Saturday, February 4, 2012

One Night in the Tropics (Universal, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I cracked open my latest DVD arrival from Columbia House — the 15-DVD boxed set of all 28 movies Abbott and Costello made for Universal (which is all but eight of their feature films — they made Rio Rita, Lost in a Harem and Abbott and Costello in Hollywood for MGM, Jack and the Beanstalk and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd for Warners, Africa Screams for Nassour, The Noose Hangs High for Eagle-Lion and their last joint film, Dance With Me, Henry, for United Artists) — and watched the first one, a 1940 semi-musical called One Night in the Tropics in which Abbott and Costello were billed third and fourth. The story began life in 1914 as a novel called Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers — who’s remembered today, if at all, only as the creator of Charlie Chan, but who actually had a quite long and profitable career writing all sorts of pop fiction, including the original source novel George M. Cohan adapted into the hit play Seven Keys to Baldpate. 

Playboy Steve Harper (Robert Cummings) has been in and out of several relationships with women but insists that the one he’s currently dating, Cynthia Merrick (Nancy Kelly), is The One he’s going to marry and live happily ever after with. Only he happens to run into — literally — Cynthia’s fearsome Aunt Kitty (a marvelous performance by Mary Boland), who hates him at first sight and is willing to do whatever she has to do to break up the relationship. Anxious about the wedding, Steve complains to his friend Jim Moore (Allan Jones, top-billed), the son of insurance company owner Mr. Moore (Richard Carle doing an impression of Charles Coburn at his most dyspeptic), and Jim offers to sell him a “love insurance” policy for $100,000. According to the policy, if Steve doesn’t marry Cynthia (or anyone else, as we learn about two-thirds of the way through the movie but the characters seem to forget until the final frames) by a set deadline, Moore’s company is out $1 million. Steve’s former girlfriend, singer Mickey Fitzgerald (Peggy Moran), still has the hots for him and is trying to latch on to him and get him away from Cynthia. Jim decides to keep an eye on the proceedings to safeguard the investments of both his father and gangster/club owner (in a 1940 movie that’s redundant!) Roscoe (William Frawley), who’s essentially bought half the policy in a reinsurance deal and is threatening the Moores and everyone else involved with bodily harm if the marriage doesn’t happen and the policy has to be paid out. With this setup, any reasonably hardened moviegoer either in 1940 or now could guess what’s going to happen next: Jim is going to fall in love with Cynthia himself, and it’s going to be touch-and-go whether his heart or his (and his family’s) pocketbook wins out — along with his and his family’s continued state of well-being at the hands of revenge-minded Roscoe.

Midway through the movie, Jim decides to spirit Steve and Cynthia to the Caribbean resort island of San Marcos and have them stay at the island’s hotel, whose proprietor Escobar (Leo Carrillo) insists that once you go to San Marcos with the person you’re trying to get to marry you, it’s practically a done deal. Only Mickey gets Steve drunk and he misses the boat, so Jim has to arrange for Steve to fly down — and Mickey turns up on San Marcos herself, while among the permanent residents is amorous bullfighter Rudolfo (Don Alvarado), who gets the hots for Cynthia himself. The movie ends the way you think it’s going to, with Jim marrying Cynthia, Steve marrying Mickey (thereby invalidating the love insurance policy that kicked off this story and gave it its original title), Aunt Kitty paired with Escobar and everyone dancing to the music of San Marcos’s theme song, “Farandole” — composed, like all the other songs in the film, by Jerome Kern. Surprisingly, Universal did not ballyhoo Kern’s association with this film (he isn’t mentioned in the credits — at least not on this version: I recall seeing this film before in a version in which Kern was mentioned on the opening credits) even though he was a major composer with huge hits under his belt. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all, given that the five songs Kern contributed to this film — “You and Your Kiss,” “Remind Me,” “Simple Philosophy” and “Farandole,” with lyrics by Dorothy Fields (his collaborator on the superb score for the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time) and “Your Dream” with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (which I suspect wasn’t written for this film but was a leftover from the “insertion numbers” Kern and Hammerstein wrote at Universal in 1936 for the second film of Show Boat, which also starred Allan Jones) — are competent and pleasant enough but singularly unmemorable.

As for Abbott and Costello, in case you were wondering where they fit into all this, they play two henchmen of Roscoe’s, and the screenwriters (Kathryn Scola, Francis Martin, Gertrude Purcell and Charles Grayson) didn’t bother to write any material for them. Not that they needed to: by the time they made this movie Abbott and Costello were long-time veterans of burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway and (especially) radio, and they had a huge backlog of material, most of it (like the famous “Who’s on First?” routine, excerpted here and given a longer presentation five years later in the film The Naughty Nineties) by their go-to guy for hilarious talking gags, John Grant. The original plan was for the second half of the film to take place on the French Riviera and the movie to be called Riviera, and when that plan was scotched the movie went through various title changes including Moonlight in the Tropics and Caribbean Holiday before One Night in the Tropics was finally settled on. It doesn’t help that (as Charles pointed out) neither Allan Jones nor Bob Cummings are playing especially appealing characters, or that Nancy Kelly and Peggy Moran look so similar that, especially when cinematographer Joseph Valentine decides to get atmospheric, it’s hard to tell them apart. It also doesn’t help that a story whose central premise seems to lend itself to lunatic humor gets a surprisingly “straight” treatment — one wonders what Preston Sturges could have made of the whole idea of a marriage-shy playboy threatening to bankrupt his friend who’s sold him a “love insurance” policy — or that Abbott and Costello’s routines are really the only reliable laughs this film has.

It’s a bizarre movie because virtually everyone in it had worked (or would work) with someone better; when Allan Jones croons to Nancy Kelly on board the ship to San Marcos one can’t help but remember A Night at the Opera, where he got to sing a much better song (Nacio Herb Brown’s and Arthur Freed’s “Alone”) in a movie with even more legendary comedians (the Marx Brothers) than Abbott and Costello — and the “Farandole” also evokes A Night at the Opera through its resemblance to “Cosi-Cosa,” the big Brown-Freed production number from that film. Allan Jones had worked with the Marx Brothers, Mary Boland (brilliantly) with W. C. Fields, and later on Robert Cummings would work with Alfred Hitchcock and William Frawley (again, brilliantly) with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. “Every critic, to a man, singled [Abbott and Costello] out as the sole bright spot in this otherwise dreary film,” wrote Leonard Maltin in his book Movie Comedy Teams, and while the movie isn’t quite that bad, it does rather drone on and get predictable and dull well before it’s over. Still, give Universal credit for knowing what they had in Abbott and Costello, signing them to a long-term contract, and giving them as their next film the service comedy Buck Privates, a mega-hit which shot them to stardom.