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Flying High

Flying High(1931)

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Bert Lahr attained immortality in his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939), for which he adapted his slaphappy burlesque persona, with its rubber faced expressions and bashful delivery of gag lines. In 1927 Lahr graduated from burlesque to musical comedies on Broadway, playing to packed houses. When the talkies came in, MGM brought producer George White's stage hit Flying High (1931) to the screen, giving Lahr his first film role. Goofy airplane mechanic Lahr is Rusty Krouse, the inventor of a fanciful flying machine called an aero-copter, which he pronounces as 'aero-copper.' Promoting the craft is Sport (Pat O'Brien), who gets in trouble with the law when his girlfriend's father (Guy Kibbee) sells aero-copter stock without a license. Faithful pal Rusty has a dilemma: should he obtain Sport's bail money by entering his invention in a flying contest, or by marrying Pansy Botts (Charlotte Greenwood), a man-hungry waitress willing to buy a husband? The six-foot tall vaudeville and Broadway star Greenwood plays well against Bert Lahr's emotionally effusive, lovable coward. Her specialty was high-kick dancing, as showcased in the 1943 film musical The Gang's All Here. Their ridiculous courtship is a series of bawdy burlesque routines. The sexually aggressive old maid ("So! He wants to play!") must lock the utterly sexless clown into their hotel room on their wedding night, and he ends up sleeping in the bathtub. They save the day by breaking an altitude record in the aero-copter. Flying High's primitive musical numbers feature some of choreographer Busby Berkeley's earliest film work. Scantily clad 'aviation school co-eds' are filmed from above as they move in symmetrical patterns, spinning airplane propellers over their heads. A big star in her day, Charlotte Greenwood is now remembered for her spirited Aunt Eller in the film adaptation of Oklahoma! (1955). Bert Lahr's fame as the Cowardly Lion insured his popularity as a TV variety show guest in his later years. In 1968 producer Norman Lear cast the beloved comedian in his feature comedy The Night they Raided Minsky's. The plan was for Lahr to perform a classic burlesque routine, but he passed away unexpectedly before his part could be completed.

By Glenn Erickson

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