Friday, November 8, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics, #63: "Zis Boom Bah" (1941)

"Cute, clever, and collegiate!": Zis Boom Bah was the Animal House of its day, I guess.

The flick: Zis Boom Bah (Monogram Pictures, 1941) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 4.8

Director: William Nigh (A Bride for Henry)

Peter Loves Mary.
Actors of note: Grace Hayes (appeared in Caged and Babes in Arms; also a headlining singer on the vaudeville circuit), Peter Lind Hayes (son of Grace Hayes; movies include The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T), Mary Healy (married to Peter Lind Hayes for 58 years; was also in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T; she and her husband had a sitcom together called Peter Loves Mary in 1960-1961), Huntz Hall (one of the Bowery Boys/East Side Kids for 20 years; movies include Angels with Dirty Faces; is next to Bob Dylan on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album cover), Benny Rubin (57-year career in film and TV includes everything from Citizen Kane to Kolchak: The Night Stalker; was a regular on TV's The Jack Benny Program; did some screenwriting and songwriting, too), "Skeets" Gallagher (another former vaudevillian; lengthy film career included a role as the White Rabbit in the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland), Betty Compson (Here Comes Trouble, False Pretenses), Frank Elliott (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Life with Father)

Benny Rubin
The gist of it: Successful singer Grace (Grace Hayes) is playing sold-out shows in New York, but she longs to be near her now-grown son, Peter (Peter Lind Hayes), whom she had given up many years earlier. Grace allowed Peter to be raised by his upper-class paternal grandfather, Mr. Kendrick (Elliott), in the hopes that the lad would grow up to be sophisticated and cultured, but instead he's become a spoiled, attention-seeking jerk. Worse yet, Kendrick is now almost broke, and Grace has to pick up the tab for Peter's education. As long as she's paying the bills, she wants to keep a close eye on her investment.

Grace and her assistant, Mary (Mary Healy), thus travel to Midwick College, the school her son now attends. Peter doesn't know Grace is his mother and is smart-alecky and rude to her when they meet, though he quickly takes a shine to Mary and blatantly hits on her. In order to set Peter straight, Grace cuts off his allowance. Suddenly without funds, Peter has to sell his car and get a job. Luckily for him, Grace buys the local malt shop where all the kids hang out, turns it into a nightclub, and hires Peter and all his friends (including Hall) to sing and dance there. It's a smash success, and even the malt shop's bewildered former owner, Nick (Rubin), gets in on the fun.

Meanwhile, in a subplot running through the whole movie, Grace romances the college's embattled president, Professor Warren (Gallagher), a sweet but befuddled old coot who is in danger of losing his job because the school's football team is so bad. Luckily, for reasons I didn't quite understand, the team miraculously improves and wins the conference.

Grace Hayes casts a pall over Zis Boom Bah.
My take: Sometimes, readers, you encounter a movie so perversely miscalculated that you have to wonder what its makers could possibly have been thinking. Such a film is Zis Boom Bah.

Never mind that Monogram Pictures obviously cut corners at every stage of production, resulting in a chintzy and unconvincing final product. Never mind that the jokes in the script were already old by 1941... and had never been funny to begin with. Never mind that the songs range from bland at best to utterly moronic at worst. Never mind that the college students in this movie all appear to be in their 40s. (According to the IMDb, at least one of them was.) Never mind that the romantic leads, real-life newlyweds Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, generate no sparks whatsoever onscreen.

You can set all of these problems -- vexing though they are -- aside.

What I really want to know is this: if Monogram wanted to produce a light, fun musical-comedy set on a college campus, why would they choose to build it around an embittered, obviously depressed, middle-aged chanteuse like Grace Hayes? She was 46 at the time of this film but looks at least ten years older and acts at least twenty years older.

It's one thing for Hayes' character to show concern for the well-being of her son, but the actress brings an inappropriate heaviness to her scenes, moping and sulking as if she's in a tragedy rather than a comedy. This is Zis Boom Bah, Grace, not Death of a Salesman. Lighten up! She's in almost every scene, clad in funereal black outfits no less, and her performance is totally at odds with the rest of the production! Here you have Benny Rubin doing vaudeville-style "dialect" humor and Huntz Hall playing another wisecracking doofus, and Grace looks like she's about to slit her wrists at any moment.

This movie never had a chance of being any damned good, but it didn't have to be such a downer.

Is it funny: Well, that's a toughie. You see, this movie is kind of a miracle insofar as every single joke in it, right down to the smallest bit of comedic business, fails completely and embarrassingly. Peter Lind Hayes, for instance, gets a few minutes to do his impersonations of famous movie stars (Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, etc.), and it plays like a dreadful amateur act that would have lasted about 20 seconds on The Gong Show unless the panelists were drunk enough to be in a very charitable mood.

But Hayes is not alone. Everybody gets a chance to fail at being funny in Zis Boom Bah. Benny Rubin's character, Nick, speaks broken English in a thick foreign accent and struggles to fill Grace's order for a gin sling. He laments: "Gin sling... it sound like a Chinaman." See? Not funny. Later on, Nick gets into a seemingly endless bit about seltzer water with another customer. End result: not funny. Huntz Hall sings a song about Army life, which apparently involves getting up very early and doing what you're told to do. Grand total: not funny. Grace mistakes Professor Warren for a gardener because the first time she sees him, he's working in a garden. Survey says: not funny. That's a lot of unfunny for one movie.

And yet, I laughed quite a bit during Zis Boom Bah. The movie is so pitiful, so misguided, so pathetic that I could not help myself. I was laughing at the film instead of with it, but a laugh's a laugh, right? The funniest thing in the movie is probably the gigantic, feathery hat that Grace Hayes wears during the opening sequence in New York. It must be seen to be appreciated.

That whole section of the film, played entirely straight, is a laugh riot. Grace's name appears on a Broadway marquee by use of a terrible, cheap-looking optical effect. Her performance itself consists of shots of the actress standing in front of a curtain intercut with stock footage of an audience in formal wear. She sings a few bars of a draggy, boring song, then sloughs off stage. The audience, of course, is thrilled by this. Maybe they're applauding her hat.

By the way, here is how to make a gin sling.

My grade: D+

P.S. - The character of Nick is obviously intended as an ethnic stereotype of some kind or another, but I could not pin down the nationality. Greek, I guess?

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