Friday, March 22, 2013

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "TEAR GAS SQUAD" (1940)

From the time Al Jolson opened his yap in The Jazz Singer, the movie musical became one of the mainstays of American culture. My Fair Lady... Funny Girl... The Sound of Music... Tear Gas Squad...

Wait, what the -- Tear Gas Squad? You mean you don't remember that? Neither do I, hardly, and I just watched it the other day. Not that I was planning on watching a musical. Not with that title and its 55-minute running time -- technically, five minutes shorter than what a feature was considered back then. Never was such a baldfaced bait-and-switch perpetrated on ticket buyers.

It must have taken the writers longer to watch the final product than to have written it. Small-time crooner Tommy McCabe becomes a cop to impress Jerry Sullivan (a woman, so don't get any ideas), who comes from a family of policemen. A hothead by nature, Tommy is soon canned when he punches out fellow cop and romantic rival Bill Morrisey. But he redeems himself by catching the gangsters who killed his brother Joe.
Everybody sing! (If you're not too gasp-jammed.)

Yeah, that has "musical" written all over it. Or at least it does with the four songs Morgan sings. But the numbers he's given here don't even count as forgettable. It's as if they didn't exist to begin with. (One of them, performed at the chintzy tavern where he works, is called, "I'm an Officer of the Law." It's funny because his character has always hated cops. Get it?) The low budget is betrayed by the seemingly-endless stock footage during  police manhunts. (One sharp-eyed viewer over at imdb.com noticed the Warner Bros. water-tower, complete with logo, which gives you an idea of the care that went into this production.) Movies like Tear Gas Squad were made strictly to pump product into the studio-owned movie chains. Thank God the auto manufacturers didn't own repair shops -- the number of accidents caused by second-rate jalopies would have skyrocketed.

Was John Hamilton ever young?
Hey! Superman don't need no gun!
The thing that Tear Gas Squad has going for it is the supporting cast. Anyone who grew up in the '60s would get lockjaw from saying, "Oh my God, that guy!" Two future stars from Superman, George Reeves and John "Great Caesar's Ghost!" Hamilton appear as Tommy McCabe and Chief Ferris respectively. Reeves gives it his all -- you can tell that he thought this was a stepping stone to better things. Too bad he thought wrong. Hamilton does his usual "I'm in charge here" routine that he appeared to have patented some time during the McKinley administration.


"Stop! Or I'll shoot my
baby blues at you!"
The only time Buchanan
appeared to have bathed.
Hebert Anderson, who two decades later would play the father on Dennis the Menace, plays rookie Pliny Jones, even though he doesn't look like he could handle being a school traffic-guard, let alone a cop. A pre-Petticoat Junction Edgar Buchanan ("That's Uncle Joe, he's a-movin' kinda slow...") is Jerry's slob of a cousin Andy.  Buchanan spends all of his time with suspenders pulled over an undershirt, like all off-duty Irish cops in movies like these. He's so young (37) he'd be unrecognizable without his froggy voice. And even then, I didn't recognize him until his very last scene.

"What am I this time?"
Then there's Frank Wilcox, who would go onto... well, let's see. There's The Bill Dana Show, Bewitched, Perry Mason, Mod Squad, Mr. Ed, Mona McCluskey, Wild Wild West, Beverly Hillbillies... Had enough? You remember the guy -- an authority figure, whether it be a judge, doctor, banker or, here, cop. Resonant voice, no-nonsense manner, distinguished mustache. Probably second only to Charles Lane for appearing incessantly on prime time television. It's really something that he was believable in each role since you saw him as a different character every goddamn night of the week.

"Who you callin' 'cro-magnon'?"
"I'll just have a wee
drop o' the wee dram o' the
wee whiskey."


A couple of other familiar faces turn up, too, playing their usual types. Ben Welden, who, if he hadn't become an actor, would had to have become a two-bit crook. (In today's beauty-obsessed society, he'd have no choice.) Scottish-born Mary Gordon could play Irish (as she does here) or British (as Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies) although her accent never changed. A method actor she wasn't.

She's the most masculine of the three.
All of Tear Gas Squad's character actors completely overwhelm the lead players by their mere presence. Not that the stars aren't good. Morgan is a fine singer, although that Irish tenor style went out when Dennis Day retired, if not sooner. And you can't help but feel sorry for John Payne (as Bill Morrisey) since he's just too nice for Gloria Dickson's Jerry. I can't figure out why they're battling over her since she doesn't seem worth it. Jerry's been leading Bill on forever even though she has no intention of getting serious with him. In fact, she seems to enjoy watching Bill and Tommy go at it. (I've been there, guys -- forget her!) Add to this the fact that she happily lives with a houseful of cops who watch over her like Stasi agents, and you see this chick has some real issues. And she's not even that pretty, for cripes sakes. She must give off some serious pheromones. 

So if you have a thing for inane, schizophrenic, lower-case "e" entertainment, then by all means wallow in Tear Gas Squad's charms. If not, you can regard it as an audio-visual history lesson -- an example of a time when something had to be projected onto a screen for a couple of days. The strange thing is, if you added some new numbers and re-wrote the script, it would make for the next cult off-Broadway comedy -- Tear Gas Squad!: The Musical. Now that might be worth watching.

By the way, the tear gas squad doesn't show up until the final three minutes. Right before Dennis Morgan sings to Gloria Dickson while his horse looks away in utter boredom. 
                                            
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The original trailer for Tear Gas Squad. Everything about it is a lie. (The video may take a few seconds to appear.)
 



 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember watching this on TCM when I was about ten years old and loving it. I remember it was playing in the middle of a Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan "Guys from some place or the other" marathon. I still have a fond nostalgia for those films, but I never did watch them for the plot.