Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Spike Jones and His City Slickers (Arena Stars/Jerry Fairbanks; unsold TV pilot, 1952)

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

The film was an unsold 1952 pilot for a TV show featuring Spike Jones and His City Slickers — indeed, the show is so obscure doesn’t list it, though they do list the three TV series Jones did eventually get to do (summer replacement shows in 1954, 1957 and 1961) — which had some really clever gags but for the most part revealed how dated Jones’ brand of humor is. The weird part is that Spike Jones and His City Slickers were actually a quite capable band — the opening number they do would be a quite pleasant, infectious piece of Dixieland jazz if it weren’t for all the gunshots, horn honks and other “novelty” effects going on during it. Later in the program there’s a spot for a singer named Helen Grayco (costumed in 1952 performance drag even though her number appears in the middle of an Old West spoof) doing “One for My Baby” with some lovely obbligato playing from Jones’s trumpeter. She’s not quite at the level of the touchstone versions of this song — Fred Astaire’s (it was written for him in the 1943 movie The Sky’s the Limit), Frank Sinatra’s or Johnny Mercer’s — but her singing is subtle, eloquent and properly world-weary for Mercer’s last-call lyric. That’s the high point of the program — the Jones humor dates badly but Grayco’s haunting singing is timeless — though there are some clever gags, including an introduction showing a man, his wife and their son sitting in front of a crudely painted mockup of a TV set watching the Spike Jones program. The payoff later on is that Jones, playing a sheriff who comes into a Wild West town to tame it (only he’s riding a toy horse considerably smaller than he is, albeit with a full-sized saddle), offers the villain a drink and then shoots him — and the drink not only spurts out of the villain’s body through the bullet holes (an old gag) but drenches the hapless family supposedly watching all this on TV (a nice variation).

One reviewer loved Helen Grayco as much as I did but added, “I can see why this particular pilot was not sold though. Just awful. Great stereotyping, (not)! This trash should be flushed!” Another one said the show “would have been a breath of fresh air in 1952. I loved the endless rhyming, and the often absurd skits are still funny today. Three Stooges’ fans will recognize Mousie Garner, a former Ted Healy stooge. Too bad this didn’t sell. It would be a cult classic today.” It might at that … to the people who found the abysmal Pee-Wee’s Playhouse funny, which I most assuredly did not. It had that same weird infantilism Pee-Wee Herman tapped more recently (of course in between Spike Jones and Pee-Wee Herman there was Jerry Lewis, and before all of them — and funnier than all of them — there was Harry Langdon!), and when I saw that frame-breaking introduction it did occur to me that this might be where Pee-Wee Herman ripped off that whole disgusting act from. I’ve seen Jones’ comic holocaust (the show itself is called “Music Depreciation”!) before in 1940’s movies — including Variety Girl, where his onslaught on poor, unsuspecting singer Mary Hatcher is actually screamingly funny — and I was a bit disappointed in this show because he was working so hard for such meager laughs. Jones’s closing mini-monologue sounds so much like the oddly mincing voice of Liberace on his then-popular TV show I can’t help but wonder if it was intended as a parody, and it’s odd that this farrago of (mostly) unfunny gags was directed by Eddie Cline, who started as a Keystone Kop and made W. C. Fields’ My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break at Universal in 1940-41: ah, how the mighty had fallen!