Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Keep ’Em Flying (Universal, 1941)

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

Last night’s “feature” was the next in sequence from the Abbott and Costello boxed set featuring all 28 of their films for Universal: Keep ’Em Flying, third and last of the A&C “service comedies.” Having already done the Army (Buck Privates) and the Navy (In the Navy), this time they did the Army Air Corps (it was only after World War II that the U.S. Air Force separated from the army and became a separate service of its own) — and though this film suffered from the absence of the Andrews Sisters (although we did get Martha Raye in a dual role to compensate!) it seems to me the most entertaining of the three. After having read about the tortures of the damned Universal went through trying to get In the Navy approved by the Navy brass (they had to change an hilariously bungled set of ship’s maneuvers into a dream of Lou Costello’s character), it’s surprising how many elaborate A&C slapstick routines there are in this movie, including one in which he’s riding a torpedo that goes out of control on the Army Air Corps training base (played by the Cal-Aero flight school in Ontario, California, which was being used by the real Army Air Corps for training) and another in which A&C get caught in an airplane they don’t know how to fly and have to crash-land it after some quite amusing complications. (Kudos also to John P. Fulton for his absolutely convincing special effects and process work — and to Ralph Cedar, who took over the direction of the torpedo scene even though Arthur Lubin was credited for the rest of the movie.)

The plot isn’t much — “original” (quotes definitely appropriate!) story writer Edmund L. Hartmann and screenwriters True Boardman (I joked, “This is a True story”), Nat Perrin and John Grant combined two of the oldest clichés of military aviation movies, the hotshot barnstorming pilot (“Jinx Roberts,” played by Dick Foran) who shows up at the training camp arrogantly maintaining that no one needs to teach him to fly, who eventually learns that flying in the Air Corps requires discipline and teamwork; and the scared pilot “Jimmy” Joyce (Charles Lang) who can’t solo because he watched his dad, also a flyer, crack up and get killed — but the movie is a lot of fun: Foran is personable and his love interest, Carol Bruce as Jimmy’s sister Linda Joyce (a band singer who joins the USO and just happens to get assigned to a USO camp near the Cal-Aero school), is personable and has a nice voice that does justice to the old George Bassman song “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and the new songs by Don Raye and Gene DePaul, notably “The Boy with the Wistful Eyes.

The writers also created some great gags for the twin Martha Rayes, who through her dual casting gets to play romantic scenes opposite both Abbott and Costello: the Raye who’s attracted to Costello is raucous Gloria Phelps and the one who’s drawn to Abbott is the more sedate sister Barbara. “The Boy with the Wistful Eyes,” a quite lovely song that deserves to be better known, is staged in a tunnel of love in which Foran and Bruce, Abbott and Raye number one, and Costello and Raye number two, are all taking a ride — and, amazingly, instead of singing her two choruses the same way Martha Raye phrases the song differently depending on which character she’s playing. As Gloria she’s her usual raucous self — the one who’d become known from her movies at Paramount before she went to Universal for the 1941 Olsen and Johnson film Hellzapoppin’ — while as Barbara she phrases surprisingly like Billie Holiday, especially copying Billie’s famous “dying falls” (the downward glissandi with which Billie frequently ended a line). Raye also gets to sing a boogie-woogie number called “Pig Foot Pete,” which was nominated for an Academy Award (though for some reason Universal attributed it to Hellzapoppin’! — remember that at this time the Best Song nominees were picked by the studios, not Academy voters), with Freddie Slack at the piano. (Slack also recorded the song for Decca, but with Don Raye — no relation ­— singing the vocal.)

 Keep ’Em Flying is a superb movie, well balanced between comedy, romantic and musical scenes, and it’s only a pity that this was A&C’s last service film — well, they’d run out of units of the armed forces (they weren’t about to do one about the Coast Guard or the merchant marine!) — and Arthur Lubin’s direction is surprisingly Gothic in some sequences (especially the one in which Costello gets lost in a house-of-horrors attraction at a carnival and Lubin and production designer Jack Otterson get to recycle some of the old props left over from Universal’s horror films); though his five films with Abbott and Costello were the biggest hits of his career, he seems to have been more interested in Gothic and noir atmospherics than in comedy, and there are some odd angles showing the Air Corps cadets getting up — the camera is tilted and the Venetian blinds of their rooms cast artistic and noir-ish shadows over their faces.