It's in the Bag!
Cast & Crew
After changing the terms of his will, bequeathing all of his fortune to his long-lost grandnephew, millionaire Frederick Trumble slips a packet of money inside a chair seat. He is then shot and killed by an unseen assailant. When Trumble's grandnephew, flea circus operator Fred F. Floogle, learns that he is Trumble's heir, he and his family move into the same fancy hotel at which his daughter Marion's fiancé, Perry Parker, lives. They then go on a spending spree, buying expensive items on credit. Feeling cocky, Floogle demands that Marion stop seeing Perry, because Parker, Sr., the "exterminator king," once insinuated that the Floogles were too lowbrow for Perry. At the reading of the will, however, Floogle and his wife Eve learn from Trumble's lawyer, Jefferson T. Pike, and Trumble's former associates, Arnold and Gardner, that because the eccentric Trumble had squandered his wealth, their inheritance has been reduced to five chairs. Now faced with enormous debts, Eve convinces Floogle to make amends with Parker before their poverty is exposed. Unknown to the Floogles, Parker is an ordinary exterminator, who has been given a free room in the hotel in exchange for his services. While pretending to be rich, Parker demonstrates Perry's latest invention, a better mouse trap, and talks Floogle into agreeing to co-invest $25,000 in its development. Later, Trumble's chairs arrive at the Floogles' apartment, and Floogle's young son Homer, a genius with a photographic memory, offers to sell them at an antique store. Moments later, police detective Sully informs Floogle that Trumble's death, which had been made to look like a suicide, has now been ruled a murder and that he is the prime suspect. A bank official then gives Floogle a phonograph record entrusted to him by Trumble. Floogle is stunned to hear Trumble's voice, advising him that he had been swindled, but had placed his remaining $350,000 in one of the five chairs. Floogle immediately telephones the antique shop, but learns that all five chairs already have been sold. Unaware that Pike, Arnold and Gardner are the swindlers and are spying on him, Floogle demands that Finley, the dealer, make a list of the chairs's buyers. As Finley is turning the list over to Homer, however, the shop is set on fire by Pike. Homer is rescued, and although he managed to read the list before it was destroyed, the shock of the fire has caused him to forget all but one name. The one buyer, Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum, however, informs Floogle that she just sold the chair to Jack Benny. Posing as the president of the Nutley, New Jersey Jack Benny fan club, Floogle is invited into Benny's home and, after some haggling, convinces the star to rent him the chair. Floogle quickly discovers that the chair is empty and is nearly run down by thugs in Pike's employ. Later, Floogle and Eve take Homer to a psychiatrist, Dr. Greengrass, who they hope will be able to jog the boy's memory. While waiting for Homer, Floogle and Eve go to a nearby movie theater, where they spot another one of Trumble's chairs. Floogle and Eve trick their way out of the theater with the chair, but once again, find it empty. After the neurotic quack Greengrass moves in with the Floogles, Homer remembers another name--Phil's Naughty Nineties Café. Unable to enter the crowded café as a customer, Floogle poses as a bass singer, so that he can join the establishment's barbershop quartet. While singing with the group, which features "has-been" celebrities Don Ameche, Victor Moore and Rudy Vallee, Floogle sees two Trumble chairs in the audience, but in his zeal to get them, he instigates a brawl. The fight ends when a shot rings out, and Gardner, who was seated with Pike and Arnold, is found dead. As Sully finds Floogle next to the body, he is arrested for murder. Later, Floogle, whose lost fortune has been exposed, is visited in jail by Pike and finally deduces that the lawyer is the murdering swindler. Pike then arranges bail for Floogle, and Homer suddenly remembers the last name--Bill Bendix, the vitamin-popping leader of a gang of crooks. Watched by Sully, Pike, Arnold and Homer, Floogle breaks into Bendix' den and finds the chair, but has to hide under Bendix' desk when his cohorts enter. The thugs discuss their plot to murder Bendix by sending an electric shock through wires planted in the Trumble chair, which they are presenting to him as a birthday gift. While hiding, Floogle finds the money in the chair, but when the thugs shock then shoot Bendix, Floogle's noisy, terrified shaking gives him away. The thugs force Floogle to carry Bendix' body to the river, but on the way there, Bendix awakens, having only been stunned because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. Just as Bendix admits to Floogle that he hates being a gangster, Arnold sneaks up on Floogle and attacks him. Homer dashes up and knocks out Arnold, and later, Bendix offers to torture Arnold and Pike into confessing. After Bendix gives them both "hot feet," Arnold admits in writing that he killed Gardner, while Pike confesses that he killed Trumble. Homer then reveals to Bendix that his chair is stuffed with money, and although he ends up losing most of his inheritance, Floogle is given enough money to pay his debts and bankroll his daughter's lavish wedding.
Harry Von Zell
Wm. R. Anderson
Lewis R. Foster
Wm. M. Morgan
George E. Sawley
Jack H. Skirball
Jack H. Skirball
It's in the Bag (1945)
Why the fall from grace? He was a radio comedian, a peculiar breed of animal that spontaneously generated in the 1930s and was all but extinct two decades later. Other radio comedians preserved their fame by migrating to movies or television--Allen struggled with both. "Television is a triumph of equipment over people," he quipped. Of movies, he observed, "I'm no good in pictures. I proved that with the last one."
But therein lies our story. By "the last one" Allen meant 1945's It's in the Bag, Allen's one and only starring role in a motion picture. It was one of several film adaptations of Ilf & Petrov's 1928 comic novel The Twelve Chairs, while also improbably an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink patchwork of vaudevillian routines and contemporary comedians doing their "bits." Allen might not have thought much of his performance in the thing, but it's a good time capsule of his brand of comedy--and as his only significant screen credit, one of the few ways for modern audiences to see what all the fuss was about.
To understand Allen's route to the big screen we need to start with Jack Benny. Jack Benny and Fred Allen were not just top radio stars, they were, as far as the audience could tell, mortal enemies. It was a gag--a long-running mock feud the two perpetuated as a publicity stunt--but it had the effect of mildly intertwining their professional fates. Each man would periodically show up on the other's program to pour more fuel on the fake rivalry, and so it went.
Meanwhile, Jack Benny was also making movies. It was never the best platform for him (although a man who boasts Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) in his resume cannot claim to have been a flop), but his films were popular enough. So, naturally, it made sense to bring Fred Allen into one of Jack Benny's pictures, just as he routinely invaded Jack Benny's radio show. Allen appeared in 1940's Buck Benny Rides Again and Love Thy Neighbor, before deciding he disliked the motion picture experience (the workaholic perfectionist felt he lacked enough control over the production to make sure everything was up to his standards).
As it happened, Allen didn't just forswear movies, he also gave up radio, too--taking a year off from his own show to recuperate from hypertension.
In 1944, producer Jack Skirball approached Allen about giving movies another try--this time in something where he was the central star, not a supporting player, and where he would have substantial creative input. It was a tempting offer--and an odd one. Skirball was not known as a comedy producer--in fact, he had just come from producing Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). If that doesn't seem like the natural CV of a man about to embark on a project that the New York Times called "a rat's nest of nonsense," then consider this additional unusual fact: the screenplay was written by none other than Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock herself, Alma Reville, in her one and only non-Hitchcock Hollywood credit.
Reville did not write the script alone. As already noted, it was an adaptation of a Russian satirical novel about a family fortune secreted away inside one of a set of dining room chairs that a foolish heir sells before realizing their significance--for the rest of the story he goes on comic misadventures trying to retrieve the chairs and recover the fortune hidden within. It was a good workhorse of a formula capable of supporting a variety of comedy styles--in addition to the vaudevillian aesthetic of It's in the Bag!, there was a 1936 version by slapstick veteran Monty Banks called Keep Your Seats, Please!, and Mel Brooks would attempt his own adaptation in 1970 with Frank Langella and Ron Moody under the title The Twelve Chairs. Reville worked with co-writer Jay Dratler on the adaptation--and since his career was mostly noted for writing film noirs like Laura (1944) and Call Northside 777 (1948) one really has to wonder what inspired Skirball to assemble this specific team.
Nevertheless, this assortment of veterans of film noir and suspense thrillers assembled a vaudevillian showpiece for a who's who of 1940s American comedy. Jack Benny shows up, of course, to lampoon his image as a miserly skinflint obsessed with his popularity. Minerva Pious reprises her role as "Pansy Nussbaum" from Allen's radio show. Robert Benchley plays a pompous windbag, and gets to do a scene about a new, and impossibly overcomplicated, mousetrap he's invented--a routine he could easily have performed in one of his own short subjects. Jerry Colonna plays a woefully unqualified psychiatrist. John Carradine plays the bad guy (naturally). Binnie Barnes plays a variation of the haughty society woman she played in countless screwball comedies. Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee spoof themselves. William Bendix spoofs a spoof of himself (as the head of the "Bill Bendix Mob," forced by his public persona into being the gangster everyone thinks he is).
If this sounds like an unlikely pedigree of talent to find in a low-budget programmer, then take note of how Allen waived his usual salary in favor of a percentage ownership of the film, and used his star power to entice his celebrity friends to join the project.
In this version of the tale, Fred Allen plays flea circus impresario Floogle, whose mega-rich granduncle dies under sinister circumstances. The old man may have left them $12 million--except the money is all gone. All they get are a set of dining room chairs, which the family pawns for quick cash, and a phonograph record, which they don't listen to until after selling the chairs. The record contains a secret confession, as the dying granduncle admits he hid $300,000 inside one of the chairs, along with the identification of the conspirators who plotted his murder. Time to go get those chairs back!
In one standout scene, cited by nearly every review of the picture, Allen's character and his wife, played by Binnie Barnes, try to catch a matinee screening of "Zombie in the Attic." The theater advertises "immediate seating," but several minutes of being led higher and higher into the wings in a vain hunt for available seats turns an afternoon's entertainment into the Theater of the Absurd. Apropos of nothing before or after it, the sequence is an exercise in self-defeat penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Morrie Ryskind--who wrote similar material for the Marx Brothers.
As originally screened, the film featured Fred Allen's non-stop voice-over narration commenting on, and undermining, the proceedings. "While they are boring each other with some dull dialogue, I'll tell you folks who were buying candy and have just come in what has happened up to now." That version, however, was replaced for television screenings by an alternate cut that leaves Allen's jokey asides in place during the opening titles but then drops the commentary. As a result, TV audiences missed out on hearing Allen critique the direction by snarking, "You have seen Floogle arrested. You have seen Floogle behind bars. This isn't enough. Floogle now wears stripes so that you will know that he is a prisoner. This director overdoes everything. He's been married six times."
Actually, director Richard Wallace was a journeyman Hollywood director who came up the ranks of Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, directing two-reel slapstick shorts before graduating to features. In 1941 he helmed a screwball comedy produced by Harold Lloyd starring Lucille Ball, A Girl, A Guy, and a Gob. He was also a founding member of the Director's Guild of America.
The director of photography was Russell Metty. He is better remembered as Douglas Sirk's cinematographer, and his keen eye for lighting and camera placement came in handy to moderate this film's abrupt tonal shifts.
Despite having such an accomplished set of talents working on his film, and being given a significant degree of creative input into the project, this proved an isolated experience for Fred Allen. The film received mixed notices and failed to ignite much passion at the box office. Allen happily returned to his native home on radio and continued to make people laugh for another decade, until his untimely death in 1956.
By David Kalat
Hal Erickson, From Radio to the Big Screen: Hollywood Films Featuring Broadcast Personalities and Programs
It's in the Bag (1945)
It's in the Bag on DVD
Quick-witted and eccentric, It's in the Bag (1945) was the only attempt to bring Allen and his brand of skewed farce to the screen, and it's saturated with his personality: acidic, darkly cynical and blithely absurd. (Allen was one of the writers, too, and regulars from his radio shows pop in, including Yiddishe schtick mistress Minerva Pious.) Though an icon in his day, Allen's humor feels years ahead of its time - no one in the '40s was cracking jokes this nervy, bitter and topical, and no one made them at his own expense as frequently or deftly as Allen. (He makes rank sport here of his own ugliness and revels in his own petty-minded greed.) The opening titles are characteristic: Allen starts the movie out with an audience direct-address, mocking the "boring" credits as they go by ("Who knows who any of these people are? Who cares?" Allen cracks with an unforgettably dry whine, "You can find names like these in any phone book." When the screenwriting card comes up, Allen scoffs, "These four people are now out of work. You'll see why in just a minute.") Introducing his only movie this way immediately provides the movie with a cynical self-knowledge Hollywood ordinary does whatever it can to avoid, but it was apparently typical of Allen, who was frequently censored on the radio and would frequently mock his own network's executives on the air as a result.
Once the story, such as it is, finally gets rolling, it's instantly recognizable as a loose and unofficial adaptation of Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs, with the titular items hiding mythical riches that are left to Allen's flea circus manager by a dead uncle, then sold off accidentally and laboriously hunted down. The scenario allows Allen to concoct a variety of set-pieces, all of which are as random as comedy sketches in a revue, and to fold in a plethora of guest stars, including Jack Benny (with whom Allen had a years-long and completely tongue-in-cheek media feud, and who here happily offers a visiting Allen an opportunity to buy cigarettes out of his living-room vending machine, and offers his own furniture up for sale), William Bendix (as a pacifist gangster), Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee (as themselves; Allen greets them with, "Hey, didn't you used to be in pictures?"), and so on, everybody digging at each other with perfectly straight faces and tossing in-jokes like tennis balls. (Robert Benchley and Jerry Colonna show up, too, with less to do.) Were audiences of 1945 up to this jaunty, sardonic, referential patter? We have no way to suss out the film's success at the box office (it wasn't listed in the year's top 36 moneymakers by Motion Picture Herald), but we do know that the studios never gave Allen carte blanche again. Not that he necessarily wanted more starring vehicles in Hollywood - his radio show Allen's Alley was the top-rated radio show in the country in the mid-'40s.
It's in the Bag!'s director was Richard Wallace, an undistinguished journeyman who spent years making B movies of all stripes, and the best that could be said is that he got out of Allen's way, and knew where to put his camera. Perhaps the film's most dazzling and inspired non sequitur set-piece in the movie is an epic comic passage where Allen and his equally dyspeptic wife (Binnie Barnes) try to find one of the inherited chairs in a vast, people-packed, multi-tiered movie theater, getting so lost in the balconies and elevators and double-talking bureaucracy that the very act of trying to see a movie becomes a timeless, circular, Kafkaesque ordeal. It's one of those rare instances from the Golden Age (Preston Sturges's movies are filthy with them) where a mere comedic riff grows into something entirely absurdist and helplessly metaphorical, an ordeal by silliness that evolves into a statement about American life itself in the 20th century.
How did this film come to be so forgotten? Full of ideas and happily taking aim at everyone, It's in the Bag! plays out with a speed and sharpness that the similarly winking-modernist Road movies would envy, and it may be the funniest Hollywood one-off of the middle-century.
For more information about It's in the Bag, visit Olive Films. To order It's in the Bag, go to TCM Shopping.
by Michael Atkinson
It's in the Bag on DVD
You mean last year's diamonds? Oh no, we don't bother with them. You see, we just throw them out. They get so shabby, you know.- Eve Floogle
The working title of this film was Fickle Fortune. Morrie Ryskind's onscreen writing credit reads: "We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Morrie Ryskind to this photoplay." After the film's title card, Fred Allen appears onscreen and, while addressing the audience, delivers the following commentary: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Fred Allen. I'd like to ask you a simple question. Why is it when you folks come into a theater like this to see a picture, before you could see the picture, you have to sit there and look at a list of names for twenty minutes? Now for example, the first name you see is Jack Benny." This statement is followed by a series of offscreen comments, spoken by Allen as the credits appear onscreen: "Who needs Jack Benny, a little radio actor, in a picture like this when we have Don Ameche, an outstanding personality, William Bendix, a three-fisted he-man, Victor Moore, grandma's glamor boy, and Rudy Vallee, fresh from Yale....On top of Benny you have to look at a long list of names like this. [Supporting cast.] Who knows who these people are? Who cares? You can find names like these in any phonebook....Screen treatment and screen play. These four people are now out of work. You'll see why in just a minute....Ryskind's contribution. In one scene, the family is eating dinner. Ryskind loaned us a half a pound of butter so the bread would look yellow in the close ups....Look at that top name-associate producer. He's the only man in Hollywood who would associate with the producer....Get a load of this mob. [Crew credits.] They're all relatives of the producer. In Hollywood, all the producer produces is relatives....Here's Mr. Skirball's name again. He's in twice you see. Well, it's his picture....This is Mr. Skirball's father-in-law. [Director credit.] Another relative." Allen concludes the credit sequence with the following statement, spoken onscreen: "That's what I mean. Why should you folks have to sit out there and have to look at all these names? You know some day I'm going to get my own relatives and produce my own picture. And my picture will start with the story. Like this. One night last November, an eccentric millionaire sat in his den making out a new will..."
Although no literary work is listed onscreen or in reviews, the SAB notes that the idea for the screen treatment is "from another source." Modern sources credit the 1928 Russian novel Twelve Chairs by Elia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov as the source of the film. It's in the Bag! resembles the novel only in that it features a fortune-laden chair the whereabouts of which must be discovered by the protagonist. The popular novel was the source for many other films, including the 1936 British picture Keep Your Seats Please and the 1970 American-Yugoslavian film Twelve Chairs, directed by Mel Brooks and starring Frank Langella and Dom LeLuise. According to an October 1944 New York Times article, producer Jack Skirball got the idea for the film's chase sequence from Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he made the 1943 film Shadow of the Doubt.
It's in the Bag! was Fred Allen's first film after a four-year hiatus. The radio star's previous film, Love Thy Neighbor, also starred Jack Benny and was a send-up of the two comedians' much-publicized on-air feud. The October 1944 New York Times article states that Allen's and Ryskind's contracts allowed them to participate in the film's profits and gave Allen full story and director approval. Minerva Pious also portrayed the chatty "Mrs. Nussbaum" on Allen's radio show. It's in the Bag! marked Don Ameche's first film appearance since leaving Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio at which he worked for many years. According to an August 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were scheduled to appear in the picture. Although a Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Frank Sinatra would be performing a song in the picture, only a few seconds of a Sinatra recording are actually heard. Gloria Pope made her screen acting debut in the film. Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items add Marek Windheim and Charles Judels to the cast; Judels was not in the released film, but the appearance of Windheim has not been confirmed. Windheim May have provided the offscreen bass voice in the barbershop quartette scene.
On February 17, 1950, the Hallmark Playhouse broadcast a radio adaptation of the story, starring Fred Allen. In August 1951, public hearings of the U.S. Senate's Crime Investigating Committee revealed that Abner "Longy" Zwillman, an ex-bootlegger and New Jersey racketeer, had a six percent interest in It's in the Bag!, along with his attorney and trustee Arthur Garfield Hays. Zwillman made $12,000 on the picture, according to a Variety news item.