Saturday, July 3, 2010

Wartime Hal Roach Streamline comedies starring those fun Axis Crazies

Its Fourth of July weekend and we’re going to beat back the British comedy invasion with a little American humor. This weekend we’re going to step back and do some comedies from the World War Two years. Today we’re going to do a double feature of some “Streamline” features from the Hal Roach Studios. Tomorrow we’re doing some Boris Karloff/ Peter Lorre comedies.

Today’s films are a pair of short features from the Hal Roach Studios. Roach was a power house in the early days of film. He is best known for the short comedy films he turned out, he is the creator of the Little Rascals and the man who brought Laurel and Hardy together. Roach also turned out features.

At some point he realized that some films can’t be shorts and others can’t run over the required hour length because they would end up stretched so he turned out a series of films that he called Streamline Features. They ran about 45 minutes and were in the twilight zone between what we consider features and what are shorts. Most people haven’t seen the Streamline films in their original length because the odd length made them difficult to program in theaters and near impossible to run on TV. Roach eventually cut several of them together like the post war attempt at restarting the Little Rascals with the Curly Films (Curly and Who Killed Doc Robbin) and the two films we’re going to look at today
The Devil with Hitler and The Nutzy Nuisance.

(An interesting aside: Roach as war approached Roach sold off several of his series, the Rascals for example, to MGM. He was working on a production deal with Mussolini which he thought was going to make him a mint. When War came Roach turned his studio over to the army, some people think that the studio was actually appropriated by the army forcibly but the doing the right thing story was hatched to save Roach’s face and good name.)

The Devil With Hitler

The board of directors of Hell want Satan to resign and replace him with Hitler. The Devil refuses to go and insists that Hitler isn't all bad and that he will prove it by having him perform a good deed. Heading up to Germany Satan gets himself in with Hitler and then sets about getting him to do good, while at the same time having to deal with Mussolini and the Japanese General Suki Yaki.

Odd running time aside, it's about 43 minutes long, this is an odd film. Its a very odd feeling watching the Devil run around trying to prove Hitler isn't all bad, especially when he uses examples of Hitler's cruelties that are actually much worse in retrospect than what was known when this film was made. In its way the film is almost an exercise in bad taste as a result of the revelations that followed.

But lets not dwell on the bad, lets talk about the good, this is an amusing little comedy. For the most part this is a series of set pieces and running gags concerning Satan masquerading as Hitler, the backstabbing and double dealing of the Axis "allies" and the insanity of Hitler. While many of the jokes will not be new to anyone who's seen comedies of the period, especially the Three Stooges classic rips at Hitler, they are funny and will produce smiles if not chuckles and giggles. The performances are right on target and engender a great deal of good will simply because they are so silly. And while some of the gags do go on much too long with out a really big pay off (they were stretching even to fill 43 minutes) it never wears out its welcome.

Nutzy Nuisance
The sequel to The Devil With Hitler concerns Hitler, Mussolini and Suki Yaki going on a secret mission to sign a treaty with an Arab sheik. Once in the desert the trio run into not only the sheik but also a sailor with a talent for magic.

I don't know which is a better movie, this or the first film. The first film has long set pieces and not much in the way of "plot", this one has more of a plot and less set pieces. Both are funny, which is all that matters. Its more craziness as the three leaders attempt a game of oneupmanship with each other and only prove they are on up on no one. This is the lighter of the two films with the eeriness of Hitler's pronouncements about the horrors of the Third Reich gone, replaced by a magic act and an ape. Its a great deal of fun.

It should be noted that the films were cut together after their intial release as one feature film. If you should run across either film and its longer than 45 minutes you've come across the feature version. Currently the films are playing in rotation on Turner Classic Movies, though I've only seen them played back to back once

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