Sunday, May 27, 2012

Hit the Ice (Universal, 1943)

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

After we screened the Carnegie Hall 120th anniversary concert (see below) Charles and I cracked open the Abbott and Costello at Universal boxed set and watched the next film in sequence: Hit the Ice (1943, and the last Abbott and Costello film for several months because right after it was finished Lou Costello had a long bout with rheumatic fever — ironic because doctors and sickness, real and feigned, are an important part of this film’s plot!), which was quite obviously planned by Universal to horn in on the success of the 20th Century-Fox musical Sun Valley Serenade the year before: both take place largely in the Sun Valley, Idaho ski resort and both feature big bands — though Universal’s bandleader, Johnny Long, was a far less prestigious name than Fox’s, Glenn Miller. Hit the Ice actually starts at the Fulton Hospital in New York City, where gangster Harry “Silky” Fellowsby (Sheldon Leonard) is pretending to be sick while secretly casing the City National Bank across the street, preparing to rob it with the help of two henchmen staying in the hospital room with him, Buster (Joe Sawyer) and Phil (Marc Lawrence), plus two hired guns he’s bringing in from Detroit. Abbott and Costello play street photographers Flash Fulton and Weejie “Tubby” McCoy (the surprise is that the famous real-life New York street photographer Weegee, born Ascher Fellig but using “Arthur” as an Anglicized version of his real first name when he emigrated from his native Ukraine to the U.S., was well-known enough that his alias was used as the name of a Lou Costello character, though Costello is addressed as “Tubby” through most of the film), who are hanging around the hospital and of course are mistaken by Fellowsby for his Detroit hit men after Costello says the password, “Is the doctor in?” (not something it would be surprising to hear in a hospital!).

The doctor who’s in is William Burns (Patric Knowles, though as notes his character is called “Bill Elliot” in the credits), who’s faithfully tending to Fellowsby’s imaginary illnesses (Fellowsby is maintaining the imposture thanks to a drug he’s taking that gives him a raised temperature) while his nurse, Peggy Osborne (Elyse Knox), is getting suspicious enough that Fellowsby and his thugs hatch a plot to lure her away to their cabin in Sun Valley and kill her. Fellowsby hires Flash and Tubby to stand guard outside the bank while his gang is robbing it — only the two think they’re there to take the thugs’ photo and they do just that, thereby putting themselves on Fellowsby’s rapidly growing hit list. Eventually all the characters end up on a train to Sun Valley, where Johnny Long (playing himself) and his orchestra have been hired to entertain. Flash remembers both Dr. Burns and Johnny Long as old friends of his from the neighborhood where they all grew up, and talks Long into getting him and Tubby jobs as hotel waiters — only Tubby spends most of his time cruising Long’s band singer, Marcia Manning (Ginny Simms in her first film after leaving Kay Kyser’s band to try for a solo career — her voice is nice and sultry but not really a jazz voice, though fortunately for her the film’s songs by composer Harry Revel and lyricist Paul Francis Webster really don’t require one). We’re supposed to believe that Marcia is totally innocent but is nonetheless so grateful to Fellowsby for giving her her first nightclub job that she’ll do anything for him, including playing femme fatale and luring Lou Costello so the gangsters can kill him.

Hit the Ice began with the same director and writer — Erle C. Kenton and Allan Boretz, respectively — who made the immediately previous Abbott and Costello film, It Ain’t Hay, so much better than the common run of their films — but Abbott and Costello (especially Costello, apparently) didn’t get along with Kenton and they demanded he be replaced by Charles Lamont, who along with Charles Barton directed most of the rest of the Abbott and Costello Universals. Boretz also got fired from the writing staff and more veteran A&C collaborators replaced him — True Boardman is credited with the “original” story and Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and John Grant with the script (and Grant’s talent for dazzling wordplay is shown when Costello misunderstands the word “teller” in connection with a bank employee and says, “Tell her? Tell her what?”) — though there are still some of the weird little gender-bending gags with which Boretz peppered his script for It Ain’t Hay. The most notable one is when Costello is brought into the hospital on a stretcher, and his stretcher bumps into another one just in front of it and the nurses, mistaking him for the patient in the stretcher in front of his, says, “Congratulations! You just had a baby!” “A boy or a girl?” Costello says in his most mincing voice. “A boy,” he’s told — and when he finally gets up from the stretcher and the nurses realize that whoever this person is, he couldn’t possibly have given birth, one of the nurses yells out in horror, “A man!

Hit the Ice is hardly as good a movie as Sun Valley Serenade (which benefited from Sonja Henie’s spectacular ice skating as well as Glenn Miller’s music) but it’s still a cheery little film — even the gangster menace (a pretty obvious recycling from the earlier Abbott and Costello movie Hold That Ghost, where the crooks were quite a bit more menacing than they are here) is played more for comedy than anything else — and it benefits from the musical interludes even though none of the songs are all that memorable (the best one is the opening number, “Happiness Ahead,” sung while the principals are on their way to Sun Valley). It could have benefited a lot more from Mantan Moreland’s presence, but he gets only one line out —one would have wished for more from the teaming of this great Black comedian with Abbott and Costello — but still it’s a fun movie even though it doesn’t have the flash and élan of It Ain’t Hay.