Saturday, February 20, 2010
PARDON MY TERROR (1946)
NOTE: Due to my inability to obtain images from “Pardon My Terror,” the images used in this review come from various Schilling & Lane shorts, but not from the film that is being reviewed.
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: Gus (Schilling) and Dick (Lane) run the “Wide Awake Detective Agency.” A beautiful woman (Christine McIntyre) hires the pair to find her missing millionaire grandfather (Vernon Dent). At the family home, the daffy detectives run into one unnerving situation after another as they deal with a spooky butler, a femme fatale who serves explosive cocktails, figures lurking in the shadows and more. Can Gus and Dick locate the millionaire before being scared out of their wits?
REVIEW: When it comes to classic comedy duos, there are levels of recognition. Just about everyone knows Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Martin & Lewis. When you move on from the general public to bona fide movie buffs, you’ll find some folks who also know Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson and maybe Clark & McCullough. However, to find people who know the teams of Schilling & Lane and Vernon & Quillan, you usually have to find film scholars, or at least those who take their movie-loving hobby beyond the obsession a mere “movie buff” would.
Both Schilling & Lane and Vernon & Quillan were teams created by Columbia Studios for their shorts department. Columbia of course was the home of the mega-popular Three Stooges, but the shorts unit produced many other series featuring all sorts of comic talents. For some reason (speculation is that the studio wanted to duplicate the Stooges’ success, but given how the majority of Columbia’s prefab teams were duos and not trios, I think perhaps they were also hoping they’d capture lightning in a bottle like competitor Hal Roach Studios did when Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy evolved from solo performers into a team), the unit kept trying to come up with their own daffy duos. This led to all sorts of odd combinations, often pairing such legendary talents as Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Shemp Howard with partners who either weren’t as talented or just didn’t mesh well together. The one instance at Columbia where a prominent solo star was teamed with another talent and it worked was when Hugh Herbert and Dudley Dickerson co-starred in some prime horror-comedy shorts. They weren’t billed as a team in the credits, but the shorts played out as if they were a team.
When Columbia paired Schilling and Lane, both had been around and found successful, steady work but neither was a headliner. Gus Schilling’s background was burlesque and the stage, and prior to his shorts with Lane he was a character actor in entries in the Mexican Spitfire and Dr. Kildare film series, appeared in Olsen & Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin’” with Hugh Herbert, and again with Herbert, Edgar Kennedy and Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer in “There’s One Born Every Minute.” His roles weren’t limited to B-movie comedies, however – Schilling also appeared in the high profile Orson Welles films “Citizen Kane” and “Magnificent Ambersons” (Schilling would continue to co-star in films featuring Welles throughout his career). Richard Lane started in the circus and moved to vaudeville. His pre-Schilling & Lane roles also included “Hellzapoppin’” and its follow-up “Crazy House,” series entries in the Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan and Boston Blackie mysteries (where he had the recurring role of Inspector Farraday), a feature each with Jack Benny (“The Horn Blows at Midnight”) and Danny Kaye (“Wonder Man”), three features with Abbott & Costello (“Ride ‘em Cowboy,” “It Ain’t Hay” and “Here Come the Co-Eds”) and a pair with Laurel & Hardy (“A-Haunting We Will Go” and “The Bullfighters”).
The Schilling & Lane team was one of what I like to refer to as the “on-call” or “on-demand” Columbia acts. This meant that the studio called upon the duo whenever they needed to fill a spot in the production schedule. In other words, their series was not “regularly scheduled” – the shorts just happened as they happened – thus the fact that their eleven shorts were spread out over four years. The best of the Columbia “on-call” stars realized that without the benefit of a steady stream of product, audiences wouldn’t have time to get to know their personalities in a progressive fashion. Both Vernon & Quillan and Schilling & Lane were wise enough to maintain broad archetypes that could adapt to any of the situations the scripts required. Lane maintained a sharp, take-charge con-man veneer, while Schilling had the jittery, nervous scaredy cat down pat.
After a year and three shorts, Schilling and Lane were faced with the most “on-demand” assignment of their careers: they were called into action unexpectedly to fill in for the Three Stooges in a script that had been written for the trio but couldn’t go into production because Curly Howard had a stroke. The show had to go on – Columbia didn’t want to waste a script or a slot on the production schedule so they merely shot the short with Schilling and Lane, Schilling was assigned Curly’s dialogue and actions as well as some of Larry's part while Lane was also pressed into double-duty performing both Moe’s and Larry’s parts!
One drawback to the adherence of the original script is that it compromises Richard Lane’s character slightly. In the other shorts, Lane could be pushy toward and occasionally agitated with Gus, but in this short, the script requires Lane to knock Gus around like Moe would Curly and Larry. This works fine in the Stooges world because of the relationship of those characters and the mechanics of the world they inhabit, but it is a bit more jarring in the frantic yet more carefree world usually seen in the Schilling and Lane shorts. It is a tribute to the professionalism of Dick and Gus that their basic personalities could survive this adjustment and they are still likeable despite the lumps Gus takes.
The short opens on an eerie note. We see the millionaire at his desk as a pair of hands emerge from the shadows to strangle him! The millionaire’s grand-daughter Alice enters the room and screams at the sight of her grandfather slumped over his desk. Her screams bring help, but by that time her grandfather has mysteriously disappeared.
This leads into a classic gag that would be reprised by the Stooges when they redid the short as “Who Done It.” We cut to the exterior of the “Wide-Awake Detective Agency.” Inside are Gus and Dick – each wears a pair of fake eyeballs (they almost look like ping-pong balls inserted into their eye sockets) that make them look like they’re awake even though they are snoring away! They are awoken by a “dooting” noise emitted from a monitor on their desk, leading to a great verbal gag (see “BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES” below).
The laughs continue in this office setting. Hearing what they think is a customer approaching, Gus and Dick spring into action as if they are busy, with Dick picking up a phone to pretend he’s on the line with another client. “Our fee is five thousand dollars,” he proclaims. Hopes of a new customer are dashed when the boys realize it is simply their landlord Mr. Dugan looking for the rent. Dick pulls out a gun and tells Dugan, “See this gun – we’re gonna’ let you have it! Dugan almost faints but then they tell him they’re letting him keep their guns as collateral. The landlord is dismissive of the guns: “Why these guns won’t even go off!” He throws them to the ground and they do go off, sending bullets flying and ricocheting everywhere! A janitor standing just outside the front door pops his head in, frightened by the racket while the bucket of water he holds suddenly springs multiple leaks – there are holes all over it and the water goes everywhere.
The millionaire’s granddaughter then arrives to bring us back to the plot. She explains her dilemma as she hires Gus and Dick (offering them a substantial reward) and clues them in to the ominous nature of the assignment by asking if they have insurance. When jittery Gus shows doubts about the potentially frightening assignment, Alice exclaims “You’re not afraid, are you?” They have good reason to be afraid as a trio of schemers is soon also revealed to be in the house (the connection these folks have to the millionaire and his granddaughter or the reason why they’re in the same house is never explained). The femme fatale of the group shakes a pill container and exclaims “Two little pills… two little drinks… two ex-detectives!” One of the others tries to show her up – with an electric chair he’s rigged!
Gus and Dick show up at the estate and are immediately put ill-at-ease by one of the schemers. “I suppose you’ll want to search for clues,” he says. “Would you rather start where the ghostly white figures were seen or where we found the pool of blood?” When Alice tells Gus and Dick to be careful, the man adds “It’s very hard to get blood stains out of the rugs!”
Gus and Dick come up with a plan: they’ll split up to search for clues, but if one of them is in danger he is to yell “it’s getting warm in here!” The pair then go off their own ways. Gus senses eyes peering at him from behind a painting. He can’t seem to muster up the volume to say “it’s warm in here” – he’s so paralyzed by fear he can only mutter it so he just runs out of the room. This leads to a classic gag where both Gus and Dick knock on hallway walls (answering each other’s knocks) on opposite corners until they meet at the center and then run from each other in fear.
The next bit involves Gus’ encounter with the femme fatale. He runs into a room to find the seductive beauty waiting for him. “I dreamed of a dark handsome man to come and save me,” she purrs. “Well what’s keepin’ him?” Gus answers. As he tries to squirm away, the woman aggressively collars Gus by the neck so hard that it cracks. “What are you, a lady wrestler?!” asks Gus.” Once again Gus is blurting out how “warm” it’s getting – especially with the deadly diva running her fingers through his hair. When she offers him a drink, Gus is skeptical. Falling off the couch, he learns just how right his instincts are as his drink spills onto the floor and bursts into flames!
Gus beats feet, running through the hall hysterically yelling, “Dick! Dick! It’s awful warm in here! A dame just tried to poison me – we gotta’ get outta’ here!” Dick says nothing doing, not with all the reward money at stake.
They resume their search for clues together, with Gus looking through books in a bookcase. As he rearranges each book, a fist flies through from the other side and socks Gus in the nose. “What’s all the racket, lamebrain?” asks Dick in what may be the most obvious “Moe-line” in the script. Gus makes Dick look through the books to prove that he’ll get hit, too… but Dick drops a book – and when he bends down to pick it up, the fist flies out and socks Gus again!
Dick is tired of Gus’ claims of getting hit and starts whapping Gus in different parts of his face saying, “how did it hit you – like this?” This is a prime example of something that would have worked well with Moe and the Stooges, but works less well here. Ultimately, Dick does get whacked by the fist from the bookcase and finally believes.
The butler shows Gus and Dick to their rooms with the classic “Walk this way, please” routine seen in countless old comedy films and later reprised by Mel Brooks in “Young Frankenstein.” The routine is simple: the person saying “walk this way” has a funny way of walking – either their arms are in a weird position or they step in an awkward fashion or some variation thereof. The characters following the person usually give one another a look as if to say, “it’s screwy, but why not?” and proceed to follow that person, mimicking their walk along the way.
Meanwhile, a pair of hands reaches out and grabs Alice, pulling her into the shadows.
We cut back to Dick and Gus in their sleeping quarters. The spooky butler continues to unnerve the pair with inappropriate comments: “I trust you will be comfortable… but I doubt it! After all, this was the master’s room and if the master was murdered I am sure his spirit is somewhere about!” This is performed with all the grand flourish and melodrama of say Vincent Price – delivered for maximum spooky effect. Gus and especially Dick register fear in wonderfully funny ways during this speech – making full use of their mastery of facial expressions and body language. The butler delivers “pleasant dreams” as a punch line.
When Gus & Dick realize they are locked in the bedroom, they start checking for other ways out. Gus opens a closet door and inside is the body of McIntyre’s grandfather. When he calls Dick over the body is gone, but when he opens it a third time the corpse reappears – another time-honored horror-comedy gag.
This leads to a barrage of chaos. Gus and Dick run to the window hoping it can provide a way out. When they pull the shade they see the menacing butler there. They then run through the door and get tangled up in chairs and paintings. Gus then barricades himself in a room and when Dick tries to get into the room Gus clonks him over the head with a flower pot.
The pair then stumble across McIntyre tied to a chair and before long her grandfather comes into the room, alive and well and explaining that he was just “playing dead” to expose the hired help who they suspect are planning to break into the family safe.
Gus and Dick dispatch to the home’s library where they do indeed find the villains trying to break into that safe. A chase ensues with the burliest of the bad guys (Dick Wessel) trying to choke Dick. He is only stopped after about 20 blows to the head with sledgehammer from Gus (as in the Stooges shorts, the sound effect is the sound of a bell and not realistic). The femme fatale then enters with a gun but Jarvis the butler subdues her (yes folks, he was a red herring)!
Gus and Dick get the reward money and as they walk down the hall proclaiming they are “sitting pretty,” they decide to take a load off, sitting in the electrical rigged chair for the short’s “shocking” finale!
The Schilling & Lane shorts are among the best hidden gems you’ll ever see. While “Pardon My Terror” was not conceived for the team and is their only horror-comedy, the duo shines. Despite some uncharacteristic touches more suitable to the Three Stooges, and an emphasis on black comedy over the more traditional visceral horror-comedy touches (the tone here is more like “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” with its merry mix-up of corpses than the haunted house antics of Bud & Lou’s “Hold That Ghost”) the professionalism, creativity and enthusiasm of Gus and Dick puts this short over big-time. The team is more than deserving of a revival, and “Pardon My Terror” is certainly a fine place to start if you’re just discovering them.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Naturally, “Pardon My Terror” is loaded with classic supporting actors from Columbia’s crew of stock players. I’ll concentrate on what amounts to cameos from two of the most prominent of Columbia's contractees.
First off is Emil Sitka playing Dugan the landlord. Sitka appeared in countless shorts at Columbia with The Three Stooges and many of the studio's other featured stars, playing every conceivable character from authority figures to clerks to waiters to friendly uncles and scientists and more. In feature films he appeared in several entries in the Blondie and Bowery Boys series as well as in dramas like “The Blackboard Jungle.” When the Stooges graduated to features in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Emil was on-board making major contributions, especially in “The Three Stooges in Orbit” which featured a major horror-comedy element. Perhaps the best testament to Sitka’s talent and versatility was the fact that after Larry Fine died, Moe considered making Sitka the third Stooge.
Also on hand is Dudley Dickerson as the janitor. A major talent, you can read more about Dudley in my review of Our Gang/The Little Rascals’ “Spooky Hooky” which you can read here.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
LANE (responding to the beeping monitor): That’s the secret code – take it down. What did it say?”
GUS (upon entering the estate): “Where’s the corpus delicatessen?”
GUS: I gotta’ go back to the office – I forgot something.
DICK: What’d you forget?
GUS: I forgot to stay there!
DICK: You go ahead and I’ll follow you.
GUS: Oh no!
DICK: Okay we’ll do it your way then – you’ll go ahead and I’ll follow you!
BEST GAGS: Most of the gags at the detective agency office are standouts including the fake eyeballs and the guns as collateral. At the estate, Gus’s encounter with the femme fatale as well as Dick and Gus knocking on opposite ends of the wall and the mysterious fist punching through the bookshelf are highlights.
FURTHER READING: Ted Okuda and Edward Watz wrote an indispensible book called “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” that you can order here:
On the internet, there are several excellent articles on Schilling & Lane. One of the best comes from “In the Balcony.” You can read the article here, and you should be visiting that site anyway – it is an oasis for classic movie fans. You’ll also want to check out Pete Kelly’s Blog here and Thrilling Days of Yesteryear here. The Three Stooges fan site features a quote from director Ed Bernds about the script - read it here. Last but not least, you may want to visit The Columbia Shorts Department – Greg Hilbrich’s excellent site dedicated to the fun and frolics of this studio that gave the world The Three Stooges and so much more.
WATCH THE FILM: Enjoy this clip from the short!