Monday, November 21, 2016

Comin’ Round the Mountain (Universal-International, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles and I the next Abbott and Costello movie in the Universal boxed set: Comin’ Round the Mountain, a really peculiar 1951 production which I prefaced with an episode of the Jack Benny Program from TV around the same time that featured the film’s oddball female star, Dorothy Shay, who performed in New York nightclubs and was billed as “Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly.” According to her page, Dorothy Shay was born April 11, 1921 in Jacksonville, Florida as Dorothy Sims (close … ), studied acting and learned to lose her Southern accent, sang for the USO during World War II and after the war got a job as a vocalist with the Morton Gould Orchestra. One evening she dredged up an old hillbilly song called “Uncle Fud” as a novelty encore. It was a success, and she recorded it, following it up with a whole series of records which she sang in a pure, unaccented voice but which dealt with hillbilly subjects — or at least Tin Pan Alley songwriters’ ideas of hillbilly subjects. She had the biggest hit of her career in 1947 with “Feudin’, Fussin’ and Fightin’,” and her live performances reflected the oxymoronic qualities of her stage ID: her long, classy evening gowns were pure Park Avenue but her songs were pop creations with “hillbilly” lyrics — including the one she sang on the 1951 Jack Benny Program, “A Little Western Town Called Beverly Hills,” which arguably anticipates the premise of the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies over a decade early.

In Comin’ Round the Mountain she gets an “Introducing” credit and plays Dorothy McCoy, “The Manhattan Hillbilly,” who’s such a success at the posh nightclub where she performs that the owner allows her manager, Al Stewart (Bud Abbott), to try out his lesser acts there. But he draws the line at Wilbert Smith (Lou Costello), a pudgy magician Al is trying to pass off as a Houdini-like escape artist. Al carefully explains to Wilbert that the master key to open the chains with which he’s been bound and encased in a stage box will be concealed in his mouth — and then Al gives Wilbert a hearty slap on the back, which of course causes Wilbert to swallow the key and flail hopelessly in the box for several minutes, much to Al’s embarrassment. The club owner has had enough and fires not only Al but Dorothy as well, but while he was making his escape through sheer brute force Wilbert emitted a yell that causes Dorothy to identify him as the grandson of Squeezebox McCoy, the long-lost relative who started the family feud between the McCoy’s and — not the Hatfields this time, but the Winfields (were the “suits” at Universal-International worried some surviving Hatfield relative was going to sue?). She takes him back to her ancestral homeland, Kentucky, where her grandmother (Ida Moore in a movie-stealing performance) has promised a treasure to anyone who can prove he’s a descendant of Squeezebox McCoy. What follows is an unwittingly surrealistic series of incidents including a turkey shoot which Wilbert, who’s never even held a gun, has to enter to prove he’s a worthy McCoy. Al and Dorothy work out a plot that they’ll get someone else to fire the gun and hit the target at the same time Wilbert shoots and inevitably misses — there’s a cute scene in which the person they offer a dollar to for this service passes it on to someone they only offer 50¢ to, who in turn gives the honors to 14-year-old Matt (Shaye Cogan), who’s actually a girl named Clory but still cuts a surprisingly androgynous figure for a 1951 film, who agrees to do it for a dime and uses a repeating rifle that fires nine shots in succession, more than Wilbert’s old single-shooter could do.

The McCoys are concerned about getting their hands on the treasure and also about getting Matt hitched — by Hollywood-hillbilly standards she’s old enough to get married (the Jack Benny Program Dorothy Shay did has a gag in which Benny plays hillbilly fiddler “Zeke Benny” and introduces the band’s 12-year-old girl singer as “my wife,” then introduces a rather dim-looking but still fully grown man as their child) — and they decide that Wilbert should marry her. Wilbert wants to marry Dorothy, only Dorothy has fallen love with hot, hunky folksong researcher Clark Winfield (Kirby Grant, a reasonably famous singer who doesn’t get a chance to sing here). So Al and Wilbert pay a visit to local witch Aunt Huddy to pick up a love potion which will, once she drinks it, make Dorothy fall in love with the first man she sees — and Aunt Huddy, who lives in a wood so gnarled it looks like Universal-International recycled the set from one of their horror films and Charles inevitably joked, referencing The Wizard of Oz, “I’d turn back if I were you,” turns out to be Margaret Hamilton in full Wicked Witch of the West drag (though since this was a black-and-white film at least she didn’t have to wear the green-colored copper-based makeup that nearly killed her when she caught on fire during The Wizard of Oz and the stagehands had to pat her down gently to put out the fire and not push the makeup into open skin, which could have been lethal) and a delight to see again. She and Lou Costello have a voodoo duel with dolls of each other, and the love potion turns out to be the predictable disaster — it makes Dorothy fall in love with Wilbert, Wilbert fall in love with Matt, Matt fall in love with Al (the Bud Abbott character) and Devil Dan McCoy (former Frankenstein Monster Glenn Strange, who’s clearly playing the sort of part Lon Chaney, Jr. had played in earlier Universal Abbott and Costellos like Here Come the Co-Eds) fall in love with one of the other male cast members (platonically, of course, this being a Code-era movie). Of course, some of the androgyny gags “play” very differently now in the era of same-sex marriage equality than they did in 1951!

Comin’ Round the Mountain benefits from the return of Robert Lees and Frederick Rinaldo as the writing team — along with John Grant, the team’s wordplay specialist, they were responsible for many of A&C’s early hits — and also the presence of a musical co-star, even though, as personable and pleasant as she is, Dorothy Shay is hardly a talent on the level of the Andrews Sisters, Martha Raye or Ella Fitzgerald. It’s also got one of those weird endings A&C were doing a lot of in the early 1950’s, in which the boys and the villainous Winfields figure out that the McCoy treasure is in a long-abandoned coal mine; the boys dig for it and find themselves in a vault full of neatly stacked bullion bars. It turns out they’ve broken into Fort Knox, and the guards immediately arrest them and haul them off to prison as the film ends — hapless endings like this fit Laurel and Hardy quite well but seem out of place in Abbott and Costello movies. Still, Comin’ Round the Mountain (a title that had been used twice before by Hollywood — in 1936 as a vehicle for Gene Autry and in 1940 for Paramount’s “hillbilly” comedian Bob Burns) is a fine and quite funny film, achieving an almost surrealistic quality in its succession of barely related scenes, both slapstick (there’s a particularly funny gag in which Wilbert seems to think he’s going to have a bed all to himself on a rainy night, but a succession of male McCoys gets into the bed with him, each new arrival telling the others to move over, until Wilbert takes a pratfall out of the bed and onto the floor) and John Grant’s dialogue (in one scene Al tries to explain to Wilbert the concept of “forefathers,” and Wilbert refuses to believe that he had four fathers: “I didn’t have four fathers. …  If I did, only one came home nights.”