Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #41: "St. Benny the Dip" (1951)

Three crooks inadvertently volunteer to do the Lord's work in St. Benny the Dip.

The flick: St. Benny the Dip (United Artists, 1951) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.7

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, The Black Cat, Man from Planet X; renowned director who chose to spend most of his career at cheapskate PRC Pictures in order to have more control over his films)

Actors of note
  • Dick Haymes (Mutiny on the Bounty, State Fair; better known as a singer with dozens of pop hits in the 1940s)
  • Nina Foch (The Ten Commandments, An American in Paris, Kubrick's Spartacus, much more)
  • Freddie Bartholomew (Captains Courageous, Anna Karenina; famous mainly as a child actor, he dropped out of acting after this film and went into advertising)
  • Dick Gordon (It's a Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives)
  • Oskar Karlweis (5 Fingers; like director Ulmer, Karlweis was from Austria-Hungary)

Mr. Excitement, Dick Haymes
The gist of it: Three crooks, Benny (Haymes), Matthew (Young), and Monk (Stander) are on the run from the cops and decide to duck into a church to hide. There, they steal vestments and sneak out disguised as reverends. Kindly Reverend Miles (Gordon) allows them to get away because he takes pity on them and feels that the police officers pursuing them are too "angry." Miles' subordinate, nervous Reverend Wilbur (Bartholomew), is highly dubious of this reasoning. Together, Miles and Wilbur begin the daunting task of locating the criminals.

Meanwhile, our three wayward con artists hunker down in the long-abandoned Clover Street Mission, which is located very near the apartment where Monk once lived before he abandoned his wife and children. Police officers discover Benny and his cohorts in the mission and assume them to be real reverends who are there to help the poor and homeless. Benny, in fact, gets stuck with transporting a drunken musician named Kovacs (Karlweis) home. In the course of carrying out this duty, Benny meets Kovacs' lovely daughter, an illustrator named Linda (Foch), and they begin a flirtatious relationship.

In short order, the three phony reverends discover there is a full-on community campaign to fix up the old mission and realize to their shock that they, supposedly being men of the cloth, are expected to run the place! Old-school English gentleman Matthew takes to the work quite naturally, while Benny spends his time romancing Linda, and Monk ponders the feasibility of returning home to his family. The three men soon find their interests diverging, and there are signs that the cops might just be onto them, with Reverends Miles and Wilbur hot on their trail, too. And is it just possible that pretending to be reverends has actually set these fellows on the path of righteousness?

He did it his way: Edgar G. Ulmer
My take: A fairly unimaginative story about crooks pretending to be clergymen, St. Benny the Dip* is of interest today mainly because of director Edgar G. Ulmer, who has gained a cult following (including Peter Bogdonavich) and critical respect despite his dogged insistence upon remaining at the very bottom rung of the film industry, the so-called "poverty row." It is Ulmer's handful of sci-fi, horror, and film noir credits that attract the most attention these days. But he worked in a variety of genres, including comedy, over the years. From a directing standpoint, St. Benny the Dip is more than respectable. An early chase scene is actually quite exciting and well-paced, and throughout the film, Ulmer moves his camera more than most zero-budget filmmakers.

But the film never catches fire for some reason. Some of the blame must go to the script, which keeps lapsing into melodrama and pathos every time it threatens to get funny. And then there is the lead performer, singer Dick Haymes, who has very little charisma or screen presence and does not manage to hold his own in the comedic or dramatic scenes. Haymes' character, Benny, is simply not believable as a hard-boiled criminal because Haymes himself comes off as such a well-groomed goody-goody. He does have a rich, warm singing voice, though, and he does get a chance to sing one inspirational ballad near the end of the film. But the entire script should have been revised to make Benny a real reverend who inadvertently gets mixed up with fugitives rather than the other way around.
*By the way, "dip" is an obscure Roosevelt-era slang term for "pickpocket."
Is it funny: Not that I noticed. If so, only briefly. I guess I smiled a little during a scene in which Benny, Matthew, and Monk try to fake their way through a service at the mission even though they apparently have no religious background whatsoever. Lionel Stander is fairly amusing throughout the religious scenes because of his gruff, streetwise manner which contrasts with the supposed dignity of his profession. Roland Young is a little too pious throughout this film, and his late-in-the-movie relapse seems to come out of nowhere. Dick Haymes is comedy kryptonite. The man just is not funny. His love interest, Nina Foch, gives it all she's got, but her character is too flighty -- cold and distant one minute, super-aggressive and clingy the next -- to be convincing. There are strong comedic possibilities in this premise, but the script ignores virtually all of them in favor of sentimentality. The makers of this film should have taken some cues from Guys & Dolls, a musical which had opened on Broadway the previous year and did the "hoodlums get religion" plot with a lot more humor and style.

My grade: C+

P.S. - At least there are no racial stereotypes here. The portrayal of the poor and homeless characters, however, is not as sensitive as it would be today.