Monday, June 1, 2020
THE ITCHING HOUR (1931)
RATING: * and ¾ out of ****
PLOT: Swimming champion Louise Fazenda is traveling with her husband, Elmer; her manager (Max Davidson) and her manager’s son. Needing a place to stay on an incredibly stormy night, they lodge at a hotel where not everything is as it seems... and there’s plenty to elicit some screams!
REVIEW: Here is a rarity. It’s a short produced within the first few years of sounds films. According to Edwin M. Bradley's book, "The First Hollywood Sound Shorts: 1926-1931," it was produced by independent producer Larry Darmour and distributed through RKO Pictures. At the time of this writing, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. It is only due to the kindness of film historian and collector Ralph Celentano that I’m able to view and review what’s left of this short at all. Thankfully, it seems that only a small portion is missing.
Let’s start there. Simply put, that “small portion” that is missing appears to be the impetus for the entire short. There are villains out to scare guests at a hotel, but we don’t know why they want to do that. We get enough to know they want to do this for some reason, and that they’ve been up to it for some time, from the following fragments:
First, we see an innkeeper and (presumably) his wife talking about recent, unusual activity. He says, “...scared to death – just like they’d seen the devil.” She replies, “Just like the man in 209, whose hair turned white overnight.”
We then cut to the balcony overhead, where a trio whose clothing makes them look like the hospitality staff. Their body language and expressions make them look like they are conspiring, although the curious line of dialogue from one of them sounds like, “...other guests that have seen things... and left.” Since there is obviously some dialogue missing, it’s hard to pinpoint the context of this conversation. But fear not... all will be conveniently revealed in the end!
It’s then that Lousie Fazenda and her entourage, including Max Davidson show up at the hotel, to take shelter from the raging storm outside.
Curiously, the housekeeper (who was not among the suspicious trip shown earlier) answers the door and turns them away, claiming the hotel is closed for the winter. She’s swiftly admonished by the innkeeper, who then lets the party in.
In his reprimand, the innkeeper says, “you know that we need guests” which helps fill in some more blanks in this story. Taking all the above facts together, it seems the scaring off of guests has been happening for some time.
There’s a couple of good moments when the guests check in. First, Max hilariously introduces his son as, “The Concentrated Spinach Baby.” Then, as he goes to sign the hotel ledger, all the rainwater collected in the brim of Elmer’s fedora rains down upon it. When he shakes the ledger off, all that water then hits Max and son in the face!
After the check-in shtick, the bellboy is instructed as to where to bring each guest. When told which room to give to Max, the bellboy replies, “Yes sir – that’s where the last gentleman was choked to death.” Of course, Max reaches toward his throat to protect it, a concerned look on his face. Once they arrive at Max’s room, the bellboy ominously tells Max, “You’ll have to share this room with Dr. Carver – the rest of hotel is closed,” while clutching at his own throat. Max is terrified, to say the least.
From here the short alternates between the happenings in each room, with a mix of general slapstick, misunderstandings, and ultimately spooky gags and tropes.
Among the shenanigans are Max having to share a bed with the aforementioned Dr. Carver, who just so happens to be a surgeon who sleeps with his scalpels. He’s also prone to making menacing-sounding comments in an unsettling monotone voice. They’re also some of the funniest lines in the short. One of the comments, “If I walk in my sleep, don’t wake me up... I become...” is cut off in what’s left of the print, but Max soon finds out just what happens.
Meanwhile, in Louise and Elmer’s room, Louise is doing her exercises with her resistance bands. She has Elmer hold the bands, which of course sends him soaring out of the bed and into the wall!
Inexplicable things happen in Max’s room, such as a visit from a someone who appears to be a child or little person wearing a Mardi Gras style mask that covers their whole body, and Dr. Carver sharpening his blades (“That’s the only foot I’ve got left,” Max exclaims). Max asks if the doctor is awake, and he declares “no,” so we know that he’s totally off-kilter when snoozing.
From here’s it’s full-tilt horror-comedy. The wall bed snaps back sending Elmer hurtling down a chute and outside onto the porch. A floating, “talking” candle warns Louise to “beware” and “don’t resist.” Her retort is quite funny – “I won’t... I’ll do anything you say... I’ve always been a good woman... name your price!” Max’s son’s bed also slides into the wall, and behind it stands a spooky figure in a sheet, blowing fire through its large skull mask (the spookiest effect in the short). The requisite running through rooms and hallways and clonking the wrong person on the head ensues, and then out of nowhere comes a seal who crawls into Louise’s bed in Elmer’s place! Shortly before the people in full body paint and Roman emperor garb show up...
It’s all fairly bonkers and nonsensical, but just slightly off the effect its going for due to pacing issues and the problems of early sound film.
The two main attractions here are of course, Louise Fazenda who was one of the leading ladies of silent comedy films, and Max Davidson, one of the male stars of silent comedy’s heyday. Now together in an early talkie, the overall short is hit-and-miss due to script and staging, but there’s no denying the energy with which the duo tackle their roles.
I should note here that Fazenda ultimately quit the film biz and settled into domestic life married to film producer Hal Wallis, but during her career there are two other films that may stand out to Scared Silly fans, and both like The Itching Hour are early talkies. One called The Terror is an early sound horror film, and an Edgar Wallace adaptation at that. The other, House of Horror is a lost film that, based on reviews upon its release, sounds like it was totally in the horror-comedy realm: its penchant for trap doors, falling objects and dashing in and out of rooms was duly noted. With Chester Conklin also in the cast, you know at the very least there’s a comic relief quotient.
Sometimes Fazenda tries just a little too hard in this short, with exaggerated line readings and facial expressions, but she’s trying. There is a flavor of post I Love Lucy-era Lucille Ball performance to her act. Anyone who recalls the color Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy remember that Lucy got even more broad in those shows.
Davidson also had a varied career that not only included much silent comedy but also a role in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, Intolerance. For classic comedy fans, Davidson can also be spotted in Clancy Street Boys, one of the best of the East Side Kids films; in the Three Stooges short, No Census, No Feeling; as well as in Charlie Chaplin’s classic feature, The Great Dictator. Of particular note for horror-comedy fans is Davidson’s role as the derelict maniac “haunting” the old, abandoned house those Our Gang/Little Rascals kids are busy exploring in Moan and Groan, Inc.
His stock-in-trade, particularly in sound films, was that of a stereotypical Jewish-dialect comedian. This was a time when dialect comedians had steady employment. El Brendel famously played a character with a Swedish dialect, while both Henry Armetta and Gino Corrado were Italian-American actors who did exaggerated versions of Italian characters; to name but three others in pretty well-populated field. When viewed today, some of these performances can come off as uncomfortably politically incorrect; there are mixed reports of how the acts went over with the groups they parodied. All things considered, in The Itching Hour, Davidson is pretty restrained.
Irving Bacon plays Louise’s husband. He has an amazing list of credits almost reaching 500 films, that includes some bona fide classics that are household names. For the comedy-minded, Bacon worked in several films with W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello, and can also make a claim few others can: he has the distinction of appearing in Laurel & Hardy films produced at both Hal Roach Studios and 20th Century Fox. He most prolifically appeared in Blondie movies, mostly playing the beleaguered mailman run down by Dagwood.
Spec O'Donnell as Max’s son had a long career as well, almost spanning 200 films, starting from when he was a little boy. He often played quirky, freckle-faced characters who didn’t speak much but made up for it with often odd and hilarious facial expressions. Some notable distinctions for Spec include appearing in the Max Davidson short, Call of the Cuckoo which became a sort of ersatz Hal Roach All-Stars film in retrospect, seeing as how Charley Chase, Jimmy Finlayson and the a pre-teamed Laurel & Hardy all appeared in it. And in a true oddity, Spec got to play the same newsboy twice, eight years apart, in the films Princess O’Hara (at age 24) and its remake, It Ain’t Hay (at age 32); the latter starring Abbott & Costello.
One of the issues in reviewing this short today, apart from It being incomplete, is that the dialogue is hard to follow. Sometimes it’s just clipped so whole words or bits of words are missing. Other times It’s just muffled and muddled. This is particularly problematic when you can’t understand the parrot’s dialogue, which exists solely to add some laughs to the film.
With all that going against it, it’s hard to give a fair assessment to the film, because I feel like I haven’t really seen the film as intended. My just-about-average rating of one and 3/4 stars (almost 2) may seem generous to others who’ve watched this, but I have to at least credit the cast for their effort. They are trying, for sure. And if you’re in a generous mood, you may find some laughs in this one.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST:
Lon Poff is wonderfully macabre as Dr. Carver, delivering all his deadpan lines. He appeared in several shorts and features over the years, including playing one of the Adoop tribe members in Wheeler & Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs as well as part in the duo's The Rainmakers, the Andy Clyde shorts, His Royal Shyness and Alimony Aches, the Charley Chase short, Calling All Doctors, and both a silent and a sound Laurel & Hardy short – the classic silent, Two Tars; plus their celebrated horror-comedy, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case.