Wednesday, January 16, 2013

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "HOW DOOOO YOU DO!!!" (1945)

Allow me to pitch an idea for a comedy. A bunch of media celebrities are vacationing at a California spa. Their sexual and psychological tension is heightened when the spa goes into lockdown due to a murder. Each having a motive, they soon accuse each other of the crime. The local sheriff is stumped, especially when the body keeps disappearing, so five detectives are called in. Only they’re not real detectives, they play detectives in the movies. Oh, and the media celebrities and movie detective actors are played by themselves (not necessarily flatteringly), thus blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

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
As Eddie Cantor's stooge, Bert Gordon was the pop-eyed, Brillo-haired, chimpanzee-eared dialect comedian famous for his catchphrases, "Do you mean it?" and, of course, "How do you do?" (Readers of a certain age will remember those lines impersonated in several Warner Brothers cartoons.) During his career he was officially known as Bert Gordon (The Mad Russian). And throughout How Doooo You Do!!! he's addressed as "Russian" as if it were his legal name. Further clouding the issue is that he was American-born and speaks with more of a Yiddish than Russian inflection (although I hear traces of Greek, but I'm no dialectician, so don't go by me ). 

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.
The other "as themselves" radio refugees are Claire Windsor, Cheryl Walker and Ella Mae Morse, the latter still riding a wave created by her hit single, "Cow-Cow Boogie." For reasons never explained, she's supposed to have a mad crush on the Mad Russian. Meanwhile, Von Zell's wife (never seen) is convinced that Cheryl Walker has the hots for Harry -- absurd, since Cheryl's clearly out of his league. Claire Windsor's raison d'etre is something of a mystery, since she adds nothing to the production other than a paycheck. (It was her first movie in seven years, and would never make another.)



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. 
No one watching a movie called How Doooo You Do!!! is expecting S.J. Perleman, but, man, it must have taken a lot of thought on the part of Gordon and his writers to figure out how to misspeak every time he opened his mouth. I finally gave in when he asked Cheryl how she was so sure about a decision:

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.
The studio must have considered How Doooo You Do!!! almost an A-picture since it has better-than-usual production values and runs 82 minutes (which, by PRC standards, is akin to Gone with the Wind). Still, How Doooo You Do!!! didn't doooo much for Bert Gordon's movie aspirations, although he continued to be a presence on radio and television for years to come. Harry von Zell is best remembered now as the neighbor on the Burns & Allen TV show (which, like How Doooo You Do!!!, used the anomalous story-within-a-story concept).

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?


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