Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #1: "Colonel Effingham's Raid" (1946)

Charles Coburn leads the charge as the irascible Colonel Effingham.

Well, it's taken me long enough, but I've finally gotten around to actually watching that Mill Creek comedy boxed set I purchased last year from a grocery store bargain bin. I figured that I might as well write about the films here on the blog before they evaporate from my memory forever. (By the way, I have not abandoned Mill Creek's "Drive-In Cult Classics" set. I'll complete it someday.) I've decided to be conventional and watch the films in the order they appear in the set, so I'm starting with Disc One, Side A. Won't you join me?

The flick: Colonel Effingham's Raid (20th Century Fox, 1946) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.1

Director: Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game, Destination Moon)

Actors of note: Charles Coburn (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Around the World in Eighty Days), William Eythe (The Ox-Bow Incident), Joan Bennett (Suspiria, Scarlet Street), Donald Meek (Stagecoach)

The gist of it: A retired Army colonel (Charles Coburn) returns to his hometown in Virginia to find that the citizens have become apathetic and that the local government is corrupt. He soon jolts the townspeople out of their complancy, first by writing a fiery column in the local newspaper, then by organizing a movement to preserve the city's historic courthouse. In doing so, he inspires a younger relative of his to enlist in the armed services and defend his country overseas.

My take: The most important thing you need to know about Colonel Effingham's Raid is that it was released in January 1946, just five months after V-J Day, but set in the spring of 1940, a year and a half before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In between 1940 and 1946, of course, was America's involvement in World War II. This film is meant to function as both a rousing propaganda piece and a homespun comedy of manners.

More problematic, though, is that this is also a paean to the glory days of the Old South. It's tough for a modern-day Yankee like me to get too terribly nostalgic for the Confederacy. We hear "Dixie" on the soundtrack a few times, and there's a cowardly, bumbling Negro servant in the cast. Plus, Colonel Effingham feels strongly that the town square should be named in tribute to "our glorious Confederate dead" and not after some "carpetbagger" (i.e. Northern) politician. Strangely enough, for a movie about the South, there's a distinct lack of Southern accents in this film. Charles Coburn seems to be the only actual Southerner in the main cast. The young romantic leads are played by actors from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Miracle: a parallel story
Is it funny: Eventually, yes. Sort of. This film reminds me a bit of Miracle on 34th Street, which is also about an irascible but lovable old codger who fires up the imaginations of the citizenry, frustrates the political establishment, and ultimately brings out the best in a promising young man, all by sticking to his principles and never surrendering. At first, the colonel's behavior struck me as so mild that I didn't understand why the other characters found it so shocking. I mean, what's the big deal about writing a column and having your name appear in the newspaper? Today, everyone seems to want as much media attention as they can get. But once I realized just how old-fashioned and conservative these people were, I began to get a kick out of Effingham's antics.

For me, the sleazy politicians, always plotting and scheming behind closed doors, are what make the movie work. They make great, hissable villains, and it's fun to see them get a very public comeuppance at the end. One running joke which did not work for me, though, was that the filmmakers inserted a loud wolf whistle on the soundtrack every time William Eythe checked out Joan Bennett's legs. It's a dumb gag and breaks the reality of the picture. By the way, you Kids in the Hall fans should not confuse "Effingham" with "effing good ham."

My grade: B

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