Monday, December 5, 2016

'FRAIDY CAT (1951)

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RATING: *** & 1/4 out of ****

PLOT: Joe Besser and Jim Hawthorne are detectives who have slacked on the job and are given one more chance to capture the simian robber pillaging antique shops by night. With nothing but each other and a penchant for sight gags and wordplay, can the daffy detectives cage this ape, or will their hair-trigger fears get the best of them?

AUTHOR’S NOTE #1: Typically, I’ll break down my reviews into a plot synopsis, followed by an overview of the film often including background information on the talents involved, and finishing up by highlighting some of the best verbal and visual gags in the film. This review simply can’t be structured that way because this short is practically ALL verbal and visual gags. There’s very little plot to speak of – it’s all shtick and comic mayhem. Therefore, this review will not include the usual separate sections for Verbal and Visual Gags. This review will also be less of a review than a celebration of the various bits, because the comic timing and energy in this film is splendidly entertaining indeed!

AUTHOR’S NOTE #2: This is a remake of the Three Stooges’ short, Dizzy Detectives, and reuses some gorilla footage in that short. In turn, ‘Fraidy Cat was remade four years later as Hook a Crook (1955), with mostly stock footage from ‘Fraidy Cat and the gorilla bits from Dizzy Detectives, but very little new material, which is noted at the end of this review. Special thanks to Three Stooges historian, Brent Seguine who contributed additional information for this review. Brent has helped provide research on several Scared Silly reviews.

REVIEW: ‘Fraidy Cat is a solo Joe Besser short, but as in many Columbia shorts, it’s really a “comedy duo” short (see the Hugh Herbert-starring shorts in which he’s equally paired with Dudley Dickerson, despite not being equally billed). Columbia was almost always trying to come up with a new Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello... and mostly not succeeding.

Joe Besser tread the boards on vaudeville, honing his comic timing and bag of tricks. He used it to great effect as a supporting player in many films (including Abbott & Costello’s famed jungle spoof, Africa Screams which also featured another “third Stooge,” Shemp Howard), and most famously as “Stinky” on the Abbott & Costello TV show, and as the “third Stooge” in the final group of Three Stooges shorts. Those include a trio of horror-comedy-esque sci-fi themed shorts: Space Ship Sappy, Outer Space Jitters and Flying Saucer Daffy. He also thrived for many years beyond the “classic comedy” period with guest-spots on many TV shows (including a regular role on Joey Bishop’s sitcom) and doing voices for several animated cartoon series right through the early 1980s, stopping on a few years before his death.

Jim Hawthorne was a veritable everyman – not just an actor but also a radio announcer and performer, a disc jockey often cited as a pioneer of free-form radio, a creator of children’s shows, and originator of the first late-night TV talk show. The latter fact is fitting as Hawthorne comes off very much like a Steve Allen-type, particularly in appearance (he also seems a bit of a Stan Freberg-type in performance). ‘Fraidy Cat is not only Hawthorne’s first short, but his first film appearance of any kind.

Besser and Hawthorne have great chemistry, and their size disparity also makes them an appealing duo, reminiscent of tall and short duos such as Abbott & Costello. In many ways, too their interactions mirror Bud and Lou, with Besser impulsive, gullible and prone-to-be scared as Hawthorne plays the straight man. He does get to insert several of his own comedic moments through humorous takes and line readings, but most often is operating as Besser’s foil, setting up Joe’s punchlines.

The action starts right in with Joe and Hawthorne getting chewed out by their boss at the detective agency (as in some Stooges shorts, the door reads “Wide Awake Detective Agency”) for not doing a good job guarding various antique stores they’ve been assigned to protect. Apparently, they stepped out for beer one too many times, which is when all the robberies occurred. Joe protests that they really left their posts for sarsaparilla!

For no other apparent reason than perhaps plot expediency purposes, they mention to their boss the various reports of a “huge ape” having committed the crimes (or as Joe says, “an o-rang-o-tangle”).

The boss rattles off the names of the various stores knocked over and many include colors in their names, prompting Hawthorne to crack, “White, blue, gold, black – it’s a very colorful job, eh boss – they covered the rainbow!”

A great sight gag soon follows – Joe puts a walnut on the boss’s desk so that when the boss pounds his fist on the desk, the nutshell is cracked.

This opening bit sets the tone the for the entire short, as clever dialogue is interspersed with groan-inducing puns at equal intervals. Example:

JOE: “You know what I think? It’s an inside job.”
HAWTHORNE: “Why is it inside?”
JOE: “Because it’s not outside!”

The short also includes a lot of “déjà vu” bits, as in “haven’t I seen this before?” But Joe and Hawthorne pull them all off seamlessly with expert comic timing.

This includes the old “hello” bit where they both answer two ringing phones at the same time, their backs turned to each other, and then end up answering each other’s greetings, and turning to shake hands and introduce themselves to each other.

The phone antics continue when Joe answers a call saying “yes… yes, oh yes.” Hawthorne asks, “what was it, Joe?” Joe answers, “a friend of mine just gave me a recipe for an upside-down cake”… and Joe proceeds to recite it!

When Hawthorne gets a call with a tip on the ape’s whereabouts, he and Joe are off to the chase… but not before some entanglements with the telephone line that end up knocking their boss out!

When Joe and Hawthorne arrive at the antique shop, they’re not sure what key to use. Joe pulls a huge key chain out of his jacket with dozens and dozens of keys on it – a nice sight gag. There’s also a can opener gadget prompting Joe to ask Hawthorne,” “You haven’t got any beer on ya’, have ya’?”

As they fumble through the keys, the ape opens the door from the inside.

When they realize the door has been opened, Joe tries to leave. “What’s the matter, are ya’ afraid?” bellows Hawthorne. Besser says, “Um… (pause)… YEAH!” It’s these touches of thoughtful comic timing throughout that really help sell the barest of material here, and leave audiences smiling.

Besser also gets to do some signature shtick. When Hawthorne insists, “will you snap out of it?!,” Joe gives Hawthorne a gentle nudge and exclaims, “Not so loud!” (this bit of business would come into play in many of Besser’s Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello outings, often changed to “not so hard!” when Joe was being roughhoused a bit).

Often unfairly maligned for his work as a Stooge in shorts where, in my opinion the blame lies more in the fact those shorts were more ill-conceived and poorly written or directed (I feel Joe is often the best thing in some of those short), here in this solo short Joe’s talents are shown to great advantage. Joe gets a terrific moment alone guarding a room in the antique shop while sitting in a rocking chair and smoking a cigar. As Joe rocks in the chair, telling himself “I’m not afraid – why should I be afraid? Babies are afraid. I’m not a baby… but I’m afraid!” What follows is a classic comedy gag of the leg of the rocking chair just narrowly missing a cat’s tail several times until...


This sends Joe flying out of the rocking chair, practically swallowing his cigar. He retrieves Hawthorne and tells him a woman screamed and clawed his leg.

“A woman? That’s bad? Is she pretty? Where is she?...” inquires Hawthorne.

This begins a series of more “aged-up” dialogue that likely went over the heads of any kids in the theater audience.

When Hawthorne chastises Joe that there’s no woman, Joe protests, “I could swear...”

“No, no Joe – no profanity – swearing’s a bad habit,” chides Hawthorne.

It gets even more outrageous from there. When Hawthorne asks Joe where his revolver is, Joe responds that he gave it to a baby to play with!!! Hawthorne is shocked.

“You gave the baby a revolver?” asks Hawthorne in disbelief.

“What, I should give her a knife so she can cut herself?!” replies Joe.

Meanwhile, the ape is rummaging through the other rooms, and plants a dummy in the room that Hawthorne and Joe are “guarding.”
Naturally, the duo mistake the dummy for the dead woman Joe insists grabbed his leg.

Hawthorne soon realizes their error and exclaims, “that’s not a woman – that’s a dummy – like you!” Joe retorts, “Oh I don’t look nothing like her!”

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Another hilarious solo scene for Joe has him tripping over a cat, whose screech sends Joe hiding under the covers of a futon. He kicks a light stand which just happens to have a scary fright mask hanging on it and it lands on his foot. Of course, as Joe peeks over the covers, his foot rises so that it looks like the scary face is rising up to get him! Of course, the punchline has Joe shooting at his own foot!

Ultimately, Joe and Hawthorne come face-to-face with the ape, who handily breaks one of their guns in half! Joe exclaims, “maybe he’s a real chiminy-zanzee!

“That’s no chimp, you chump,” counters Hawthorne. “That’s a gorilla!”

Joe and Hawthorne run from the gorilla, but Joe falls down and again does a hysterical bit: he crawls backwards while on is back, his arms flailing, in a move previously perfected by Curly Howard.

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More notable wordplay follows:

HAWTHORNE (huffing and puffing): “Well we’ve sure been running.”
JOE (also huffing and puffing): “When I catch my breath we’re gonna’ run some more!”

In a short that already had its share of black humor, it saves one of the blackest pieces for last: Joe accidentally falls into a replica of a guillotine and the “blade” comes crashing down. Not realizing it’s a rubber prop, he implores Hawthorne – who has fainted at the sight – to not just be lazy and lay there but help Joe “nail” his head back on! Then Joe realizes, “Hey, if I’m dead how come I’m talkin’?”

Hawthorne is beside himself. “Poor Joe – I can’t look.” Just then a dummy head the gorilla has punched across the room lands at Hawthorne’s feet and he passes out all over again, thinking it’s Joe’s head!

Ultimately, a couple of mugs arrive to retrieve their “trained circus gorilla” and do a bit of pillaging themselves. A slapstick melee ensues, and somehow our heroes triumph.

A particularly satisfying parting shot – literally – evokes a similar gag Stan Laurel employed in the film, Blockheads. Joe is getting pummeled right and left by one of the crooks when he merely steps back from the punches and asks, “this is getting monotonous, isn’t it?” Joe makes a fist and draws the crook’s attention to it, and while the crook gazes at Joe’s right hand, Joe clocks him in the chin with his left!

Overall, this short is... well... short on typical darkly spooky or ghostly gags. It falls squarely into the realm of the “scary gorilla” sub-genre of horror-comedies – but it’s likely audiences seeing this in a theater were literally rolling in the aisles. The energy and chemistry in the pairing of Besser and Hawthorne brings a lot of good will, making even some of the many recycled gags and ripe puns amusing. This short proves that, with the right performers at the forefront, the slightest of material can be pulled off to entertaining effect.

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Let’s start with the gorillas. Two of the most famous gorilla suit men, Steve Calvert and Ray Corrigan are both in this short. Calvert is in the new footage, while Corrigan’s simian scenes are lifted from Dizzy Detectives. Footage of both, from both Dizzy Detctives and ‘Fraidy Cat, made its way into Hook a Crook.

Tom Kennedy plays the head of the detective agency, I. Katchum. A veteran of comedy shorts and features, he worked alongside Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and many more.

Eddie Baker features in the Jimmie Adams horror-comedy, Goofy Ghosts, and also appeared alongside W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and more.

Our old pal Joe Palma is also here. He, of course, in addition to being a frequent supporting player in Three Stooges shorts also has the distinction of being the “Fake Shemp” – doubling for Shemp in from-behind and obscured shots AFTER Shemp had passed away, which enabled Columbia Pictures to make four “new” (read: mostly stock footage) Stooges shorts with Shemp! A mainstay at Columbia, Palma worked alongside many of the players there, including an appearance in one of Andy Clyde’s horror-comedies, One Spooky Night. He also appears in the Joe E. Brown feature starrer, Beware Spooks.

THE REMAKE: Hook a Crook features much of the same footage as ‘Fraidy Cat, but adds a couple new touches. One is the addition of a scene with horror-comedy stalwart Dudley Dickerson, and another where the gorilla knocks out Joe and Hawthorne, but is finally taken down by a socialite’s kiss.

It’s been reported that the new gorilla footage in Hook a Crook features Dan Blocker of Bonanza fame, but film historian Brent Seguine has put this into question for understandable reasons: “Yes, he's listed on a production call sheet for new footage. But the gorilla suit is clearly the Corrigan/Calvert Naba outfit, which would not fit Blocker. New scenes, even with the actor in a crouched position, show someone shorter than Blocker.”

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