Friday, May 27, 2016

Film Review: Radio Stars On Parade

"Radio Stars On Parade"  *** (out of ****)

Its a parade of laughter with the comedy team Brown & Carney in the RKO comedy "Radio Stars On Parade" (1945).

Watching "Radio Stars On Parade" one is decidedly mixed. Is this movie worth watching? As a showcase for Brown & Carney the movie fails yet as a glimpse into old-time radio and an opportunity for younger audiences to see the magic of radio the movie merits a recommendation. The question is does anyone care to see a movie about radio?

Many people believe RKO originally brought Wally Brown and Alan Carney together in an attempt to replicate the success Universal Pictures was having with Abbott & Costello. After the peace-time draft comedy "Buck Privates" (1941) became a box-office hit for Abbott & Costello, RKO took its two bit actors and starred them in their own comedy also about the draft, "Adventures Of A Rookie" (1943). If you watch that movie, which is generally considered the best comedy Brown & Carney starred in together, you will notice the boys engage in the same word play that made Abbott & Costello so popular with audiences. Also, the physical appearance of both teams was similar. One tall and skinny guy, who serves the role of the straight man, and the other, shorter and heavier, who serves in the role of the comic.

"Radio Stars On Parade" was released after Brown & Carney appeared in "Zombies On Broadway" (1945), the most popular and easily accessible movie the team starred in, but, was the second to last movie the team appeared in. Their final movie as an official team was "Genius at Work" (1946). I mention this because with these two final movies RKO released with the team it is clear RKO simply lost interest in releasing Brown & Carney comedies. The quality of the comedy is low in both movies. Admittedly all of Brown & Carney's movies together were "B" movies, so the production quality was never high but perhaps the team didn't live up to RKO's expectations.

This time around Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney) play a comedy team that is mistaken for a pair of successful talent agents. When the boys are on their way to meet with the actual agent, Phil Merwin (Ray Walker), he is just walking out the door. What Jerry and Mike don't realize is Phil is walking out of the door for good, after he is unable to pay off his debts. In order to not cause any disturbance and perhaps to shift the blame onto someone else, Phil tells Jerry and Mike they can be in charge until he comes back.

Jerry and Mike believe they have discovered a new talent, Sally Baker (Frances Langford), a singer from Chicago who has headed to California at the request of Phil Merwin. The boys try to assure Sally they will be equally as capable as Phil in finding her work and so Sally agrees. Jerry's plan is to get Sally to audition for bandleader Skinnay Ennis.

None of this may matter as Sally's old boss in Chicago, a gangster (Sheldon Leonard, were you expecting someone else?) follows Sally out to California and threatens Jerry and Mike. Lucky (Leonard) had his eye on Sally, who is in love with a solider (Robert Clark), who is also out in California. Lucky would love to separate the two lovebirds and have Sally all to himself.

At its best "Radio Stars On Parade" is nothing more than an excuse to feature a lot of famous radio talent of the day. I have name dropped some of the names already. Did you recognize any of them? Frances Langford was a popular singer, best known for the song "I'm In The Mood For Love". She traveled with Bob Hope as he entertained the troops during the war. Skinnay Ennis was a singer in the Hal Kemp orchestra and eventually was the leader of his own band. You will also see Don Wilson, best known today for his work with Jack Benny, appearing as his announcer on his radio program and his television show. And finally we see Ralph Edwards as the host of the show "Truth or Consequences". This was a real radio program where members of the audience where asked to participate in stunts and practical jokes. Mr. Edwards may be better known as the host of the television show "This Is Your Life".

A lot in the movie is fun to watch. Audiences may like seeing Mr. Edwards and the hectic pace of his show as he makes a fool out of Jerry and Miles on more than one occasion. You may enjoy hearing Skinnay Ennis sing "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night" or Ms. Langford sing "My Shining Hour" and "That Old Black Magic". You may also enjoy the imitations of  Alan Carney who would be able to work this routine in nearly all of the Brown & Carney comedies. Here we get to hear his Edward G. Robinson imitation. It is actually pretty good. Next question. Do you know who Edward G. Robinson was?

"Radio Stars On Parade" is something of a revue. There is humor, music, a little bit of suspense. In a way it is showing you everything you would have heard on the radio. Because of that the plot is not very strong. The ending of the movie is not very satisfying. It does what we expect it to partially do but there was so much more that could have been done with this material which would have lent itself to laughs.

What if Lucky made his presence known to Sally? What if other clients rushed into the talent agent's office demanding work? What if Mike used his imitation skills to get himself and Jerry a job? What if Lucky kidnapped Skinnay Ennis to prevent his radio program from going on-air thus delaying Sally's chance at a job? That's a lot of "what ifs" for a relatively short movie. The running time is 69 minutes. RKO deliberately kept the running time low on its "B" pictures but when you keep the running time too short you hurt the plot.

My hunch / fear is "Radio Stars On Parade" is going to have a very limited appeal. The appeal may go beyond Brown & Carney fans, if such a thing exist anymore, they were never "A" listers, and fans of old-time radio may enjoy this too. But how many of those are left? I suspect there are more people that feel they are too young, hip and modern to watch "Radio Stars On Parade". The movie is in black and white and stars a lot of dead people younger "movie fans" never heard of. There's not much for them to find interesting. However, if you are a brave soul, someone willing to watch movies made before the year you were born and want to expose yourself to as many movies as possible, simply because you love movies and want to know about the history of cinema, "Radio Stars On Parade" is worth watching. In many ways it feels like a time capsule.

One of the movie's co-writers, Robert E Kent, wrote other Brown & Carney comedies such as "Genius at Work" and "Girl Rush" (1944). He also wrote a few Gildersleeve comedies (a character that began on radio as part of the "Fibber McGee & Molly" program) as well as a few Dick Tracy adventures, another character that also appeared on radio.

Leslie Goodwins directed "Radio Stars On Parade". He was a studio director at RKO and was behind the "Mexican Spitfire" series of comedies. He directed Brown & Carney in "Adventures of A Rookie" and its sequel "Rookies in Burma" (1943). Originally Mr. Goodwins started at RKO as a writer. He co-wrote the comedy "The Rainmakers" (1935) which starred another forgotten comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey.

Warner Brothers, as part of their Archive Collection, has put "Radio Stars On Parade" on DVD as part of a double feature pack along with "The Mayor of 44th Street" (1942). It is an odd collection and between the two I actually prefer "Radio Stars".

"Radio Stars On Parade" is a light, harmless diversion. It is not an ambitious comedy and doesn't really pack any big laughs. It also doesn't feature Brown & Carney at their best. However it is worth seeing as a showcase to see a variety of radio stars and hear some good music. The humor that is found in the movie is the kind some will describe as "dated" and "old-fashion". They mean it as an insult, I say it as a compliment.