Friday, June 7, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #5: "Hay Foot" (1942)

William Tracy and Joe Sawyer square off in Hay Foot.

The flick: Hay Foot (United Artists, 1942) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.7

Director: Fred Guiol (several Laurel & Hardy shorts including Their Purple Moment, Sailors Beware and Sugar Daddies; later a screenwriter whose credits include Giant and Gunga Din.)

Actors of note:
  • William Tracy (Angels with Dirty Faces, The Shop Around the Corner)
  • Joe Sawyer (The Killing, Grapes of Wrath, and much, much more)
  • James Gleason (Arsenic and Old Lace, Night of the Hunter)
  • Noah Beery Jr. (Red River, Inherit the Wind, TV's The Rockford Files)
  • Elyse Knox (The Mummy's Tomb)
  • Douglas Fowler (Singin' in the Rain, The Thin Man)

The gist of it: Clever young Sgt. "Dodo" Doubleday (Tracy) is long on book smarts but short on street smarts. His encyclopedic knowledge of weaponry and his photographic memory help him win the favor of blustery Col. Barkley and Barkley's pretty daughter, Betty, but the poor dope is too mild-mannered to even fire a real gun. Meanwhile, the more brusque and worldly (read: crude and stupid) Sgt. Ames (Sawyer), who considers himself "the best shot in the Army," wants to prove that Doubleday's a fraud and win the favor of both the colonel and the daughter at the same time.

My take: Hay Foot is sort of an early 1940s military version of Revenge of the Nerds, with a goofy but likable brainiac outwitting some thuggish, dim-witted jock types again and again. This curiously brief feature (clocking in at a mere 43 minutes) feels more like an extended episode of a situation comedy than a feature film.

And, sure enough, UA churned out a whole series of lighthearted service comedies revolving around Sgt. Doubleday and Sgt. Ames from 1941 to 1943 including Tanks a Million, About Face, and Yanks Ahoy. Supporting players like Noah Beery (Jim's dad on The Rockford Files) and James Gleason came and went, but Tracy and Sawyer were in it for the long haul. In 1948, several years after World War II had ended, United Artists brought back Doubleday and Ames one last time as civilians in Here Comes Trouble, which is also included in this Comedy Classics boxed set. A few years later, even-lower-budget Lippert Pictures brought Tracy and Sawyer back for two more military comedies, and the series finally ended in 1952 with Mr. Walkie Talkie, the eighth installment in the "Doubleday" franchise.

It's kind of odd that there's not even a mention of the war in Europe in Hay Foot, the second film in the series, but this is light entertainment, not war propaganda. The strangest thing about this movie is that it seems to end one scene too early. There's a big sharpshooting contest mentioned in the dialogue, but we never get to see it. A shame, too, because it would have been the perfect opportunity for Doubleday to redeem himself as a marksman. As for the film's title, it's never actually said aloud by any of the characters, but it's a Civil War term for a "green recruit," i.e. an inexperienced soldier. Here's an American Heritage article all about it.

Burns & Smithers: One of the great comedy teams.
Is it funny: Yeah, for the most part. I laughed pretty much all the way through Hay Foot at both the verbal and physical humor, and it's always fun to see the little guy make a monkey out of the big guy. Plus the colonel and Doubleday have kind of a "Burns and Smithers" dynamic going on (minus the sexual undertones).

But the film has a bad habit of setting up jokes in a very obvious manner and then repeating them until they lose their appeal.  Case in point: Betty sends a dinner invitation addressed only to "the best shot in the Army." It's intended for Doubleday, but Ames and his crony Sgt. Cobb (Beery) find it, too, and since they both consider themselves to be the Army's greatest sharpshooter, all three men show up at Betty's doorstep. Okay, fine, but Hay Foot shows each of the three men discovering the invitation individually, and the script requires them to explain aloud what's happening even though there's no one else in the room to hear it. (The dialogue is always something to the effect of: "What's this? A dinner invitation for the best shot in the Army? That's me!") By the third time, you want to shout, "Yeah, we get it already! Let's move on!"

But I'm nitpicking. Hay Foot has some good-natured fun at the Army's expense (as usual, the top brass are morons), and the movie even has a cute little dog who thinks he's people. He stands on his hind legs and everything! That's always funny. Plus, if you think it's hilarious to watch guys being thrown out of windows, you need to watch this movie immediately. Hay Foot repeats that particular gag so often that it almost plays like defenestration fetish porn.

My grade: B

P.S. - Any negative racial stereotype characters here? Well, there's one heavyset African-American maid, but she doesn't have any dialogue. I'll say no.