Saturday, July 12, 2008

That’s Right — You’re Wrong (RKO, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When we finally got to watch a movie I ran a videotape I’d recorded from the TCM big-band swing night last Wednesday of Kay Kyser’s engaging film debut, That’s Right — You’re Wrong (1939). The quirky title comes from Kyser’s famous radio show, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, in which Kyser as MC would tell a contestant who’d answered a true-or-false question “false” when the answer should have been “true,” “That’s right — you’re wrong!”

Directed by David Butler and co-written by William Conselman and James V. Kern from a story by Butler and Conselman, That’s Right — You’re Wrong is an amiable comedy, a more entertaining movie than most of the big-band vehicles of the period (which tended to sag between songs) mainly because Kyser, unlike virtually all the other major bandleaders of the period, was actually a genuinely talented actor: a good light comedian with an ability to make fun of himself. That’s Right — You’re Wrong was Kyser’s first film, and it’s a metafictional exercise in which Four Star Studios head Jonathan “J. D.” Forbes (Moroni Olsen) assembles his producers and insists that they stop making artistic flops and start making movies mass audiences will actually pay to see. (The scene is uncomfortably reminiscent of real life at RKO three years after this film was made — in 1942 — when Charles Koerner took over at RKO, fired Orson Welles and announced that from then on RKO’s motto would be “Showmanship in Place of Genius.” Ironically, much of the money RKO made during Koerner’s tenure came from the Val Lewton horror unit, which used most of Welles’s behind-the-scenes crew and made movies now considered works of genius.)

Four Star producer Stacey Delmore (Adolphe Menjou, demoted after his two films as a studio head himself — 1937’s A Star Is Born and 1938’s The Goldwyn Follies) wangles the plum assignment to make Kay Kyser’s first movie after Forbes points out how much money Kyser is making in his live appearances and how much the studio wants to make some of that money. Delmore gets the assignment by promising that his ace writing team, Tom Village (Edward Everett Horton) and Dwight Cook (Hobart Cavanaugh), just happen to have a script already to go in which the central character is a bandleader — only it turns out he’s a suave European bandleader from the Isle of Capri who works as a Venetian gondolier and ends up marrying a princess.

The film is full of in-jokes — my favorite was when the Four Star makeup head (Charles Judels) announces that they spent five hours making up Kyser to look right for this role (five hours was the length of time it took Jack P. Pierce to turn Boris Karloff into the Frankenstein monster) and at the end, “He still looked like Kyser.” Though Kyser would make better movies later on — including You’ll Find Out, which plugged his band into the middle of a spoof on old-dark-house horror movies and included Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre in the cast; and Playmates, in which John Barrymore played an over-the-hill Shakespearean actor roped into a summer Shakespeare festival with Kyser as his co-star — That’s Right — You’re Wrong is a nice, entertaining movie with a lot of fun songs from the Kyser band (including at least one swing number with a surprisingly good trumpet solo by Merwyn Bogue, better known for his “Ish Kabibble” comedy routine) and one truly great comedy scene, the screen test Kyser and co-star Sandra Sand (Lucille Ball) shoot for their proposed film, which turns out to be a great piece of slapstick that with a different bandleader could have come from I Love Lucy.

The movie ends with the studio paying off Kyser’s contract and Kyser — much to the joy of his grandmother (May Robson, in one of her patented voice-of-reason performances), who had urged him to “stay in his own backyard” and turn down Hollywood’s offer in the first place — returning to radio and showing us what the Kollege of Musical Knowledge actually looked like in the studio. It seems an almost unbearably raucous entertainment but it attracted listeners in droves when it was new — enough that Kyser (not Benny Goodman, either Dorsey, Harry James or Glenn Miller!) became the best-paid bandleader of the swing era — and Kyser managed to make quite a few movies for both RKO and MGM in which his cornpone charm was corny but also quite appealing — and I’ve often pondered the irony that Kyser’s home town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, was also the birthplace of Thelonious Monk.