Friday, November 18, 2011

TALL, DARK AND GRUESOME (1948)

Hugh Herbert

RATING: * & ¾ out of ****

PLOT: Playwright Hugh Herbert just can’t make headway on his latest script with all the noise going on outside his city office. He and his assistant Dudley Dickerson commence to a quiet country cabin but the quiet is soon undone by real live gorilla and some masqueraders in scary costumes. Will Hugh finish writing his play or will his attempts to write the play finish Hugh?!

REVIEW: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a special presentation of silent films at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (click here to see my write-up about the event). These weren’t just any silent films – they were silent horror-comedies programmed by Bruce Lawton with wonderful piano accompaniment from Ben Model as part of their "Silent Clowns" film series.

But they were more than just silent horror-comedies, too. Mr. Lawton did a terrific job putting together a selection of shorts with a very specific theme: “Scary Shenanigans on the Second Reel.” Bruce’s concept: screen comedy shorts where the spooky stuff doesn’t happen until the second reel.

This idea of the second half of the film being the scary part worked beautifully in the shorts Bruce and Ben showed, including Harold Lloyd’s classic (and soon-to-be-reviewed-by-me) “Haunted Spooks” and two films I’ve previously reviewed, Buster Keaton’s “The Haunted House” and Our Gang’s “Shootin’ Injuns.” By no means is it a silent-film only concept, however. Some notable talkies that also went this route include such shorts as the Three Stooge’s “Idle Roomers” (reviewed here) and Laurel & Hardy’s “The Live Ghost” (reviewed here) as well as the final Hal Roach-produced Our Gang/Little Rascals short, “Hide & Shriek” (reviewed here). Even some features have followed this format – Bob Hope’s famed “The Ghost Breakers” has a rather lengthy prelude before the creepy stuff begins while the majority of spooky kookiness in Wheeler & Woolsey’s “The Nitwits” takes place in the third reel.

So here we have the great team of Hugh Herbert and Dudley Dickerson again. You may recall I waxed rhapsodic over their hysterical horror-comedy, “One Shivery Night.” I mostly love these two guys whether paired with each other, paired with others (like Hugh with Allen Jenkins in “Sh! The Octopus” and with Broderick Crawford in “The Black Cat”) or playing in solo or supporting roles (Herbert brilliant in Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs” and Olsen & Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin;” Dickerson just as brilliant in Our Gang/Tthe Little Rascals’ “Spooky Hooky” and the Three Stooges’ “A Plumbing We Will Go” as well as several other Stooges shorts and Marx Brothers features).

Given the above, as well as the fact that, as reported by Ted Okuda and Ed Watz in their essential book, “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” this short was well-received by both movie exhibitors and audiences alike, I truly wanted to love “Tall, Dark and Gruesome.” But when compared to “One Shivery Night” and everything else I’ve mentioned, it just pales in comparison. It’s not terrible – it’s a typical two-reel comedy of its day – but it lacks the spark and wit we’ve come to expect from this twosome. Still, there are some late inning antics that help save the film from being a complete “miss.”

Alas, many of the best laughs in “Tall, Dark & Gruesome” come in the first reel, the setup before the scary stuff kicks in. The short starts with Hugh as a mystery writer quoting his own dialogue “You gangsters don’t scare me with those machine guns! You wouldn’t dare use them!,” he intones... and promptly leaps scared out of his chair as a jackhammer on the street below punctuates his prose! Ever observant, Hugh’s assistant Dudley offers that “Some of these days, boss you’re gonna’ scare yourself to death, writing all them mystery plays.” It is an effectively compact introduction to the two main characters, establishing both their roles and their relationship to each other.

Hugh gets hit with something (rotten fruit, perhaps – the resolution is none too clear) when he yells out the window to the construction workers, leading into a scene where he gets stuck halfway in and halfway out the window. This is where the hit-and-miss nature of this short comes into full view, as the “comedy” here is labored, strained and unfunny. It’s hard to pinpoint why – both masters like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello as well as lower-tier film clowns from yesteryear have mined laughs out of such scenarios, but here it just plays flat. It’s possible that the sight of Herbert, clearly a middle-aged man dangling from a window just doesn’t inspire the same funny/fear response in audiences as when they watch whimsical man-boys like Stan Laurel, Lou Costello and Curly Howard find themselves in similar situations.

We go from an unfunny bit to a funny bit, as Dudley actually vacuums up the pages of Hugh’s play script. The laughter is brief, however: as Hugh tries to retrieve the pages from the machine, the vacuum backfires spraying him with black soot and dust. This leads to a string of tasteless racial jokes as Hugh now appears to be in “blackface.” First Hugh talks into the mirror thinking he’s talking to Dudley, then Dudley tries to shoo Hugh away thinking Hugh is some sort of solicitor.

Dudley suggests that Hugh put on earmuffs to muffle the noise of the riveters. Then Hugh’s producer calls to prod him about the delayed play script and another labored gag occurs as Hugh takes the call with the earmuffs on continuously exclaiming he can’t hear a thing. In the hands of Stan Laurel, such a gag would come off as whimsical and cute but with Herbert’s advanced age and forced delivery, the sequence falls flat.

It does, however, lead to the plot device that enables the second reel to become a horror-comedy. When Hugh laments to his producer that it’s too noisy for him to finish the play, the producer suggests Hugh commence to a quiet country cabin of a friend named “Captain Dalton” who is away. Of course it’s shades of “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and all that’s really needed to get Hugh and Dudley out of their cityscape and into a climate of fear.

Shortly after Hugh and Dudley’s arrival, a big case is delivered to the cabin for the vacationing Captain Dalton. When Dudley informs Hugh about the case, Herbert muses that “Twelve Bodies Make a Case” would be a great title for a mystery play, easily the most cleverly written line of dialogue in this short.

Dudley raps on the case (including the obligatory “shave and a haircut – two bits”) and whatever is inside of course raps back. In a fourth wall busting moment, Dudley looks straight at the audience and asks, “did you hear what I heard!”

The audience soon gets a glimpse of the case’s occupant: a gorilla! Dudley has opened the latch but is distracted by Hugh calling out to him and doesn’t notice that the beast keeps reaching to grab him as he sweeps! Hugh requests a shave from Dudley while in the other room the gorilla breaks through the bars and out of the case. The surly simian walks in on Dudley shaving Hugh, unbeknownst to both… until Dudley spots the gorilla and passes out!

The gorilla becomes fascinated with the snoring Hugh, lulled into a deep snooze from his shave. He starts to use the blade on Hugh’s whiskers. Hugh starts making mildly funny comments about the rough shave but as he opens his eyes to see the gorilla there, what should be hysterical ends up hysterically unfunny as Herbert mugs in a rather inert fashion spouting out such unfunny lines as “where’s my mother” (as opposed to the clich├ęd but much funnier “I want my mommy.”

Hugh beats feet and then Dudley comes back into the room to continue giving Hugh a shave – not realizing the gorilla has taken Dudley’s place in the chair and has shaving cream smeared on his face. He laments that he had the craziest dream about a gorilla… and then realizes the gorilla is there in the chair. Unfortunately, Dudley catches Hugh’s broad bug from a moment before as his scare reaction is just as unconvincing and forced as Hugh’s, until saved a bit by some funny arm-waving and sped-up action.

Dudley Dickerson

The short has one more plot complication up its sleeve (and desperately needs it because it would be completely D.O.A. if it just had to rely on Hugh and Dudley’s encounters with the gorilla): a trio of lost partygoers arrive to ask directions. The party they were heading to? A masquerade party of course, with one man a devil, another a skeleton and a woman dressed as a ghost. The woman is the ubiquitous-to-Columbia shorts heroine, Christine McIntyre, statuesque blonde beauty who tussled a time or ten with many funnymen, most notably The Three Stooges (you can read Dave Whitney's affectionate tribute to this underrated comedienne when you click here). When the already skittish Dudley answers the door, he races screaming from the costumed trio.

The partiers find their way in and start chumming up to the gorilla, who they think is someone else going to the masquerade party. In fact, the devil is quite impressed: “You’re part of the masquerade, too! Say, that’s some costume – you oughtta’ win first prize!,” the faux Faust exclaims. It doesn’t take long for the partiers to realize they’re dealing with a real gorilla (or at least a very menacing brute in a gorilla suit) and scatter in various directions to elude him.

Hugh takes refuge in a bedroom where the skeleton-wearing man has plopped down into a chair and draped a cloth over himself. Hugh decides to have a cigarette to calm his nerves, but when the skeleton hand not only offers it to him but lights it Hugh goes running – first to a closet door where the ghost woman is hiding, then back to the bedroom door where the devil man is.

The bedroom bits are funny and the costumes remind one of the Faust players Buster Keaton tangled with in “The Haunted House” but when compared to the great “One Shivery Night” the screams and reactions from Hugh and Dudley are so forced this time that they become overreactions. Yet, old pros that they are the duo still have their moments. Dudley in particular gets to shine in the next sequence. He’s hiding under the bed, and when Hugh dives under it to join him Dudley retreats in sped-up motion… right into the room containing the case the gorilla was shipped in, now inhabited by the devil man! After much rocking of the case and screaming from Dudley, he makes another hasty retreat, right into a closet where the skeleton man is. The skeleton man grabs Dudley’s shoulder, which sends him careening toward the nearest exit. A very funny bit ensues with Dudley trying to open the door but having the door knob stretch out on and on forever like one of comic book hero Plastic Man’s dangling limbs.

Many horror-comedies, including some of the truly great ones defy all (or at least most) logic, but there is the nagging question here of why the masqueraders, obviously scared by the gorilla would not only stick around inside the house but persist to take delight in scaring the heebie-jeebies out of Hugh and Dudley. It is something of a disconnect. And come to think of it, just why has a gorilla been delivered to the cabin of the vacationing Captain Dalton?!

Just as Dudley’s bits improve the film in spots, so too do Hugh’s, as he has a great bit where he decides to fight back and take on the gorilla. He’s in a room with various ancient swords on the wall. As he swings a blade around in preparation, Dudley enters and just as quickly exits, thinking his boss has gone mad and is about to slice him up. Dudley decides the swords will just not do; lucky for him there’s a cannon in the room! Hugh gleefully taunts the gorilla to come in (“C’mon in gorilla – I dare ya’!” and “Whatssamatter – you afraid?!”) and positions the cannon directly opposite the a door, not realizing the gorilla will enter through an alternate entrance! A very funny turning of the tables finds Hugh cowering behind a couch as the gorilla aims the cannon right at him! This is a big dumb hairy beast though (the gorilla, not Hugh!) and soon the animal’s curiosity gets the best of him as he stares down the barrel of the cannon. Cut to Hugh’s reaction as the cannon goes off; the next hysterical shot showing the gorilla blown sky high atop the chandelier!

These bits lead to a rather socko ending. Hugh has run out of the room but Dudley’s luck isn’t as good: he comes into the room and the gorilla (complete with chandelier) lands right on top of him! Cut to Hugh driving away at top speed, delivering the funniest line in the film, “C’mon car you can do better than a hundred!” This laugh is topped by the sight of Dudley outracing the car on foot! “This guy must be going 200 miles,” muses Hugh. That would be a fine place to end, but the script throws in one last scare take, as the skeleton man emerges from the back seat to tap Hugh on the shoulder. Hugh passes out, leaving the skeleton to grab the steering wheel as the end credits roll.

The final bits help bring the short to just about an average rating. They’re so good in fact that they serve to point up the weak bits. It’s a shame the short isn’t better than it is, but if you’re a big fan of horror-comedies, Hugh and/or Dudley and of course, gorillas then “Tall, Dark & Gruesome” may be just the short for you!

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: A couple roles in this short are filled by some extremely busy character actors of yesteryear. Charles C. Wilson plays the producer of Hugh’s play, one of a long string of authoritative characters that include many stern bosses and gruff lawmen. Along the way, he had the good fortune to appear in many classic and notable films, including “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Meet John Doe,” “This Gun for Hire,” “Scarlet Street” and more. On the comedy front, he was in Joe E. Brown’s “Elmer the Great,” Danny Kaye’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the series entry “Blondie in College,” Laurel & Hardy’s “The Big Noise,” the Hope-Crosby “Road to Utopia,” and the classic Wheeler & Woolsey horror-comedy, “The Nitwits.” He was also in the 1943 “Batman” serial and even appeared in a film called “Tall, Dark and Handsome.” He previously appeared with Hugh Herbert in the Bette Davis starrer, “Fog Over Frisco.”

Deliveryman Charles Heine Conklin was a real veteran by the time this short was made. He had appeared in dozens of silent comedy shorts for famed Keystone Films producer Mack Sennett, was in Chaplin’s legendary “The Gold Rush” and “Modern Times” and continued to perform into the talkie era in a variety of notable genre films including many comedies… and a few co-starring Herbert. Among them, “Million Dollar Legs” with W.C. Fields, Leon Errol and Hugh Herbert; Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs,” also with Herbert; Harold Lloyd’s “Professor Beware,” and a variety of Columbia shorts starring The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde He also appeared in such mystery entries as the Charlie Chan, Lone Wolf and Boston Blackie series. His career came full circle when he played a Keystone Kop in Olsen & Johnson’s “Crazy House” and a studio guard in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Kops.”

BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:

HUGH: “Tell them to stop that noise – they’re driving me crazy!”

DUDLEY: “I did boss, but the places they told me you could go, my pastor wouldn’t let me repeat!”

DUDLEY: It’s so quiet here you can hear the flies walking on the ceiling!
(then after some knocks on the door): What was that?

HUGH: A couple of flies I guess…

HUGH: A couple weeks up here will help cure your nerves.

DUDLEY: Ain’t nothin’ wrong with my nerves, boss – why I could walk through a cemetery at midnight without… what am I saying?!

HUGH: If this is gonna’ be “gorilla” warfare, I’m gonna’ be prepared for it!

BEST VISUAL GAGS: As the entire short is very hit-and-miss, the visual highlights are few and far-between. There is a lot of running and screaming that should be funny but mostly isn’t. We’re left with a couple bits from the first reel, namely Dudley vacuuming up Hugh’s script pages and a stiff drink of furniture polish that sends Hugh’s hat flying straight up. The second reel delivers the bang-up gag of Dudley tussling with the door handle and he gorilla on the chandelier; as previously mentioned, pretty much all the business leading up to and including the finale are a hoot.

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: Enjoy this clip featuring of most of the spooky bits in this short:

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