Wait, wasn’t that a plotline from season three of Curb Your Enthusiasm? Perhaps – I don’t have HBO, so I wouldn’t know. What I can tell you is that I’ve just described How Doooo You Do!!!, a bizarre 1945 movie that manages to be both an accidental and deliberate parody of itself and the musical-comedy B-picture genre in general. That it came from PRC Pictures -- my favorite low-rent studio, and whose movie posters I used to rabidly collect -- makes it all the more worth watching ("worth watching" being a relative term).
As with TV today, many radio actors branched out into movies. (You can read an earlier post about Meet the Baron here to see how that turned out for Jack Pearl.) This being a PRC picture, however, How Doooo You Do!!! features not superstars Bob Hope and Bing Crosby but second-stringers Bert Gordon and Harry Von Zell. That alone was enough to make my mouth water in anticipation.
|The subtle ways of Bert Gordon|
|Hey, look-a me! I'm on the radio!|
Harry Von Zell, another member of the Eddie Cantor cast, was the Ed McMahon of his day, a jolly announcer who took part in whatever shenanigans were happening at any given moment. Possessing the personality of non-fat milk, Von Zell was inoffensive enough to land "real" acting roles as well. He's the only straightman ever to land a series of comedy shorts at Columbia.
|Cheryl Walker, sleep with|
Harry von Zell? I think not.
But it's Bert Gordon that the studio was really promoting here. His style of comedy now extinct, watching him in action is like observing movie footage of a Cro-Magnon going about his business. Gordon's delivery is difficult to put into words. He opens his mouth as little as possible when speaking, avoids contractions and slurs most his dialogue in that whatever-the-hell-it-is singsong accent. (In my 30-plus years as a New Yorker, I've never heard anyone pronounce "funny" as "fun-yah.") Malaprops abound: "Rats sinking a deserted ship." "Hunky-punky" for "hunky-dorey." "We are going for a little stroll. Would you like to be joining us up?"
|Bert Gordon anticipates the hipster style by seven decades.|
CHERYL: My feminine intuition tells me.
BERT: Why do you listen to your relatives?
Yes, I laughed at loud. A one-note laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. Again, it's all in the delivery, the way he usually puts the emphasis on the first syllable, then goes flat for a while, then repeats the process: "WHY do you LISten to your RELatives?" Now try it with a chimerical Eastern European accent, with your mouth half-closed and your ears sticking out like the doors of a Studebaker. It's fun-yah, goddammit!
And let's not forget the music. Who needs show-offs like, say, Cole Porter to liven up the score when you've got songs like "A 12-Hour Pass, A Gallon of Gas and You" and "Drink to Me With Only Thine Eyes ('Cause I'm On the Wagon Tonight)"? I don't care if they're lip-synching; I'll take How Doooo You Do!!! over Les Miserables any day.
Mind you, there is actual wit to be found here. Early on, Harry Von Zell exchanges some funny verbal backscratching with his equally-pompous fellow radio announcer Harlow Wilcox. And a lengthy scene near the beginning is an interesting recreation of a real radio broadcast of the time.
|James Burke, Leslie Denison, Keye Luke and Benson Fong|
look at nothing in particular.
The appearance of the detective actors as themselves -- including Charlie Chan's #1 son Keye Luke -- is a major treat, too. (When one of them, Fred Kelsey, is reminded that the last "crime" he solved was only a picture, he's replies proudly, "Pretty good for a B-movie!") It's easy to feel that these guys are getting a kick out of the whole enterprise -- putting on themselves, the studio and the audience.
Bonus points, too, for Charles Middleton -- a/k/a Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serial -- as the sheriff. As with many B-movies of its time, How Doooo You Do!!! is awash with familiar, interesting middle-aged faces you rarely saw in any production with a budget over $100,000, but who deliver the goods every time. (Did I say "middle-aged"? Charles Middleton was born in 1874 -- nine years after the end of the Civil War!)
As for the climax, it would take something mighty strange to top what's gone on before. And it does. After three people confess to the murder of a certain Mr. Thornton, he suddenly appears, having only been in a drug-induced coma to cure his heart disease. (You don't go to the movies for medical advice, do you?) As THE END appears, we pull back to discover we're in the PRC screening room, where the principal cast members have just watched the movie. They believe they've got a hit on their hands, while the studio executive gravely warns them that it's unreleasable -- the audience prefers a story "formula," he claims, and will demand a murder victim.
Bert Gordon asks that the movie be rewound to the final scene. Once again, Thornton makes his entrance. He barely has a chance to open his mouth when Gordon (in the screening room) pulls out a gun and fires at the screen. Thornton falls dead. The onscreen cast shrieks in horror. Gordon turns to us and, with a smile, says, "And they lived happy ever after." You, on the other hand, are left to ask aloud, "What the hell did I just watch?" That's my kind of movie.
|Yes, a pseudo Russian-Yiddish-something-or-other accent.|
For my money, How Doooo You Do!!! is more entertaining than many A-movies of its day because it's not trying to be anything other than what it was meant to be: a ridiculous, low-budget picture with more out-of-the-box thinking than most comedies the major studios were turning out at the time. And you can bet it turned a profit. (With PRC's budgets, that was never a problem.)
As for its place in 20th-century culture, the AFI will never pay for a digital restoration of it, nor will it make the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Big deal. Do you really want to watch government-approved entertainment?
And just to show you how much I enjoyed and respected How Doooo You Do!!!, I typed out that damn title each time, carefully counting the o's and exclamation marks, rather than taking the easy copy-and-paste route.
I know what you're thinking: Do you mean it?
|Mad right to the end.|
The original trailer for How Dooo You Do!!! What would you have made of it? And why?