Sunday, December 11, 2011

Two Plus Fours, a.k.a. Ripstitch the Tailor (Pathé, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Two Plus Fours, made by the Pathé studio’s U.S. branch in 1930 as one of its last gasps before it was absorbed by RKO in 1931 and ultimately folded into that company after two years in which some movies came out as RKO and some as RKO-Pathé, much the way Warner Bros. films sometimes were released in “First National” drag. It was one of the last projects for the Rhythm Boys, the vocal group with which Bing Crosby got his start: he had met Al Rinker, Mildred Bailey’s brother and a singer in his own right, while both were still living in Washington state, and the two had traveled to L.A. and been discovered by Paul Whiteman and signed to his entourage in 1927. The duo of Crosby and Rinker did well on tour but bombed out in New York City, and Whiteman decided that they needed someone who would give the act more verve and showmanship. The person Whiteman recruited to join them was Harry Barris, a live-wire pianist and comic singer who was also a major songwriter and could supply the Rhythm Boys (as Whiteman named them) original material. The Rhythm Boys remained part of the Whiteman organization for three years, until Whiteman went to L.A. to make the big-budget Universal musical revue The King of Jazz (1930) which featured Crosby soloing on the film’s theme song, “Music Hath Charms,” and the Rhythm Boys doing a marvelous number in two-strip Technicolor (the whole film was in color, actually) combining their early hit “Mississippi Mud” and a new song, “So the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together.” Then Crosby decided his future lay in Hollywood, so he got the Rhythm Boys to quit Whiteman and join Gus Arnheim’s L.A.-based band at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub inside the Ambassador Hotel, while the trio also scrambled for film work.

Two Plus Fours was the trio’s last work together before breaking up — Crosby had landed a solo film contract with Mack Sennett’s studio, where he played in a series of romantic-comedy shorts that established his happy-go-lucky screen character, and he’d clearly outgrown the need for the other two. Pathé was at loose ends, too: they had never recovered from the opprobrium following a terrible accident at their New York studio in which a soundstage burned down while filming a 1929 musical and 11 people were killed — still the worst accident, at least in terms of total lives lost, ever to occur during the actual shooting of a film. They also hadn’t recovered from the loss of their big comedy star, Harold Lloyd, who had switched distribution of his self-produced films to Paramount, or from the loss of Hal Roach’s product, including the Laurel and Hardy movies, when he changed distributors to MGM in 1927. So in order to stay in the comedy market they concocted a series called “Campus Comedies,” about the hijinks of frat boys and the scrapes they got into. Two Plus Fours was filmed under the working title Ripstitch the Tailor, which would have been a better name for it — it would at least have given moviegoers an idea of what the film was about: Two Plus Fours vaguely hints that it has something to do with articles of male clothing but otherwise means nothing. (Some Crosby biographers got confused by the dual title and thought Bing and the Rhythm Boys had made two short comedies for Pathé, not just this one.)

The 20-minute short was actually a feature for Jewish dialect comedian Nat Carr, who plays a tailor named Ginsberg: he’s irritated that the college boys have given him the nickname “Ripstitch the Tailor” but he can’t do anything about it because their suit orders represent his principal source of income. He’s being harassed by the typical evil landlord (Edgar Dearing) but he’s hopeful because Tait College’s new school year is about to start and he’s counting on the frat boys to buy so many suits for the upcoming start-of-the-year rally he’ll be able to pay off his debt. Only the frat boys got waylaid on the train coming into town: they got into a craps game with an African-American porter (when this character first appeared he had a disgusted look on his face while the white kids were playing what was supposed to be a jazz number, and I joked that what he was really thinking was, “Oh, no, not more white boys who think they can swing”) and lost not only their money but the ukuleles and other musical instruments they’d been playing. When the train enters a tunnel (the shots of the train moving are obviously stock footage, but director Ray McCarey and editor John F. Link cut them in so smoothly they’re believable) the kids jump the Black guy and get the instruments back and start their jam session over again. The frat boys eventually arrive in town and they’re so broke they don’t even have a car; they’re driving around in a horse-drawn cart reading “Transfer” (1930’s-speak for a moving company) and they arrive at Ginsberg’s just after he’s serviced another college kid in a baggy suit he insists “fits like a glove” and caught the kid just as he was about to walk out of his store without paying. (The kid reaches into his new suit and gets out his wallet to give Ginsberg the money; one wonders how the wallet got there if it’s a suit he’s never worn before.)

Then the landlord shows up and after him Ginsberg gets the college kids, who explain that they’re broke — but he agrees to make them the suits anyway in hopes they’ll find a way to pay him for them. The kids meet back at their frat house and sing a song (apparently based on the University of Maine “Stein Song” that was a hit for Rudy Vallée, America’s most popular male singer until Crosby replaced him) hailing Ripstitch the Tailor; Crosby is featured on the song’s middle-eight section but otherwise this is the sort of film in which a person who later became a superstar is lost in the crowd: you hear his familiar speaking voice, look around for him, spot him and say, “Oh, there he is.” Eventually the kids find money they held back from the Black crapshooter on the train and pool their resources so they’re within $100 of paying Ginsberg’s bill; they jump a heavy-set fellow student (Tom Hanlon) who just happened to ask them to break it when they needed exactly that much money; they pay off Ginsberg, Ginsberg pays off his landlord, and Ginsberg’s daughter Mary (Thelma Hill) gets Spec (Spec O’Donnell), the head of the fraternity.

 Two Plus Fours isn’t all that funny — Nat Carr’s Jewish-dialect humor is very dated — and the laughs it does have are more from situations than gags, but it’s charming and clever throughout and has at least two good gags: when one of the students sees Ginsberg’s signs — “Don’t Use the Phone,” “Don’t Ask for Credit,” and “Don’t Call Me ‘Ripstitch’” — and neatly slices off the word “don’t” from each sign with his pocket knife; and at the end in which the transfer cart and the horse pulling it are decorated with frat-house symbols the way the kids’ car would be if they could afford one. It’s a curio for Crosby fans — no doubt if Bing hadn’t been in it, it would still be moldering away in a vault somewhere — and one oddity is that the credits make it seem like a Hal Roach production in exile: the director is Ray (Raymond) McCarey, and the “supervising producer” is Fred Guiol (a protégé of George Stevens who rose to become a director himself at Roach and RKO in the mid-1930’s, then quit and went back to working as Stevens’ assistant and one of his regular screenwriters). Ray McCarey was the far less famous brother of director Leo McCarey, whom Bing Crosby would work with in the 1940’s on two of either man’s biggest hits: Going My Way and its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s.