Sunday, December 27, 2015

Film Review: Genius at Work

"Genius at Work"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

The RKO comedy team Brown & Carney prove to be a little too good at their jobs in "Genius at Work" (1946).

"Genius at Work" was the final movie released by RKO to officially feature Wally Brown and Alan Carney as a comedy team after the two men appeared in a handful of movies between 1943 - 1946. The two contract players were supposed to be RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello, the most popular comedy team of the early half of the 1940s.

Brown & Carney were first paired together as a team in "The Adventures of a Rookie" (1943) a war time comedy about the draft. It was inspired by Abbott & Costello's hugely successful comedy, "Buck Privates" (1941). You could also say the inspiration for "Genius at Work", a comedy / mystery, may have been the Abbott & Costello comedy / mystery "Who Done It?" (1942) however the movie is a remake of another RKO comedy starring another forgotten comedy team, Wheeler & Woolsey entitled "The Nitwits" (1935).

However, as in "Who Done It?", Brown & Carney try to solve a murder mystery at a radio station. Brown & Carney star as their usual characters Jerry Miles (Brown) and Mike Strager (Carney). They are the stars of a radio program called "Crime of the Week", a detective show. Jerry and Mike have been doing shows inspired by a real life serial killer named "The Cobra". Jerry and Mike seem to be one upping the police as they are often able to guess "The Cobra"s next move. The two men, along with their writer, Ellen (Anne Jeffreys) attribute this to the contributions of a criminologist Latimer Marsh (Lionel Atwill).

The police however, especially Lt. Campbell (Marc Cramer), are suspicious of Jerry and Mike and would desperately like to know their secret so they may solve the case themselves.

One question that arises is could Marsh or his valet, Stone (Bela Lugosi) know who "The Cobra" is? Is that how they get their information? Or worst, could one of them be "The Cobra"?

On paper "Genius at Work" sounds entertaining. I generally like comedy / horror and comedy / mystery movies like "The Gorilla" (1939) and "Hold That Ghost" (1941). I also, on occasion, enjoy watching Brown & Carney. But, "Genius at Work" is a missed opportunity. The story has possibilities but the script by Robert E. Kent and Monte Brice fails to deliver big laughs and does not take advantage of all the comedic opportunities to be had. As much as I wanted to like the movie, I even watched it twice, there was just something missing. Yes, the movie is harmless and is good for a smile or two but even Brown & Carney, as forgotten as they are, have appeared in better comedies such as "Girl Rush" (1944) and "Step Lively" (1944), which featured a young Frank Sinatra.

Not to take anything away from them, Wally Brown and Alan Carney do their best with the material. They both have decent screen presence and enough energy to make viewers watch them. They try their best to sell this material. But one can only do so much with nothing. One wonders if RKO had simply grown tired of producing Brown & Carney pictures (these were essentially "B" movies) and didn't want to invest time and effort in their productions.

The director of the movie, Leslie Goodwins, had been assigned to other Brown & Carney movies including "The Adventures of a Rookie" and its sequel "Rookies in Burma" (1943), which is rather disappointing. Mr. Goodwins also directed "Vacation in Reno" (1946) in which Wally Brown and Alan Carney appeared, though they are not playing their characters Jerry and Mike and it is not considered an official Brown & Carney comedy. Jack Haley and Anne Jeffreys receive top billing in the movie. Mr. Goodwins was not an accomplished filmmaker. He was nothing more than a studio director who eventually went on to direct episodes of various television shows.

The screenwriters, in particular Mr. Kent, were not exclusively comedy writers. Mr. Kent wrote a lot of mystery / detective stories. He even wrote a Dick Tracy movie. Mr. Brice had a bit more experience writing comedy but neither man made much of an impression in Hollywood.

I point this out merely to suggest RKO wasn't throwing talented individuals behind Brown & Carney. In contrast Wheeler & Woolsey were directed by George Stevens and Mark Sandrich and had songs written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in their movies. Wheeler & Woolsey were very popular during their heyday and have acted in one comedy generally considered a small masterpiece by film historians, "Diplomaniacs" (1933). Brown & Carney never appeared in one movie which reached that status. Their most popular movie is probably "Zombies on Broadway" (1945), which may be considered by some as a cult classic. One of those so bad its good kind of movies.

One problem with "Genius at Work" is the script does not define the characters of Jerry and Mike properly, as they had been defined in their previous comedies. Jerry is the "leader" of the team. He is what is known as the "big idea man" of the team. Jerry is the one that comes up with all the get rich quick schemes or knows exactly how to get them out of trouble after one of his ideas landed them in trouble in the first place. Whereas Mike is the "dumb one". Jerry is just as dumb as Mike but Mike is dumb enough to think Jerry is smart. That banter between the characters is missing in "Genius at Work". Imagine if the real killer wanted to take advantage of Jerry and Mike and in an attempt to throw the police off his scent, "The Cobra" tried to frame Jerry and Mike. In that situation Jerry would come up with some clever idea to clear their names. Jerry could say something like, "hey, we play detectives on the radio, surely there must have been something from one of the stories we acted in that could help us". Meanwhile Mike would keep telling Jerry it is a bad idea. That is just one example of a missed opportunity.

"Genius at Work" instead has the killer frame Ellen, who is not much of a character in the movie. True, she is the brains between herself, Jerry and Mike, but she is not activate enough in the plot. Instead the movie wants to suggest a romance between Ellen and Lt. Campbell which does not develop into much. Neither Ms. Jeffreys or Mr. Cramer make much of a screen presence here and have no chemistry between them. Mr. Cramer also possesses no heroic qualities.

Besides no big laughs the movie also fails as a mystery movie. There is nothing suspenseful about the movie. As is the case with comedy / horror a good comedy / mystery must balance both genres, splitting the movie in half and take advantage of the cliches regarding mystery stories. The movie is smart enough to have a creepy old house and positions Jerry and Mike inside of it but doesn't create atmosphere and make fun of the genre.

One can assume the choice to place both Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in the movie was due to their association with horror movies and the possibility audiences view them as sinister figures. Mr. Lugosi of course was best known for his performance as Count Dracula and Mr. Atwill generally played villains and was in horror movies such as "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), "Mark of the Vampire" (1935) and "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942). "Genius at Work" was not the first time either man poked fun at their public persona. Mr. Atwill also appeared in the comedy / horror movie "The Gorilla" while Mr. Lugosi co-starred with Brown & Carney in "Zombies on Broadway".

Near the end of his career Mr. Lugosi made really bad choices in the roles he accepted. Much of that had to do with the fact it was all he was being offered. Most of the time he simply embarrassed himself. In "Genius at Work" he comes out looking okay. He is not on screen that often and when he is not much is demanded of him. Mr. Atwill also does not embarrass himself too much. He often had a tendency to over act but here he tones down his performance still there is a sequence where Mr. Atwill must appear in drag. Unfortunately Mr. Atwill would never act again after this movie. He would pass away in 1946 at the age of 61.

And then there is the ending of "Genius at Work". We have everything revealed to us concerning "The Cobra"s identity, except his motive, and the viewer understands the fate of the character however some things aren't clearly resolved between other characters which left me feeling unsatisfied. The movie goes for a "joke ending" where a character says a one-liner as the camera fades out. Think of "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "nobody's perfect". But here it just didn't feel appropriate.

"Genius at Work" has a running time of 60 minutes. The majority of Brown & Carney comedies were only 60 - 65 minutes however "Genius at Work" feels like a lot is missing. Much of the movie must have been edited to keep it at an one hour running time. As I said, this was essentially a "B" movie. Back in the days of the double-feature, the "B" movie would play before that main picture, so "B" movies were generally kept between 60 - 70 minutes.

"Genius at Work" is not a bad movie. It is harmless and silly but lacks inspiration. There are too many missed opportunities and I'm usually an easy target for these kind of old-fashion, clean comedies. One might be tempted to give the movie a pass but having seen a number of comedies with Brown & Carney I can tell you "Genius at Work" does not feature either man at the top of their game. There are better options if you are interested in exploring the work of this comedy team. Unfortunately the majority of their movies are not available on DVD. Warner Brothers, as part of their "archive collection" put together a "Brown & Carney Comedy Collection" which includes four movies featuring the team. "Genius at Work" is one of the four. The best movie in the collection is "The Adventures of a Rookie", which I would recommend as your starting place. It is too bad RKO didn't give Brown & Carney a better swan-song.