Thursday, October 31, 2013
CHILLS AND FEVER (1930)
RATING: ** out of ****
PLOT: Betty’s high school glee club must find a new place to rehearse when her mother announces the imminent arrival of her aunt and uncle, coming to town for some peace and quiet. The glee club commences to a hunting cabin owned by the cousin of one of its members, but not before an elderly couple take refuge there first after breaking down. As the members rehearse their numbers in their spooky costumes, the elderly couple are “scared silly!”
REVIEW: This early sound short from Pathe’ is notable for being one of Al Shean’s rare screen appearances (in fact, it was a lost film until Gary Lacher found both film and sound disc and restored it). Shean was half of the famous comedy team, Gallagher and Shean and also one of the Marx Brothers’ uncles. Unfortunately, none of the humor in this short approaches the level of Gallagher and Shean, let alone the brothers Marx. In fact, in my opinion the level of humor in this short barely approaches humor itself, at least not in the first reel.
The short opens on a jovial glee club rehearsal as guys and gals sing-along at the piano. Dialogue indicates that they’re high school students, but in the time-honored tradition, most of the actors look like they’ve already graduated college!
A bit of melodrama sets up the “plot” – the aunt and uncle of Betty (Evalyn Knapp), the girl who hosts the glee club are coming to visit, making the house off-limits to further rehearsal sessions. One of the club members offers a solution: his cousin, the thriller novelist owns a hunting lodge and it’s currently available to use.
Time is spent in a very blatant way on underscoring what terrible people the aunt and uncle are, and most viewers will recognize that this is but foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Cut to Emil (Al Shean) and his wife Ida (Mary Clark) stuck in the mud as they attempt to drive through a pounding rain storm. A dated and very un-PC bit has Emil ordering his wife to push them out of the mud. She slips and falls under part of the car, and Emil exclaims, “You lay there in comfort while I do all the work.”
This misogynistic tone permeates throughout the first half of the short, as the pair end up stranded right where they are. “Where they are” just happens to be the same hunting lodge to which the glee club is headed.
You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to connect the dots between all I’ve mentioned thus far.
“Scares” in this one are mostly on the mild side to start, as Emil and Ida retire to bed for the night. Example: an open window produces wind that blows papers and other objects around while making whistling noises. Then Emil finds a note under his pillow:
“It was in this very house that the modern Bluebeard operated his nefarious schemes. Some of his prisoners he kept chained until he was ready to put them to death. Many of his victims he beheaded and their heads fell to the floor with a clonk!”
You can guess what happens next, but I’ll tell you anyway: the glee club arrives and starts rehearsing. Because their costumes are on the bizarre side – they wear masks on the back of their heads and tuxedo costumes on their back – the overall effect produced is rather eerie as they dance and sway. Even more freaky, the band’s uniforms are designed to cover up the musicians’ heads so they look headless!
Groucho Marx with his famous Uncle Al Shean
When Al goes to investigate the noise, he witnesses the freakish sites and hides under a table… where a random duck walking through starts pecking him in the behind! When he returns to tell his wife what he’s seen, they start to bicker. Some of the bickering is comprised of the duo using variations on the word “clonk” (which goes from being a sound effect from the Bluebeard story cited above to a catch-all for ghosts, skeletons and ghoulies) and most of the rest of it is in Yiddish. Which may make these scenes much more funny if you happen to understand Yiddish!
Soon, both husband and wife are investigating the strange going-ons. I think the best way I can describe the tone is with an oxymoron: “broadly genteel” (or “genteely broad”). It’s all very obvious stuff played very broadly yet at the same time there’s a decorum to it – you know just from the tone that this short won’t reach the imaginative heights of such “out there” horror-comedies as Sh! The Octopus, Olsen & Johnson’s Ghost Catchers and the over-the-top bizarre silent Our Gang entries, Shootin’ Injuns and Shivering Spooks).
The earlier outfits are topped by bizzare witch costumes – the glee club dons robes that cover their entire bodies except for balloons on the end of long paper necks. Drawn onto each balloon is a face and each is topped by a witch hat. And of course, the requisite skeleton costumes are trotted out for a lively dance evoking such 1930s animated shorts as those produced by Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Ub Iwerks, Paul Terry and others (“…look, Ida: Skeleton Clonks!,” exclaims Emil).
One of the witch balloons floats off and Al chases it into a room. He hits it on the head with a thick club not realizing his wife is hiding in the bed sheet underneath! Here’s one of the genuine moments of humor in the film as Ida just can’t stop giggling while her face is frozen in a blank stare. Al’s efforts to calm her down are fruitless but funny.
As expected this one wraps up with a wild chase featuring Emil waving a rifle at everyone (now all congregated in the main room) and the discovery that yes, Ida and Emil are Betty’s Aunt and Uncle, who broke down on their way to Betty’s house. Ida and Emil are relieved to discover there were no real “clonks” – just the glee club in their costumes… but of course there’s one more scare to be had. A ghost is bobbing up and down in the air!
Of course, we know there’s no such thing in this short – it’s just our old friend the duck again, stuck under some sheets and trying to flap its way out, leading Emil to exclaim, “If that’s a klonk, I’ve eaten many of them!”
As mentioned throughout this review, this is an extremely mild horror-comedy short – short on real laughs. The music though, is totally jaunty, catchy and feel-good. In fact, it helps the short pick up its pace and leaves you with a smile on its face. It’s for that reason that Chills and Fever escapes a one-star review and gets a perfectly fine two-star average final grade from me.
BEST VISUAL GAGS:
The outlandish outfits, especially the balloon heads provide the best visuals overall and even some of the humor.
The duck pecking at Al from behind which Al mistakes for a ghost also elicits some chuckles.
BEST VERBAL GAG:
Emil’s punchline about eating many “klonks.”
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Reportedly, one of the glee club members is the ubiquitous character actor, Elisha Cook, Jr. Cook, Jr., here in his second film. He ended up having a legendary career appearing in one notable film after another, including several of interest to Scared Silly fans including Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’, Laurel & Hardy’s A-Haunting We Will Go, the Vincent Price films House on Haunted Hill and The Haunted Palace, and horror classics including the theatrical Rosemary’s Baby and Blacula; and the TV-movie greats, The Night Stalker and Salem’s Lot, among many others.
BUY THE FILM: You can by Chills and Fever direct from the man who restored it, Gary Lacher. Email Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
WATCH THE FILM: Here’s a short excerpt for your enjoyment: