Sunday, May 8, 2011
Most of the time a new medium arrives, it does not utterly supplant a predecessor medium, but the roles and functions of the media often get rearranged. Since the arrival of the internet, television--including cable--has completely dispensed with distributing news and facts and has turned all of human existence into a tasteless zoo. When television arrived, radio stopped dealing with narrative, but took over music and breaking news completely, leaving records for collectors and newspapers for obsessives. Television also took over what remained of vaudeville and the variety stage, and those two forms have completely disappeared other than in the completely vestigial form of comedy sketch shows with music acts tossed in to fill time. (Incidentally, those music acts are not there to draw audiences -- music has a much smaller audience than the relatively small audience for hardcore comedy.)
But for awhile, radio proudly carried the banner of vaudeville and variety, albeit with some technological limitations. Although there was a concerted effort to make radio stars into film stars, the only ones who succeeded were Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Jack Benny, the #1 star in radio, had a film career that literally became a joke, at least on Benny's program, and his pretend rival-and-nemesis, Fred Allen, only made a handful of films. But in one case the resulting film did a good job of projecting the trademark Allen mixture of cynicism and insanity. Fred Allen was sort of the David Letterman of his era, a decent and sensible guy who could be made cranky when contemplating the news, celebrities and the machinations of the entertainment business. Best remembered as the man who said that television is called a medium because nothing in it is well done, he once had a character conducting a tour through 30 Rock say, "That man with the moss on him is an NBC vice-president."
It's In The Bag (1945) was made independently, is based on the same story as Mel Brooks' The Twelve Chairs and boasts one of the most insane cast lists of all time. New Yorker humorist Robert Benchley plays a exterminator, Jerry Colonna plays a psychiatrist, horror star John Carradine plays an evil lawyer in top hat, morning coat, striped pants and pince-nez, William Bendix plays a deadly gangster called Bill Bendix, Jack Benny plays himself and at one point the down-and-out Fred Allen joins a quartet of singing waiters comprised of Don Ameche, a fading film star of the 30s, Rudy Vallee, a fading radio star of the late 20s and Victor Moore a faded stage star whose career began at the dawn of the 20th century. This would be akin to a movie in which a washed-up Conan joins a rock band comprised of Steven Tyler, Englebert Humperdinck and Robert Wagner.
This is the kind of movie in which Fred and his wife (played by Binnie Barnes, whom people like me may remember from Abbott & Costello's The Time of their Lives) are told by Jerry Colonna that they need to kill some time, so they should go to a movie. They are told that there is immediate seating for the feature Zombie in the Attic (is this a Val Lewton RKO or a Universal horror picture -- I wonder?). There is in fact no seating, which they learn after taking an elevator to the top balcony which appears to be 16 stories about the screen and squabble and joke with a half-dozen managers about the price of movies and crowding in theaters. Finally, when Fred demand a seat, the manager reaches into his closet and hands Fred one of the five chairs he is looking for according to the scrap of an anecdote that serves as a plot, which you had forgotten about for the last ten minutes.
What I'm trying to say is that this is not any kind of a movie. It is a very funny thing, but it lacks most of the rudiments we expect from cinema, such as story, character, setting or connection to the known universe. It is a craziness like International House, Hellzapoppin' and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break. Given the technological and distribution facts of the day, the craziness had to be shot on film and shown in movie houses, but that doesn't make it a movie. But cinema or not, I wish they still made things like this today. (I can just hear the development executives saying, "but you have to make your hero sympathetic." Fooey.)
Here's the opening of It's In The Bag, startling for 1945, which trades on the old joke of the host telling the radio or TV audience, "We've got a great show for you tonight." We all know that's a lie. The thing is on every week, or sometimes every day. There's no way it could be "great" again tonight, and even if it were "great," how would the host know in advance? It's a crap shoot, let's accept it, and the odds are against. Personally, I never get tired of the "this show is crap" joke, as practiced today on NPR's Car Talk and on Craig Ferguson's show. This version has Fred Allen deconstructing the credit sequence in an extremely post-modern way: