Tuesday, July 10, 2018

cinema obscura: Dick Powell's "You Can't Run Away from It" (1956)

Movies change with age. This is something that I wholeheartedly believe.  A film that we initially embraced - and with some enthusiasm - can seem less engaging a decade later, while another title which was perhaps hastily dismissed - and dissed - can look pretty good with the passing of time.

Which brings me to a Jack Lemmon film that has taken me decades to finally appreciate - Columbia's "You Can't Run Away from It" from 1956.

I wrote it off long ago as one of the actor's lesser, sadder efforts.

And I was not alone: The critics brushed it aside in '56 and it remains the one Lemmon/Columbia title that has evaded home entertainment in any format. No, I was not alone but I expect to be pretty isolated in 2018.

"You Can't Run Away from It' is Columbia's remake of its 1934 Oscar-winning hit - Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" - directed by actor Dick Powell and starring Powell's wife, June Allyson, in the Claudette Colbert role and Jack in for Clark Gable. Claude Binyon's script is so faithful to the Robert Riskin original that Riskin receives co-credit and it's abetted by a handful of songs by Johnny Mercer and Gene De Paul.

Just a handful.

As a genre, "You Can't Run Away from It" is a pseudo-musical. At the time of its release, Columbia accurately pitched it as "a comedy with music."

Given that the film has never been issued on Beta, Laser, VHS, DVD or BluRay, the only way to see it - the only place, to be specific - is Turner Classic Movies, which has screened it a few times in the past couple years.

By all accounts, "You Can't Run Away from It" started out as a major production for Columbia. Dick Powell was hitting his stride as a film director at the time ("The Enemy Below" and "The Hunters"), June Allyson was making some savvy acting choices apart from her MGM contract ("The Shrike," "Interlude," "The Glenn Miller Story," "A Stranger in My Arms") and Jack Lemmon was fresh off his Oscar triumph for "Mister Roberts."

Despite the CinemaScope process and the musical format, Powell kept the film amazingly intimate in the spirit of the modest source material.  In fact, his remake is 10 minutes shorter than Capra's film. It is very much a two-character movie, showcasing Allyson as a runaway heiress and Lemmon as a newsman who smells a good story, while surrounding them with a terrific cast of character actors recruited by Powell. Here goes...

Allyn Joslyn as Lemmon's crusty editor; Charles Bickford as Allyson's wealthy, controlling father; Dub Taylor and Frank Sully as two of Bickford's sycophants; Byron Foulger as his secretary; Louise Beavers as his maid; Jacques Scott as Allyson's gigolo-fiancé; Paul Gilbert and Stubby Kaye as two passengers who the stars meet on a bus; Henny Youngman as the bus driver; Jim Backus as a hayseed who picks up the hitchhiking stars; Queenie Smith as a woman who befriends Allyson; Tony Martinez as a gas-station attendant; Barrie Chase as a Western Union clerk; and - as assorted proprietors of the various motels where Allyson and Lemmon hole up during the film - Walter Baldwin, Richard H. Cutting, Howard McNear and Elvia Allman, and Jack Albertson and Madge Blake.

Each one of these acting veterans gets to shine in tiny, individual scenes, while never intruding on the interplay between Allyson and Lemmon.  The lean, 95-minute running time is just right for the story being told and the lead players who perform it.  But it could also be an indication that the musical interludes had to be sacrificed in order to keep the film tight.

The movie's pressbook refers to five "book" songs that advance the plot, in addition to the title song used for the main credits and a dance number for Allyson.  However, there are only three songs in the film itself, one of which is severely truncated compared to what's on the soundtrack album.

The songs, written by Mercer and De Paul – at least, what’s left of them – are literate and witty. The clever wordplay, for example, between Allyson and Lemmon during the "Walls of Jericho" number, titled “Temporarily,” has the kind of articulate sophistication that anticipated what Meredith Willson would accomplish, with much more acclaim, in “The Music Man,” a year later. It's a sly knockout of a song and Allyson and Lemmon, clearly having the time of their lives with it, breeze through the number with panache.

The stars assist Kaye on "Howdy Friends and Neighbors," a lively production inventively set on a Greyhound bus where choreographer Robert Sidney actually has the passengers dancing the polka along the aisle.  Sidney didn't so much choreograph the numbers as "stage" them.

Again, matters are kept small.

The truncated number is in the “Thumbing a Ride” duet, which musically recreates another iconic scene from "It Happened One Night" and which is complete on the Decca soundtrack album. In the film, the entire first half is missing -  all of Lemmon’s antic demonstration of ways to hitch a ride. None of this is sung by Lemmon.  It's spoken but in a musical way that indicates he was having fun with some mime-staging created by Sidney.

The editing of this portion of the number is rather clumsy: One senses, and rightly so, that something is missing.

Given  the brevity of the film and scarcity of musical numbers, chopping this one in half just doesn't make any sense.  And given that the film’s principals – Allyson, Lemmon and Powell – are all deceased now, one can only speculate about exactly what happened. And it’s unlikely that any of the missing musical footage is still sitting on some shelf at Sony.

As for the title song, it's performed by The Four Aces, a hugely popular quartet in the 1950s and the go-to group for main-credit harmonizing ("Three Coins in a Fountain," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing").

The two missing songs are "Whatcha-Ma-Call-It," which apparently was sung by Backus, and "Old Reporters Never Die," which Lemmon does with four other reporters, although a smidgen of it remains in the finished film. The reporters are played by The Mello-Men, another quartet from the '40s & '50s, founded by Thurl Ravenscroft who also has a role in the film.

Note in Passing: Prior to a 2015 screening of the film by Turner Classic Movies, the late Robert Osborne spoke rather favorably about it in his introduction and made a point of noting that it was photographed in CinemaScope.  But as was the case with the earlier TCM screenings of the movie, the print shown was not letterboxed but an antique pan-and-scan version. Plus, the color was rather bleached-out.  If a  'Scope version of the film was available, I'm confident that Turner would have aired it - which leads me to believe that Sony still has no future DVD plans for "You Can't Run Away from It." Oh well...

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~Her director-husband Dick Powell (left) and co-star Jack Lemmon celebrate June Allyson's birthday between takes on the set of "You Can't Run Away from It"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©

~ Poster art for "You Can't Run Away from It"

~Allyson and Lemmon perform the "Temporarily" musical number in the film
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©

~Lemmon and Allyson is a moment edited out of the "Thumbing a Ride" number
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©
~Allyson and Lemmon participate in the press junket for "You Can't Run Away From It"  for which  the studio utilized a Greyhound bus. 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©

~Lemmon and Allyson at the after party following the film's Los Angeles premiere
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1956©

Friday, July 06, 2018

it's a mad, mad, mad, mad accomplishment

Adroitly unassuming, "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" is a DVD collection of fully realized, '30s-style comedy shorts that deliver both the element of the unexpected and the sense of discovery absent from the plodding, predictable comedies being made today. It shouts "Surprise!"

The brainchild (and clearly a labor of love) of producer-director Michael Schlesinger, a veteran of the studios' home-entertainment divisions, the Kino Lorber release packages five shorts that showcase the eponymous nitwits, Benny Biffle and Sam Shooster (played by resourceful creators Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan, respectively), in as many genres. Think Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Or Laurel and Hardy. Or Bud and Lou.

And like the aforementioned comedy teams and others, one of the guys in this duo is a moron and knows it and the other is a moron who doesn't.

The comedy here, both physical and verbal, is refreshingly retro and shamelessly corny - and genuinely funny. Having struggled my way through one contemporary screen "comedy" after another, I actually forgot that movies once knew how to be funny and without having to resort to diarrhea jokes, cute little old ladies (or a nursery-age kid) casually tossing off the word "fuck," or millennials being titillated by the idea of "balls." 

This is not to imply that "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" is funny without being audacious. In the Biffle-&-Shooster horror spoof, "Bride of Finklestein," the good doctor's goal is to turn his brunette Jewish wife into a blonde shiksa (to her utter chagrin). 

Much of the humor here is Jewish, not surprisingly, because the comedy shorts of the 1930s and '40s were extensions of the kind of sketch comedy that was hugely popular in vaudeville, burlesque and the Borscht Belt as some of the comics of the time made the transition to film.

Schlesinger's omnibus opens with the (rather elegantly done) murder-mystery spoof, "The Biffle Murder Case," and continues with the musical "Schmo Boat," a free-for-all staged in an art gallery titled "It's a Frame Up!" and the ever-popular man-in-a-dress bit, "Imitation of Wife." 

Each comes with a healthy assortment of punch lines, double takes, slow burns and other comic curlicues - faux shorts nothing less than fastidious.

The cast of contemporary actors mimicking bygone actors playing ridiculous characters is flawless. (Each performer here is credited as an actor playing a character.) It's jaw-dropping, in fact, that Schlesinger was able to recruit so many game talents who are on the exact same wavelength that he, Ryan and Santa Maria travel. These impersonations are spot-on, as are the "poverty row" production designs that capture the look and feel of vintage shorts without ever a hint of condescension or eye-rolling sarcasm. This collection is not a parody. It's the real thing. 

Even the opening credits of each short share the same determined focus, with artists, studios, trademarks and release dates giving the impression that what we are about to watch is indeed the real thing. Mervyn LeRoy! Del Lord! (The end credits reveal Schlesinger & company as the culprits.)

For the educated movie buff of a certain age, "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" is a heartening experience, taking one back to a time when going to the movies was indeed a night out (or an afternoon) - one that included not just the feature attraction, but a newsreel, a travelogue, a cartoon (maybe two), previews of coming attractions and a comedy short.

And for those newbies who self-describe as "movie buffs" because of their obsession with Marvel/DC Comics movies exclusively, "Biffle and Shooster" could be a revelation - particularly if their idea of a good comedy sketch is something that passes as one on "Saturday Night Live."

Watching "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" also made me a little wistful, reminding me of how much I miss having access to the shorts of Leon Errol, Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy, Amos n' Andy and other comedy doodles that played with regularity on TV in the 1950s and early '60s. "The Three Stooges" remains ubiquitous and Turner Classic Movies, which should be a source, occasionally airs George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes/"Behind the 8-Ball" short subjects but not much else. 

After the studios abandoned their comedy shorts, elements of the genre lived on, eventually working their way into other areas of film and television. The influence has been wide-spread: Groucho and the Brothers Marx, Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes, the Abbott-&-Costello and Martin-&-Lewis films, Burns and Allen, the work of Mel Brooks, "The Carol Burnett Show" and, most definitively, in Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," which is essentially a ga-zillion comedy sketches gleefully edited together. It's no surprise that Mike Schlesinger is an enthusiastic fan of Kramer's comedy extravaganza; he worked on its BluRay edition.

"Biffle and Shooster" has the same enthusiasm. And it's an ardor that is downright contagious. More to the point, it's falling-down funny.

And it's not faux at all.

Note in Passing: This essential DVD is available directly from Kino Lorber or Amazon. And you might want to check out these takes on the collection by CineSavant's Glenn Erickson and Home Theater Forum's Robert Harris.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~Nick Santa Maria, Trish Geiger and Will Ryan in an antic moment from "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster"
~photography: Kino Lorber 2018©

~Phil Baron as "Max Davidson" playing "Dr. Finkelstein" with Santa Maria and Ryan in another moment from "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster"
~photography: Kino Lorber 2018©

~The dust jacket for the DVD of "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster"