Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #66: "The Stork Club" (1945)

Is Betty Hutton a "kept woman?" Don DeFore sure thinks so in 1945's The Stork Club.

The flick: The Stork Club (Paramount release of a B.G. DeSylva Productions Inc. film, 1945) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.3

Director: Hal Walker (Road to Bali)

Famed author and wit Robert Benchley
Actors of note: Betty Hutton (The Perils of Pauline), Barry Fitzgerald (Oscar winner for Going My Way; appeared in The Quiet Man, Bringing Up Baby, How Green Was My Valley, etc.), Don DeFore (best known for roles on TV's Hazel and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet; movies include Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Kid Galahad), Robert Benchley (famed newspaper columnist and humorist of the 1920s; member of the Algonquin Round Table; wrote for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker; movies include I Married a Witch and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent; died the year this movie was released), Bill Goodwin (Hitchcock's Spellbound; better known as a TV and radio announcer), Iris Adrian (The Odd Couple; worked with Elvis, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and Abbot & Costello; appeared in many, many Disney comedies including Freaky Friday, The Love Bug, Herbie Goes Bananas, The Apple Dumpling Gang, etc.), Mikhail Rasumny (For Whom the Bell Tolls, This Gun For Hire, Road to Morocco), Mary Young (Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch and The Lost Weekend; Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent; frequent TV guest star of the '50s and '60s), Andy Russell (popular baritone crooner of the 1940s; real name was Andres Rabago; credits include Disney's Make Mine Music), Grady Sutton (The Bank Dick, Rock 'n' Roll High School, much more; MST3K fans may remember him from Last of the Wild Horses)

Other notables: The film's costumes are by Edith Head. The soundtrack includes contributions by Hoagy Carmichael (best known for "Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind," etc.), Sammy Cahn ("High Hopes," "Call me Irresponsible," etc.), Jay Livingston ("Que Sera Sera," the theme from Bonanza, etc.), and Paul Francis Webster ("Love is a Many Splendored Thing," the Spider-Man theme, etc.) -- all Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees. Between them, these guys wrote a good-sized chunk of 20th century American popular music, including countless songs for film and television. For this movie, Carmichael and Webster wrote "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief," which was a #1 hit for star Betty Hutton in March 1946. It was the biggest hit of her career.

Another poster for 1945's The Stork Club.
The gist of it: Sweet-natured hatcheck girl and aspiring singer Judy Peabody (Hutton) saves wealthy J.B. Bates (Fitzgerald) from drowning after he falls in the ocean while chasing his hat. She mistakes him for an old bum, affectionately nicknames him "Pops," and decides to take pity on him. He doesn't need her charity, of course, but he's so touched by her kindness that he arranges to help her out financially. Bates' somewhat shifty lawyer, Tom Curtis (Benchley), sends Judy a letter telling her that she has an expense account and can buy whatever she needs to make her happy.

Judy first uses the money to help "Pops" (not knowing that it's his money to begin with) and even tries to get him a job at her place of employment, a ritzy night spot called the Stork Club. Then, to Bates' horror, Judy starts spending the money on herself, buying dresses and furs and renting an expensive apartment. To make matters worse, Judy's boyfriend, Danny (DeFore), returns home from WWII and is awfully suspicious about where Judy's money is coming from. He's sure she has a sugar daddy, and his two main suspects are Mr. Bates, who's been staying in Judy's apartment to keep an eye on her, and Judy's good-hearted boss at the Stork Club, Sherman Billingsley (Goodwin). Bates tries to tell Judy the truth about the money, but she won't believe him. Meanwhile, Danny's swing band is about to desert him unless they can score a paying gig in the very near future. It's up to Judy to convince Danny she's on the level, get his band a job at the Stork Club, and reunite Mr. Bates with his estranged wife (Young) -- all in the span of 24 hours!

The real Stork Club in its heyday.
My take: The Stork Club is a very charming, if incredibly contrived, musical comedy which mainly serves as a vehicle for singer-actress-comedienne Betty Hutton, as determined as ever to bludgeon us to death with her talent. These highly artificial events could never -- and I mean never -- happen in the world you and I inhabit. It's one of those stories which require the characters to say all the wrong things at all the wrong times and withhold vital information from one another for no good reason other than to keep the plot going when the whole mess could be easily cleared up in about 40 seconds.

And yet, this very fanciful film is rooted in reality. Sort of. You see, my friends, there really was a Stork Club in New York City (1929-1965), and it really was owned by a man named Sherman Billngsley! And Billingsley (whose nephew, Glenn, married Barbara Billingsley) really was a pal of influential newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, which explains why, in this film, Judy pretends to be Winchell in order to trick Billingsley into watching Danny's band perform. Sherman's not fooled by this ploy, but he's so nice that he goes along with the gag anyway.

In fact, the movie consistently goes out of its way to depict Billingsley as an all-around swell guy: a devoted family man and a generous employer who shows an incredible amount of patience with the irksome antics of Judy, Danny, and Pops. The real Billingsley was a convicted bootlegger who had done time in federal prison and who kept Ethel Merman as a mistress in the late 1930s, and his famed Stork Club attained infamy just a few years after this movie when it refused entrance to legendary African-American dancer Josephine Baker. In this film, the only thing banned from Billingsley's place is waltz music... and even that mild taboo is broken by the story's end.

Speaking of the film's soundtrack, these big band-style tunes seem quaint and stodgy by today's standards but Barry Fitzgerald reacts to this music the way you probably did to dubstep a few years ago. "I"ll never understand it!" he mutters. (The Stork Club is such a deeply nice movie, though, that even this curmudgeonly character comes around eventually.)

Overall, The Stork Club is an ingratiating little flick which I enjoyed more than I had expected. Betty Hutton is not a subtle performer, but she's more nuanced and less desperate than she seemed in The Perils of Pauline (1947). In that movie, she was operating at an 11 out of 10. Here, she's dialed it back to a 7 or 8, and that helps quite a bit. If I can remember correctly, The Stork Club has only one scene in which she's reduced to whimpering and blubbering when things don't go her way, and even that is brief.

Don DeFore, the wacky neighbor on Ozzie and Harriet and the standard-issue sitcom dad on Hazel, is a bit of a washout as her leading man, I'm sorry to report. His character, Danny, is paranoid and possessive and treats Judy pretty badly until the last five minutes or so. Yet this is a romantic comedy, so we have a vested interest in seeing Danny and Judy wind up together at the end of the movie. Again, though, Danny's less of a mean-spirited jerk than John Lund's Michael Farrington character in The Perils of Pauline, so The Stork Club still feels like a step up from that. This film had "inessential" stamped on its forehead at birth, but it's a pleasant enough diversion.

Is it funny: Yes, and I laughed out loud more than once, even though not too many individual jokes or scenes stuck with me after the end credits. Mikhail Rasumny gets some laughs as the long-suffering headwaiter Mr. Coretti, who maintains his equilibrium to an almost heroic extent in situations most of us would find intolerable. I also enjoyed the witty, half-soused repartee between Barry Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley, as well as Fitzgerald's scenes with Betty Hutton, who treats the old man like a stray puppy. Iris Adrian was a tad on-the-nose for me as blonde bombshell Judy's wisecracking brunette sidekick, Gwen, but the two gals have a fairly funny little sequence in which they insist on wearing their newly-purchased mink coats on a sweltering day and end up positively drenched in perspiration.

Perhaps in a subtle way, the film's funniest character is Sherman Billingsley himself, who demonstrates Herculean endurance when coping with the misguided, scatterbrained characters who surround him. As ridiculously as these people behave, Billingsley never loses his cool. Not that he's a pushover, mind you. He's firm but fair. Here, for instance, is how Billingsley deals with Danny's jealous nonsense.
Danny: (worriedly) Mr. Billingsley, what would you do if you were in my spot? 
Billingsley: (calmly) I'd stop bothering me.
I'll drink to that... which reminds me of another thing I liked about this movie: the near-constant drinking by most of the main characters. Ah, the '40s! By the way, I award this movie some bonus points for giving us a scene with the eternally blank, clueless Grady Sutton, a character actor whose presence is always welcome in stories of this nature.

My grade: B+

P.S.  - While not overtly racist or stereotypical (other than, I suppose, Fitzgerald's hard-drinking Irishman), The Stork Club has a few moments which now seem culturally insensitive. "Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief" is a terrifically catchy song, but the song's lyrics -- and the pantomime that goes with them -- may offend Native Americans. And DeFore's character, a WWII vet, makes a disparaging reference to a "Jap" soldier he apparently killed in a cave.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the film too. I especially liked the scene where Betty is throwing the fancy clothes out of her closet to return them to the store, grabs the fur and quickly spins around and puts that one back in the closet.
    Andy Russell is supremely annoying as the drummer/singer in the band.
    I could have sworn that the part of Sherman Billingsly was played by the real Sherman Billingsly. That's how wooden the performance was.
    I know Robert Benchley died in 1945, and I love him dearly, but he disappointed me in this one, except for the drinking bits. Ironic, because drinking probably killed him. Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure just to see him walk into a room in a movie.