Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dance With Me, Henry (Bob Goldstein Productions/United Artists, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened for Charles the very last film Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made together, a 1956 production by Bob Goldstein for United Artists release called Dance With Me, Henry. If the title seems familiar, it should: it’s the name of a quite popular song from the period that began life as a 1952 rhythm-and-blues hit by Hank Ballard called “Work With Me, Annie.” The song was a seductive R&B groove and the lyric was a pretty obvious sexual invitation — “You gotta work with me, Annie/Let’s get it while the getting is good” — that became so popular broadcasters started cracking down on any song with the name “Annie” in it because Ballard had associated the name with a sexually “loose” woman (just as the Jesuits in charge of running the Motion Picture Production Code seem to have encouraged classic-era screenwriters to use the name “Mary” to indicate a particularly virginal and morally pure heroine). In 1955 Etta James and Johnny Otis took Ballard’s melody and tweaked the lyric to create “The Wallflower,” also known as “Roll With Me, Henry,” supposedly Annie’s answer to Hank (Henry) Ballard’s invitation: “You gotta roll with me, Henry/You better roll it while the rollin’ is on.” James’ great record was covered by white singer Georgia Gibbs, who further tweaked the lyrics to soften them for AM radio play: “You gotta dance with me, Henry/Rock with me, Henry/Talk to me, Henry/Dance with me, Henry/You better dance while the music goes on.” Unfortunately, Bob Goldstein seems to have bought little more than the song’s title for his film — anyone hoping that they’d hear the James or Gibbs record over the opening credits the way Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was used at the start of The Blackboard Jungle (and Frank Zappa recalled going to the film only to hear the song blasted at volumes far louder than what the chintzy record players of the time could produce at home) would have been woefully disappointed. Instead the film is a weird mixture of gangster movie and soap opera that seems to have been concocted by producer Goldstein, director Charles Barton (who had helmed Abbott and Costello’s big comeback movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, back at Universal in 1948) and writers William Kozlenko, Leslie Kardos and Devery Freeman (the first two credited with the “original” — quotes definitely appropriate — story and Freeman with the screenplay) to create yet another comeback opportunity for Abbott and Costello by sentimentalizing them.

It seems as if the filmmakers had taken to heart the criticism of Abbott and Costello later made by Leonard Maltin in his book Movie Comedy Teams — “[W]ith few exceptions, the team never strove to play realistic characters in their films. … They always provided laughs, but they could never establish the bond that made Laurel and Hardy so popular with audiences; they never convinced their fans that the two guys they were playing were real people, worth caring about” — and decided to work on that problem big-time. Dance With Me, Henry is set in and around an amusement park called “Kiddyland” (its attractions, notably a Ferris wheel and an airplane ride, are decent enough but the overall atmosphere, with cheap trailers housing the offices and dirt paths, are emblematic of the general tackiness associated with amusement parks until Walt Disney revolutionized the concept with Disneyland in 1954) owned by Lou Henry (Lou Costello). Lou is also the foster father of three children, teenage aspiring opera singer Shelley (Gigi Perreau, whose voice double, Marni Nixon, went on to bigger and better things — doubling for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), rambunctious boy Duffer (Rusty Hamer) and Bootsie (Sherry Alberoni), a precocious girl whose big thrill is riding the park’s model train (similar to the one in Balboa Park that cycles around the merry-go-round and the zoo). His big problems when the film begins are a social worker, Miss Mayberry (Mary Wickes, who seems to have modeled her characterization on Margaret Hamilton’s roles in The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms — at one point I joked, “Why doesn’t she just get on her broomstick and fly back to Oz?”), who thinks Lou isn’t providing a proper home environment for the kids and wants to take them from him; and his business partner Bud Flick (Bud Abbott, sans the moustache he wore in Abbott and Costello’s later Universal films and looking like death warmed over — no one seeing this film would guess that Abbott survived Costello by 15 years, just as no one seeing Laurel and Hardy’s last film, Atoll K, would think Laurel survived Hardy by eight years!), who owes $10,000 to a gambling syndicate led by gangster Big Frank (Ted de Corsia in a role he could have played in his sleep, which it looks like he’s doing here), who sends a couple of his goons over to Lou’s home just when Miss Mayberry is there doing her evaluation.

 Dance With Me, Henry seems to have been pieced together from bits of other films, some of them previous A&C vehicles — the plot strand about Lou trying to keep custody of orphan kids comes from the 1947 sequel Buck Privates Come Home and the business of Costello locating near an orphanage and trying to help out the kids there was also used at the start of Abbott and Costello Go to Mars — and some of them not: the final chase scene, in which Abbott and Costello attempt to nail the gangsters by secretly recording their confession, only the gangsters catch them and there’s a big scene in which the two try to keep the record unbroken and safe from the gangsters so they can play it for the police, is a stone ripoff from Bob Hope’s marvelous 1947 film noir spoof My Favorite Brunette. (They even use the same payoff for the gag: once the cops arrive and the record is played, it turns out to be the wrong one — in this case, a rock ’n’ roll instrumental that the kids in the park suddenly start dancing to.) Fortunately one gag they did not recycle was having the $200,000 the gangsters got from robbing the First National Bank and stashed somewhere in Kiddyland blow away in the wind at the end, à la Treasure of the Sierra Madre — but then A&C had just done that in Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops and redoing the same gag just one year and two films later was too much even for a team as famously repetitive as Abbott and Costello. After the quality of A&C’s last two films for Universal, Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, Dance With Me, Henry seems like a major comedown, not only because Goldstein’s production budget and infrastructure are far less than what Universal could offer but because one person from the Universal days he should have hired and didn’t is screenwriter John Grant, author of “Who’s on First?” and A&C’s other famous radio routines. Dance With Me, Henry is a routine comedy with only one truly great scene: Lou comes across Bud being held hostage in Big Frank’s hideout, and with Frank and the other gangsters momentarily out of the room Bud tries to signal Lou as best he can with a piece of duct tape over his mouth and a rope tying him to a chair to take off the gag, untie the rope and release him. (The noises Bud emits through his gag sound an awful lot like the grunts and growls of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man.) Instead Lou thinks Bud wants a cigarette and, rather than take the tape off his mouth, he cuts a slit in it, inserts a cigarette and lights it.

The film misses as many opportunities as it grabs; when it turns out Shelley has a boyfriend, aspiring rock star Ernie (Ron Hargrave) — though, anachronistically, he carries a ukulele instead of a guitar and tells Shelley she has “It,” a 1920’s expression that was very dated by 1956 — and Lou says he’s concerned that this will ruin Shelley’s chances to make it as an opera singer because Ernie will teach her his sort of music instead, we immediately assume the writers are setting up a duet in which Ernie and Shelley will perform the title song together (perhaps with some opera vs. rock by-play along the lines of Judy Garland’s opera vs. swing routines with Deanna Durbin in Every Sunday and Betty Jaynes in Babes in Arms), but our hopes are dashed. Dance With Me, Henry is a dispiriting end to Abbott and Costello’s career, and things only got worse for them after that; this movie was supposed to be a sinecure for them financially (the copyright is credited to “Bud Abbott and Lou Costello”), but it didn’t work that way because in 1957 the Internal Revenue Service sued Abbott and Costello for back taxes and the two had to sell virtually everything they owned, including their homes and the rights to their films, to pay the tax bill. Abbott decided to retire — asked if he was going to seek a new partner, Costello joked, “I might try and work with Dean Martin” (who had just broken up with Jerry Lewis in a famously bitter feud that resulted in the two men not even being in the same room together or speaking by phone for 19 years!) — and after making one more movie, The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock, a minor but charming sci-fi spoof for Columbia that succeeded where Dance With Me, Henry failed in making a Lou Costello character genuinely sympathetic and giving him a chance to do pathos, Costello was in line to star in the Broadway musical Fiorello! about New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia when his long list of debilitating illnesses finally caught up with him and he died March 2, 1959 at age 52. (Tom Bosley replaced him in Fiorello!) Abbott never worked again except for voicing a series of cartoon shorts for Hanna-Barbera in 1967 and 1968 with Stan Irwin doing Costello’s voice; “Resemblance to the real team is only superficial,” Leonard Maltin sniffed.