The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
By the time Fred Allen made the cover of Time magazine in April of 1947, the veteran comedian was practically at the peak of his powers. Enthusiastically welcomed into the radio homes of both critics and the public every week, Allen’s ratings decline over the ether wouldn’t happen until the fall of 1948, when a giveaway program called Stop the Music—sort of the American Idol of its day—began to lure away his longtime audience. For all intents and purposes, that sounded the death knell on Fred’s show business career.
Unlike other radio funsters like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, who are perhaps better remembered by folks today due to their later television series exposure, Fred Allen didn’t leave behind much of a TV legacy. Recurring problems with hypertension and a belief that what worked so well for him on radio was now out of vogue on the cathode ray tube both contributed to the comedian’s never really getting a foothold in the new medium, though in the last few years of his life he was a familiar face as a panelist on What’s My Line? But unless you’re chatting with a die-hard old-time radio fan, chances are the name “Fred Allen” will produce a quizzical look if mentioned casually in a nostalgic conversation.
Allen is not well represented cinematically, either. The number of feature films Fred appeared in can almost be counted on one hand (six), and though he did make some entertaining movies along the lines of 1935’s Thanks a Million (Fred is the comic relief in a satirical musical that finds crooner Dick Powell a gubernatorial candidate) and We’re Not Married! (1952—Fred is one of several stars in an anthology vehicle spotlighting six marriages that are not legitimate due to a legal technicality), Allen’s reverence with regards to his brief movie contributions can be summed up in his reference to a 1938 musical in which he appeared (Sally, Irene and Mary) as “Sally, Irene and Lousy.” Fred also memorably summed up the Hollywood experience with one of his most oft-quoted observations: “All the sincerity in Hollywood you can stuff into a flea’s navel and still have room left over to conceal eight caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.”
Most Allen devotees are in agreement, though, that 1945’s It’s in the Bag! comes the closest to capturing the essence of Fred’s one-of-a-kind wit. The feature comedy stars Allen as a seedy flea circus operator named Fred Floogle, whose financial circumstances change overnight when he learns he’s an heir to a $12 million fortune left by a murdered millionaire. Floogle and his wife Eve (Binnie Barnes) immediately go on a lavish spending spree, which includes relocating to a swanky penthouse apartment…and then they get the bad news from his grand uncle’s shady lawyer (John Carradine): the old man squandered all of his fortune, and all he’s left Fred in the will are a pool table (to be held in trust) and five chairs.
Fred has his son Homer (Richard Tyler) hock the chairs at a local antique store for some ready cash—at the same time a representative from the bank brings a phonograph record by the apartment. The recording reveals that the dead relative hid $300,000 in the lining of one of the chairs (along with the evidence as to who killed him) and so for the rest of the picture, Fred tries to track down the furniture in a hilarious series of vignettes involving the chairs’ new owners while solving the mystery of the men responsible for his relative’s murder.
An underrated comedy that predates the later Mel Brooks comedy The Twelve Chairs (1970—both films are based on the Russian novel Dvenadtsat stulyev…though in the Allen treatment they had to make do with less furniture), It’s in the Bag! is a wacky romp whose screenplay contributors include Allen and Alma Reville, a.k.a. Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock. Bag is similar in tone to the popular Road pictures of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, with hilarious in-joke references (listen carefully as Fred’s Floogle places a bet on a horse named “Golenpaul”—the last name of the producer of radio’s Information Please, on which Allen was a frequent panelist) and characters continually “breaking the fourth wall.” The movie also contains an amusing credits sequence with Fred airing his grievances about Hollywood and motion pictures; when a credit for the film’s associate producer appears onscreen Allen cracks: “Associate producer…he’s the only man in Hollywood who would associate with the producer.”
Bag also features an amazing collection of comic performers and character veterans: Jerry Colonna is a psychiatrist who has a habit of slapping at his face (he’s convinced there’s a tsetse fly on his cheek); Robert Benchley is Fred’s would-be in-law, an exterminator whose demonstration of a mousetrap invention is not unlike one of his MGM shorts; Sidney Toler (not in his usual guise as Charlie Chan) is a detective convinced Fred murdered his grand uncle; and William Bendix contributes a hilarious performance as a timid gangster (constantly gobbling vitamins) who ends up with the last chair (and the $300,000). In addition, a nightclub sequence puts Fred in a barbershop quartet with Don Ameche, Rudy Vallee, and Victor Moore (“Grandma’s glamour boy”).
Fred gave some of his old radio cronies work in this film: his former announcer Harry Von Zell is the nightclub manager, and Walter Tetley plays an elevator operator at a movie theatre where another former colleague of Fred’s. John Brown, announces “Immediate seating on all floors!” But the radio contemporary that gets the most prominent showcase is actress Minerva Pious—Pious had been a member of the comedian’s “stock company” practically since his radio debut, and was best known for playing a fearsome Jewish housewife named Pansy Nussbaum on the “Allen’s Alley” segments of his program in the 1940s.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Nussbaum is not quite so formidable in this film due to the fact that Pious was actually rather short in stature…but unless you’re a purist, it doesn’t detract from the wonderful dialogue exchange the two of them have in which Mrs. Nussbaum reveals she bought one of the chairs because one of her relatives is always having to stand up at family reunion dinners (since she has but a dozen). In turn, Pansy informs Fred that since this relative finally brought his own chair she sold the extra one…to Jack Benny.
Jack Benny and Fred Allen were well-acquainted with one another during the years they worked in vaudeville…and one night in December of 1936, Allen—in his own words—decided to “hitch his gaggin’ to a star” by making some barbed comments about his friend’s attempt to play a difficult classical music piece on his violin on his program. Benny, of course, never missed listening to Fred’s show and retaliated the following week with some wisecracks aimed at Allen…and from that moment on, a “feud” was born.
Paramount Pictures attempted to capitalize on the feud by casting the two comedians in a feature film entitled Love Thy Neighbor (1940), which is interesting only as a novelty today, particularly since the popularity of the feud reached its peak about three years before the picture’s release. But Jack and Fred continued to be radio nemeses long afterward, guesting on each other’s shows and hurling insults at one another from afar…and the segment in It’s in the Bag! where Fred pretends to be the Nutley, NJ president of Jack’s fan club in order to get the chair is one of the movie’s highlights:
JACK: Tell me…how many members are there in this Jack Benny fan club that you have the honor of being president of?
JACK: Twelve…and what is the population of Nutley?
FRED: Six thousand.
JACK: Hmm…well, there seems to be something wrong there…someplace…perhaps you’re making the club too exclusive? Are you keeping out the riff raff?
FRED: If we keep out the riff raff, Mr. Benny, we’ll only have three members.
JACK: I see…Jack Benny fan club with only three members…well, can’t you do something?
FRED: I’ve tried everything, Mr. Benny…I’ve blackmailed people, I’ve written anonymous letters…I still can’t get them to listen to your program.
JACK: Well, what about my movies?
FRED: Your movies? Even the riff raff won’t go to see them.
JACK: Hmm…have they tried giving away dishes?
FRED: Yes, and people threw them at the screen.
JACK: I see…have they tried not giving away dishes?
FRED: Yes…the people bring their own dishes and still throw them at the screen.
Available for many years on grey market DVD releases, It’s in the Bag! finally received an official DVD/Blu-ray release in February 2013 from Olive Films, who has been issuing to disc many of the titles from the Republic Pictures library (Bag had previously been available in VHS form).
The movie, which underwent some restoration work at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in the mid 80’s, actually exists in two versions: the one available on the Olive DVD, and an alternate version in which large chunks of the film’s dialogue are inaudible due to a recurring voiceover from Fred (who at one point observes without irony “I like a commentary with a picture. You don’t have to watch the screen to know what’s going on.”). (I learned of the alternate “commentary” version when I recorded the film off of AMC in the late 90s…and at first thought I was hearing things, since I didn’t remember the picture doing that when I watched the VHS tape the first time.)
While it is a shame that Olive couldn’t include both versions on their release (it’s possible that the company may not have been aware of the voice-over version—only a handful of sources acknowledge its existence) the non-commentary edition of Bag still manages to be a fitfully funny outing for comedy fans…and remains today the best cinematic showcase for the man once described by James Thurber: “You can count on the thumb of one hand the American who is at once a comedian, a humorist, a wit, and a satirist, and his name is Fred Allen.”