A Southern Yankee
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During Red Skelton's stint as an MGM contract player over the '40s and late '50s, the comic was one of the nation's most popular stage and radio performers, yet the studio often seemed to be at a loss for how to maximize his talents. More often than not, he'd figure in the ensemble of a musical comedy, and very occasionally would receive leads like the low-budget, popular Whistling series. The MGM brass had some rethinking to do after the success of Skelton's loan-out to Columbia for The Fuller Brush Man (1948), and opted to mount a bona fide star vehicle for him. The end result, A Southern Yankee (1948), remains an enjoyable farce to this day, in no small part due to the contributions made to the project by Buster Keaton.
The narrative opens in Civil War-era St. Louis, where bumbling bellboy Aubrey Fillmore (Skelton) fantasizes about the military service for which he was deemed unfit. As dumb luck would have it, he plays a fortuitous role in the unexpected capture of the notorious Rebel spy Major Jack Drumman (George Coulouris), AKA "The Gray Spider". As a reward for his dubious heroism, Aubrey is enlisted to assume the role of the Spider, and is sent South in a bid to recover critical military secrets to which the spy would be privy. Once in the field, Aubrey has a constant struggle to keep from blowing his cover, particularly after he begins courting southern belle Sallyann Weatharby (Arlene Dahl).
Over time, Keaton's genius as a filmmaker has been recognized, but the silent-era star kept a low profile during the 1940s, receiving piecework from Hollywood in the form of gag-writing behind the scenes and occasional character roles onscreen. He was conscious of Skelton's comic potential, so much so that he sought personal audience with Louis B. Mayer. "In the inner sanctum he surprised himself with an eloquence he had never been able to summon in his own behalf," Rudi Blesh recounted in his biography Keaton. "'Let me take Skelton,' he said, 'and work as a small company within Metro--do our stories, our gags, our production, our directing. Use your resources but do it our way--the way I did my best pictures. I'll guarantee you hits,' he said. 'I won't take a cent of salary until they have proved themselves at the box office.'"
Mayer didn't bite, and the history of film comedy is probably the poorer for it. Ultimately, Keaton's input into A Southern Yankee would not be insubstantial. The comic recounted in his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick how his advice was solicited after the film's disappointing early previews. "[I]n my opinion, they made a couple of mistakes," Keaton wrote. "One was having Red behave like an imbecile in the opening scenes. As the comedian and the leading man, Red lost the audience's sympathy by behaving too stupidly...They reshot those scenes, toning down Red's nutty behavior and also eliminating some of the noise that marred the opening scene."
After the original director left the project, the reins (and final credit) were handed to Edward Sedgwick. The semi-retired veteran vaudevillian had directed Keaton's most notable MGM vehicles of the late 20s and early 30s, including The Cameraman (1928), Spite Marriage (1929), Free and Easy (1930) and Speak Easily (1932). Keaton was also responsible for the movie's famous signature gag, where Skelton attempts to cross a battlefield unscathed by wearing a stitched-together uniform, Union blue on one side, Confederate gray on the other. Both sides stop shooting and cheer this brave standard bearer, at least until the wind catches the flag and flips it from stars and stripes to stars and bars.
Producer: Paul Jones
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Screenplay: Melvin Frank, Buster Keaton, Norman Panama, Harry Tugend
Cinematography: Ray June
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Snell
Cast: Red Skelton (Aubrey Filmore), Brian Donlevy (Kurt Devlynn), Arlene Dahl (Sallyann Weatharby), George Coulouris (Major Jack Drumman), Lloyd Gough (Capt. Steve Lorford), John Ireland (Capt. Jed Calbern).
by Jay S. Steinberg