Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lost in Alaska (Universal-International, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night our “feature” was the Abbott and Costello film Lost in Alaska, the next in sequence in the Universal boxed set of the 28 (out of their 36 films total) movies they made at their main studio. It’s an odd movie that’s got some good moments even though it’s not one of their best and one could tell that by this time the old formulae were getting pretty threadbare through overuse. The film starts in San Francisco in the 1890’s, where prospector Nugget Joe McDermott (a virtually unrecognizable Tom Ewell under a lot of scraggly facial hair in an attempt to make him look hard-bitten) is attempting to commit suicide because, even though he has discovered a mine worth $2 million, it means nothing to him without the love of his girlfriend Rosette (Mitzi Green, the spectacularly talented child star of the early 1930’s who appeared in such children’s classics as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Little Orphan Annie, was in the original 1932 film version of the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, played herself as the girl who solves the mystery in the all-star 1931 short The Stolen Jools and did a great number parodying Erich von Stroheim and George Arliss in the 1934 musical Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round; after that film she went to Broadway and starred in the original production of the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms, after which she stayed on Broadway, married director Joseph Pevney, returned to Hollywood with him when he won a contract at Universal and got persuaded to make a comeback in this movie, her first on-screen role as an adult; alas, she did very little additional work and died tragically young in 1969 at the age of only 48). Nugget Joe disappears — he’s actually planning to take a ship back to the Klondike to try to reconcile with Rosette, who in the meantime has won a job singing at the saloon owned by Jake Stillman (Bruce Cabot, whose career should have got off to an auspicious start with his portrayal of Fay Wray’s human boyfriend in King Kong had RKO known what to do with them — his Kong role should have made him RKO’s Clark Gable but in two years they were giving him one stereotyped gangster role after another in a failed attempt to make him their James Cagney instead, and here he’s doing the same schtick) and the admiration of a number of Alaska prospectors with whom she plans to do a different sort of gold-digging. But when the San Francisco authorities learn of his disappearance, they decide he’s been murdered and blame volunteer firefighters George Bell (Lou Costello) and Tom Watson (Bud Abbott) — the origins of their names in Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson, generally recognized as the inventors of the telephone, is one of the wittiest parts of a script by Martin A. Ragaway and Leonard Stern (based on a story by Elwood Ullman) that doesn’t have very many of them. (The director is the Boy Named Jean Yarbrough in his last of five films with the comedy team.)

It’s yet another Abbott and Costello movie you remember more for its parts than its whole, including a scene in which the attorney Abbott and Costello — who escaped the San Francisco authorities by joining Nugget Joe on his return to Alaska — try to hire is literally lifted off the street by a rope with one end tied as a noose just when Our Heroes are trying to convince him the job they’re offering him is perfectly safe; another in which Costello wins a small fortune at the roulette table while he’s barking numbers to Stillman in an attempt to interrogate him, then loses it all and has no idea he was ever ahead in the game; and a scene in which, literally “lost in Alaska,” they’re trying to fish and end up hooking a seal (though if the seal had spoken to them à la the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Klondike spoof Road to Utopia the gag would have been even funnier!). Mitzi Green’s two songs (I have been unable to find out any information about them online, though imdb.com and the Wikipedia page on Lost in Alaska both list the young Henry Mancini as having worked, uncredited, on this film and I suspect these were his contributions), one of which, “I’m Just a Country Gal,” she sings in Stillman’s saloon in Skagway, Alaska; and one, “A Hot Time in the Igloo Tonight,” as part of a preposterous outdoor Native American festival in the middle of the Yukon (which also features a variant of the famous crossed-swords dance from the stage musical Brigadoon that was unfortunately left out of its film), are utterly delightful and add immeasurably to the entertainment value of this film. (She’s clearly making fun of the Western-chanteuse roles Marlene Dietrich and Mae West had played in previous Universal films, and even gets a bit of a parody of Dietrich’s “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” from Destry Rides Again.) Alas, the movie just peters out with an odd scene in which, having loaded Nugget Joe’s whole fortune on a dogsled, they lose it — it sinks into a hole in the ice and ends up in the ocean — and the film ends surprisingly inconclusively and we miss the Last Laugh-style ending I was hoping for (also used in the very best comedy ever made about the Klondike, Chaplin’s 1925 The Gold Rush), in which Bud, Lou, Nugget Joe and Rosette (who turns out to be a good girl after all) would have returned to San Francisco in grand style, throwing their money around, with all suspicions of murder against Bud and Lou of course ended by the appearance of their “victim” alive after all and, what’s more, their good friend!