Friday, December 18, 2009

Film Review: Buck Benny Rides Again

"Buck Benny Rides Again" *** (out of ****)

If someone came up to me and asked me what is the best way to get acquainted with the comedy of Jack Benny I would tell them watch his television show. That is not to say any of the movies he appeared in weren't good, some are funny but they always come in second to his TV show, I haven't heard enough of his radio program to accurately comment on it.

The problem with movies were they never managed to take full advantage of Benny's comedy persona. The character he played on television was funnier than any character he played in various movies. But "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940) is different. Here Benny is playing himself along with many members of his radio show like Phil Harris, "Rochester", Don Wilson and Dennis Day, all playing themselves. With this set-up Benny can play his character and expand upon what he was doing on his radio program. In fact "Buck Benny Rides Again" feels like one long radio sketch. That is not a bad thing however, especially if you find yourself laughing. And I do.

Jack Benny is actually one of my favorite comedians. I regard him as one of the kings of comic timing. He knew perfectly how to play an audience. They were wrapped around his finger. Though he often played the "straight man" in routines, you still couldn't help but laugh at him. He could milk a gag with the best of them. His delivery was pitch perfect. He made terrific use of pauses and body gestures. You would laugh at Benny before he said anything. He could time a laugh. Him standing there with his arms cross or his two fingers pressed against his cheeks would cause laughter as the audience waited for his comeback to an insult. I should admit, whenever I perform in a movie I think of Benny. I've tried to copy his delivery and make use of pauses and stares. I can't do it as well as Benny but I like to pay my respects to him.

Besides his comic timing he also had one of the best comedic personas. His character was a penny pincher. Always looking to save a dollar despite being considered quite wealthy. He could recite the serial numbers on every bill he owned (he once did a routine involving this on Ed Sullivan's show). He kept his money in a vault in his basement. He was also vain and egotistical, believing himself to be a ladies man when women barely noticed him. He also prided himself on being a master violin player though his musical ability was often the punchline to many jokes. In short it was a perfect character for comedy. It had all the basic essentials. A deeply flawed character whom the audience couldn't help but cheer for.

As I said "Buck Benny Rides Again" is an expansion of Benny's radio program. The film continues upon Benny's "radio feud" with fellow comedian Fred Allen. It all started when Allen had a child prodigy on his program and complimented the boy's violin playing as well as throwing an insult aimed at Benny's playing, without ever mentioning his name. The next day on Benny radio program he responded to Allen's comment thus starting the feud (it has been repeatedly reported in real life the two men were good friends).

In this movie Benny's bandleader, Phil Harris, wants to go to Nevada to meet up with an old flame but Benny doesn't want to leave New York, insisting he and Harris have much work to do in preparation for next season's radio shows.

One day, while getting ready to go to the recording studio, Rochester hits a taxi and inside the taxi is Joan Cameron (Ellen Drew). Benny immediately falls for her but she is annoyed with him. Joan is a singer, part of a trio with two of her sisters; Virginia (Virginia Dale) and Peggy (Lillian Cornell). She is on her way to the same recording studio where she is going to audition for a commercial. She has no idea who Jack Benny is.

The main reason Joan wants nothing to do with Benny is because Joan is from out west, Arizona, and feels the only real men come from out west not a "city slicker" so to speak like Jack from New York. Joan likes the cowboy type. This gives Phil Harris the opening to tell Joan and her sisters that Benny actually has a cattle ranch out in Nevada and he and Benny are headed there soon. But of course none of it is true. Events become further complicated when Fred Allen's press agent, Charlie Graham (Charles Lane) over hears this conversation and relays it to Allen, whom comments on it on his radio program. This puts Benny in a spot as now he has to actually head out to Nevada to impress Joan and to hush up Fred Allen's rumors.

"Buck Benny Rides Again" feels like two movies in one. The first one, which takes up nearly 40 minutes of the 82 minute comedy, deals with Benny in New York working on his radio program and trying to get Joan to like him. The second half of the film becomes a western comedy (the film's very title is a direct reference to the 1939 film "Destry Rides Again") as Benny is now confronted by Joan in Nevada and must produce a cattle ranch and pretend he is really a cowboy. Of the two stories I prefer the first one. It plays with the Benny persona a bit more like his cheapness. In an attempt to apologize to Joan for the car accident he sends her some candy. But we find out it is chocolates which he and Rochester made. We gets remarks on his vanity, Rochester has a date for the evening and would like to wear Benny's tails but Benny plans on wearing it himself. Rochester wants to convince Benny to wear a tuxedo instead and does after he tells Benny he looks younger in tux.

The second half of the movie doesn't work as well because now it becomes more of a predictable formula situation comedy. As a result doesn't build on Benny's established persona but makes him play another "character". That's not to say it isn't funny, it still is, but I think the material allowing Jack to be Jack is what works best.

Though this is one of a few movies which allows Benny to play "himself", "Love Thy Neighbor" (1940) with Fred Allen is another, most people actually don't consider this Benny's best movie. That honor is usually given to "To Be Or Not To Be" (1942) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I suspect a lot of that praise comes from the fact Lubitsch directed the movie. It is a funny movie however. Another of his most popular titles is "The Horn Blows At Midnight" (1945) which was a box-office flop. Benny joked about the film for years. It was the last film he had a starring role in. But don't let Benny's jokes fool you. The movie actually has some funny material and should not be avoided.

"Buck Benny Rides Again" could also be described as a musical comedy. There are a couple of songs in the film, like "My My" which Rochester sings. The movie has a lot of solo moments of him singing and dancing. I was never aware of his dancing skills. He wasn't much of a singer, but I was surprised how much time was given to him. The only decent song in the film is "Say It Over & Over Again". There is also a very impressive dance sequence to the song "Drums in the Night".

The film was directed by Mark Sandrich, who is probably best known for directing several Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musicals; "Top Hat" (1935), "Follow the Fleet" (1936) and "Carefree" (1938) as well as some Wheeler & Woolsey comedies such as "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934) and the WW2 sentimental drama "So Proudly We Hail" (1943). Sandrich I get the feeling would have liked more musical numbers. From a technical standpoint the film is shot fairly conventional. There are no elaborate dance sequence and no battle scene for Sandrich to shoot. The important thing here was to get the actors in frame.

If the film's humor appeals to you one of the reasons has to be Edmund Beloin, one of the co-writers. He worked a lot with Bob Hope, writing "The Great Lover" (1949), "My Favorite Brunette" (1947) and "Paris Holiday" (1958) and wrote the Jack Benny comedy "Love Thy Neighbor".

So is this the best way to become familiar with Jack Benny? No. I'd still say watch the television show. If you really enjoy those then I'd say watch the movies. Sadly this movie is out of print. You might be able to find it if you search hard enough and find a movie website which deals with rare movies. In the meantime though watch "To Be Or Not To Be", "The Horn Blows At Midnight" and "George Washington Slept Here" (1942). "Buck Benny Rides Again" is fun to watch and does have some humorous moments. A lot of the material shows Benny in a very favorable light since it feels like an extension of his radio program and carries that sense of spontaneity allowing some viewers the chance to understand his comedic persona if not familiar with him. In the end "Buck Benny Rides Again" is worth watching.