Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #62, "It's a Joke, Son!" (1947)

Kenny Delmar portrays his famous "Senator Claghorn" character in It's a Joke, Son!

The flick: It's a Joke, Son! (Eagle-Lion release of a Bryan Foy Productions film, 1947) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.8

Director: Benjamin Stoloff (Palooka)

Actors of note: Kenny Delmar (announcer and sidekick of radio comedian Fred Allen; voice of Commander McBragg on TV's Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales), Una Merkel (The Parent Trap, 42nd Street, Destry Rides Again; Oscar nominated for Summer and Smoke), June Lockhart (the mom on TV's Lassie and Lost in Space; her 75-year career in film and TV is still going), Kenneth Farrell (receives an "Introducing" credit here, though this is the third film of his brief and underwhelming career, which also included Railroaded! and entries in the Gas House Kids and Philo Vance series), Douglass Dumbrille (The Ten Commandments, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races, etc., etc.), Jimmy Conlin (Anatomy of a Murder, Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve; repeatedly hired by director Preston Sturges), Daisy the dog (Hollywood and Vine)

Beauregard Claghorn
The gist of it: Beauregard Claghorn (Delmar) is a boastful, long-winded, and fiercely-proud Southerner who owns a crumbling mint plantation and is easily cowtowed by his domineering wife Magnolia (Merkel). A distillery buys the perennially-broke Claghorn's mint crop for $1500, a hefty sum which he plans to give to earnest young Jefferson "Jeff" Davis (Farrell), the would-be fiance of his daughter Mary Lou (Lockhart), so that this potential suitor can make a down payment on a frozen food truck and become a decent provider for Claghorn's daughter. But Magnolia has already pledged the $1500 to the Daughters of Dixie so that they can run her as a political candidate against the weak, corrupt Senator Leeds (Conlin), whose administration is run by the evil Northerner "Boss" Dan Healey (Dumbrille).

Out of financial desperation Claghorn accepts $3000 from Healey to run as a third-party candidate in order to split the vote and ensure Leeds' victory. But when Claghorn decides to take the campaign seriously and unseat Leeds himself, Healey and his thugs kidnap him and hold him hostage so that he'll miss the all-important deadline to appear at the Town Hall at 9:00 pm on Election Eve. Jeff and Mary Lou go looking for Beauregard, helped by the Claghorn family's highly intelligent dog (Daisy).

Foghorn Leghorn, the parody which eclipsed the original.
My take: The Blues Brothers, Strange Brew, This is Spinal Tap, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Wayne's World, Borat -- all motion picture vehicles for characters imported from the world of sketch comedy. This is obviously not a foolproof plan for success, as the sadder-but-wiser makers of Superstar, Coneheads, It's Pat, MacGruber, The Ladies Man, and A Night at the Roxbury could tell you.

It's a Joke, Son! must be one of the earlier examples of the form. Radio announcer Kenny Delmar had introduced his "Senator Claghorn" character on comedian Fred Allen's radio show in 1945, quickly becoming a sensation, and this cash-in movie appeared two years later. Delmar, a Boston-born Yankee, based the character on an eccentric Texas cattleman he'd met while hitchhiking. "Everything he said, he bellowed," Delmar remembered. "And everything he bellowed, he repeated."

Like many sketch characters who get their own movies, Claghorn had his own catchphrases, namely "That's a joke, son!" which he'd recite if one of his witticisms did not get the proper response. (This movie's own title slightly misquotes the line. Whoops!)  The Southern windbag also peppered his speech with "I say" and "that is," expressions which he employed whenever he'd reiterate a point for emphasis. Water-cooler comedians across the country were soon imitating the character, the way latter-day wannabes would ape Austin Powers or Borat Sagdiyev for cheap yuks.

Today, the fictional senator is most famous for inspiring the Looney Tunes character Foghorn Leghorn, created by Bob McKimson and voiced by Mel Blanc. Forghorn, a rooster who talked and behaved just like Delmar, made his screen debut in August 1946 -- thus beating Delmar to the punch by four months. In one of the rare examples of a parody overshadowing the original, it is the talking rooster and not the talkative politician who has remained in the public consciousness.

Fred Allen and sidekick Kenny Delmar.
On Fred Allen's Sunday night radio show, before an audience of 20 million, Claghorn was doled out in two-minute bits (scripted by Allen himself). The challenge of It's a Joke, Son! is taking that character and giving him a satisfying feature-length story while also providing the audience with Delmar's familiar catchphrases and trademark shtick. That's precisely where so many sketch-based movies have fallen down.

The good news is that It's a Joke, Son!, while not exactly a satirical masterpiece for the ages, is mostly a success. Obviously, the audience came to see and hear Kenny Delmar do his famous character, and the script gives the comedian many chances to do his thing. But the filmmakers know enough to use Claghorn sparingly so that his over-the-top personality does not become grating.

It was a good idea to give the blustery politician a wife who can dominate him and, thus, keep his ego in check. Una Merkel could have afforded to play this role a bit bigger than she does. As ball-busters go, Magnolia Claghorn doesn't have anything on Sybil Fawlty, Alice Kramden, or the truly intimidating wives from W.C. Fields' domestic comedies.

The election plot is serviceable, and "Boss" Healey and his thugs make intimidating antagonists. Having them be Yankee "carpetbaggers" felt gratuitous, though, and the whole "let's get Claghorn to the Town Hall at the last possible second" ploy seemed like a lazy way to come up with an exciting third act.

As is typical of so many comedies of the era, including several of the Marx Brothers movies, It's a Joke, Son! also has a rather dull romantic subplot tacked onto it. These straight-laced scenes, with June Lockhart and Ken Farrell as Claghorn's daughter and future son-in-law respectively, exist to make the movie more well-rounded and give us some respite from Delmar's high-energy antics, but did they have to be so blah? Just asking.

In the end, though, this is Delmar's movie, and he makes the most of it. While never entirely a fleshed-out, three-dimensional human being, Beauregard Claghorn does have more substance to him than just a few stock phrases and bits. In his fierce civic pride, in fact, he reminds me very much of Charles Coburn's more-serious character from Colonel Effingham's Raid, i.e. the very first movie I reviewed in this series.

Is it funny: There are definitely laughs to be found here, nearly all of them provided by Kenny Delmar, who is not shy about expressing his pro-Southern philosophy. "Move the Mason Dixon line to the Great Lakes," he says early in the film to a shopkeeper selling apples called Northern Spies. "Make Canada the North. After that, anyone who couldn't speak with a Southern drawl would have to get a passport." That's pretty typical of Delmar's humor, which is this movie's only reason to exist.

To be sure, the other actors are in this film to make the star look good. Rooted in the medium of radio, Claghorn's comedy is mostly verbal rather than visual. Perhaps that's why the filmmakers felt obliged to throw in the antics of Daisy the dog, who performs a number of semi-impressive tricks. As you'd expect, It's a Joke, Son! is largely a series of comedic vignettes. I was inordinately amused by a scene in which Claghorn and Jeff are speaking at cross purposes about a refrigerated truck the latter intends to buy. It's really for delivering frozen food, but Claghorn has gotten the idea that it's for hauling dead bodies.
CLAG: Jeff, my boy, I can't say I approve of the things you're going to carry around in the truck. 
JEFF: Well, what's the matter with 'em? Everything's preserved as good as new! 
CLAG: (incredulous) Good as new?!?
If the movie has an Achilles heel, it's that some of these bits (amusing as they are) go on rather too long after all the comedic possibilities have been explored. In particular, there's a very long scene in which a little kid helps Beauregard make punch for his wife's Daughters of Dixie meeting and inadvertently adds all kinds of alcohol to the mix instead of grape juice. Beauregard then serves the potent potable to the ladies, who are all uptight, teetotaling biddies. You can imagine where it goes from there, right? Both halves of this sequence, the making of the punch and the consumption of the punch, stretch on for many long minutes. It's the kind of thing the Three Stooges would have gotten done in half the time. It's a cute joke, but enough is enough!

My grade: B


P.S. - Whether you see the Senator Claghorn character as a loving tribute to Southern culture or a mocking parody of it depends on you, I guess. Delmar certainly makes his hatred of the North well-known at every opportunity, cringing even at the word "north." And all the truly despicable characters in this movie are damn Yankees. The movie totally sidesteps the issues of racial discrimination and slavery, which is perhaps for the best. There are no minority stereotypes here. But modern-day audiences might squirm at the reverential depictions of the Confederate flag and the many, many iterations of "Dixie," a song which plays roughly once every 5-10 minutes and is vital to the plot because it has roughly the same effect on Claghorn that spinach has on Popeye.

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