find out the only money they had was $150 they got from selling a gas station they owned. The behind-the-scenes personnel — including Franklin Pangborn in a typical (for him) but still marvelous turn as an insufferably queeny costume designer (there’s a particularly funny scene in which he’s illustrated his new design to Olsen and Johnson, he says the dress is going to be “cut on the bias,” and they haven’t the slightest idea what he’s talking about) — are about to walk, and so are the cast members, when Don persuades them that the only way they have of getting paid for the work they’ve already done is to mount the show without pay and hope it hits big enough to make them what they’re owed.

The troupe demonstrates one of the show’s big numbers (a song featuring Olsen, Johnson and Sally the seal that Olsen and Johnson wrote themselves), only as the number is winding down a mystery assailant points a gun through a curtain and fires it, killing Bailey. Phillips has his men seize the sets and costumes, and when Olsen and Johnson ask how they’re going to be able to do a show without them, he sarcastically says, “Over the radio — where they can’t see you!” Olsen and Johnson take him up on the suggestion and sell a radio sponsor, MacDougal’s Mackerels, on a broadcast in which they will launch a new series by revealing Bailey’s murderer on the air — even though they have no idea who that is. At one point Olsen persuades Johnson to confess to the crime himself — they’re fearful that they are responsible, because the killing happened right as Sally, with her nose, “shot” a blank-loaded pistol as the climax of their act — only Johnson can’t get the confession straight (instead of “I killed him because he was a rat,” he keeps saying, “I killed him because I was a rat”) — and it ends with a weird scene in which the police corner the criminal (Phillips, as if you couldn’t have guessed — even though his motive remains on the obscure side) while the show’s band plays a merry tune and Olsen, like Groucho Marx at the end of Monkey Business, provides a sports-style play-by-play description of the shootout.

 All Over Town is one of those movies that seems less written than compiled from the memory banks of old-movie clichés — though Jerome Chodorov, brother of fellow writer Edward Chodorov and a man with some estimable credits in his own right, including the original 1944 documentary version of Memphis Belle and both versions of My Sister Eileen, is one of the credited writers along with Richard English, Jack Townley and “comedy construction” for James Parrott — and in his book Movie Comedy Teams Leonard Maltin says the “general reaction” to All Over Town when it was new was that compared to it, Olsen and Johnson’s previous Republic feature, Country Gentlemen, “was a gem” — but, perhaps because its plot is more trivial and therefore works better as a frame for disconnected gags than the situation comedy of Country Gentlemen, it strikes me as a much funnier movie and a better showcase for the talents of its stars. Part of the improvement may have been from the wholesale raid Republic staged on the talents that had helped make the Laurel and Hardy classics for Hal Roach — the director was James W. Horne, “comedy constructionist” James Parrott had also directed Laurel and Hardy at Roach and was the brother of Roach star Charley Chase, and to play MacDougal Republic borrowed the brilliant character comedian James Finlayson (though they put a singularly ugly toupee on him and only revealed his true baldness at the very end) — while they wisely avoided making Olsen and Johnson lovably dumb in the Laurel and Hardy manner. Republic generally husbanded their stars well — Gene Autry and Roy Rogers worked there virtually forever and they kept their biggest star of all, John Wayne, for a surprisingly long time even while he made movies for bigger studios (Wayne quit Republic in 1952 because he was tired of being assigned movies with studio owner Herbert Yates’s light-o’love, Vera Hruba Ralston) — but after the box-office disappointment of All Over Town (a title explained only in the very last scene, in which the announcer of the broadcast says that the next show in the series will be heard “all over town”) Republic fired Olsen and Johnson.

This proved to be a spectacularly ill-timed move, because just a year later, in 1938, Broadway impresario Lee Shubert hired the team to headline a comedy revue called Hellzapoppin’ that turned out to be the biggest hit of their career, a show that ran for three years and essentially anticipated the 1960’s TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In in the sheer relentlessness of its humor and the way it threw its gags at the audience both figuratively and literally from all directions. Olsen and Johnson got a film contract from Universal and shot four films for them in the early 1940’s, and while as a screen team they never reached the heights of their studio-mates Abbott and Costello, the four Universal Olsen and Johnson vehicles (Hellzapoppin’, Crazy House, Ghost Catchers and See My Lawyer) deserve reissue as a two-DVD boxed set along the lines of the first Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. All Over Town has intimations of the no-holds-barred style of humor that later made Olsen and Johnson Broadway stars — including a routine they couldn’t have done on stage, in which, fearing that Sally the seal has swallowed the murder weapon, they take Sally and Inspector Murphy (Fred Kelsey), the police officer investigating the case, on a roller-coaster ride to get her to cough it up again (and the three homo sapiens naturally end up dizzy and nauseous while Sally eats it up and wants to stay on the roller-coaster!) — as well as the wince-inducing puns that are funny in spite of themselves: when Olsen announces that Sally was born on Christmas day, Johnson says, “Yeah, she’s a Christmas seal.”