Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #8: "All Over Town" (1937)

Oh, happy day! Olsen and Johnson are back for more in All Over Town.

The flick: All Over Town (Republic, 1937) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.1

Director: James W. Horne (Way Out West, Big Business, and other Laurel & Hardy features and shorts)

Actors of note:
  • Mary Howard (The Great Ziegfeld)
  • Harry Stockwell (voice of the Prince in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, father of Dean Stockwell)
  • Franklin Pangborn (Sullivan's Travels, My Man Godfrey)
  • James Finlayson (To Be Or Not to Be, Foreign Correspondent, many Laurel & Hardy features and shorts, and the guy who popularized the expression "D'oh!" later adopted by Homer Simpson)

The gist of it: Olsen and Johnson, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, are struggling vaudevillians ("the last of their tribe, the true vanishing Americans" according to some title cards at the start of the film) living in a $12-a-week theatrical boarding house in Manhattan and trying to make a star of their trained seal, Sally, who can do the usual seal tricks: balance a ball on her nose, play a tune by honking horns, clap, etc. They bring this dynamite act to the "jinxed" Elridge Theater, a grand old place which has been closed since a murder was committed there two years earlier. During rehearsals for the new show, another murder is committed, setting up a climax in which Olsen and Johnson promise to reveal the identity of the killer live on the radio.

Scooby and Shaggy's signature bit.
My take: All Over Town is not terribly fitting as a title for this frantic backstage farce, but it comes close to describing the film's scattershot, all-over-the-place approach to storytelling.

At first, I thought it was going to be one of those "save the orphanage"-type movies with Olsen and Johnson's trained seal act reviving the troubled Eldridge Theater and rescuing pretty young Miss Eldridge (Howard), the heavily-in-debt daughter of the theater's deceased owner, who in turn pursues a chaste romance with an up-and-coming piano player (Stockwell) with big showbiz ambitions.

Then, when O&J actually get to the theater and are menaced by various flying objects, strange echoes, and a raving lunatic who seems to live there, I thought All Over Town was going to be one of those "scaredy cats in a haunted house" stories, like Scooby-Doo and at least a dozen Three Stooges shorts. They even do the classic Scooby/Shaggy bit where one jumps into the arms of the other.

After that, there are some comic misunderstandings which lead everyone else in the movie to believe that O&J are oil millionaires, so I thought the film was going to be a rehash of Country Gentlemen, with the boys as fly-by-night swindlers. Then, when grouchy old Mr. Bailey (who wants Miss Eldridge to sell the theater) is shot by a mysterious figure, I thought the film was going to turn into a comedy whodunnit.

It ultimately winds up as a wacky, anything-goes live-action cartoon in its last few minutes, with a bumbling cop getting tangled in ropes, a brass band dodging gunfire until only a tuba player is left onstage, and lots of fake "theater snow" falling on everyone and everything as Olsen provides a running commentary for the radio audience. I wasn't bored by All Over Town, but I wasn't really satisfied by it either. The film tries a little of everything, perhaps to distract us from the fact that none of it is really all that good. If nothing else, this movie provides a glimpse of the dying days of Vaudeville, a form of entertainment which (ironically) was displaced by the distribution of motion pictures just like this one.

Franklin Pangborn and James Finlayson
Is it funny: Well, it's funny-ish. I'll give it that. All Over Town is certainly more madcap and adventurous than the previous year's Country Gentlemen. I suppose it all depends on how amusing you consider Olsen and Johnson to be. Personally, I can take or leave them. They're zanier and consequently not as relatable as, say, Abbott and Costello or even Martin and Lewis, yet they lack the pure inspiration of wilder teams like the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy at their best.

This film gives them plenty of opportunities to do their trademark schtick, and at least twice, the movie stops dead so that they can do a bit: one is a phony ventriloquist act with Johnson pretending to be the dummy and another is a musical comedy number with O&J shamelessly stalling before they butcher Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C sharp minor.

At one point, they attempt some Groucho/Chico-style verbal humor, with Olsen trying without success to get Johnson to memorize and repeat a single line of dialogue for the show. None of this really catches fire. Fortunately, for you hardcore comedy nerds out there, the supporting cast includes at least two legends. Franklin Pangborn, famous for portraying "prissy" (today we'd say "gay"), uptight characters, is the show's Costumer.

And the radio show's sponsor, Mr. McDougal of McDougal's Mackerels,  is the impatient, always-agitated James Finlayson, usually a foil to Laurel and Hardy. If you've ever derived pleasure from Homer Simpson yelling "D'oh!" (a contraction of "damn" and "oh") after some setback, you can thank Mr. Finlayson, who made that word his calling card. And, yes, he says it at least twice in All Over Town.

My grade: B-

P.S. - Not even a hint of racial stereotyping here, though PETA folks will probably cringe at the treatment of Sally the seal.