Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #26, "I'm from Arkansas" (1944)

No Iowans or Missourians here! Slim Summerville and pals proudly declare I'm from Arkansas.

Comedy legend Slim Summerville.
The flick: I'm from Arkansas (PRC Pictures, 1944) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.2

Director: Lew Landers (The Raven, Return of the Vampire)

Actors of note*:
  • El Brendel (the first-ever Best Picture winner Wings; The She-Creature)
  • Iris Adrian (The Odd Couple; appeared in many live-action Disney comedies including The Love Bug, Freaky Friday, The Apple Dumpling Gang and more)
  • Bruce Bennett (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce)
  • Arthur Q. Bryan (the voice of Elmer Fudd; also appeared in The Devil Bat, The Greatest Show on Earth, etc.)
  • Maude Eburne (To Be or Not to Be, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
  • Flo Bert (wife and comedy partner of El Brendel; they did their act in The She-Creature, too)
  • Danny Jackson (Kings Row, My Little Chickadee)
* Near as I can tell, none of the major cast members is from Arkansas. The director was a New Yorker, and the story was written by a Hungarian. The film, naturally, was shot in California. Among the music acts, Jimmy Wakely and Carolina Cotton are genuine Arkansans, though.

The gist of it: Slow-paced Pitchfork, Arkansas gains national attention when one of its sows, Esmeralda, gives birth to a litter of 18 piglets, thanks to the town's miraculous mud. An all-girl dance troupe, including brassy Doris (Adrian), travels to the town to play their local theater... only to find that there isn't one. At this same time, radio cowboy crooner Bob (Bennett) decides to return to Pitchfork, his hometown, bringing his band (including Wakely) with him. Bob takes a shine to Doris and decides to have a little fun with her by pretending he and his fellow musicians are hillbillies.

So astonishing is Esmeralda that the Commissioner of Agriculture (Bryan) visits the town to bestow a blue ribbon on the pig, who mysteriously goes missing until local layabout Pa Jenkins (Summerville) uses his hog calling skills to summon her. Meanwhile, Pitchfork and its mud have attracted the attention of the Slowe Packing Company, which wants to buy the land away from Ma Alden (Eburne) simply to increase its pork production, even though the mud could be beneficial for humans with rheumatism, too. She's just about to sign the land over to the meat packing company, but since Ma Alden has just married Pa Jenkins as a reward for the return of Esmeralda, ownership of the property has shifted to Ma's daughter, Abby (Cotton). The governor of Arkansas agrees to turn Pitchfork into a health spa, and everyone participates in a celebratory concert which is broadcast over the radio.

Come play with us, Danny!
My take: See all that plot I just described in the previous paragraph? Well, the only reason any of it exists is to provide an excuse for lots and lots of musical numbers and a few comedy routines. I'm from Arkansas is more of a hillbilly-themed variety show than it is a narrative. There's plenty of yodelin', fiddlin', pickin' and grinnin' in this movie, plus some cornpone humor on the side. For some reason, the filmmakers have decided to shoehorn in the Swedish dialect comedy of El Brendel and Flo Bert, too. MST3K fans caught their act in The She-Creature, and it's pretty much the same here, except this time El gets to show off his ventriloquist skills, too, with a hideous female vent figure he calls "Clunky."

As for the music, well, it's mostly the glossy, sanitized Hollywood approximation of mountain music. Only the slightly-unnerving Milo Twins seem to be the genuine article. Slim Summerville is shown yawning during one of Jimmy Wakely's big numbers, which pretty much sums up how I felt about Wakely, too. For me, the main musical event was the opportunity to see and hear Mary Ford (then going by her real name, Colleen Summers) as part of the Sunshine Girls trio, who do a very nice "You Are My Sunshine." Ford was just a few years away from joining Les Paul both as his wife and musical partner, and together their meticulously studio-crafted singles, among the first to use extensive overdubbing, would revolutionize the recording industry and influence a whole generation of musicians. The marriage didn't turn out so well (mutual charges of infidelity, cruelty, and more), but the records still sound great. In this movie, Mary harmonizes with two other girls. Soon, thanks to Les Paul's studio wizardry, she'd be doing all three parts by herself.

Largely, though, I'm from Arkansas is a lackluster affair in which neither the music nor the comedy feels particularly inspired. Even Esmeralda is a disappointment. She's repeatedly referred to as "a pig with personality," which of course reminded me of a famous discussion from Pulp Fiction (1994).

Is it funny: I didn't laugh much. Sass-mouthed Doris just grated on my nerves, and Summerville and Eburne's characters seemed like ripoffs of Ma and Pa Kettle or Mammy and Pappy Yokum. Summerville does raise some smiles with his extremely low-key, laconic delivery, but he was much funnier in Niagara Falls. The Swedish humor didn't do a thing for me, and El's ventriloquist act (though impressive) is the very opposite of funny. The appearance of Arthur Q. Bryan should give this flick a shot in the arm, but he's given nothing funny to do except say things like, "This is highly irregular!" Bryan's presence is kind of intrinsically humorous, though, and he really looks like Elmer Fudd. But he can be way funnier than this.

My grade: C

P.S. - No negative black stereotypes here, which demonstrates some restraint on the part of the filmmakers. There are so many negative hillbilly stereotypes here, though, that there wouldn't have been room anyway. Pa Jenkins and his even more worthless son Efus (Jackson) move, think, and talk slowly, and neither is able to count past three. Sorry, Arkansas. That's what Hollywood thinks of you.