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Warner Bros. launched the movie-musical genre when it released its historic part-talky The Jazz Singer in 1927. By the middle 1930s it was captivating audiences depressed by the Depression with instant classics like Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street (1933) and Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), generously budgeted by Warners standards yet filmed in the no-nonsense black and white that was something of a studio trademark. Around 1950 the studio apparently decided that heavier doses of ambition might rejuvenate the genre at a time when movies of all kinds were losing popularity because of new suburban lifestyles and growing competition from television. Ambitious isn't exactly the word to describe Always Leave Them Laughing, a 1949 release directed by Roy Del Ruth, but the picture is expansive (almost two hours long) and uses a frame-story structure - one long flashback between brief scenes set in the present - that anticipates the smarter, darker musical drama Young Man with a Horn (1950) that Michael Curtiz cooked up for Warners the following year. Both movies use a performer's career to teach familiar Hollywood lessons about the value of talent and the temptations of fame.
Always Leave Them Laughing stars Milton Berle as Kip Cooper, a comedian with a brash demeanor, unquenchable energy, and a weakness for using other comics' material. The movie begins with Kip knocking himself out for a tough audience, and when an eager new talent accosts his agent in hopes of getting signed, the agent decides to cool the young man down by telling the story of Kip's hard-won rise to fame. This introduces the main body of the film, which follows Kip from his start in low-rent nightclubs to his triumph on the Broadway stage. He follows an upward path, but he can't help feeling uneasy about a difficult question: whether he should keep riding on material created by more seasoned performers, or put success at risk by taking chances with original ideas. The main subplot centers on Kip's longtime courtship of Fay Washburn, the daughter of old vaudevillians who's going to business school but would rather be in show biz. Another storyline shows Kip's relationship with Eddie Eagen, a veteran comic whose illness gives Kip a huge break, and with Eddie's wife, Nancy, who seems ready to connect with Kip if her husband's health keeps going downhill. As played by Bert Lahr and Virginia Mayo, the Eagens give the movie a dramatic edge as well as a major touch of class.
The working title of Always Leave Them Laughing was "The Thief of Broadway," referring to Kip's good-natured pilfering of other people's material. That's highly ironic, since Berle had been charged with the same offense; his large stake in this production - he had "every kind of star approval you could have on a picture," according to his autobiography - was probably the reason for the title change. Berle claimed that he'd started the gag-stealing rumor himself, to milk attention from a feud with comedian Richy Craig, Jr., in the newspaper columns. (Judging from Craig's subsequent obscurity, this is a feud Berle definitely won.) Yet he was ticklish about the issue as late as 1975, when his memoir was published. Remarking on a Bert Lahr sketch that he reprised in the RKO musical New Faces of 1937, Berle stressed that the producer had bought rights to the routine from its author. "I said words that Bert Lahr had first said on a stage," Berle wrote, "but they were David Freedman's words, and their use had been paid for. Yet I heard grumblings and lousy remarks that Bert Lahr was making about me for stealing the sketch from him." Maybe so, but gag larceny has been part of Berle's reputation for ages, prompting columnist Walter Winchell to dub him The Thief of Bad Gags and leading Jack Benny to say that taking a joke from Berle wasn't stealing but "repossessing." Bob Hope sometimes joked that Berle "never heard a joke he didn't steal," and Always Leave Them Laughing itself reprises a frequent Berle gimmick whereby someone else would crack wise, Berle would mumble, "I wish I'd said that," and the other would say, "You will!"
The story for Always Leave Them Laughing was cowritten by Max Shulman, who later created the Dobie Gillis character of movie and sitcom fame. Berle was able to score major-star treatment during the production because of his huge success in NBC's pioneering TV show Texaco Star Theater, which began its eight-year run (under various titles) in 1948. In addition to owning 25 percent of the picture, Berle claimed that he supervised Lahr's biggest dramatic scene when director Del Ruth took sick. He also said he penned the film's music and lyrics with ace songwriter Sammy Cahn, although this was actually limited to two numbers, "You're Too Intense" and the title tune. (Other songs are by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and others.) Berle later said the production had been rushed to cash in on his sudden TV popularity, but he gets plenty of chances to please his fans, appearing in almost every shot. Rushed or not, he was delighted with the movie's "first-rate cast" and the "A-picture polish" the studio bestowed on it.
Berle was right about the cast, and the movie gets additional zing from specialty acts sandwiched into the story; the best is the Fountain Pen Sketch taken from a Broadway revue called Make Mine Manhattan and showcasing Max Showalter, later known as Casey Adams, in his first screen appearance. Rarely laugh-out-loud funny but often likable and lively, Always Leave Them Laughing affords an interesting glimpse at TV's first superstar in a big-screen vehicle that was made for him.
Director: Roy Del Ruth; musical numbers staged and directed by LeRoy Prinz
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose; from a story by Max Shulman and Richard Mealand
Cinematographer: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: Clarence Kolster
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Ray Heindorf; special music and lyrics by Sammy Cahn
With: Milton Berle (Kipling "Kip" Cooper), Virginia Mayo (Nancy Eagen), Ruth Roman (Fay Washburn), Bert Lahr (Eddie Eagen), Alan Hale (Sam Washburn), Grace Hayes (Mrs. Gracie Kennedy Washburn), Jerome Cowan (Elliott Montgomery), Lloyd Gough (Monte Wilson), Ransom Sherman (Henry "Hank" Richards), Iris Adrian (Julie Adams), Wally Vernon (self), Cecil Stewart & His Royal Rogues (specialty act), O'Donnell & Blair (specialty act), Max Showalter (Comet Pen Salesman), The Moroccans (specialty act).
by David Sterritt