Thursday, April 18, 2013

Here Comes Trouble (Hal Roach, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Here Comes Trouble, a 1948 Hal Roach production that attempted to update the “streamliners” he had made during World War II featuring two oddly matched Army sergeants, big old-school tough guy Ames (Joe Sawyer) and scrawny, bookish Dorian “Dodo” Doubleday (William Tracy, top-billed), in which the gag was that Doubleday’s brains kept triumphing over Ames’ brawn. In this one they’ve been demobbed and Doubleday expects to get back his old job as a copy boy on the Tribune (or, as their Art Deco sign spells it, the Tribvne — sort of like those old Roman inscriptions, or modern attempts to duplicate them, which used “V” for “U” — that’s why the credits for the 1970’s BBC-TV miniseries based on Robert Graves’ I, Claudius listed the title as I, Clavdivs). Only the paper’s editor/publisher, Winfield “Windy” Blake (Emory Parnell), can’t stand Doubleday and wants to fire him. The only thing that’s keeping him from doing that is that Blake’s daughter Penny (Beverly Lloyd) is in love with Doubleday and has talked her dad into promoting him. (With the encyclopedic knowledge of trivia Doubleday has shown in the previous films in the series, it’s surprising Windy hasn’t made him a fact-checker.) At the same time Windy is mounting an editorial crusade against the gangsterism dominating his city, and the result has been the paper’s police reporters keep getting roughed up by the baddies. The fourth such reporter has just quit and Windy hits on the idea of giving Doubleday the job as a way of getting him beaten and inducing him to resign — and also getting his daughter to see Doubleday as a coward and break up with him. Of course, it doesn’t work that way; Doubleday and Ames, a cop since his discharge, team up and bring the gangsters to justice. The central issue the plot revolves around is a notebook owned by burlesque entertainer Bubbles LaRue (Joan Woodbury, great — and wasted — as usual), who at one point Windy had an extramarital affair with (Windy’s wife is played by the silent-screen star Betty Compson, and she too is pretty wasted in the role) and also took up with some of the gangsters and wrote down a diary containing their secrets — and Windy’s. Windy sends Doubleday to the theatre where Bubbles is performing, with instructions to buy the notebook from her; he’s supposed to deliver the money she’s asked for, pick up the notebook and then blackjack her to make it look like she was mugged and the notebook picked up from her by the thief.

Of course, things go wrong: Martin Stafford (Paul Stanton), a staffer at the Tribune (the site identifies him as an attorney but that’s not all that clear in the film itself) and the gangsters’ secret mole on the paper, hears about the plot and goes to the theatre, knocks out the clown on the bill (Eddie Bartell) and disguises himself as the clown so he can get close enough to Bubbles to shoot and kill her. Doubleday finds Bubbles’ body and of course is immediately suspected of the crime, and to make things worse Penny Blake arrives on the scene and is instantly (and wrongly) convinced Doubleday and Bubbles were having an affair. The complexity of this scenario shows the biggest weakness of Here Comes Trouble: it’s so elaborately plotted it’s difficult for writers George Carleton Brown and Edward Seabrook, and director Fred Guiol (a graduate of the Laurel and Hardy films at Roach in the 1930’s who later left Roach for RKO with his immediate boss, director George Stevens, and in the later part of his career was mostly a writer and general assistant on Stevens’ major movies rather than a director of these minor ones), to get enough laughs into this so-called “comedy.” The final sequence is absolutely brilliant, sort of A Night at the Opera meets The 39 Steps (the Hitchcock version, and his own inspiration, Fritz Lang’s Spies), in which the good guys and the bad guys chase each other both on- and off-stage at the burlesque house, and the audience members react to the parts of the chase that take place on stage as if they’re part of the show and find them uproariously funny. Unfortunately you have to sit through a lot of pretty tiresome exposition to get there. Part of the problem with Here Comes Trouble is that William Tracy simply isn’t as funny here as he was in the war films — in which the sheer incongruity of someone so weak and physically un-robust in the military was amusing enough in itself — and it also doesn’t help that he only gets two sequences in which he rattles off the intellectual trivia with which he impressed some people and exasperated others in the earlier films in the series.

In the list of movie comedians who have got laughs by reverting to childhood — playing the incongruity of a child-like character in an adult body — Tracy falls (as he does chronologically) between Harry Langdon and Jerry Lewis, and oddly in Here Comes Trouble (made just a year before the real Lewis would make his screen debut in My Friend Irma) he seems more Langdonesque than Lewisish, trying to play slow, delicate comedy in the atmosphere of a Hal Roach film and working against the instincts of Roach, his son (who produced) and Guiol for rough, fast, knockabout comedy. (Roach’s greatest stars, Laurel and Hardy, could do both rough slapstick and delicate situation humor, but they were the exceptions.) Here Comes Trouble came from Roach’s second attempt to popularize the “streamliner” — a film form he concocted to run about 40-45 minutes, to fall between the length of a two-reeler and a “B” feature — and which he called “streamliner” because the word “streamline” had the same kind of cachet in the 1940’s as “high-tech” had in the 1990’s. The first go-round had been a box-office disappointment, so the second time around Roach decided to sweeten the pot by shooting the films in color — only he didn’t want to spend the money for Technicolor and so he shot in the cheaper Cinécolor process instead. Most of the Roach color films don’t exist that way — they survived only in the black-and-white prints struck in the 1950’s for TV showings (Walt Disney seems to have been the only Hollywood entrepreneur who realized in the 1950’s that even if TV wasn’t in color then, it would be) — but for this one promised us a color version. Alas, much of it was badly faded; some of the sequences (notably the one at the burlesque house just before Bubbles is killed, in which her orange dress and the orange balloon she uses in her act make an electrifying effect) are spectacular, but others are so dim certain sequences, including the opening, look like a black-and-white movie with just a few bits of tinting around the faces. Here Comes Trouble is an O.K. movie, nothing more than a pleasant time-filler (which is probably what 1948 audiences thought of it as well) but with a great, hilarious final sequence that deserved to be prefaced by a better movie!