Wednesday, November 30, 2016

IT'S IN THE BAG! (1945)

If anyone can be considered both legendary and forgotten, it's Fred Allen. For over 15 years one of the most popular of all radio comedians, he's remembered now only by show business archaeologists. 

Allen's sole leading movie role, as Fred Floogle in It’s in the Bag!, made at the height of his radio success, was his last shot at Hollywood stardom

Unfortunately, he would have to be content with staying on radio for another four years. For while there are strange comedies, and there are strange comedies, It's in the Bag! is a STRANGE comedy that probably baffled as many of his radio fans as it entertained. It was probably ahead of its time in 1945; perhaps it still is.

Floogle and Parker look forward to being in-laws.
The story, freely adapted from the 1928 Russian novel The Twelve Chairs, certainly sounds like a wacky comedy. Fred Floogle happily gives up his flea circus when left his uncle’s $12-million estate, allowing his daughter to marry Perry Parker, the son of an allegedly rich insecticide magnate who's actually just as broke as Floogle. 

Unfortunately, most of Floogle's inheritance has been ripped-off by the uncle’s lawyers; all he has coming to him is a pool table and five chairs. It’s only after selling the chairs to an antiques dealer that he learns one of them has $300,000 hidden inside its seat. Floogle has to track the chairs down to their new owners to get the money. 

Crooked lawyer John Carradine has
arranged for Fred to get hit by a car; just one
of the movie's many "comedy" highlights.
It’s in the Bag! starts off promisingly, with Fred Allen (as himself) addressing the audience in his flat, nasal New England twang, as he makes sardonic comments about the cast and crew throughout the credits. 

One of the credits is unexpected: Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, the writer of SuspicionShadow of a Doubt and The Paradine Case. This possibly explains the plethora of murders, both attempted and successful, including that of Floogle's precocious adolescent son, Homer. 

Allen must have realized the final cut was not only a little gruesome but often quite sluggish -- the kind of back & forth dialogue that worked so well on radio grinds many scenes to a halt. Plus, much of it isn't particularly funny to begin with. 

This is where things get strange. Instead of doing re-shoots as is typical, Allen (as himself) added narration throughout the movie while the onscreen actors, including himself, continue to speak their dialogue. This must explain comedy writer Morrie Ryskind’s credit for his “special contribution.” Thanks, Morrie.

"You mean I have to speak even more narration?!"
Initially amusing, then confusing, the narration devolves into irritating, like having to listen to some big mouth in the row behind you trying to impress his date with his alleged witticisms. More than once you feel like shouting, Shut up! I’m trying to watch the movie! Even if the original dialogue isn't funny! 

And stranger still, there are prints in circulation missing the narration entirely; perhaps it was added after an underwhelmingly-received premiere. If so, it meant early audiences missed Fred's endless, endless jokes about in-laws, relatives and studio executives. Well, maybe "missed" isn't the right word.

Fred is confused by Jack's rouge and lipstick.
The producers must have been nervous about Allen's potential box-office, since he’s surrounded by a bunch of radio guest stars. In what was clearly a favor to his real-life friend, Jack Benny plays his stereotypical cheap self, only with material that would have worked far better on TV in the '50s; director Richard Wallace appears to hold every shot to allow for audience laughter which never comes. Further distracting is Benny's strawberry-blonde dye job and strangely feminine make-up. 

Minerva Pious plays Mrs. Nussbaum, a regular character from Allen’s radio program. Her appearances were always a highlight, but you'd never know it here, since much of her dialogue is obliterated by Allen’s narration. I bet she loved that. Oddly, her Yiddish accent often sounds like Gilda Radner's Latina Roseanne Rosannadana. I told you the movie was confusing. 

Jerry Colonna is shocked to get better material than
the star of the movie.
The wonderful Jerry Colonna, on the other hand, scores major laughs as a deranged psychiatrist, while Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee’s understated, self-depreciating performances contrast with Allen’s often-sledgehammer delivery. 

William Bendix has just been shot by six other
gangsters. I told you it was a comedy.
Also supporting -- make that overshadowing -- Fred Allen are great character actors, including Sidney Toler (sounding an awful lot like his Charlie Chan alter ego) as a cop, John Carradine as a murderous lawyer, Robert Benchley as Parker, and William Bendix as a delicate gangster who ingests vitamins by the jarful to calm his nerves.

It’s in the Bag!, then, is a veritable time capsule of the 1945 entertainment world, with one of the biggest names of all in the lead. 

But in the end, It's in the Bag! is as much of a chore as it is a comedy. Too much plot, too little story and, if it’s possible, too many jokes. At its best moments, like the hilarious sequence in a movie theater the size of a dirigible hangar, or every time Jerry Colonna opens his mouth, it seems to anticipate Monty Python. 

Then there are other, silly scenes where you just want them to get on with it. After watching It's in the Bag! three times over the years, I've come to appreciate it; I just don't laugh all that much. As his engaging memoirs Much Ado Me and Treadmill to Oblivion demonstrate, Fred Allen was the rare wit who was actually funnier than many of his own jokes.

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