Monday, April 30, 2012

Who Done It? (Universal, 1942)

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

Charles and I watched a movie together: Who Done It?, the next in sequence in the boxed set of the complete Abbott and Costello on Universal and a quite funny film. It was the first film Abbott and Costello ever made that was not a musical — by 1942 Universal was convinced that their star comedians could carry a movie and draw an audience without having to drag in the Andrews Sisters, Dick Powell, Martha Raye or Ella Fitzgerald to warble a few songs — and though it was a pretty straightforward murder mystery with comedy (and the sometimes awkwardly structured script by Stanley Roberts, Edmund Joseph and John Grant doesn’t combine the mystery and comedy elements all that well — instead they just kind of sit on each other), it’s also a screamingly funny film from Abbott and Costello’s first introduction (they’re counterpeople at a delicatessen and Costello is trying to make a customer the limburger-cheese sandwich he’s ordered, only he’s so overcome by the fumes he keeps passing out and finally has to put on a gas mask to make the sandwich) to their final climax, a shoot-out on the roof of the radio building where the action has taken place. It has a cast that almost counts as all-star by Universal standards — the “straight” (in both senses) leads are Patric Knowles as Jimmy Turner, a professor who’s turned amateur radio writer and whose scripts have won him the job replacing burned-out writer Marco Heller (the marvelous character actor Jerome Cowan) on the GBS network’s big program, Murder at Midnight; and Louise Allbritton as Jane Little, Turner’s old girlfriend and now the producer of Murder at Midnight.

The cast is filled with eccentrically cast character actors as well: Thomas Gomez as GBS owner Col. J. R. Andrews (a pretty obvious takeoff on General David Sarnoff, the founder and head of NBC), Ludwig Stössel (billed without his umlaut) as Dr. Anton Marek, who’s not only Col. Andrews’ personal physician but also a Czech war refugee; Mary Wickes as Juliet Collins, a secretary at GBS whom Chick Larkin (Bud Abbott) asks his friend Mervin Q. Milgrim (Lou Costello) to romance in order to get them an “in” selling their radio script to GBS (and when they perform their script for her, one half-expects her to pull the old gag of hiring them, making them think their piece works as serious drama, then putting it on the air as a comedy); and William Gargan and William Bendix as the two cops who pull the case when Col. Andrews is killed, electrocuted by his own microphone during a broadcast. Later Dr. Marek is found murdered as well, and though this isn’t one of Abbott and Costello’s service comedies the motive was trendily war-related: Col. Andrews, who had served as a military cryptographer during World War I, has noticed that certain lines in a broadcast that’s ostensibly just a series of trivia are actually code giving away the sailing times and routes of American convoys so German U-boats can sink them, and he works with Dr. Marek because the decoded messages are not in English and Marek, a linguist as well as an M.D., can translate them.

Not particularly surprisingly, the killer turns out to be someone who’s otherwise barely in the movie (and whose character is otherwise so unimportant I can’t even remember his name), but the revelation of “who done it?” is more beside the point than usual in a film memorable for its fine comedy routines, including the “watts-volts” dialogue in which Abbott is attempting to explain to Costello the basics of electronic physics and Costello fails to see the connection between watts and volts, and works up to the punchline, “Next thing I know you’ll be telling me watts’ on second base!” (later there’s an in-joke in which Abbott’s and Costello’s characters hear Abbott and Costello do the “Who’s On First?” routine on a portable radio and talk about how they’ve never liked them) as well as a scene in which Abbott and Costello disguise themselves as acrobats and crash a theatre in the radio building (at first I wondered who would have put an acrobat act on radio, but then I realized this was a room in the building that was operating as a theatre for live acts and wasn’t connected to the broadcasting company) and the stunt work is amazing (both Abbott and Costello did a lot of their own stunts, and what they didn’t do themselves they had their brothers, Norman Abbott and Pat Costello, doing for them so you didn’t get the credibility-jarring mismatches in appearance between stars and stunt doubles that have marred quite a lot of movies).

There’s also a good slapstick scene in which A&C escape the radio building because cops Gargan and Bendix are in hot pursuit of them (there’s a great scene in which Gargan is tricked by Costello into handcuffing himself, and a follow-up scene in which Gargan has been let out of the handcuffs by Mary Wickes but A&C continue to taunt him because they don’t know that), only they have to sneak back in so Costello can claim his prize on the Wheel of Fortune program (and the “topper” of that gag is that the I.D. Costello uses to prove his identity is his old Girl Scouts membership card!) and a nice ending that goes on a bit too long but has some ingenious gags of its own, including Costello improvising a slingshot to shoot out some of the letters on a lighted rooftop sign that reads, “VOTE FOR TOWNSEND PHELPS,” so it forms the message “SEND HELP” — and after the villain is safely caught Costello throws something else at the sign so the “S” and the “HELP” parts of the sign burn out and we’re left with the word “END” to signal that the film has indeed ended. (I miss the words “The End” at the end of today’s films.)