Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #14: "Behave Yourself!" (1951)

Farley Granger wants some of that sweet Shelley Winters action in Behave Yourself!

The flick: Behave Yourself! (RKO Radio Pictures, 1951) [buy the set]

Current IMDb score: 5.6

Director: George Beck (never directed again, but wrote Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! for Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller and scripted a couple of Dobie Gillis episodes)

Henry Corden: Fred #2
Actors of note
  • Farley Granger, (Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train)
  • Shelley Winters (Lolita, Night of the Hunter, The Poseidon Adventure, etc., etc.)
  • William Demarest (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Sullivan's Travels, played "Uncle Charley" on TV's My Three Sons, etc., etc.)
  • Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man, Of Mice and Men, almost 200 other movies)
  • Elisha Cook, Jr. (Rosemary's Baby, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, 200+ more)
  • Hans Conried (The Great Dictator, voice of Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan, voice of Snidely Whiplash on TV's Dudley Do-Right)
  • Sheldon Leonard (It's a Wonderful Life, Guys and Dolls, produced TV shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, Make Room For Daddy, The Andy Griffith Show, etc.)
  • Henry Corden (The Ten Commandments, The Asphalt Jungle; the second guy to voice Fred Flintstone, a part he played on and off for 30 years)
  • Francis L. Sullivan (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist)
  • Margalo Gillmore (High Society, The Trouble with Angels)
  • Marvin Kaplan ("Uncle Pooch" in David Lynch's Wild at Heart; regular on TV's Alice)
  • Archie the dog (not a damned thing else, but his IMDb biography is amusing)

Other notables involved: The film was shot by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose fifty-year career includes such classics as Seconds, The Thin Man, and the live-action segments of Fantasia, plus a whole lot more. The title song was co-written by (of all people) Buddy Ebsen of The Beverly Hillbillies. It seems like the only non-entity involved with this film was its writer-director!

The gist of it: Poor dope Bill Denny (Granger) needs an anniversary present to appease his demanding wife Kate (Winters) and his even-more-demanding mother-in-law (Gillmore). A stray terrier, Archie (himself), follows him home and... voila! Instant, albeit accidental, anniversary present! Trouble is, Archie is a specially-trained dog who is very much wanted by two groups of crooks (including Kaplan, Corden, Chaney, Sullivan, Leonard, Cook, and Conried) who are very willing to kill to get what they want. What follows is a comedy of errors with a higher body count than the Tate-LaBianca slayings.

The original 1950 edition of Dianetics.
My take: Imagine an Alfred Hitchcock "wrongly accused man" thriller, only filtered through a dog-centric episode of I Love Lucy, and you've got sort of an idea what Behave Yourself! is like. Farley Granger, who memorably starred in two Hitchcock pictures, is the unlucky schmuck here. Throughout the film, his character's story keeps getting wilder and wilder as dead bodies and counterfeit money pile up. Time and again, Bill Denny innocently turns up at murder scenes and then has to explain himself to some very dubious policemen, led by hot-tempered O'Ryan (Demarest), none of whom are interested in his pitiful alibis about a stray dog.

The ad campaign for this flick clearly tried to present Granger's costar, Shelley Winters, as a curvaceous sex object. When she wears a dress with a low neckline in this film, her husband compliments her, "You've got the furniture for it!" Indeed, Shelley was a svelte and (by her own account) promiscuous young starlet in the 1940s and early '50s with a string of famous lovers whom she'd later betray in tacky tell-all books. She was pushing 30 when she made this film, and you can just see her becoming the Winters most of us know from her later years: the plump, bossy, hysterical loudmouth who amuses us while driving those around her to distraction. A mere 11 years later, she was the jealous mother of a teen sexpot in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, a woman who would be insufferable if she weren't also tragic.

In Behave Yourself!, Shelley's character is supposed to be adorable, I think. She's sort of reminiscent of Lucille Ball here, only more mercenary and materialistic. Who else would marry this woman except the obviously-gay Farley Granger? His character is flustered, sweaty, and tongue-tied for virtually the entire running time, which gets a little wearying for the viewer. I almost wish this film had been made 20 years earlier with W.C. Fields in the lead role. This film's ending is a bit reminiscent of The Bank Dick, and Fields certainly would have been a more formidable adversary for Kate and her mother than weak-willed Granger.

Speaking of that mother-in-law, though, there is one truly fascinating little detail in the script that goes by so quickly you might miss it. A running joke is that the mother has a lot of pretentious, trendy interests, and among those is Dianetics, the Scientologist manifesto L. Ron Hubbard had published only a year before! This must certainly be among the first cinematic references to that highly controversial movement.

Oh, by the way, feminists and dog-lovers are likely to be appalled by the very last scene. What can I say? It was a different time.

Is it funny: Oh, sure, occasionally. Shelley Winters is her usual pain-in-the-neck self, but I was rather amused by her shameless greed and her casually forgiving attitude when she thinks her husband is a murderer. Considering all the famous character actors in the film, Francis L. Sullivan makes perhaps the strongest impression as rotund yet surprisingly elegant British gangster Fat Freddy, who makes his plans from a bubble bath while resting his head on an inflatable pillow.

My grade: B

P.S. - Nothing even close to a racial stereotype here. Again, no minorities whatsoever.