Friday, November 28, 2008
One Word Over The Radio
As usual, Thanksgiving made me think of celebrating that holiday in New York many years ago with that wonderful WOR triple bill of KING KONG, SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. If you lived in New York back then, you’ll understand. If you didn’t, just go with me here. As I watched my KONG DVD to get into this nostalgic mood, it led to my thinking of all those Sunday mornings spent watching Abbott & Costello on WPIX (11 Alive, for those who were there). For New Yorkers, here's a small hit of nostalgia from those Sundays. Watch it and weep for your lost youth. Here’s my Abbott & Costello theory, based on absolutely zero research: everyone has two favorite A&C movies. The immortal ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, of course, and one other of their own choosing. It could be BUCK PRIVATES, HOLD THAT GHOST, IN SOCIETY or a variety of others. For me, that choice would have to be the 1942 WHO DONE IT?, a murder mystery revolving around the world of radio. It was actually their first film that didn’t get interrupted by a variety of Andrews Sisters musical numbers or boring romantic subplots, allowing us to get right to the two of them and their gags. The songs always bored me back then and while I may be more interested in some of them now, as well as those other odd moments that remind us we’re watching a 40s movie, I still prefer WHO DONE IT?, maybe largely because even as a kid I liked it’s look at radio and how the plot made terrific use of the boys, with few distractions getting in the way. It makes working in the world of radio in the 40s in a big office building with wisecracking elevator operators and soda jerks in the drugstore downstairs seem pretty cool. No one ever gets too upset over the murders either.
Set in the broadcast headquarters of the GBS radio network, Chick Larkin (Bud Abbott) and Mervyn Milgrim (Lou Costello) are a couple of soda jerks in the building soda shop with ambitions to be radio writers, particularly with their own mystery script, “Muck & Myre”. After meeting Jimmy Turner (Patric Knowles, also in THE WOLF MAN) who has just turned down the chance to write “Murder at Midnight” which is produced by old flame Jane Little (Louise Allbritton) the boys manage to sneak in to watch the latest episode of the show but the broadcast is interrupted when network president Colonel J.R. Andrews (Thomas Gomez) is electrocuted just as he is about to read a special announcement. Chick immediately gets the idea that the two of them should solve the murder which will make it a sure bet that they’ll be hired as writers (is that really all it takes? I’ll have to keep it in mind). But it doesn’t take long until the real cops show up to investigate the murder themselves, not wanting anyone else to get in the way.
It’s not much of a murder mystery—I just watched the movie and I honestly couldn’t tell you who the character is who gets unmasked and exactly why that person committed the murders—there’s some dialogue tossed out having to do with wartime espionage but I also couldn’t state its importance with any real certainty. What the movie has is Abbott & Costello stumbling around this building, dealing with lots of things related to the radio station and stumbling across the occasional dead body. There are scenes that involve a sound effects studio, an audio transcript room, wisecracking elevator boys and one point where the two of them argue over the difference between watts and volts which goes exactly as you’d expect it would. There’s also some pretty cool shadow work in the visuals during the scenes where “Murder at Midnight” is broadcast and since the plot is packed into such a tight time frame—all in one night—it never slows down for the obligatory romance between the lead guy and girl. You can infer that it takes place off camera anyway and that’s just as well. None of what’s going on leads to any real deduction—even the plan hatched by Knowles and Allbritton to uncover the real killer is pretty lame. Again, no one cares, especially when the plot stops dead at around the 50 minute mark to allow for the classic Alexander-2222 routine, where the boys rush into a drug store and Mervyn desperately tries to call a number without any success (“Operator, give me Alexander-2222.” “The line is busy.”). His frustration only mounts as carious other people enter the phone to call all points around the globe and are connected instantly (“Operator, give me Long Distance. Long Distance? I want to talk to the Consolidated Coffee Company in Brazil. Hello, Brazil? Oh, is this you, Joe? This is Bill. How’s the coffee business? Just a grind, eh? Yeah, I know. Well, I’ll call you later. So long.”) while he can’t even get a number that’s across the street. We get back to the plot eventually (how they get back into the building is something that might be worth trying someday) but it’s pretty great while it lasts. And even when the murderer whom no one watching the movie knows anything about is uncovered, it’s followed by a rooftop climax that is pretty good, maybe one of the best such climactic setpieces in any A&C movie.
A number of familiar faces from the time have to battle Bud and Lou for screentime as the obligatory red herrings, certainly a losing battle, but a few who do make an impression include Mary Wickes (who worked for decades, up to the SISTER ACT movies) as the Colonel’s secretary who sort of becomes Lou’s love interest and William Bendix as the only cop who could possibly be dumber than Lou (“Don’t you know it’s against the law to impersonate an officer?” “Well, how do you get away with it?”).
I’m not going to make a grand case for WHO DONE IT?. I definitely know that at this late date I wouldn’t have much success in recruiting any Abbott & Costello converts. There are also plenty of jokes that are pretty dated and a few where I could only guess what the reference is (a few having to do with wartime rationing, I’m guessing). Costello also makes a number of references to “making love” in regards to Wickes but I assume that the phrase meant something different than it does today. For all I know, nobody else out there even thinks that it’s one of there better vehicles. But I still like the broadcast radio milieu which is a fun look at a different time and is much, much more enjoyable than George Lucas’s joyless RADIOLAND MURDERS was—I still think there’s an idea in making a movie with this setting today, but I’m sure I’d be the only one to pay to see such a thing. And it makes me laugh out loud, even sitting watching it by myself—hos could anybody not like what Lou Costello does when he asks the cops if he can say “one word over the radio”? But as long as this movie is around it’ll take me back to another time, watching these films on Sunday morning over and over. That’s the sort of thing I’ll never forget.