Tuesday, August 17, 2010
ONE SHIVERY NIGHT (1950)
RATING: *** out of ****
PLOT: Hugh Herbert’s construction business (“Houses moved and remodeled”) is in trouble: “We’re not making enough money to keep ourselves in red ink,” proclaims Hugh. But things are soon looking up when Hugh and his assistant Dudley Dickerson are asked by a client (Vernon Dent) to remodel an old mansion rumored to have a fortune buried inside. They set off to remodel the place, unaware that there are a couple of thugs (Philip van Zandt, Robert Williams) inside searching for the money. The thugs pass themselves off as electricians and then proceed to do all they can to scare Hugh and Dudley out of the house. Can Hugh and Dudley complete the reconstruction without being scared out of their wits?
REVIEW: Here is another Columbia Pictures short. Like my reviews of shorts from the Three Stooges and Schilling & Lane, I have to note that being a Columbia production the “story” exists mainly to bridge the gaps between gags and is barely a story at all. When presented with this Columbia shorts formula I feel I have no choice but to grade their efforts on a curve and concentrate on the strengths of the performances as well as the quality of the gags and horror-comedy trappings in each.
Let’s start with the performances. I’m happy to report that this short brings us the indomitably funny Dudley Dickerson and the delightful (to me) Hugh Herbert. For more on each of these funny men, I refer you to my reviews of “The Black Cat” and “Spooky Hooky.”
An interesting aspect of this short is the way it handles race. Unlike a lot of films of its time, “One Shivery Night” presents an African-American character that is front-and-center and not merely subservient. Although Dudley works for Hugh, Hugh treats him more like a friend and partner than a subordinate. This relationship runs through the four horror-comedy shorts Herbert and Dickerson made together. So much so that you not only can say they operate as a “comedy team” but even make the claim that in more enlightened times Dickerson probably would have received equal billing with Herbert.
I’ll say this for the Herbert-Dickerson pairing as well: I think Dickerson’s enthusiasm and natural ease at getting laughs may have inspired Herbert. I note that due to various reports stating Herbert wasn’t entirely happy making shorts for Columbia. Longtime Columbia shorts director Edward Bernds is quoted as saying that Herbert considered working in shorts “slumming.” Note that prior to his tenure at Columbia, Herbert was a featured player providing comedy relief in musicals, utilized as a top “second banana” delivering sure-fire laughs in support of comedians like Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson as well as headlining and co-headlining his own films (including the horror-comedies “Sh! The Octopus!” and “The Black Cat” as well as a string of features for Universal). It may also be that the horror-comedy situations provided a fresh diversion for Herbert, who otherwise was utilized by Columbia in marital farces akin to Leon Errol’s RKO shorts.
Herbert and Dickerson have an easy rapport and are dynamite together. The horror-comedy genre provides them a perfect set-up for a slow-and-steady build-up to more outrageous situations and gags, a la Laurel & Hardy. Like many of the Columbia horror-comedy shorts, the leads start somewhere else (in their detective offices, as bellboys, as exterminators, etc.) before they actually get to the haunted house… and whatever their profession may be is usually the impetus for them having to go to a haunted house in the first place. In this case it’s Hugh’s construction office. This oft-used scenario in the Columbia shorts doesn’t always work – sometimes the gags in the first location are not as strong as the haunted house gags to follow, and as I mentioned in my review of “Idle Roomers,” there is a desire (especially in shorts) to see the comedians get into the spooky setting as soon as possible. I’m happy to report that in “One Shivery Night,” the gags at the office are just as amusing and fun to watch as the haunted house gags to come.
Three of the more memorable bits in the construction office occur once Vernon Dent arrives to hire the boys. With their business dried up and their gas and phone shut off (Hugh only finds out about the phone when he tries to call the gas company to complain!), Hugh and Dudley are desperate for work. When Dent arrives, Hugh pulls out an old trick – he pretends to take calls from other clients with Dent sitting there (he sets off the ringer on an alarm clock that’s out of Dent’s sight to simulate the phone ringing). Hugh talks big like he is in demand with a lot of big jobs to do so he can get top dollar from Dent. In a Stooges-style moment, Hugh gets his hand stuck in a mousetrap then flings it – and it lands promptly on Dent’s nose! Then when Dent asks Hugh about the quality of his work, Hugh guarantees “when I build ‘em they stay built!” – and just then Dent pushes on a beam and it tips over!
In a typical feature, Hugh and Dudley wouldn’t get the job after the mousetrap and beam faux pas, but this is the fast-paced, often illogical world of Columbia shorts, so before you know it Hugh and Dudley are at the mansion and ready to work. When Hugh and Dudley arrive at the site, we’re treated to lots of Laurel & Hardy style slapstick as they try to get tools and ladders off their truck… culminating with Dudley’s head stuck between the rungs of a ladder and Hugh stuck in a barrel with his legs sticking straight up!
Once inside the mansion, the real creepy trappings kick in – lightning flashes, Dudley gets tangled in a drape as if it’s a ghost and then a boxing glove flies out from behind a painting on the wall and clonks him. It’s all fast and furious with marvelous “scared takes” from both Dudley and Hugh. And that’s just for starters. Once the crooks put a scare into our heroes with the power of suggestion by backing up the “ghost” legend, Hugh and Dudley are prime candidates for more scares.
And scared they are! The gags that follow are in many ways standard horror-comedy fare, but they are tried-and-true gags performed with such professionalism and enthusiasm that they are hard to resist even if you’ve seen the same gags before. The crooks pretend to go home for the night but they soon return wearing monster masks. Sleeping Dudley is the first to be frightened. He does a prime scare take, knocking his head back against the wall and running away screaming. Then Hugh thinks Dudley has bumped into him and turns around to find one of the mask-wearing crooks… and then Hugh runs away screaming. Other typical gags include Hugh hiding in a trunk to find a mask-wearing hood already in it, and Dudley sitting on a chair only to have the sheet cover rise up and chase him.
Dickerson in particular gets a lot of scream… er, screen time and utilizes it to the fullest. One completely hysterical scene has Dudley’s suspenders getting caught on a door handle. He’s convinced the ghosts have got him as he flails around trying to escape, but he never gets anywhere – he is always pulled back by the elastic! Eventually he snaps free and lands right in the furniture.
While Dickerson’s screen time and standing in the film are more elevated than most in the period, this short is not completely devoid of stereotypes. We get the requisite gag where Dudley gets covered in white paint, right before the crooks vow to “finish them off” – and then the crooks are scared away (this is an old bit that appeared in many films and cartoons, most notably in Laurel & Hardy’s “The Live Ghost” which doused caucasian actor Arthur Houseman in whitewash; the gag takes on a different pallor when it is an African-American actor turning all white). Hugh is also scared when he sees Dudley – which leads to the incongruous non-sequitor of a closing gag where Hugh slides across the floor and down a slide under a door, quickly followed by Dudley.
All tolled, there’s nothing terribly unique here, just Dickerson and Herbert getting into the spirit of things. For me, their inspired teaming and facility for putting over fright gags are enough reason to elevate this effort to a three star rating.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: This short features two stalwarts of Columbia’s stock cast, Vernon Dent and Philip Van Zandt.
Vernon Dent was a character actor in dramas and comedies from several studios (including some co-starring gigs with Clark & McCullough and W.C. Fields) and ultimately settled into a comfortable niche at Columbia playing both antagonists and put-upon victims of the Stooges and other Columbia comedians.
Philip Van Zandt was almost always playing “heavies” whether gangsters, mad scientists, henchman or the like. He appears in the classic Three Stooges 3D short “Spooks” as well as “Dopey Dicks” and “Outer Space Jitters.” He also appeared in comedy features like Laurel & Hardy’s "Air Raid Wardens" and “The Big Noise,” the Marx Brothers' "A Night in Casablanca," and "Ghost Chasers" with the Bowery Boys.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
HUGH (holding a blueprint upside down): I was wondering what those bathtubs were doing on the ceiling!
HUGH (assuring his client of the quality of his work): You leave it to me… I’ll fix it up so nobody will recognize it!
HUGH: We’re miles and miles away from anybody.
DUDLEY: That’s just what I’m afraid of!
DUDLEY: Can I draw part of my back salary?
HUGH: Whatsamatta, you crazy? What about the two dollars I gave you last week?
DUDLEY : I dunno boss, I expect I’m just extravagant!
CROOKS (telling Hugh & Dudley they’re leaving): You don’t think we’re going to spend the night in this creepy night, do you?”
DUDLEY: You mean you’re going to leave us here all alone?
CROOK: Oh you won’t be alone – you’ll have Ben’s ghost to keep you company!
BEST GAGS: I’ve already mentioned most of the highlights in the body of the review. Nothing beats Dudley’s antics, particularly with his suspenders, but here are some more great sight gags:
• The old chestnut of Hugh accidentally drinking from a bottle of ink instead of his beer.
• Hugh finds a wire in his way and starts to follow it into a wall opening… and the crooks promptly trap him inside. Dudley uses a pick to get through the wall, spears Hugh’s derby and pierces a water pipe. The water then starts splashing out of various holes.
• There’s one gag that’s more incredulous than funny where the crooks tie a noose around Hugh’s neck to drag him out of the wall.
BEST COMBO VISUAL-VERBAL GAG: Dudley has stepped into a can of black paint. Hugh walks into the room and sees a trail of black footprints… climbing UP the wall! When Hugh asks where Dudley is, he replies “up here” and we see his head peering from a hole in the ceiling! Dudley replies, “I don’t know how I did it, but here I am! Come on up, boss!”
FURTHER READING: Ted Okuda and Edward Watz wrote an indispensible book called “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” and Leonard Maltin wrote one called “The Great Movie Shorts” (also known as “Selected Short Subjects”). You can order them here:
Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to the Three Stooges (Da Capo Paperback)
I also encourage you 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: Since this is a short there is no trailer, but thankfully I was able to find this short clip whose length falls within the parameters of “fair use” – a really nice clip highlighting Dudley and Hugh’s great “scare takes”: