Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #20: "The Gang's All Here" (1941)

Either that gunman is gigantic or Jackie Moran and Marcia Mae Jones are tiny in The Gang's All Here.

The flick: The Gang's All Here (Monogram Pictures, 1941) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.3

Director: Jean Yarbrough (Freckles Comes Home)

Actors of note:
  • Frankie Darro (voice of Lampwick in Pinocchio; played Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet)
  • Keye Luke (the old Chinese man in both Gremlins movies; played "number one son" in the Charlie Chan series, much more)
  • Marcia Mae Jones (The Way We Were, Heidi, Imitation of Life)
  • Jackie Moran (Gone with the Wind; played Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Russ Meyer's Wild Gals of the Naked West)
  • Robert Homans (The Grapes of Wrath, The Maltese Falcon)

The gist of it: A large number of "accidents," some fatal, have been plaguing a certain trucking company. Now, Pop Wallace (Homans) is having trouble finding anyone to drive his trucks. Nervy pipsqueak Frankie (Darro) and his lazy, bug-eyed black sidekick Jeff (Moreland) answer Pop's newspaper ad. He's reluctant and highly skeptical, but he gives them the job anyway because he's desperate. Meanwhile, Pop's pushy, demanding daughter Patsy (Jones) is always hounding her grease-monkey boyfriend Chick (Moran) to be more of a take-charge kind of guy... a real go-getter, like Frankie. The so-called accidents are intentional sabotage by a gang of crooks who have forced Pops to be part of their scheme, and it isn't long before Frankie and Jeff find themselves in real trouble.

Keye Luke
My take: If you hear the term "trucker comedy," you're liable to think of mudflaps, CB lingo, and the music of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. But The Gang's All Here is from an earlier era, before the big rigger enjoyed his brief heyday as an anti-establishment, good ol' boy hero in the 1970s. The song "Convoy" wouldn't be written for a few more decades yet. The rigs ain't all that big in this flick, and the drivers aren't transporting anything cool like dynamite or beer, just "perishables" to a Fresno grocery store.

The film actually works a little better as a crime thriller than a comedy. If you'll notice, a lot of the folks from Freckles Comes Home are reunited here, and like that film, The Gang's All Here -- an utterly meaningless title, by the way, unless it's an oblique reference to the film's many gangsters  -- features more murder and mayhem than you'd normally expect from a comedy. The first few minutes, in fact, are nothing but trucks being run off the road and tumbling down cliffs, followed by a montage of headlines about the drivers who have been killed and maimed. It's a weird start to a supposedly funny film, but it does lend a sense of real urgency to the plot. Frankie and Jeff really are in trouble!

I should mention, by the way, that Mantan Moreland's character in this film is scarcely more admirable than his one in Freckles Comes Home, except that Moreland does eventually become sort of valuable to Frankie as a sidekick. But Moreland subserviently refers to his friend as "Mister Frankie," and once again, the movie stops dead so that he and Laurence Criner (whose character is embarrassingly named "Ham Shanks") can do little comedy bits that emphasize Moreland's dishonesty and Criner's stupidity. Not a proud moment for humanity.

But there's hope elsewhere in the film! Keye Luke, the incredibly prolific character actor, plays a Chinese-American character who speaks English fluently and is portrayed in an entirely flattering and positive light. You could even argue that his character is the real hero of this movie. That genuinely surprised me.

Lampwick: Still terrifying.
Is it funny: It's not overly funny, no. It's not a total washout as a comedy, though. Marcia Mae Jones is somewhat fun as the mouthy, never-satisfied Patsy. What Chick sees in her (other than her chipmunk-cute looks) is beyond me, but she's more interesting than the bland love interests in a lot of these movies. The cowardice and laziness of Mantan Moreland's character make him a relic of a bygone era, but the man clearly had a flair for comedy. His timing and delivery are impeccable, even when the material he's given isn't up to snuff.

And then there's the ostensible star of this flick, Frankie Darro, probably best known for traumatizing generations of children as the voice of Lampwick in Disney's Pinocchio. His transformation into a donkey remains terrifying, over 70 years later. His character here, also named Frankie, is a loudmouth whose braggadocio is undercut by his small stature. You know how little dogs are often the most aggressive, challenging much larger dogs to fights they can't possibly win? That's Frankie Darro -- a yappy little Chihuahua who goes around snapping at pit bulls. As someone whose family has always had dogs, I found that rather amusing.

My grade: B-

P.S. - Mantan Moreland and Laurence Criner won't be up for any NAACP Image awards for this film.