Sunday, February 7, 2010
SO YOU WANT TO BE AN HEIR (1953)
RATING: *** & ½ out of ****
PLOT: Joe McDoakes (George O’Hanlon) is awoken by his wife (Phyllis Coates) who reads an urgent telegram to him: “You will inherit your grandmother’s entire estate if you get to her bedside before she dies.” Like a shot, Joe is up, dressed and out the door with his bags packed! When he gets to his grandmother’s mansion he is greeted at the front door by a creepy butler named Hideous P. Scroogington. He is soon introduced to his Uncle Silas, half-brother Ellery and Aunt Agatha (all played by O’Hanlon). Then it’s up to the bedside of grandma (also played by O’Hanlon) and a troubling revelation: grandma isn’t dying but merely wants to gauge how devoted her prospective heirs are to her (as opposed to their money). She also reveals that she told the others she’s planning to leave her fortune to Joe. Can Joe survive the spooky night with his money-hungry, bloodthirsty relatives out to get him?
REVIEW: This is an entry in the “Joe McDoakes” short subject series. The true origin of this series is one of those great “Hollywood success stories” that die-hard movie buffs love to relate to casual fans. Producer Richard Bare decided the best way to teach the fundamentals of movie making to his film students at the University of Southern California was to have them work on an actual film.
Bare decided to mimic the form of the popular Pete Smith and Robert Benchley short subject series that started in the 1930s and had been popular for about a dozen years at that point. These films featured “everymen” characters dealing with various topics that were informational in nature but filled with a lot of humor – such as how to give up smoking, getting a good night’s sleep, dieting, etc. These shorts were often narrated by all-seeing – and all-knowing (as in “know it all”) narrators that often acted superior to the characters in the stories. This format would become so popular that even beloved Walt Disney animated cartoon character Goofy would appear in his own series of “everyman” shorts in the 1950s.
Bare hired his wife’s ex-boyfriend George O’Hanlon to be the title star and co-writer of the film and announcer Art Gilmore to narrate it. The film, “So You Want to Give Up Smoking” provided Bare’s students with the experience they needed and Bare ended up with a saleable, professional finished product… which he promptly used as a pilot to gauge big studio interest. And interested the studios were, as Bare soon made a deal with Warner Brothers to continue the series – an arrangement that lasted until 1956, resulting in 63 entries.
While the series dealt a lot with everyday domestic life, the tone was always heightened – every emotion was up a few notches more than normal, every situation exaggerated for ultimate comic effect (no doubt a convention partially adapted to keep the shorts moving through their short running times). Joe was forever “behind the eight ball” – and in fact the series visually illustrated this with its opening and closing titles literally showing Joe peering out from behind a giant 8 Ball.
The hyper-heightened world that Joe populated was sometimes aided by his sojourns into the realm of fantasy, where he often imagined the worst that could happen to him or dreamt of taking revenge on his rivals. But the most “fantastic” scenario in the series, and therefore the most unique had to be its lone horror-comedy entry “So You Want to Be an Heir.”
The short begins in typical wacky McDoakes fashion: once Alice reads Joe the telegram, he frantically throws his clothes on and packs his bags. As Joe leaves, Alice phones the airline to reserve a plane ticket for him and exclaims, “What, he’s already there?!” to underscore how frantic Joe is about the possibility of inheriting a million bucks.
First and foremost, however this brisk 9-minute short pulls out all the stops when it comes to horror-comedy trappings. Joe arrives at the large, spooky mansion in the middle of a thunderstorm, with lightning flashing and howling winds gusting. A scary hooting owl also gives him a start. And then Joe meets Hideous P. Scroogington, the creepy butler who seems like a refuge from one of Charles Addams’ “Addams Family” cartoons. The interior of the mansion is full of musty antiques and large weapons hanging on the wall. There’s even a suit of armor that is identified as Joe’s great-great granfather!
Then there’s Joe’s clan. Joe’s uncle, half-brother and aunt are all rather slimy and sinister from the very start. Even Joe’s grandmother is frightening – she would give the wicked witch from “The Wizard of Oz” a scare! O’Hanlon does an amazing job of imbuing each with their own way of talking, walking and gesturing – it’s a bravura performance. And it is enhanced by some really great split-screen cinematography that is so detailed that it’s hard to tell where the splices are.
The night Joe spends at the mansion leads to atmospheric chills and thrills that deftly mix comedy and horror (the menacing nature of the villains is probably the reason the short was banned in Finland). Joe tries to sleep but is wide-awake, staring at the raging thunderstorm through the window and nervous as all-get. Suddenly, Aunt Agatha appears to offer Joe a glass of milk. She scoots out when she hears the window opening. Joe pours milk into flower pot on night table – flower dies! Then Uncle Silas comes in through the window and tries to strangle Joe with a hankie but when he hears the door he scoots off, too. Elliott enters brandishing a knife and threatening stab Joe, but he is is frightened away by the cuckoo clock. Joe ends up hiding under the bed, where he finds a skeleton. “Would you mind moving over just a little?,” Joe asks the bag of bones.
Meanwhile Grandma is in the basement dungeon mixing a concoction in a swimming pool sized cauldron! Between the various mansion sets and the musky dungeon, it seems the elaborate sets for this one were borrowed from a larger-budgeted Warner Brothers feature. Uncle Silas comes back into Joe’s bedroom with an ax and axes the empty bed, followed by Elliott, now armed with a gun who shoots up the bed. Joe is still under the bed with the skeleton, and quite rattled. He falls through a trap-door into grandma’s cauldron below, screaming about the intense heat...
...and then he wakes up from his nightmare. He had the electric blanket on too high! Just then Joe’s wife Alice walks in… and promptly reads the same telegram that started the whole story in the first place. “I wouldn’t go through that again for 8 million dollars!,” exclaims Joe. Then Alice repeats the frantic dressing up and packing of bags that Joe did at the short’s start and bolts out the door in pursuit of grandma’s money. This leads to a wonderful punchline where Joe looks at the audience and says “she doesn’t know it’s only a dream!”
The phrase “underrated” has been so overused in recent years as to almost be a cliché, but in this case, I have to say that George O’Hanlon was truly one of the most underrated comedians of all time. His facial expressions and vocal inflections are nothing short of brilliant – especially when you consider that these were 8-10 minute shorts that compressed so many ideas, gags and plot elements into such a short running time! O’Hanlon’s face, voice and body language were like a fast-paced short-hand – he put all these elements over with both speed and attention to detail. After the McDoakes series ended, O’Hanlon made a career doing guest shots in various TV series and landed a recurring role on a famed TV series that at the very least made his voice famous (some might say immortal): he landed the role of George Jetson on “The Jetsons.”
Now over 50 years since the “Joe McDoakes” series ended, it finally is getting more exposure via broadcasts on TCM and appearances on DVD, and the response is almost always the same: people are stunned at just how good these shorts are, and how much they laugh at them. They are without question Hollywood’s hidden gems, now slowly being discovered to the delight of many.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST:
Phyllis Coates often played Joe’s wife in the “McDoakes” series. Her other famous recurring role was that of Lois Lane in the first 26 episodes of the “Superman” TV series with George Reeves. Amongst other credits, she also appeared on “The Abbott & Costello Show” and in the movie, “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein.”
Philip Van Zandt was something of a regular in comedy shorts including several horror-comedy shorts from Columbia starring the Three Stooges (among them “Spooks,” “Dopey Dicks” and “Outer Space Jitters.” He had a varied career that included feature films like Laurel & Hardy’s "Air Raid Wardens" and “The Big Noise,” the Marx Brothers' "A Night in Casablanca," the classic horror-comedy "Ghost Chasers" with the Bowery Boys, the Universal horror film “House of Frankenstein,” several entries in the “Boston Blackie” mystery series, a role in the Lon Chaney biopic “Man of a Thousand Faces” (where James Cagney portrayed the silent film legend) and a little film called “Citizen Kane.” He also appeared in a few episodes of the George Reeves “Superman” TV show.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
HIDEOUS (pointing to a rusty old suit of armor): “And this is your great-great grandfather, Sirloin McDoakes.”
JOE: “That’s a suit of armor!”
HIDEOUS: “No, no that’s him – we could never get him out of the suit!”
GRANDMA: “You should have seen their faces on that bunch downstairs when I told them I was leaving my money to you. I’d watch my step if I were you. That’s a scheming bunch. I wouldn’t put it past them if they tried to murder you.”
AUNT AGATHA: “I brought some milk for my darling cousin once removed… and once removed he’ll never bother me again!”
There is lots of physicality in the short – all three cast members pitch in for all they’re worth for maximum visual impact. Best sight gags include the aforementioned scenes of both Joe and Alice getting packed, dressed and out the door in record time, the weird manner in which Hideous walks and carries himself, and the various attempts by Joe’s relatives to do him in.
BUY THE FILM: “So You Want To Be An Heir” has been released on DVD twice, first as part of Warner Home Video's "Burt Lancaster Signature Collection" on the same disc as "South Sea Woman" and more recently as part of the video-on-demand Warner Brothers DV-R Archives series, as part of “The Complete Joe McDoakes Collection.” Order either here:
FURTHER READING: Leonard Maltin authored the seminal work on short subjects which includes a detailed section on Joe McDoakes and it’s come out under two titles, both now out of print. But there are used booksellers out there with copies of “The Great Movie Shorts” and “Selected Short Subjects” and you owe it to yourself to seek them out.
Joe is also a popular topic among bloggers, and I’ve found two of the best entries to have come from Aaron Neathery’s essential “Third Banana” blog which you can read here, as well on the “Matinee at the Bijou” blog which is tied into the classic PBS TV series of the 1970s and ‘80s that is being developed for a revival. You can read their McDoakes piece here.
I don’t have a clip for this short, but I will leave you with this promotional clip from when the now-defunct "Comedy Channel" broadcast the shorts: