Friday, July 26, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #42: "Swing It, Sailor!" (1938)

Wallace Ford plays a sailor who swings it in Swing It, Sailor! Also featured: dames!

The flick: Swing It, Sailor! (Grand National Pictures, 1938) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.2
Suave director Raymond Cannon

Director: Raymond Cannon (silent film actor who transitioned first into writing, then directing in the sound era; his mostly-forgotten directorial efforts include Samurai, Swanee River, and Imagine My Embarrassment; as an actor, worked with D.W Griffith, Lilian Gish, and more; wrote the "scenario" for Buster Keaton's Go West)

Actors of note
  • Isabel Jewell (played "poor white trash" Emmy Slattery in Gone with the Wind; appeared in High Sierra, The Bishop's Wife, The Snake Pit, etc.)
  • Mary Treen (Cousin Tilly in It's a Wonderful Life; appeared in several Elvis Presley movies, including Fun in Acapulco, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style; worked with Jerry Lewis in Who's Minding the Store, The Errand Boy, and The Caddy)
  • Cully Richards (The Pirate)
  • Max Hoffman, Jr. (Meet Jon Doe, Topper)
  • George Humbert (lots of comedies, including Bringing Up Baby, Gilda, and Hellzapoppin' with our pals Olsen and Johnson)

The gist of it: Lazy, manipulative sailor Pete Kelly (Ford) has been exploiting his shipmate, sweet but slow-witted lug Husky Stone (Mayer), for years. Pete "borrows" Husky's money, while Husky gladly does Pete's dirty work and even takes the blame for Pete's mistakes. Pete's swell arrangement is threatened, though, by Husky's romantic infatuation with a cheap blonde named Myrtle Montrose (Jewell) who has been stringing a dozen guys along. To Pete's dismay, Husky wants to leave the Navy and marry Myrtle. In order to prevent this, Pete decides to romance Myrtle right under Husky's nose, just to prove what a no-good tramp she is. Before he knows it, though, Pete finds himself engaged to the scheming, materialistic Myrtle. When Husky finds out that Myrtle's been two-timing him with Pete, the sailors' longtime friendship is threatened. But Pete has a chance to redeem himself when Husky is accidentally stranded on a ship which is being bombed as part of a practice exercise.

Isabel Jewell, typecast as
a blonde bimbo.
My take: It's not a great compliment to say that Swing It, Sailor! is the best Wallace Ford comedy I've ever seen. After all, I pretty much hated Money Means Nothing and was disappointed by The Nut Farm. Ford's brand of low-key, smarmy smugness still doesn't strike me as particularly hilarious or compelling, but Swing It, Sailor! was marginally more enjoyable than the other two Ford films. For one thing, I was genuinely charmed by the guileless and goofy Husky, whose intelligence is somewhere in the neighborhood of Lenny from Of Mice and Men and Mongo from Blazing Saddles. For a while, the script seems to be setting up a sweet romance between Husky and Myrtle's sensible, plane-jane roommate Gertie (Treen), which would have made a nice ending, but the movie kind of forgets about Gertie and goes for a more action-heavy, dudes-only finale composed almost entirely of stock footage. 

In retrospect, the ending of the film is kind of a downer. Pete and Husky patch up their friendship, and Husky signs up for four more years in the Navy. But this is 1938. The next year, Germany invaded Poland, beginning the second world war, and Husky and Pete would probably still have been in the service when the United States entered WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Most likely, they were sent to fight in the Pacific theater, and who knows what might have become of them after that? 

Okay, this is getting a little heavy. Let's lighten the mood by talking about some of the cheerier aspects of Swing It, Sailor! Leading vixen Isabel Jewell is capital aitch-oh-tee HOT in this movie, and she has a good sense of comic timing, too. Of course, it doesn't hurt matters any that her character, brazen hussy Myrtle, wears bullet bras so pointy you'll wish this movie were in 3D. Kudos to the wardrobe department for that. Come to think of it, this movie offers modern day viewers the chance to see a lot of vintage ads and products in the backgrounds of scenes. Many are still around (Milk Bones, Alka Seltzer, Dr. Scholl's), but others didn't fare so well (Campana's Italian Balm). 

I also liked the art-deco-style street numbers on Myrtle and Gertie's apartment building and the stylized clock-face Grand National logo at the start of the film. And if you're a dog person (as I am), you'll likely be entertained by some puppy-related hijinks at several points in the film, too. There's quite a bit of animal humor in this movie, since a major plot point involves Myrtle's overly-talkative parrot, who knows way too much about his mistress's sexual history. One thing you won't find in this movie, though, is a lot of swing music or swing dancing. A more appropriate name for this flick would have been: I'm Macking on Your Fiancee, But I Swear It's for Your Own Good. Not as catchy, but I'm going for a little truth in movie-titling here.
Ray Mayer in the 1920s.

Is it funny: Not terrifically so, but Swing It, Sailor! does manage to elicit a modest chuckle every once in a while. No home runs, let's say, but a few ground rule doubles. For instance, I liked the cheerful way Husky utters the immortal line, "And we'll keep peace all over the word, even if we have to kill everybody doing it." Husky's inability to swim is a character trait which exists mostly for plot convenience, but it does result in a few good gags, as when the poor dope's inflatable water wings explode when he goes to hug Myrtle. The movie's main comedic set piece is a chaotic scene in which Myrtle's sassy parrot causes havoc in a pet store by chanting, "Mad dog! Mad dog!" thus inciting a near-riot among the panicked customers and infuriating the store's owner (Humbert), a stereotypical Italian immigrant with one of those cartoony "whatsa matta you" accents. This scene is not the total success it should be -- it's mostly noise and chaos without any real jokes -- but I liked Isabel Jewell's utter nonchalance here. 

This actress, by the way, played a string of slutty characters in both A-list and B-list movies until she got too old to play temptresses and fell into a life of alcoholism. Most of her work in the 1950s and 1960s was on television, but in 1972 (the year she died at age 64) she appeared in two intriguing films, her first big-screen roles in 15 years: the infamous Ciao Manhattan, a posthumous vehicle for doomed Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, and Sweet Kill, a horror cheapie written and directed by Curtis Hanson of 8 Mile, L.A. Confidential, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle fame. The next time you're in Los Angeles, make sure to visit Isabel's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street and say a little prayer on her behalf for me.

My grade: B-

P.S. - No racial stereotypes here. As I mentioned, there's one ethnic stereotype, but this scene is brief and mild.