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Whistling in the Dark

Whistling in the Dark

Thursday July, 26 2018 at 06:00 AM

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Whistling in the Dark (1941) was the first feature film to star comedian Red Skelton in the lead, and was a surprise hit for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; its success meant that the vaudeville and radio comic would enjoy a healthy movie career throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s as well. Skelton's film debut had been in the RKO feature Having a Wonderful Time (1938), where he was featured performing a couple of uninterrupted solo routines, including his famous "dunking donuts" bit. He also appeared in a couple of shorts for Vitaphone before being signed to the biggest studio in Hollywood, MGM. (Reportedly, the "donuts" routine was run at the Metro screening room for years as executive inspiration on turning out comedy). At first Skelton was merely assigned comedy relief in films such as Flight Command (1940), the war drama with Robert Taylor and Walter Pidgeon; and in the popular Dr. Kildare series.

Paramount Pictures, meanwhile, was having great success with films like The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), which surrounded their resident funnyman - Bob Hope – with mystery, pretty girls, and dangerous situations. Former vaudeville comic Hope was known for snappy wordplay, of course, and was given plenty to react to in these films; the result was big box-office. Casting about for a similar vehicle for Skelton, producer George Haight and other MGM executives looked no further than the 1933 MGM film Whistling in the Dark, adapted from a stage play, which featured Ernest Truex as a mystery writer who, with his girlfriend, is held captive by a house full of gangsters and forced to come up with a sure-fire murder plot that head mobster Edward Arnold can use in real life.

For the 1941 Skelton remake, the story was "jazzed up" with several ingenious, modern touches. Instead of a mystery writer, our hero became a radio detective and the ordinary mobsters were turned into colorful cultists. The film opens at a cult ceremony at the creepy estate Silver Haven, where Joseph Jones (Conrad Veidt, sporting a thick German accent and a great name for a cult leader) conducts middle-aged women in Moon worshipping and spouts homilies like "we part in radiant contentment." Jones and his cronies discuss getting rid of the nephew of a departed follower in order to inherit her million-dollar estate. On the radio in the next room is a broadcast of The Grape-O Mix Crime Hour, featuring Wally Benton (Red Skelton) as crime solver "The Fox". Following the broadcast (during which we see the frantic goings-on of actors, sound effects men, and musicians hitting their cues like seasoned pros), Benton must deal with his own personal dilemma: he wants to pop the question to his long-time fiancée Carol Lambert (Ann Rutherford), but he is still cozying up to the sponsor's daughter, Fran Post (Virginia Grey). Benton's manager, 'Buzz' Baker (Eve Arden) has put him up to the deception. Jones and his gang show up for the West Coast broadcast that evening and corner Benton in his dressing room, pretending to be rival sponsors. Benton, Carol, and Fran are soon being held captive at Silver Haven, as the cultists demand that "The Master Brain of Murder" come up with a foolproof plan for eliminating the nephew that stands in the way of their million dollars.

In his Paramount scare comedies, Bob Hope may have had Paulette Goddard at his side, but in Whistling in the Dark MGM surrounds Skelton with no fewer than three attractive co-stars. Rutherford, Grey, and Arden are also given a chance to share in the comedy bits, although Skelton is clearly the focus of attention. Rutherford later recalled the director of all three Whistling movies, S. Sylvan Simon: "Sylvan had one terrible problem. He could not control his laughter, at least when Red was at the helm." Simon was fine during rehearsals, Rutherford said, but "...when it came time to shoot it, out of my peripheral vision I would see Sylvan sitting in his canvas chair, tears streaming down his face and a handkerchief wadded in his mouth. Because Red knew what a patsy he had in Sylvan and he would invariably come up with another little bit of business that hadn't been rehearsed before and Sylvan had to be quiet or he'd ruin the take."

In the New York Times Bosley Crowther wrote that "[Whistling in the Dark] is a lively and amusing film, continuously creepy and comic and properly loaded with gags." Crowther was suitably impressed with the nation's newest comedy star, saying that "Metro has really turned up an impressive young Bob Hopeful... Mr. Skelton is another of those blithe and easy gag-busters whose careless way with a line is a thing to be greatly enjoyed and whose use of the double-take is a studied accomplishment. When his mind snaps his muscles taut in a moment of dire emergency, when the impact of a threat sinks in after slight delay, he stiffens like a man grabbing hold of a highly charged wire. And his face becomes a mask of comic horror. Mr. Skelton shocks beautifully and often."

Variety wrote that "[Skelton's] timing and delivery of laugh lines and situations – despite the familiar hoke injected – catches maximum audience reaction." The industry magazine offered that the comedian "...displays possibilities of future starring comedy importance if provided with proper material from here in." Time magazine said that Skelton "manages to produce considerable hilarity" and said, "[Whistling in the Dark is] not the funniest picture out of Hollywood. But it has enough effective low comedy to ease M.G.M.'s brand-new cinecomic down the ways without swamping him."

Skelton enjoyed a long career at MGM, committing more of his vaudeville routines to celluloid in such musicals as Lady Be Good (1941) and Ship Ahoy (1942). Although the comedian was ultimately more at home doing sketch comedy on radio and television, MGM provided several top-notch feature length vehicles for Skelton, such as A Southern Yankee (1948) and The Yellow Cab Man (1950). Along the way, two sequels to the popular Whistling in the Dark were released, Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), both featuring Skelton as "The Fox" and Ann Rutherford as his perpetual fiancée.

Producer: George Haight
Director: S. Sylvan Simon
Screenplay: Robert MacGunigle, Harry Clork, Albert Mannheimer; Laurence Gross, Edward Childs Carpenter (play); Eddie Moran, Elliott Nugent (uncredited, contributing writer)
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Film Editing: Frank E. Hull
Cast: Red Skelton (Wally Benton), Conrad Veidt (Joseph Jones), Ann Rutherford (Carol Lambert), Virginia Grey ('Fran' Post), 'Rags' Ragland (Sylvester), Henry O'Neill (Philip Post), Eve Arden ('Buzz' Baker), Paul Stanton (Jennings), Don Douglas (Gordon Thomas), Don Costello ('Noose' Green), William Tannen (Robert Graves), Reed Hadley (Beau Smith), Mariska Aldrich (Hilda), Lloyd Corrigan (Harvey Upshaw), George Carleton (Deputy Commissioner O'Neill), Will Lee (Herman), Ruth Robinson (Mrs. Robinson)
BW-78m. Closed Captioning.

by John M. Miller



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