Wednesday, February 29, 2012
TO HEIR IS HUMAN (1944)
RATING: ** & ½ out of ****
PLOT: Mistaken for a private detective, Una Merkel decides to play along with the charade for the chance to earn a thousand dollars. Her task: find missing heir Harry Langdon within 24 hours. She just doesn’t realize that she’s been hired by one of Harry’s greedy relatives (Lew Kelly), head of a dastardly trio (including Christine McIntyre and Eddie Gribbon) out to do away with Harry so they can be next in line for his inheritance! Can Una and Harry turn the Grim Reaper into a Grinning Reaper and literally survive a night in a spooky house?!
REVIEW: As mentioned in other “Scared Silly” reviews, the Columbia shorts department was constantly trying to hit pay dirt with a comedy duo to rival Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello’s popularity. Some inspired teams came from these attempts – namely (Wally) Vernon and (Eddie) Quillan, (Gus) Schilling and (Dick) Lane and Hugh Herbert and Dudley Dickerson (although that last team was never billed as such – Herbert received top billing).
For this short, Columbia tried pairing vivacious comedienne Una Merkel with Harry Langdon, whose fame as well as box office receipts briefly (about three films briefly) rivaled Chaplin’s, Keaton’s and Lloyd’s in the silent era, and whose merits have been debated ever since (Langdon has many champions and I count myself among them. He also has many detractors). Merkel, the once stand-in for Lilian Gish began as a dramatic actress in silents and appeared in the early-talkie and horror-comedy template “The Bat Whispers” but her funny side (she fell somewhere between Helen Kane and Gracie Allen, but more subdued than either) really flourished in several late 1930s/early 1940s shorts and features (most notably the W.C Fields classic, “The Bank Dick”).
For Una, this was her second and final short for the Columbia unit and her second teaming (she previously appeared in tandem with Gwen Kenyon). For Langdon, this was Columbia short number 17 and not his first as a member of a team (previous teammates included Monty Collins and Elsie Ames); after “Heir” he’d finish up with four more Columbia shorts, teamed-up with but practically playing second banana to Swedish dialect comic, El Brendel. Both Merkel and Langdon had prior horror-comedy experience: she as part of an all-star cast in the pseudo-comedy-horror “Cracked Nuts;” he in a few shorts including “Goodness, a Ghost!” for RKO and another Columbia, “Shivers.”
Interestingly, this particular short received a bigger budget and longer running time than other Columbia shorts, which typically ran between 16 and 18 minutes (this one ran a full 20 minutes). One of the most noticeable differences is that once it hits the second reel, the short has its own score. Although the Columbia comedy shorts were spun off from the “Musical Novelties.” series of shorts, after the Three Stooges’ sing-songy “Woman Haters” hit with audiences the studio recognized it was the gags and jokes that kept audiences coming back for more. They decided it was best to dial down the music in favor of the laughs. In any event, no one has uncovered a reason why this particular short was singled out for special treatment. Maybe Columbia just took notice of the hefty box office receipts brought in by that early ‘40s pair of boy-girl horror-comedies, “The Ghost Breakers” (Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard) and “Whistling in the Dark” (Red Skeleton and Ann Rutherford) and thought they had a launch-pad here for similar success. The music during “Heir’s” scary sequences sure is reminiscent of the feature length horror-comedies of the day.
While Una and Harry are billed as a co-starring team, Una’s name comes first – the result of a simple “ladies first” courtesy, perhaps? Or maybe just the fact that Una’s antics dominate at least the first half of its running time.
The short starts off on uneven footing by putting Una through some slapstick paces. She is distributing new phone books and retrieving those that are out of date. She is bodily thrown out of one office whose owner chides her for “soliciting” and then a phone book is tossed into the hallway right into her posterior. With precision trajectory the flying directory sends Una sailing into the office across the way, which just so happens to be the “Hide & Seek Missing Persons Buereau.” This sets up the plot proper, but unfortunately it doesn’t signal an end to Una’s physical trials.
As Una tries to get her bearings, a man hands her a business card that reads, “A Raven Sparrow, Coo Coo Manor.” He also attempts to secure her services as a private detective. Her protests to the contrary are silenced when the man gives Una a photo of Harry Langdon and offers her one thousand dollars if she finds the “missing heir.” After all, Una muses, “If I had a thousand dollars I could get a permanent wave!”
She doesn’t have to look far for Harry – he’s right outside the window, being that he’s a window cleaner. And so we’re back into the slapstick with little rhyme or reason. Harry Langdon once said of his Columbia assignments that “When I play in what I call the O-Ouch-O comedies, where the comedian runs about, is hit on the head, etc., I am just an animated suit of clothes.” Sadly, in this instance it is Una doing most of the running about and being hit, acting as an animated dress if you will. In her attempts to get Harry to come along with her Una is repeatedly stuck in a window pane, nearly (accidentally) drilled by a dentist, knocked to the ground and knocked about in general. It’s all a bit jarring. It’s Una’s bubbly and unflappable personality that gets the viewers through these scenes, like a puppy or kitten that continues to wag its tail no matter how much roughhousing they’ve endured at the paws of the older, larger household pet.
Ultimately this chase sequence draws to a close, helped along by its final setting, which has Una and Harry interrupting a corporation’s big business meeting. They frantically chase one another around but pause long enough for Harry to insert an inspirational speech of his own: “Gentlemen, I propose that we get bigger and better businesses – our customer doors are…” and it trails off into something both unintelligible and nonsensical. Somehow it all ends with Harry sliding chest-first across the boardroom table, papers flying everywhere!
The trio of villains is introduced next, in a fun little sequence that matches the usual horror-comedy formula for scheming villains to a tee. When Una calls A. Raven Sparrow to inform him she’s found Harry, the ringleader informs the others (and the audience) that Harry stands to inherit a fortune if he survives the night… unless he meets an untimely, “accidental” end. Each gets to extol his or her own brand of villainy as being the most effective for the job at hand. Slinky, sexy Velma plans to play the kissing cousin and slip Harry a Mickey. Brutish Bobo wants to use physical violence. But Raven has devised a more “shocking” exit for Harry – literally – with a bed rigged to deliver 100,000 volts of electricity to whoever uses it! Each relative is the perfectly played archetype. Christine McIntyre as Velma essays her classic vampy femme fatale.. Eddie Gribbon as Bobo is as bulky and punch-drunk as Maxie Rosenbloom ever was. Tall, pallid Lew Kelly as Raven is a cross between Boris Karloff and Raymond Massey, and affects the stock diabolical laugh used by countless creepy villains in both animated cartoons and live action productions of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
As we move firmly into the second reel portion, Una and Harry approach the house and the spooky background music begins. Unbeknownst to the innocent pair, Bobo has climbed a tree over the garden bench. Every time Una and Harry look away, Bobo throws a rope down to remove objects like tree stumps, Una’s hat (which Bobo both removes and replaces) and a lantern. At first both are scared, but Una abruptly switches gears and brushes it off, insisting they get into the house (perhaps she remembered the thousand dollars and permanent wave).
Harry next gets to do some visual character bits which add weight to the argument that his talent was immense if often (self)misguided. First he crouches down and slips into the house through the bottom half of the door. He does so with such grace and finesse while at the same time in a comical way that his silent film training appears on full display. All the more impressive when you realize how quickly the bit comes and goes. Next comes the most impressively composed shot of the short, as Harry in extreme close-up lights a match to guide his way. Again, all the acting is as if he’s back in a silent, his malleable face telling the audience volumes about his fear. When Velma flips the light switch and Harry sees her seductively lounging in an arm chair, Harry’s version of a double-take response is to leap backwards away from her! As Velma approaches Harry he keeps fluttering backwards, removing his hat while trembling and stuttering. The scene is capped by Harry accidentally spilling the acidic liquid meant to be his demise.
By contrast, Una’s next scene falters by requiring her to do visual comedy. Una was funny – she made goofy faces, had comical body language, and was the perfect combination of quirky and clueless. It was her persona from which her humor derived. By forcing her into stock slapstick and sight gags that depended more upon situation than personality, a little was lost in the translation. Una climbs a trellis to try to enter the house. It teeters and tilts toward Bobo, who almost snatches Una several times. She’s back on firm footing – literally and figuratively – when she enters the home through a bedroom window, wondering aloud where Raven is with her thousand dollars and hiding behind the door in fear when Bobo tells Raven she’s in the house. As the villains exit the room, Una collapses to the ground in typical Merkel fashion.
The climax plays out with a parade of fright gags as is so common to the second reel of horror-comedy shorts (though in this one, the gags are none too scary). Most have a visual touch. We get a frantic hallway scene with characters running in and out of doors and often converging despite their opposition (similar to the scene in Buster Keaton’s horror-comedy silent, “The Haunted House”… and much later parodied to death on the late ‘60s “Scooby Doo” cartoon show). Harry is truly an animated suit in these scenes but in this context, it’s a very funny suit indeed as Langdon extends his arms, legs and facial muscles in kooky contortions. This funny bit is marred by another Una slapstick setpiece as she’s knocked out, placed on the electric bed and shot through the air by its voltage. Harry’s attempts to “get help” put him in the villains’ paths, particularly Velma who sets Harry into a tizzy with a tantalizing liplock. Again, the array of hysterical facial expressions pulled off by Harry in this second reel more than make up for his more inert performance in the first reel.
True to form, you have to take the good with the bad in “To Heir is Human.” After some nice reaction comedy from Harry, a very dark gag ensues: roped from above by Bobo, a noose is knotted around Harry’s neck and as Bobo pulls Harry up, he clutches at the rope while making distorted faces. Depending upon your tolerance for black humor, this particular gag may be too much or just right. I personally find it a little too close to reality to laugh at it. Thankfully the off-putting mood is shattered… and so is a statue, right on top of the villain’s heads and Harry wrangles out of the rope to rout the bad guys! The short would have done well to fade out right there, but one last bit is squeezed into the proceedings. Unfortunately, it’s spectacularly unfunny: as Una and Harry run off the property, Bobo once again lassos them. Their fear is so great they pull Bobo (obviously a stuffed dummy) from the tree and drag him behind them. The End.
Like so many efforts in the horror-comedy genre, particularly horror-comedy shorts, the good work of the players is simply undone by other elements. Here it’s the direction and production. Director Harold Godsoe was a second unit or assistant director on nearly 20 films, but only a full-fledged director twice: on “To Heir is Human” as well as an Italian-American film featuring more Italian than English. By this point Langdon’s career was considered to be in sad decline and his El Brendel team-ups to come lack the fire of his early efforts. But something about “Heir” livened Langdon up. While rather subdued and even lackluster in the short’s first few scenes, Langdon’s vigor returns with a vengeance for the scare scenes, resulting in one great take after another (for example, the faces he makes when he catches a whiff of the poisoned drink he’s been served are priceless). Likewise, Una’s energy and cute, perky-quirky qualities carry along the majority of her scenes with appealing whimsicality. The supporting cast is game, with the villains in particular adding zest to the proceedings. Unfortunately the flat direction, awkward pacing and weak compositions and too many knockabout gags at the expense of Una are a bit unnerving (it's difficult seeing a woman thrown and bashed about - the comedy factor is diminished to practically non-existent as opposed to when some goofy male schlub is on the receiving end). Last but certainly not least, for a horror-comedy this one is devoid of traditional scare scenes and trappings - sure, it's got the spooky house bit down but one wishes to see a skeleton dangling, giant cobwebs or the villains wearing ghostly sheets. All these factors combine to lessen the impact. It’s an average film at best, elevated to slightly above average status due to its performers and their performances.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Heine Conklin plays the dentist. A member of the famed Keystone Kops from the silent comedy era, Conklin had a long career spanning over 400 films and appeared alongside such legendary movie clowns as Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Wheeler & Woolsey, Hugh Herbert, The Three Stooges, Olsen & Johnson, Andy Clyde and Abbott & Costello (including a role in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Kops,” of course). He turned up in series films like the Blondie, Charlie Chan and Lone Wolf films, the Green Hornet serial and classics ranging from Marilyn Monroe’s romantic comedy “Monkey Business” to Richard Widmark’s film nor “Pickup on South Street” to the Lon Chaney biopic, “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
UNA: You’re the missing heir to a fortune – you’ve gotta’ come with me!
HARRY: A fortune?! I don’t want a fortune – I can’t afford one of those things.
UNA (frustrated that Harry has run off): He’s not going to get away with my permanent!
HARRY: (pointing to the smoking floor after accidentally pouring corrosive acid on it): Lady, your floor's got a hot foot!
When Una realizes the man she’s looking for is right outside the window, she rushes at Harry, but Harry comes through the next window. They then confer about who Una is seeking, until Una realizes she’s talking to him.
As Raven sits down on the bed to explain how the electric booby trap works, Bobo pulls the switch, sending watts and volts through Raven and catapulting him through the air!
Unnerved by the frightening atmosphere at the house, Harry doesn’t realize he’s clinging to (and slightly raising) Una’s hemline.
When Harry raises his poisoned glass to toast his fortune, he knocks it into a statuette, which punctures the glass so the corrosive liquid leaks to the floor, setting it on fire.
As Harry pours another poisoned drink into a plant vase, the plant goes through its death throes, playing out a death scene worthy of a hack actor.
BEST COMBO VERBAL/VISUAL GAG:
UNA (running down the stairs): Where are you going?
HARRY (running up the stairs): I’m going upstairs to get you!
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.