Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #65: "Broadway Limited" (1941)

Broadway Limited is not about Broadway. It's about a train, a baby, and some other people.

The flick: Broadway Limited (United Artists release of a Hal Roach Studios film, 1941) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.3

Director: Gordon Douglas (Niagara Falls)

Actors of note
  • Victor McLaglen (frequently cast by John Ford in such films as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande; Oscar-nominated for his role in Ford's The Quiet Man; Oscar winner for Ford's The Informer)
  • Dennis O'Keefe (The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, Scarface [1932 version], Top Hat, much more)
  • Patsy Kelly (comedienne whose openness about being a lesbian brought her career to a standstill in the 1940s; she came back as a TV actress in the '50s and '60s and went on to do Rosemary's Baby, Freaky Friday [1976 version], etc.)
  • Leonid Kinskey (by far, best known for Casablanca; also appeared in Duck Soup, The Man with the Golden Arm, Trouble in Paradise, and much more)
  • George E. Stone (Guys and Dolls, Some Like It Hot, Ocean's Eleven [1960 version])
  • George Lloyd (ubiquitous character actor with hundreds of TV and film appearances from the 1930s to the 1950s; played Al "Happy Chef" Frazier in the MST3K favorite I Accuse My Parents)

George E. Stone
The gist of it: High-strung movie director Ivan (Kinskey) thinks his leading lady April (Woodworth) should be photographed with an "adopted" baby when she makes her train trip aboard the Broadway Limited from Chicago to New York. Ivan's faithful assistant Patsy (Kelly) enlists her boyfriend, befuddled railroad engineer Mike (McLaglen), to procure an infant that April can borrow temporarily for her journey. Mike offers an oddly-eager stranger named Lefty (Stone) $500 for the temporary use of a kid and then boards the Broadway Limited himself -- as a passenger rather than an employee of the railroad (though he's pressed into service at one point). Ivan and Patsy accompany April, as does Myra (Pitts), a ditsy and bothersome representative from the Chicago chapter of April's fan club.

By pure chance, while walking around the train, April happens to run into her old boyfriend, struggling young physician Dr. Harvey North (O'Keefe), who still loves April and wants to marry her but is certain that the baby she's lugging around is her biological child. Harvey is also convinced Ivan is the father, which leads to a rivalry between the two men. Meanwhile, Mike begins to suspect that the baby he "rented" is the same kidnapped child whose picture is in every newspaper in the country. One by one, all the other characters -- April, Ivan, Patsy, Harvey, and Myra -- come to believe that the baby is "stolen" and being actively sought by the police. So the little bundle of joy becomes a hot potato that everyone is desperate to get rid of. But every time they think they've ditched him, the little stinker keeps coming back to them like a boomerang! And now there are cops searching the whole train! What to do? What do do?

The Great Hall in Chicago's Union Station
My take: Trains are a surprisingly important part of my life. Every weekday morning, I take a Metra commuter train into Chicago to go to work. And every weekday afternoon, I take another one back home to get away from work. On holidays, I take an Eastbound passenger train, Amtrak's Capitol Limited, to visit relatives in another state. The Amtrak train departs from Chicago's historic Union Station, where one pivotal scene from this movie takes place. I'm pretty sure that this production just used some stock footage of Union Station and intercut that with footage of the actors saying their lines on a Hollywood soundstage, but it was still kind of neat to see a locale from my daily life depicted in a movie. The place is pretty neat in real life, too, so stop by the next time you're in the Windy City, even if you're not taking the train.

This is also another Hal Roach production, which generally has been a good sign in this project. After all, Niagara Falls was one of my highest-rated films in this Mill Creek set, and Broadway Limited has the same director and two of the same actresses as that one. (One character even mentions going to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon.) In terms of tone and structure, Niagara Falls and Broadway Limited are very much alike. At heart, they're both bedroom farces with plenty of misunderstandings, carefully-timed exits and entrances, and a lot of frantic running around by all concerned parties. And both take place in one confined location (in the former, a hotel; in the latter, a train), mostly over the course of one long, hectic evening.

Unfortunately, Broadway Limited is no Niagara Falls. There's nothing obviously "wrong" with it, per se -- other than the fact that it gets off to rather a slow start, belabors certain points at the expense of forward momentum, and presents a disagreeable, paranoid, chauvinist jerk (O'Keefe's handsome doctor character) as the romantic hero we're all supposed to be rooting for. Then there's the slight issue of a comedy being built around the kidnapping of an infant -- a child whose parents, we are told, are hysterical with grief. If Broadway Limited were a cynical, dark comedy, this might almost work. But instead, it's a bubbly, lighthearted, "feel-good" flick which repeatedly and shamelessly plays up the cuteness of the kid with its many, many cutaways to the young child actor gurgling delightedly at the bumbling antics of the grown-up characters.

While a good number of the film's jokes do work, especially as the story gets fully underway, I cannot help but feel that the chemistry is just a little "off" here. Instead of being a tasty cinematic dessert, it's more like a souffle which falls flat. As such, it rates only a tentative and conditional recommendation.

Renfrew: Zasu Pitt's ideal.
Is it funny: At first, not really. Eventually, though, some of the humorous elements of the film begin to percolate a bit. I liked, for instance, a running gag about a creepy, Eddie Munster-ish kid who repeatedly walks up to the beleaguered and overburdened Mike and just stares silently at him. Eventually the kid asks the poor guy a question: "Is that really your face?" Kinskey, McLaglen, and Kelly all play their roles to the hilt, which would be great if the script were a little funnier. As it is, their collective energy is kind of oppressive. I found myself wishing that they'd all stop shouting medium-funny jokes at me. When the bits are well-conceived, however, their performances are enjoyable. I laughed audibly when Kelly calms McLaglen down by saying she has a idea how to solve their problems, then reveals that her plan is to hand him the baby and then lock herself in her room until the trouble goes away.

Cheerful, oblivious Zasu Pitts is at the opposite end of the spectrum, as usual, and exists in her own little universe. She's always underfoot and in the way, getting on the nerves of the other characters without realizing it. In one scene, she blocks a narrow hallway so that other characters practically have to do gymnastics to get around her. In another, she shares a bed with Kelly and the baby, and Zasu's leaky hot water bottle causes Kelly to think that the infant has... well, you can guess.

The movie's best subplot, though, revolves around Zasu Pitts' undying devotion to a terrible-sounding radio show called Renfrew of the Mounted. My favorite scene in this film is the one in which Zasu's character, Myra, listens to Renfrew at full blast in a crowded club car and is clearly the only one enjoying the program. And when Myra isn't listening to Renfrew or dreaming about Renfrew, she's talking about Renfrew... even though no one else in the film gives a damn. The show obviously provides the kind of romantic escapism that many women now get from Twilight or 50 Shades. Myra's chief concern in life, in fact, seems to be whether or not Renfrew will "kiss her." We never find out who "her" is, but I assume it's the show's leading lady or love interest, i.e. the Bella Swan of her day.

Wonder if old Renfrew ever got around to it?

My grade: (barely) B-

P.S. - While it's not really a racist movie, Broadway Limited does (unwittingly) capture the racial dynamic of its era. The only black characters in the film are subservient porters and bartenders whose dialogue mainly consists of "yes, sir" and "yes, ma'am." Like everyone else in this movie, these men are required to react with astonishment at the goings on, but there are no bug-eyed Mantan Moreland shenanigans here.