Monday, November 23, 2009

Film Review: All Over Town

"All Over Town" *** (out of ****)

I thought maybe we should take a break from all that singing and dancing. So today I'm going to write about a pure comedy.

One of the great things for me as a movie buff is to discover new things. To find out about new movies and movie stars. At the very top of my list is discovering new comedies and comics. As I have said before comedy is my favorite genre. I'm always interested in informing readers about the "forgotten" comics and that is where the comedy team Olsen & Johnson come in.

I have written twice before about this team. I reviewed their film "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) and perhaps their most popular comedy, based on a smash hit stage play, "Hellzapoppin'" (1941). I am fairly unfamiliar with the team. I have not seen as many comedies with them as I have say Wheeler & Woolsey, Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello, whom Olsen & Johnson are sometimes compared to.

"All Over Town" (1937) feels like the start of something big. It seems to be a typical, broad, outrageous comedy which they became known for. Their style of humor was called "nut" humor. They thrived on chaos. Their pictures had gunfight, chase scenes, puns and physical humor. This film has nearly all of those elements. In many ways you can compare the film to "Hellzapoppin'". "All Over Town" was made one year before the team went on stage with "Hellzapoppin'" so I honestly wouldn't be surprised if this was some sort of inspiration.

In "All Over Town" the boys are a struggling vaudeville team trying to push a new act which involves a musical seal. They try to get a job at the Eldridge Theatre, but, find out the theatre has been abandon for years. There hasn't been a show produced there in two years, ever since a performer died in the theatre. Now people believe it is haunted.

This part of the movie resembles another Olsen & Johnson comedy made later in their career called "Ghost Catchers" (1944) which has them inside a haunted house.

As "All Over Town" continues a misunderstanding lands the team in hot water. It is falsely believed Olsen & Johnson have come into a million dollars. This isn't true. The boys have come into money, but only to the amount of $150. When a struggling composer approaches them with an idea for a musical program for their seal to star in the boys agree. But the composer, Don Fletcher (Harry Stockwell) only wants to involved them since he thinks they can back the play. And they agree to premier it at the Eldridge Theatre, which is run by Joan Eldridge (Mary Howard), who is in financial trouble and in debt to Mr. Bailey (Eddie Kane). So a lot is riding on the show.

To make a long story short, the boys have to come clean and admit there has been a misunderstanding. They never told any one they had a million dollars. But soon there is a murder, Bailey is found dead. Who killed him? Could it have been Olsen & Johnson's seal, which has been trained to shoot a gun? That's what the boys think.

In order to try and turn a bad situation into something good Olsen & Johnson try to convince a radio sponsor, Mr. MacDougal (James Finlayson) into putting up money for their show, on which they promise to reveal who the killer is, despite the fact, they have no clue who it is.

If you've never seen "Hellzapoppin'" that film had the boys trying to produce a movie version of their stage play. Here they are trying to produce a radio program. "All Over Town" though has more of a plot. "Hellzapoppin'" really had no story. It simply went from joke to joke. In some ways I felt that hurt the movie a little. Both are funny and worth seeing but because "All Over Town" has more of a plot I think it is a bit more involving. But don't kid yourself neither film has a great story. My own feeling however is that comedy doesn't really need a great story. Just a mildly interesting one. As long as it has funny jokes the picture will succeed. All viewers expect when walking into a comedy is laughs. "All Over Town" has some funny moments.

Those moments concern a musical duet between Olsen and Johnson. The team in reality got their start on vaudeville as a musical act with Olsen on the violin and Johnson on the piano. I wonder if their stage act was similar to what we see in the movie. Think if Chico Marx and Jack Benny had gotten together. That is what we have here.

Another good routine deals with an almost Abbott & Costello wordplay as Olsen attempts to convince Johnson into pretending he was the one who killed Bailey. But Johnson is unable to properly repeat what Olsen tells him to say.

And finally the ending has the insanity we have come to expect from the team. It is a cops & robbers chase scene but done to Olsen & Johnson doing a play-by-play of the action as if it was a sporting event.

Also spot the boys attempt to recreate one of Buster Keaton's most famous visual gags from his comedy "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928). Here Olsen & Johnson are standing in front of stage prop of a house. The front exterior of it falls forward as the boys are standing in the position where the open windows are. It isn't as cleverly executed here because it happens too fast and doesn't allow enough set-up.

Classic movie fans should keep their eyes open and spot famous character actors in supporting roles such as Franklin Pangborn, James Finlayson, best known for working with Laurel & Hardy, Fred Kelsey as an inspector, he too worked with Laurel & Hardy, and Stanley Fields, who once again appeared with Laurel & Hardy as well as Wheeler & Woolsey.

The film was directed by James W. Horne. He directed one of my favorite Laurel & Hardy comedies "Way Out West" (1937) which I have included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". He also directed the boys in "Bohemian Girl" (1936). But "All Over Town" doesn't feel like a director was involved. I'm starting to think directors had very little input into an Olsen & Johnson vehicle. Each film looks pretty much the same even though different directors were behind the camera. And unlike say Wheeler & Woolsey, no big name directors seem to have worked with them. George Stevens for instance directed two comedies with Wheeler & Woolsey.

I think I'm starting to become a bigger fan of Olsen & Johnson than I am of Wheeler & Woolsey though. Olsen & Johnson have better defined characters and simply make me laugh more. I go in for their style of humor more. I wouldn't say "All Over Town" is a great comedy but it is a light and pleasant diversion. It is only 60 minutes so it moves pretty quick. If you've never seen an Olsen & Johnson comedy this might be a good introduction. I think when they have more of a story the team works better because at least we a something to keep us involved instead of joke to joke because not all of the jokes work and feel kind of dated. This however, I am warning you, is in complete contradiction to what most fans of Olsen & Johnson believe. Many feel their humor had to be "watered down" for movies. They were allowed to be as spontaneous as they were on stage were they could ad-lib more and feed off of a live audience.

This may or may not be true. I never saw Olsen & Johnson on stage. But the one thing I believe any movie needs is a story. Sure, I like the wild and zany comedy of films by the Marx Brothers and such. I have no problem if a movie sacrifices a story for a punchline. Though I still believe something needs to link everything together. "All Over Town" does a moderate job of that.