Sunday, September 1, 2013

Vacation in Reno (RKO, 1946)

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

Charles and I ran a quirky movie last night called Vacation in Reno, a 1946 “B” from RKO (back when they were getting out of the “B” business) which TCM showed as part of a run of films set in Reno during its days as a divorce mecca: The Merry Wives of Reno (a 1934 Warner Bros. programmer I had quite fond memories of and which had some similarities to this one — particularly the speed with which a formerly happily married couple ends up on the outs with each other), Reno (a rather dour melodrama in which Richard Dix stars as a crooked divorce lawyer who ends up being disbarred for his shenanigans) and Peach-o-Reno, a brilliantly funny Wheeler and Woolsey comedy (methinks their best film together — at least the best of the ones I’ve seen) satirizing the whole divorce business in Nevada in the 1930’s. Vacation in Reno was a vehicle for Jack Haley; it opens with him and Anne Jeffreys playing Jack and Eleanor Carroll, who decide as an example to their less happily married friends (played by Wally Brown of Brown and Carney, RKO’s attempt to create their own bionic version of Abbott and Costello, and an appealingly vulgar woman whose name I couldn’t find in the credits and who never appears again) to stage an argument over a dinner party for the two couples. Only the faux argument turns real and bitter when Jack denounces Eleanor’s mother (Constance Purdy) as a “fat old porpoise,” and Eleanor gets pissed at him for real and leaves him a note that she’s moving back in with the porpoise. Jack has a job but has ambitions to start a rabbit farm, and to get his seed capital he’s bought a metal detector and is going to go out to the outskirts of Reno (“played” by ultra-familiar Western locations — so familiar that, recalling their use in the Republic serial Undersea Kingdom, I joked that he seemed to have taken a wrong turn on his way to Nevada and ended up in Atlantis) to locate the treasure of Black Bart. Jack has also bought an amphibious vehicle at an Army surplus store and drives to Reno in this preposterous craft. Only while he’s on his way out of town he witnesses two bank robbers getting into his bank just as he’s leaving with the cash for his trip, and the robbers (Morgan Conway and Alan Carney) and their associate/moll, Bunny Wells (Iris Adrian in a marvelous performance that steals the film), flee to Nevada themselves and bury their loot under Indian Rock, the location where Jack’s sources have told him to look for Black Bart’s treasure. Eleanor also comes to Nevada intending to divorce Jack, and of course, this being a movie, they all end up at the “Bar Nothing” dude ranch, where they’re chased by a sheriff’s deputy (Matt Willis, the werewolf from Return of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi) who wants to arrest the robbers and also to take Jack into custody as a material witness. The rest of the movie is basically old-fashioned bedroom farce, as the various characters go in and out of each other’s hotel rooms, either voluntarily or otherwise, and Jack also runs afoul of a woman named Mrs. Dumont (Myrna Dell), who seems to have come to Reno to divorce her sailor husband (Matt McHugh), only they reconcile … while Jack is stuck under their bed all night, hiding from Mr. Dumont’s jealous rages (he’d gone to Mrs. Dumont’s room because she’d inadvertently taken the suitcase he thought contained Black Bart’s treasure but actually contained the bank loot, and stuck him with her own suitcase full of lingerie).

There are some marvelously funny scenes in this film, notably the one in which Jack, armed with his metal detector and his map, goes out to dig for Black Bart’s treasure and finds … an old spittoon, then tears up the ground and after fruitlessly digging hole after hole after hole (a rehash of a gag in the RKO comedy masterpiece Bringing Up Baby but still hilarious) finally comes up with the suitcase of loot; and a later scene, whose homoerotic implications probably sailed over the heads of 1946 audiences (or at least 1946 Production Code censors!), in which the sheriff’s deputy handcuffs Jack to a bed and insists on spending the night with him so he can bring him in as a material witness the next morning. There’s also a predictable but still funny pratfall in which Jack ends up falling from a trellis into the salad at a garden party ­— it was at this time that, referencing Jack Haley’s most famous role, I joked that by now he was probably thinking the wizard of Oz was right when he told him he’d be better off without a heart — and a good final scene in which Eleanor rescues Jack from a runaway stagecoach which the crooks had commandeered and the cops were chasing, and Jack Haley’s stunt double does a nice leap from a low-hanging tree trunk (itself, as Charles pointed out, a familiar sight on these “Western” locations!) into the amphibious vehicle Eleanor is driving. An reviewer noted that this film, produced and directed by Leslie Goodwins from a script by Charles E. Roberts and Arthur A. Ross based on an “original” (quotes definitely appropriate!) story by Charles Kerr, was an example of Anton Chekhov’s dictum that whenever you put a pistol on the mantel in act one, it has to get fired in act three; just about every major plot point of this movie is meticulously “planted” by the writers, which makes the film well constructed but also rather predictable. It’s odd that RKO put Wally Brown and Alan Carney into the film but did not have them work together — remember that they were two comic actors who had never even met when RKO signed them and decided to pair them as their own Abbott and Costello, and it’s likely that the nose-dive in the real Abbott and Costello’s popularity in the mid-1940’s led RKO to lose interest in Brown and Carney as a team and throw them into this movie as two separate actors in two different parts of the film. There is a nice in-joke reference to the Dick Tracy radio program (the joke being that Morgan Conway, cast here as a crook, made two movies playing Dick Tracy at RKO), and overall Vacation in Reno is a nice little comedy, rarely laugh-out-loud funny but at least amusing — though Charles made the point that as a silent film with a master like Harry Langdon or even a solid but not brilliant comedian like Snub Pollard, this would have been screamingly funny instead of just moderately amusing.