Monday, November 23, 2009
YOU'LL FIND OUT (1940)
The 2009 Boris Karloff Blogathon is underway!
During this week, over 100 blogs around the world are posting about the life and art of one of filmdom's most famous fiends, Boris Karloff. Click here to see a complete list of participating blogs at the Frankensteinia site.
Here at SCARED SILLY: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD HORROR-COMEDIES, we're taking a look at some of "Uncle Boris"'s funniest features. Today we highlight…
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: The fictional manager of Kay Kyser’s real-life band arranges to have the group perform at his girlfriend Janis Bellacrest’s 21st birthday party. The party is being held at Bellacrest Manor, a rustic mansion filled with musty antiques and artifacts… and situated on its own island with just one bridge to the mainland. Things are odd from the start when the band meets Janis’s Aunt Margo, who appears to be in a trance. It soon becomes apparent that Aunt Margo is fascinated with contacting spirits, and has invested a great deal of time and money into one Prince Saliano (Bela Lugosi) to do the contacting. Her lawyer Judge Spencer Mainwaring (Boris Karloff) doesn’t seem to object. Only Professor Karl Fenninger (Peter Lorre), a skeptic and debunker of phony mediums seems to mind. Meanwhile, odd occurrences start to multiply – like poison darts being shot from seemingly nowhere, strangers appearing to stare through windows and eyes following people through the room as they peer through animal trophy heads. Not to mention the bridge mysteriously blowing up! These are all just warm-ups for the sights and sounds on display in the séance, including apparent visitations from apparitions like Janis’ ancestor Elmer, and culminating in a crashing chandelier that almost kills Janis, who faints and falls out of her chair before she can be hit. A clue from band member Ish Kabibble’s dog leads Kay to a hidden underground lair where the secrets of the séance are revealed to be nothing more than mechanically-activated contrivances. Kay also learns the reasons behind the murder attempts on Janis, and the identities of those responsible for the murderous mayhem. Can Kay save Janis, his band, the guests and the Bellacrest family from the foul fiends before their dastardly scheme is accomplished?
REVIEW: This movie’s alternate titles include “Here Come the Boogie Men” and “Wild Wild Spook House,” but I can’t resist referring to it as “Babbit & Kabibble Meet the Trio of Terror.”
Or “The Boogie Men meet the Boogeymen!”
This movie is noteworthy for two reasons: it contains the earliest “horror men” team-up in a feature film, in this case offering Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre; and it is one of the few horror-comedies that doesn’t have standard comic performers as its protagonists. Instead, we get a “comedic musical group.”
Comedy and music have a long history of going together, and comedy combined with jazz has a particularly long history – just pick up the CD “Laughter from the Hip: 24 Jazz Comedy Classics” for proof. Famous bands that mixed comedy into their lyrics, orchestrations, musical sounds and even sometimes added humorous skits and costumes to their performances included those led by such legends as Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Don Redman, Fats Waller, Louis Prima, Spike Jones and the subject of today’s review, Kay Kyser.
Kyser and his band were wildly popular. Their radio show ran for 11 years and was only canceled reportedly due to a dispute with a sponsor, their records were hits and their concerts sell-outs. While the group offered many straight-ahead songs to their fans, they are probably more well-known today for the comedic, novelty-tinged numbers they performed utilizing effects such as those made by the “Sonovox” (and highlighted in “You’ll Find Out”) was well as the antics of band member Ish Kabibble, a rather odd character given to spouting bad puns that only he would laugh at. The more serious numbers were usually handled by Ginny Simms, a favorite among Abbott & Costello fans for her role in 1943’s “Hit the Ice.” Harry Babbitt straddled the line, doing both novelty and standard numbers with equal ease. The band scored a silver screen hit in their 1939 debut film, “That’s Right – You’re Wrong” so a follow-up was quickly arranged. To add some icing to the cake, movie execs insisted on the inclusion of chills to the already heady mix of comedy and music.
As other reviewers have noted, it can be difficult for some modern viewers to get through the quiz show opening without getting the urge to turn the movie off. There are a couple reasons for this. One is that the movie literally opens in the middle of a contestant agonizing over how to answer a quiz question (a question we the viewers never hear) on Kay Kyser’s “Kollege of Musical Knowledge” radio show. The other is Kyser’s brash, over-exaggerated dialogue as the radio show’s host, punctuated by goofy faces that would have been more well known to listeners at home and the studio audience but can be jarring to first-time viewers of this film. My advice: stick with it because Kyser’s performance in the rest of the movie is much more restrained and engaging. Even surprising! And we are talking about a dose of Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre here, which always brings a certain entertainment value.
In many ways, “You’ll Find Out” is a prototypical model for the later Abbott & Costello horror spoofs. Consider first the casting of the villains: like the Frankenstein monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man in Abbott & Costello’s most famous horror comedy, the mere presence of the film fiends in “You’ll Find Out” provided a shorthand for movie audiences. They were already familiar with these titans of terror from their previous hits and from being caricatured in animated cartoon shorts of the day. This brings an extra dimension to the film that the script alone can’t provide. For their parts, Karloff and Lugosi mostly maintain their villainous visages (particularly Karloff, who is quite sinister and menacing here) while Lorre runs away with his role adding several deft comic touches. His introduction in particular is a delight. He holds a huge cigarette holder and wears an expression of self-importance as a flash of lightning from the window illuminates him. In addition to the two major monster men (Boris and Bela) playing it straight, the séance scenes with numerous objects flying through the air, disembodied heads and scary voices are also quite frightening, just as the scare scenes in “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” are handled in straight horror fashion.
There are other touches that foreshadow Bud & Lou’s fright frolics to come. Opening and closing a window opens and closes a secret fireplace entrance leading to a spooky underground lair. There is a revolving bookcase, creepy antiquities adorn the mansion, stuffed and mounted animals are everywhere, etc. While the Three Stooges and Little Rascals tread similar ground in their 1930s horror-comedies, this 1940 film with its swing-era energy really looks ahead to some of the similar situations Abbott & Costello get into in their films with Karloff, “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer” and “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” One scene in particular, in which Kay grabs what he thinks is the hand of his manager as he walks through a dimly lit passageway, only to learn he’s pulling along a full-sized taxidermist’s trophy of a gorilla is pure Lou Costello. In certain scenes (particularly when Ish sees an ax levitate) the spooky background music reminds one of Frank Skinner’s later “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” score.
While many of the trappings will be familiar to Abbott & Costello fans, Kay and his band are of course a far cry from Bud & Lou in the comedy department. Ish looks funny (think of Moe Howard combined with Jim Carrey’s Lloyd character from “Dumb & Dumber”) and has a funny name, but the script hands him several bad puns that he delivers in such a low-key deadpan that any notion that he’d be the funniest thing in this film is soon dispelled. He also has a wheezing laugh that is supposed to cause giggles in audience members, but it didn’t for me. It’s actually Lorre and Kyser who handle the comedy best, although Ish does figure in a few sight gags that go over well, particularly when his hair literally stands on end upon seeing a floating ax, and a bit where he criticizes the craftsmanship of what he thinks is a taxidermist’s stuffed bird (pointing out that the tail looks like it was put on crooked and the eyes don’t fit the sockets) – only to have the bird squawk and fly away!
Most of the other band members are pleasant at best, but uneven in the acting department. The same can be said for the musical numbers they perform in the film. It’s actually the “straight” songs that come off best. “The Bad Humor Man” is more compelling as an oddity than as a good novelty tune or interesting musical orchestration. The closing number, performed with the use of a “Sonovox” – a device that when held to the vocal chords produces a sound akin to “instruments singing” but that just sounds creepy (hence the use of the device in the film’s phony séance scenes) wears out its welcome half a minute into the song.
As I mentioned above, it is Kay Kyser himself who shines in this and provides the majority of good will this film generates (in addition to the bad guys, of course). Kyser has a relaxed, easy-going Dean Martin air about him (at least the amiable version of Dino seen on his 1960s TV variety show – but without the implied inebriety) coupled with a Harold Lloyd-like everyman countenance. He’s very likable and his gentle humor really goes over. He’s also quite resourceful in taking out both Bela and Boris – for example, when Boris demands Kyser hand over an incriminating document, Kay points beyond Karloff’s shoulder saying “you mean that one,” effectively distracting him and knocking his gun away. The last third of the movie, relying on both Kay’s wits and the intuition of Ish’s dog Prince to route the bad guys is particularly exciting.
This film must have particularly tickled its horror stars, as all of them went on to appear in several horror-comedies. In fact, Karloff and Lorre would co-star in three more films together… and all of them were horror-comedies! (NOTE: They also will all be reviewed here this week during the Boris Karloff Blogathon – so be sure to keep logging on for my reviews of “The Boogie Man Will Get You,” “The Raven” and “The Comedy of Terrors”).
The film has an unexpected coda but one that seals the enjoyment of the audience, in my opinion. After the final musical number is performed, Kay is seen on stage in front of the curtain, all by his lonesome. Like a concerned father figure, Kay assures his audience that Boris, Bela and Peter are really “…nice fellas, and really good friends of mine. Things like this don’t really happen – it’s just in fun!” In the end, it is Kyser’s engaging personality and earnest desire to please his audience that is likely to win the hearts of modern-day viewers.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
Ish (as the band bus approaches the mansion): “What a beautiful spot for a murder!”
Kay (imploring his men that they can’t rest until they thwart the villains): “Now what would you rather do? Take a chance on being strangled in bed or dying like men?”
Ish: “Well I’m tired. If I have to die I’d just as soon die in bed.”
Peter Lorre (after meeting the inquisitive Kyser): Who is this fellow Kyser?
Boris Karloff: Some bandleader – we have nothing to fear from him – he’s perfectly harmless!
BEST GAGS: Ish dissing a stuffed bird that turns out to be real, Ish having a hair-raising encounter with a levitating ax, Kay leading the stuffed gorilla by the hand, Kay riding an elevator lift from the secret passage below into the séance tent above.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Frank Mills, who plays the cabbie in “You’ll Find Out” had a lengthy career consisting mostly of uncredited but memorable little spots in many classic comedy shorts and features, as well as in several mystery series entries and other film genres. He often played cab drivers, bartenders, carnival barkers and the like. His credits include playing Dr. Bright in The Three Stooges’ 1937 short “Dizzy Doctors” and other Stooges efforts, as well as appearances in several Wheeler & Woolsey features. In addition to “You’ll Find Out, he also had a main role in another horror-comedy, the 1941 short “Host to a Ghost” teamed with Andy Clyde and Dudley Dickerson.
BUY THE FILM: “You’ll Find Out” is available on DVD in a box set called “Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics” that also includes the chillers “The Walking Dead” and “Frankenstein 1970” and another classic horror-comedy, “Zombies on Broadway.” You can order it here:
FURTHER READING: An extensive review of this film including some background information on the performers appears on the Horror-Wood site, while the Greenbriar Picture Show’s entry on “You’ll Find Out” provides in-depth insights and info on the conception and marketing aspects of filmmaking that readers of John McElwee’s essential blog have come to expect.
In addition to these links, there’s lots of interesting trivia about both Ish Kabibble (his name means “What, me worry?” in Yiddish and he was the band’s manager for many years) and Kay Kyser (he went into early retirement for which several theories are cited) to be found on the internet.
Watch the trailer here:
BE SURE TO JOIN US TOMORROW AS BORIS TEAMS WITH LORRE ONCE AGAIN IN “THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU!”