Monday, October 8, 2012

In Society (Universal, 1944)

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

 The film was In Society, the next in sequence in the Abbott and Costello boxed set at Universal (oddly we hadn’t cracked this box open since last May!) and apparently the first film A&C had made at Universal since Lou Costello had been laid up with rheumatic fever and had been too sick to work for months. It didn’t show in the film, though, even though it had its cheap-jack aspects: Universal assigned director Erle C. Kenton (whom Abbott and Costello had had fired from their immediately previous Universal film, Hit the Ice) to shoot the big musical numbers, and though there were some quite elaborate slapstick set-pieces in this one (notably one in which Abbott and Costello are hiding out in a moving van, the van hits a bump, and the couch on which the boys are sitting falls out and self-propels itself an unnaturally long time), the big final chase scene was largely based on footage from W. C. Fields’ last starring film for Universal, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Universal padded this one out with a lot of musical stars, though not at the talent level of their early films — instead of the Andrews Sisters, Martha Raye or Ella Fitzgerald, the singing star this time out was former Glenn Miller band singer Marion Hutton, who also played the film’s female romantic lead, and she was joined by three other girls billed merely as “The Sisters — Margie, Bea and Geri.” Later, in the 1950’s, they’d become known as the Fontane Sisters (that was their last name!) and would specialize in recording white covers of Black R&B songs, but here they just come off as a low-budget knock-off of the Andrews Sisters. There are a lot of A&C bits that pretty much riff off things they’d done before, and a script that casts them as two independent plumbers who get an assignment to fix a bathroom-sink leak at the lavish mansion of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Van Cleave (Thurston Hall and Nella Walker), work they have to do as quietly as possible because Mr. Van Cleave is trying to sleep in the very next room. Of course they make as much noise as possible and by the time they’re finished they’ve demolished half the bathroom. Our two heroes, Eddie Harrington (Bud Abbott) and Albert Marshall (Lou Costello), have worked out a neat racket for getting more business: they’ve listed themselves in the phone book as both “Ajax Plumbing” and “Atlas Plumbing,” so if someone working down the list of plumbers in the phone book calls Ajax Plumbing and thinks the price they quote for their job is too high, the next number they call is Atlas and so Eddie and Albert have a chance to re-bid the job and still get it. (This plot point threw one contributor who cited the different names of Abbott’s and Costello’s plumbing company as a continuity goof.)

There’s a routine in which Abbott bids Costello to honk the horn of the cab belonging to their friend Elsie Hammerdingle (Marion Hutton) so she can drive them to the Van Cleaves for their plumbing gig, and a cop tries to bust them and threatens Costello with bodily harm if he keeps honking the horn. There’s another one in which Costello is asked by a friend to take a batch of straw hats to the Susquehanna Hat Company on Bagel Street — only just the sound of those names freaks out everyone they run into (including a woman who tells A&C that her husband died on Bagel Street when a 15-ton safe fell on him — and the next person they meet is a man who tells them, “I’m dead. I died when a 15-ton safe fell on me, but don’t tell my wife because she thinks I’m dead”) and eventually the hats are in ruins and so are the ceramic knick-knacks made and marketed by the man who gave them the hats to return, who’s had his own nervous-breakdown freak-out over the names. In Society has the feel of something you’ve already seen but it’s still screamingly funny, and its plot — Mrs. Roger Winthrop (Margaret Irving) is trying to arrange the marriage of her daughter Gloria (Ann Gillis, who gets to sing a song of her own called “Rehearsin’” and turns out to have a nice voice) to nice young rich kid Peter Evans (Kirby Grant), who shows up at the Van Cleaves’ costume party dressed as a cabdriver and refuses to believe that the woman who’s introduced herself as Elsie Hammerdingle and insists she’s really a cabdriver isn’t herself a society girl in disguise. Peter brings Elsie as his guest to the Winthrops’ big weekend “do” at which there will be a charity unveiling of the priceless painting “The Plunger” (it’s a picture of a gambler but of course A&C think it’s a piece of plumbing gear), and A&C get invited to this party by mistake when the Van Cleaves put their own invitation in an envelope in which they were supposed to mail a missive threatening A&C with legal action if they dared send them a bill for wrecking their bathroom. (As Charles joked later, one wonders how much the Acme Plumbing Company charged the Van Cleaves to fix the damage wreaked on their bathroom by the Atlas Plumbing Company.)

Not only this plot point (the priceless painting that gets stolen — in this instance by a couple of loan sharks, one of them played by Thomas Gomez, who are after A&C for the $1,000 they lent the boys to start their plumbing business) but the presence of Margaret Irving recall the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, and at least one other cast member has a Marxist connection: Marion Hutton was the female lead in the Marx Brothers’ last film together, Love Happy. The credited director was the Boy Named Jean Yarbrough, who would make two more movies with A&C (Here Come the Co-Eds and The Naughty Nineties — the latter the one in which they would finally get to put the whole “Who’s on First?” routine on film after having done a snippet in their first film, One Night in the Tropics) and still later work with them on their early-1950’s TV show, and the writing crew was the usual comedy committee: Hugh Wedlock, Jr. and Howard Snyder, story;  John Grant, Edmund Hartmann and Hal Fimberg, script; Clyde Bruckman, “additional comedy sequences (uncredited)” — given his experience with Keaton, Lloyd and Fields, he must have done the elaborate slapstick trajectories — and Sid Fields, “additional Abbott and Costello comedy material (uncredited).” In Society also has an even odder comedy connection: two of the songs, “No Bout Adout It” (a misplaced-syllables song obviously copped from Larry Clinton’s “The Dipsy-Doodle,” which Marion Hutton’s far more famous sister Betty had sung with Vincent Lopez’s band in a Warners Vitaphone short and Ella Fitzgerald had delightfully recorded with Chick Webb) and “My Dreams Are Better All the Time” (a mega-hit, not for Marion Hutton but for Doris Day with Les Brown’s band), are by Vic Mizzy, recently deceased songwriter whose best-known credit was the theme for The Addams Family. In Society is a workmanlike comedy and a good showcase for Abbott and Costello; like virtually all of their films it’s as flat as a pancake in terms of character depth but it’s also very, very funny.