Monday, April 6, 2020
TWO ROAMING CHAMPS (1950)
PLOT: Two former prize fighters, Max Baer and Maxie Rosenbloom set up a detective agency. Their first case: an heir named Horace Dwiggins, worried that his relatives plan to bump him off for his inheritance. Since the heir apparent has been living out of the country his whole life, Max gets the idea to masquerade as the client and attend the reading of the will… at the “Dismal Heights” estate! Can the two Maxes clear the air for the frightened heir, or will Dismal Heights be full of frights for the pugilist pair?
REVIEW: Right off the bat, it should be noted that this series presents an early example of “meta” comedy. The stars, former boxers Maxie Rosenbloom and Max Baer are actually playing exaggerated versions of themselves... right down to mention being made of their prior prize-fighting days.
That whole meta stance embeds why this series is a footnote in comedy shorts history today. It’s more a curio for boxing fans than a series ripe for rediscovery by classic comedy fans. Simply put, despite some inspired moments peppered along the way, the Maxes put over all the best good-will they can, but they’re just not as seasoned comedy performers as they were boxers. Which makes those moments where they do excel all the more impressive, in addition to entertaining.
The short opens on a shot of Maxie Rosenbloom proudly standing in front of a door that has KAYO DETECTIVE AGENCY painted on it. Rosenbloom tells us it’s their first day in business, declaring, “at last I’m a private eye... instead of a public nuisance.”
It’s a funny line, but the delivery is a bit off.
In general, though Maxie is pretty lovable, with his punch-drunk, malapropism-laden dialogue and body language (which he put to great use in The Boogie Man Will Get You with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre), so it comes as some surprise when he sometimes slips into Curly Howard mannerisms, such as he does while hanging their detective school diploma. He clearly doesn’t need to (perhaps there’s a behind-the-scenes story on this, given it’s a short from the Stooges’ home studio, Columbia, and directed by one of their directors, Ed Bernds), but the effect is underscored when Max Bear manhandles Maxie a bit, and calls him names like, “skillethead.” Watching Maxie get slapped by Max is a little harsher than when Moe slaps Curly, however.
For his part, Max Baer plays things blustery. He knows he’s the guy in charge. Like Rosenbloom, there are just some lines that are a bit stilted, with hesitancy and unnatural pauses that belie the fact that the two Maxes could use a few more rounds sparring in acting class. Things brighten up for the pair in the second half though, as they’re about to get some business...
Thankfully, the Columbia shorts unit pulled in one of their greatest secret weapons to aid the Maxes in this and a few of their other shorts. Erstwhile comic foil Emil Sitka, veteran of several horror-comedies with the Three Stooges and others, comes to the rescue halfway through the short with a burst of much-needed energy. He steals the show as a jittery man (as he describes himself, “a worried man… a frightened man”) living in British-Guyana who’s summoned back to America for the reading of his wealthy uncle’s will… said uncle perishing in a hunting accident.
Sitka’s vocal inflections, facial expressions, nervous ticks, fiddling with a cigarette, all provide a master class in acting for anyone with visions of becoming a comedic character actor. Things reach a crescendo when a manic, crazed Emil grabs Maxie by the jacket exclaiming, “they’ll kill me... they’ll kill me!” Fear was rarely funnier.
As mentioned above, the two Maxes truly come to life in the second half of the short. Once they show up for the reading of the will, and pretend to be the heir and his aid, they are “all in” to the spirit of the charade. From pretending to have British accents, to debating whether the heir is really nuts and his relatives are harmless, both Maxes seem more confident in both their bearings and deliveries of the lines.
After meeting the heir’s relatives (after meeting the homely “Aunt Ghastly,” Maxie asks, “how long you been fightin’?;” while Max finds himself on the receiving end of a rather seductive “sisterly kiss” from Horace’s attractive sibling), the pair are shown to their sleeping quarters, and it’s here where the horror-comedy trappings really start to take hold. A sampling:
- When the sultry sister says she wants a drink with Max, he replies “That’s for me, if it’s the last thing I ever do.” Once out of earshot, she purrs, “Could be, big boy… could be.”
- When the butler says he hopes the Maxes sleep well, Max replies, “We will – we’re practically dead!” “Practically dead?! Excellent” chimes the butler, laughing profusely as he exits the room.
- A ghoul masked figure pops into the Maxes room briefly to pull their guns off the dresser.
- Maxie intones, “I’ve been to movin’ pictures – I know what happens. If I go to the closet, open the door...” he finishes by waving his hand and making a “whooshing noise,” indicating a dead body falling out. “A corpse!”
- Maxie then does encounter what he believes to be a corpse in the closet... that of course isn’t there when he brings Max in to show him.
- Gaslighting antics by masked figures accelerate – removing and returning the guns to the table, poking through the other end of the medicine cabinet with a slingshot, chasing the boys, etc.
One of the funnier late-moment gags comes when a masked figure enters the room to confront the Maxes face-to-face. When they pick up their guns to shoot, they find out they were switched for water pistols!
The chaos continues as the various family members try to do away with Max (remember, they think he’s their long-lost brother, Horace the heir), with even Aunt Ghastly swinging a mace! Maxie grabs one of their monstrous detective masks to enter the hallway, figuring he won’t be a target if he looks like one of the family. Of course by this time, Max has grabbed the mace from Aunt Ghastly and clonks Maxie on the head with it!
The climax comes when the sister decides to collect on that drink with Max. Just as Max is about to take a sip, the ghastly figure from Maxie’s closet pops his head through a painting on the wall. Using a boxing glove on a stick (nice touch), he knocks the drink from Max’s hand, and its spilled contents end up killing a nearby potted plant! The plant’s death throes are hilarious – it shakes while it hyperventilates – and a startled Max hilariously exclaims, “baby I’m on the wagon from now on!”
Just when it looks like it’s all over for Max – the villains have him surrounded – the man from Maxie’s closet who saved Max’s life bursts into the room, waving a gun. It’s Uncle Elmer! Turns out the will was a fake that he drew up just to see how his potential heirs would behave. With the outcome, it furthers his resolve to not give the fiendish crew a single penny. Victory is short-lived as one of the relatives gets the upper hand, but the day is inadvertently saved by Maxie, who booby-trapped a bowling ball to come crashing down when a door opens. Inventively, Maxie forgets he did this and the bowling ball lands on his own head… and then promptly bounces off and crashes through the floor to the room below, careening down on the bad guy holding Elmer hostage!
All’s well that ends well, except that the two Maxes accidentally knock each other out, leading Elmer to declare, “well whaddaya’ know... it’s a draw!”
This short was almost a draw, too. I was tempted to award it just two and a half stars marking it as only “slightly above average” for its awkward opening bit. The always sublime work of Emil Sitka (playing as it turns out both Horace and Elmer) combined with the surprise of the Maxes rising to the occasion in the second reel allows me to declare this short a “technical knockout!”
BEST VISUAL GAGS/DIALOGUE:
MAXIE: You know something Max, I think I’m going to like this better than fighting for a living.
MAX: Yes, but you’ll have to get used to staying on your feet.
When Max tells Maxie to put the combination to their safe in a safe place…. Maxie locks the combination in the safe!
When Max tries on a disguise and tries to scare Maxie, Maxie isn’t afraid, but recognizes him right away. Only after Max removes the mask does Maxie get frightened!
While practicing interrogating a suspect by giving himself the third degree, Maxie also gives himself a “conclusion of the brain” – by clonking himself in the head with a rubber billy club.
Maxie delivers one of the funniest lines in the short, and it’s practically a throw-away. In the middle of Emil Sitka hilariously describing the harrowing events that have brought him to Kayo Detective Agency, when he gets the part where he mentions his uncle’s wealth, Maxie utters, “I’d like to be scared like that myself.” That quip elicits a “pipe down” from Max.
When the boys arrive at Dismal Heights for the reading of the will, Maxie pulls Max aside for this lively, funny exchange:
MAXIE: Hey Max – I don’t like this guy’s altitude.
MAX: Don’t be silly – they’re probably very nice people.
MAXIE: Yeah, but that nephew...
MAX: Ah, don’t be silly. The nephew’s just imagining things. He’s a skiptomaniac.
MAXIE: A skipto-who?
MAX: That’s a dope to you. He’s got a split personality.
MAXIE: Yeah – we’re gonna’ get a split skull if we don’t get outta’ here!
When Maxie asks the butler his name, he replies, “Coombs… it rhymes with tombs!”
SPOTTED IN THE CAST:
Symona Boniface appeared in countless Columbia shorts, often with the Three Stooges (including their horror-comedy classic, Spook Louder), Andy Clyde, and one of Hugh Herbert’s horror-comedies (Get Along Little Zombie). Boniface had a bonita face – she was quite the attractive foil most of the time, so she was a real trooper in this short allowing herself to get all ghouled up to play Aunt Ghastly. This was sadly one of her four final films – she died the same year it was released, of pancreatic cancer. Some of the shorts that followed utilized stock footage of her from earlier appearances. Other notable roles for her came in the The Black Cat (the 1934 horror version, not the 1941 horror-comedy), a Tarzan movie, and films with Laurel & Hardy, The East Side Kids and Abbott & Costello.
Butler-playing James Logan had a long-career that was capped with lots of TV work and roles in two notable 1964 films, Mary Poppins and The Candidate. Scared Silly fans will also spot and appreciate his appearances in Boris Karloff’s thriller Bedlam, cheapo sci-fi horrors like Dinosaurus and The Mole People, entries in the Bulldog Drummond and Lone Wolf mystery film series, as well as in The Bowery Boys’ Loose in London and Abbott & Costello’s The Noose Hangs High.
John Merton – Uncle Shark here – was a veteran of countless serials and westerns in addition to some Columbia comedy shorts... and just happened to play a member of that beloved fraternal organization, the Sons of the Desert in the Laurel & Hardy classic of the same name.