Monday, July 15, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #39: "Riding on Air" (1937)

This poster perhaps overemphasizes the role of the cute dog in Riding on Air.

The flick: Riding on Air (RKO Radio Pictures, 1937) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.3

Director: Edward Sedgwick (uncredited director on the 1925 Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera; directed Buster Keaton's The Cameraman; discovered Lucille Ball)

Actors of note:
  • Joe E. Brown (popular film comedian of the '30s and '40s, famed for wide smile; played the "nobody's perfect" millionaire from Some Like It Hot; appeared in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Around the World in Eighty Days, much more; turned down the chance to play for the New York Yankees to pursue showbiz; one of only two civilians awarded the Bronze Star in WWII)
  • Guy Kibbee (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Fort Apache)
  • Florence Rice (The Marx Brothers' At the Circus; frequent cinematic "love interest" of the 1930s and early '40s)
  • Vinton Hayworth (Kubrick's Spartacus, Hitchcock's Saboteur; many TV shows including Dragnet and Gunsmoke; recurring character on Green Acres and I Dream of Jeannie)
  • Anthony Nace (Holiday Inn)
  • Harlan Briggs (W.C. Fields' The Bank Dick)

Bigmouth Joe E. Brown
The gist of it: Goofy, child-like Elmer Lane (Brown), a small-town reporter and part-time inventor, wins $5000 in a radio essay contest and plans to use the money to buy up The Claremont Chronicle, the paper where he works. But conman "Doc" Waddington (Kibbee) hears about Elmer's windfall, oozes into town and convinces gullible Lane to go into "business" with him. When Elmer's long-suffering girlfriend, Betty Harrison (Rice), finds out about this, she vows never to see Elmer again and takes up with local heel Harvey Schumann (Hayworth), who threatens to buy the paper out from under Elmer. Waddington gets the whole town of Claremont to invest in a line of remote control airplanes being developed by Elmer's aviator friend, Bill Hilton (Nace).

Meanwhile, to prove his value as a reporter, Elmer tries to crack a murder case tied to a perfume smuggling ring. Once the town finds out Waddington is a crook, they figure Elmer was behind the whole thing and form a lynch mob to track him down. But Elmer's up in a biplane, exchanging gunfire with the perfume smugglers in a high-flying, death-defying action climax! (Well, actually, there's another high-flying, death-defying action climax after that.)

My takeThe summary you just read describes what I think happened during Riding on Air. Coherence is not one of the movie's strong suits. There's a lot more I could have mentioned, like how incompetent Elmer somehow becomes a correspondent for the Chicago Daily Star and enrages his editor by inadvertently bringing important news photos to reporters from a rival newspaper. (He thinks he's transporting an injured dog to a veterinary surgeon, hence the cute little pooch on the movie poster.)

Pretty much the whole point of this movie is that Joe E. Brown's wacky antics are always driving the people around him batty, so you need a few Edgar Kennedy types in the cast to sputter and fume and throw things in disgust. Edgar himself's not here, so those roles are filled by Elmer's editor, his father's girlfriend, and even the gangsters. Brown remains willfully clueless throughout. Elmer Lane, who apparently started as a character in a series of stories in the Saturday Evening Post, is the eternal optimist, always cheerful and confident even when he shouldn't be. Brown, with his extra-wide, almost Joker-like smile, is perfect for the part.

Riding on Air is not an ensemble comedy. It is clearly and unambiguously a vehicle for Brown. The actor's most famous role -- the daffy, libidinous, possibly bisexual millionaire Osgood Fielding III in Billy Wilder's acclaimed Some Like it Hot (1959), in which Brown delivers the famous closing line -- came near the end of his film career, well after his heyday. In contrast, Riding on Air was made when the actor was at the peak of his popularity.

Joe E. Brown's supreme screen moment in 1959.

It's a bit difficult to judge him as a comedian on the basis of this one flick, though, as the script is not especially strong. The movie gives him so-so comic setups, as when he seems to be the only person working at the Chronicle one afternoon and keeps transferring a single customer's call to different desks, while he runs around the room and answers the absent employees' phones in various voices, giving the impression that there's a whole staff present. I think it's an excuse for Brown to try out different accents and intonations, but nothing of great comedic value comes from it.

From a modern perspective, possibly the most interesting aspect of this film is that the plot, such as it is, revolves around unmanned airplanes that can be controlled remotely. Today, the use of such planes (which we now call "drones") is extremely controversial. Back in 1937, though, it probably just seemed like science-fiction.

Is it funny: Sorry, but I didn't laugh that often. A couple of gags made me smile a bit. For instance, I liked when Elmer was gazing into a bookshop and peered through the big capital O's in the word "BOOKS" stenciled on the window. Later, when Elmer and Betty are not speaking to each other, there's a scene in which they talk through an intermediary even though they're a few feet apart and can obviously hear each other perfectly. ("Tell ____ I said ______!") I've seen that routine done on any number of sitcoms, and it didn't especially make me laugh here, but it has a funny payoff towards the end when Elmer's in real trouble and thinks Betty's still giving him the silent treatment. ("Ain't she speaking to me yet?")

My grade: B-

P.S. - This movie was blessedly free of racial stereotypes. Nothing even close here.