Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #3: "Freckles Comes Home" (1942)

Clearly, the fun never stops in Freckles Comes Home. Actually, this is the funniest scene.

The flick: Freckles Comes Home (Monogram Pictures, 1942) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.0

Director: Jean Yarbrough (The Devil Bat, Jack and the Beanstalk, TV's The Abbott and Costello Show)

Actors of note
  • Johnny Downs (The Crowd, Babes in Toyland)
  • Gale Storm (It Happened on Fifth Avenue, TV's My Little Margie)
  • Mantan Moreland (The Palm Beach Story, Spider Baby, the Charlie Chan series)

The gist of it: An impetuous young man, "Freckles" Winslow, returns home from college to tiny Fairfield, IN (pop. 500) to help his gullible friend Danny, who's purchased some real estate with money that wasn't strictly his to invest. To further complicate matters, "Freckles" has also unwittingly convinced a fugitive mobster to hide out in Fairfield. One bad apple soon attracts others to the town who hope to fleece a local banker, and before you know it, there are shootings, stabbings, and robberies galore. Meanwhile, poor "Freckles" has to win back the affection of his girl, who's fallen for one of the gangsters, and ensure that a highway runs through Fairfield. Luckily, a car accident solves everything.

My take: As you can see from that plot summary -- which doesn't even cover half of it -- Freckles Comes Home is quite a busy little picture. Somehow, it still manages to find time for a few totally gratuitous musical numbers and extended comedy sequences in which Mantan Moreland squares off against fellow black menial Laurence Criner. The title implies that the film is a sequel, and the script takes it for granted that we already know and care about most of these characters. As it turns out, the original Freckles was a 1904 novel by Gene Stratton-Porter which has been adapted into a movie at least four times (and also inspired 1992's City Boy), but none of the actors from those films are present in Freckles Comes Home. Instead, this sequel is based on a 1929 novel by Gene's daughter, Jeannette Stratton-Porter, who continued the Freckles saga after her mother died in 1924. I was unfamiliar with any of this, and Freckles Comes Home did not exactly leave me hungry for more.

As the title character, Johnny Downs (who has no freckles that I could see) comes across like a bargain-basement substitute for Jimmy Stewart. The plot twists come fast and furious, but the whole thing seems very contrived, and there is very little sense of what small town life is like.

One of Mantan Moreland's "party records."
Is it funny: Only fitfully. Freckles himself is something of a cipher, and neither pal Danny nor love interest Jane is particularly compelling either. Jane's dad, money-hungry Mr. Potter, is somewhat fun in a Milburn Drysdale kind of way, particularly in a scene in which "Freckles" visits the Potter home with one of the gangsters in tow, only to see the pencil mustache-wearing crook charm the father and the daughter instantly, leaving "Freckles" himself the odd man out.

I'd say the best character in the film is the town's ornery yet totally ineffectual constable, Caleb Weaver, played by the awesomely-named Irving Bacon who appeared as a bit actor in some of Hollywood's greatest classics. Caleb is sort of a proto-Barney Fife, suspicious of everyone and quick to accuse others but never on the right track and not much of a credible threat. He gets what, to me, is the film's funniest line: "Gosh all fishhooks!"

Then we must consider the servile role played in this film by Mantan Moreland, a comedian and actor who was directly influenced by the infamous Stepin Fechit. Moreland is clearly a talented  performer with great comic timing and an expressive face he uses to its best advantage. In his highly-recommended book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, historian Donald Bogle credits him with having "the fastest eyes in the West."

 But Moreland's style of comic buffoonery has definitely gone out of style in 2013. It had, in fact, fallen out of favor during the actor's own lifetime. His character here -- a hotel porter -- is both slow-witted and dishonest (he buys a fraudulent "gold-divining machine" and then tries to sell it), not to mention cowardly, selfish, and inarticulate. Let's not judge him too harshly, though. Moreland was giving white audiences what they wanted because that's what paid the bills. Incidentally, he had a second career as a stand-up comic catering to the black audience. One of his bits, involving carnal relations with mashed potatoes, has become a classic in some circles.

My grade: C+