When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
VHS Only: The Zany World of Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock

OK, so it’s late at night and you’re the owner of a flea circus who has just witnessed a gangland murder, and have to dispose of the body of William Bendix.  Back at home, Jerry Colonna has moved in with your adolescent son and is giving him repressed memory therapy.  Oh, yes, and you owe Robert Benchley $25,000.

This is where you find yourself in about the fifth reel of the independently-produced 1945 screwball comedy IT’S IN THE BAG, featuring a smorgasbord of classic freelance character actors and a script co-written by Alma Reville (Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock).  Conceived as a vehicle for the acerbic comedy talents of now-forgotten radio star Fred Allen, the source material was the venerated Russian comedy novel The Twelve Chairs, which has been filmed one dozen times in the last 75 years.  (If the title sounds familiar, the movie Mel Brooks made between THE PRODUCERS and BLAZING SADDLES was a version of The Twelve Chairs.)

If you’ve ever heard comedy radio from the 1940s (such as the ones you can download at www.archive.org), it’s surprising to hear how the performers in sketches and radio plays would break the fourth wall, either to ad lib or to quip over some real-time flub that happened during live broadcasts.  IT’S IN THE BAG embraces this open architecture of live radio and rough-f*cks it 5 ways from Tuesday.  The players follow the (totally insane) script to the letter, but the concepts of guest appearances (e.g., William Bendix as a vitamin-popping Mafia godfather, but as he explains to Allen, he isn’t really a gangster, he just inherited the Mob from his mother), actors turning to make smartassed remarks to the audience, and impromptu sketch comedy shape and dominate this movie.

The film follows the source material’s plot of a treasure hidden in one of a matching set of chairs, which in this version Allen had inherited and resold, unaware of the contents.  Learning of the treasure, Fred attempts to buy back the chairs in a series of sketches (including masquerading as a singing waiter with Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee, and a visit to Jack Benny’s home where hospitality is dispensed via vending machines).  John Carradine is a crooked lawyer; Dan Seymour (the heavy in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT) is a hit-man; and Charlie Chan emoter Sidney Toler is — what else? — a detective.

Of course as in almost all movies of any note, Queen-of-the-Extras Bess Flowers can be sighted twice in the film.

Fred Allen’s wife is played by the equally acerbic Binnie Barnes, who was usually cast in the black-and-white era as a sort of Park Avenue Eve Arden.  [Her screen appearances dwindled by the 1960s, but her husband, producer M. J. Frankovich, was still very much an A-List personality, so Binnie’s appearances on The Tonight Show in the 1970s showed her to be a martini-dry raconteuse who could leave Carson crippled with laughter.]
Allen was insanely popular in the 1930s and 40s, but according to biographers and Wikipedia, his humor created a continuous battle with censors; but in an independent production, he didn’t have the tight catechism of studio morality to deal with.  On film, you can see how he could use his face and body to bring about subtle cynicism and sarcasm that radio couldn’t communicate, yet unfortunately, Fred Allen didn’t care to make the jump to TV in the 1950s.  As Allen said at the time: “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.”

Doug / PoMo Joan

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