Thursday, October 29, 2009

Film Review: Zombies on Broadway

"Zombies on Broadway" ** (out of ****)

After reviewing the Abbott & Costello comedy "Hold That Ghost" (1941), I got an idea. Why not review a couple more of these comedy horror films? The problem with that idea is there are few comedies which are as good as the ones Abbott & Costello did. What, you don't believe me? Okay, then watch "Zombies on Broadway" (1945) starring RKO's comedy team Brown & Carney. Which many believe was RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello.

That statement is two-fold in my opinion. It can serve as a reference to recommend Brown & Carney. As if someone said, "hey, if you like Abbott & Costello, then you'll like Brown & Carney". But it also implies Brown & Carney aren't funny on their own and should be considered an imitation of Abbott & Costello. Sort of the low rent version. I wouldn't go that far but Brown & Carney don't quite leave the same impression on you other comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers or even Abbott & Costello do.

So why am I reviewing them? Well, readers should know by now I like discussing comedy teams, especially the comics time has forgotten. I'd like to expand my readers horizons and introduce all of you to films and movie stars you may not have heard of. Plus, "Zombies on Broadway" will serve as a good example on why blending comedy and horror is sometimes difficult and demonstrate why you should appreciate Abbott & Costello's ventures into the genre more.

Brown & Carney were both RKO contract players. RKO had placed them in a movie, "Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event" (1943), which is out of print and I have never seen. Apparently RKO thought they had something good and could provide an alternative to A&C. So they were placed in 11 other films between 1943-1946. Their first film as an official team was "Adventures of A Rookie" (1944), some have suggested this is their best comedy. Their last film together was "Genius at Work" (1946) which was a remake of Wheeler & Woolsey's (another RKO comedy team that I have also reviewed) "The Nitwits" (1935). Other highlights include "Step Lively" (1944) a remake of the Marx Brothers' comedy "Room Service" (1938) with Frank Sinatra and their sequel to "Rookie", "Rookies in Burma" (1943).

But it is perhaps "Zombies on Broadway" which is their most accessible film today. It has become their most popular. In it Wally Brown, the some what "straight man" of the team, plays Jerry Miles and Alan Carney, who sort of resembles Lou Costello, is Mike Streger (the teams used these names in a few of their pictures) they are a couple of press agents who work for gangster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard, who somehow got type casted for playing these kind of roles. Watch him in "Guys & Dolls" (1955) later he become a producer with fellow comedian Danny Thomas). Miller is about to open a nightclub called "Zombie Hut". So Jerry and Mike think it will be a great publicity gag if they advertise that a real Zombie will make an appearance at the club. But when Ace finds out they really don't have a zombie, surprisingly he becomes mad and doesn't want to promote false advertising, especially when a public crusader radio announcer, Douglas Walker (Louis Jean Heydt) is on Ace's back to expose him as a fraud. So Ace orders Jerry and Mike to go find a real zombie or else their lives will be at stake.

The team catches a boat to the island of San Sebastian, which served as same island where Val Lewton's "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) took place. Many cite "Zombies on Broadway" as a semi-sequel (whatever that is) to Lewton's film. It even shares one of the same characters, a local singer (Sir Lancelot) who sings songs about death. Since "I Walked With A Zombie" was also made at RKO it would seem the studio was spoofing itself.

The boys are on the look out for a scientist, Dr. Paul Renault (Bela Lugosi) who rumor has it is an expert on zombies. What the boys don't know is the rumors are true and Dr. Renault is kidnapping the natives in an attempt to turn them into zombies. He wants to discover why do the witch doctors have powers which science cannot explain. The doctor has already made one zombie but previous experiments have failed. Before the locals start to get suspicious Renault wants his zombie to kidnap tourist. And guess who he decides on?

Films dealing with the occult and particularly zombies seemed to be all the rage in the 40s with films like "I Walked With A Zombie", the Bob Hope comedy "The Ghost Breakers" (1940) and this film. I'm uncertain what caused this trend, I wonder if it had something to do with the war.

"Zombies on Broadway" does make modest attempts to capitalize on the film's setting, a tropical island occupied with voodoo chants. And we even see one ritual. But that isn't really the problem. The problem is the film isn't funny. I laughed at a few bits here and there but largely I found the film to be slow moving and dull. Brown & Carney are in practically every scene but they don't have any established routines. This is what I think makes them a lesser team.

As I have stated both men were solos under contract with RKO. They never worked together before and hadn't established a chemistry with one another. They were just placed together. Other teams like Abbott & Costello or Olsen & Johnson had worked together on stage or radio or both. They were friendly and had good relations. They worked on an act together. They developed personas to play off of. Brown & Carney never went through any of that. Their characters aren't as clearly defined. Brown is suppose to be the leader of the team. He is the one with the big ideas, unless something goes wrong. Carney is his faithful best friend who goes along with him. On paper that sounds like your typical comedy team. But there is nothing memorable about them. Brown isn't much of a straight man, because sometimes it seems he wants to go for laughs and Carney isn't much of a comic because he hasn't separated himself as something unique. For instance, Stan Laurel was the innocent, child-like man. Jerry Lewis was a zany fool. Groucho Marx was a wise-cracking smart-alec. They each had a gimmick which made them memorable. After watching "Zombies on Broadway" you tell me what was Carney's gimmick.

The film's director was Gordon Douglas. He had a pretty long career in comedy. He directed the spy spoof with James Coburn "In Like Flint" (1967) as well as the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Saps at Sea" (1940) not to mention Oliver Hardy's solo film with Harry Langdon (after contract disputes between Hal Roach and Stan Laurel) "Zenobia" (1939), which isn't a very good film, though Langdon shines. I mention this because clearly Douglas must have known "funny" when he saw it. Wasn't there something he could have done here? Or was he under the thumb of the studio?

And what happened to Bela Lugosi? I didn't realize until recently what a sad career he had. As I mentioned in a previous review, in my family, because we are Hungarian, we always looked at Lugosi as a big star. But it appears after "Dracula" (1931) he didn't have much of a career. He also appeared in another horror comedy, the Ritz Brothers' "The Gorilla" (1939), which unlike most I actually enjoy as a silly comedy. Lugosi just seemed to be spoofing himself in every film he made after "Dracula". Though he did have a memorable role in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). Here he just seems to be going through the motions. I can't believe even he thought this was a good film. He must have done it for the money. It isn't an embarrassment for him, that would happen later in the Ed Wood films, but, it is just sad to see him here, knowing he always wanted to be taken serious.

As much as I love to celebrate the forgotten comics like Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson, Joe E. Brown and Harry Langdon, sadly I can't do that with Brown & Carney. "Zombies on Broadway" (even the title doesn't make sense. The zombies are never intended to appear on broadway) is harmless and on some level I'd like to tell you to see it, just so you will expose yourself to something different and learn about a new comedy team, but, take your time. Watch the classic Abbott & Costello comedies like "Hold That Ghost" and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) instead if you are looking for some laughs this Halloween night. After a while, when you gain more of a curiosity for film comedy, check out Brown & Carney. But don't say I didn't warn you.