Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Nitwits (RKO, 1935)

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

The film was The Nitwits, a 1935 RKO vehicle for their star comedians Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey, who’d been making movies for six years and were sort of bread-and-butter stars there, making cheap movies that produced reliable profits and helped fund the rest of the RKO output. They were also a training ground for up-and-coming directors, whom RKO usually started on the comedy shorts of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough; if they did well there, they would get to do Wheeler and Woolsey films; and if they did that one well, they would get the premiere assignment RKO had to offer an aspiring director: a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie. This one was directed by George Stevens, a young man who’d started as Leo McCarey’s assistant at Hal Roach Studios and cinematographer on some of the early Laurel and Hardy classics McCarey directed — and yes, that training really shows through in this movie. His next film after The Nitwits, the Katharine Hepburn vehicle Alice Adams, would put him firmly on the “A” list, and the year after that he’d get his Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time. The Nitwits is a peculiar combination of slapstick comedy, murder mystery and old-dark-house thriller; it’s set in the building occupied by the Lake music publishing company, whose slogan is, “Lake Songs Make the Whole World Sing.” We see a Lake song doing that very thing in the opening sequence — after an inventive set of credits in which the title and names of the cast and crew are shown as perforations on a player-piano roll (which, as Charles noted, is traveling in the opposite direction from a real one) — in which a young man (Joey Ray) with a nice voice is singing Lake’s latest hit, “You Opened My Eyes.”

The song is picked up by a woman (Joan Andrews) with almost no voice at all, then by a decent if unspectacular vocal trio, as it makes the rounds of practice rooms and CEO Winfield Lake (Hale Hamilton) decides it’s got such great hit potential he’s going to drop everything else and make it his company’s number one priority. The Lake company occupies most of the building but there are a few other businesses there, including a cigar stand run by Johnny (Bert Wheeler) and Newton (Robert Woolsey). Johnny is madly in love with Lake’s secretary, Mary Roberts (Betty Grable, five years before she achieved superstardom at 20th Century-Fox; it’s a nothing part any reasonably attractive young woman could have played, but there’s an absolutely marvelous moment in which Lake, who’s married, is putting the make on her; he puts his hand on her wrist and she politely lifts it off her and says, “I’d rather you not do that again,” a surprisingly mature depiction of sexual harassment for a 1935 film!), and also a costume company (which becomes significant later). Newton is also an amateur inventor who’s just come up with a set of electrodes that fit on either side of a person’s head and are supposed to be able to get the person to tell his innermost thoughts — one contributor about this film said he thought the U.S. could have used this at Guantánamo (though if they had they’d have probably got a lot of people saying things like, “I’m not a terrorist! That awful brother-in-law who’s never liked me sold me out to you!”) — and the murder plot thickens when Lake receives a written extortion demand from a mysterious super-criminal called “The Black Widow.” Lake and his wife (Evelyn Brent, on her way down as Stevens and Grable were on their way up) decide to call in private detective William Darrell (Fred Keating), whom they’d used on a case before — and the moment he arrives he’s so smarmy and self-righteous we’re almost certain he’s going to turn out to be the killer even though the movie throws us a lot of red herrings.

Among them are the composer of “You Opened My Eyes,” George Clark (Erik Rhodes — whom it’s odd to hear speak with his normal voice, or what I assume was his normal voice, instead of the marvelous faux-Italian accent he used in the Astaire-Rogers Gay Divorcée and Top Hat), and Lurch (Arthur Aylesworth), a shriveled man who hangs around the Lake office and insists that virtually anything anybody says there — including something as innocuous as “Good morning” — is ripped off from one of his songs. (Charles said he should be alive today; he’d make a great patent troll.) Anyway, the extortionist kills Lake by moving aside the chandelier on the ceiling of his office (obviously the killer is on the floor just above) and sticking his gun through a hole in the ceiling. What follows is a surprisingly creepy Old Dark House-style movie interspersed with some quite inventive gags, notably one in which Mary is arrested for murdering Lake and Johnny and Newton figure out a weird way to visit her in jail; they hang out outside the jail wearing stilts, which almost raise them to the level of the second-floor window of her cell, and they sing “Music in My Heart,” the song Johnny and Mary had previously danced to on the staircase of the Lake office building (shot with an elaborate traveling camera; I suspect Stevens borrowed the famous “Astaire-Rogers crane,” which RKO had devised to film the Fred-and-Ginger dances in the single, uninterrupted take Astaire insisted on; the joke on the lot was that the person pushing the crane had to be as agile as Astaire and Rogers were!). They get a lot of curious looks from the male prisoners; The Nitwits was one of the first films to bear a Production Code seal (#839) but it still had a bit of the cheekiness of the so-called “pre-Code” era! The finale is an elaborate chase scene in the building in which Johnny and Newton trap Darrell in Newton’s “truth detector” machine, Darrell says, “I’m the Black Widow!” — and our two nitwits don’t believe him even though he is the killer.

Through much of the chase he wears a skin-tight skeleton suit appropriated from that costume company, and he runs into a group of five Black people playing a crap game — their leader, “Sleepy” (Willie Best, playing the same racist garbage as usual even though some of his gags are genuinely funny for a change), worked there as a janitor and thought of sneaking his crew in the building because the cops had staked out their other locations (anticipating by about 15 years the central plot gimmick of Guys and Dolls!), only of course, being 1930’s movie Blacks, they’re scared shitless and flee at the sight of him. While it’s not part of the top tier of Wheeler and Woolsey films — I’d rate Half Shot at Sunrise, Hold ’Em Jail, Cracked Nuts and the marvelous Peach-o-Reno ahead of it — The Nitwits is genuinely amusing, written by Fred Guiol (who briefly cracked the directorial ranks at Roach and RKO before reverting to screenwriting and eventually working on a number of George Stevens’ big movies, including Gunga Din and Giant) and Al Boasberg from a story by mystery pulp writer Stuart Palmer ( records three other writers who worked on the gags, including Grant Garrett, future RKO “B” producer Leslie Goodwins and Stevens himself), and directed by Stevens with an awareness of the slapstick lessons he’d learned from working for Leo McCarey on Laurel and Hardy movies at Roach; it’s also got two good songs (plus a gag one, ripped off from the “Lon Chaney’s Going to Get You If You Don’t Watch Out” song in MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929), personable performances by the stars and, in Betty Grable, a far more appealing and tolerable leading lady than their usual one, the annoying Dorothy Lee. Interestingly, lists no other movie with The Nitwits as its title, and it was nice finally to see the player-piano credit sequence restored; when I first saw the film in the 1980’s it was in a C&C Television print that freeze-framed the start of the credits to insert their logo in place of RKO’s!