Classic Movies

Buried Treasures: People are Funny (1946)


Radio producer John Guedel was a man who was in the right place at the right time.  In 1942, he was plying his trade on Red Skelton’s Raleigh cigarettes program when he spotted an article in one of the trades mentioning a show recently cancelled by NBC.  Getting in touch with the ad agency that had sponsored the now-defunct program, he pitched an idea for an audience participation show that would eventually debut over the network on April 10, 1942.  Hosted by Art Linkletter, People are Funny featured average Joes and Janes participating in offbeat, unusual stunts for prizes of cash and merchandise.  People was second only to Truth or Consequences as radio’s best-known “stunt” show, running on radio until 1960 (on both NBC and CBS) and transitioning to the small screen for a version that lasted from 1954 to 1961.

The popularity of People are Funny inspired a feature film released in 1946, produced by Paramount’s “Two Dollar Bills”—William H. Pine and William C. Thomas—who purchased the rights for $25,000 in 1944.  Pine-Thomas had obtained the services of actor-singer Jack Haley (who had been teamed with Joan Davis on radio with the popular Sealtest Village Store show), whose film fortunes had drifted toward second banana status despite showcases like The Wizard of Oz (1939—where he had played “The Tin Man”).  Haley became the “star” of such Pine-Thomas vehicles as Take It Big (1944) and One Body Too Many (1944—I caught this one during our Epix freeview a while back…painful), and was tabbed to repeat his streak in the People are Funny movie along with fellow radio star Ozzie Nelson (who had also appeared in Take It Big along with spouse Harriet Hilliard).

In a gag in People are Funny (1946), Rudy Vallee’s character is deliberately dropped off at CBS rather than NBC. In reality, “the stars’ address” wasn’t that distant from their rival, though Phil Harris (who often had to bolt from Jack Benny’s show [once it moved to CBS] to his own NBC sitcom with wife Alice Faye during broadcasts) might give me an argument.
In fact, People are Funny doesn’t skimp on the radio favorites.  Rudy Vallee, enjoying a second career as a comedic actor thanks to Preston Sturges (The Palm Beach Story), is a great comic foil as Ormsby Jamison, a big bidnessman whose search for a program to sponsor fuels much of People’s admittedly wafer-thin plot.  (Vallee even gets in a nice in-joke at his own expense when he picks up a small megaphone from the desk of Ozzie’s character and remarks that he once used such an item in his brief singing career [“Yale, you know”].)  Art Linkletter, the host of the real-life radio program, appears as himself (his motion picture debut) and vocalist Frances Langford—who gets a “Special Guest Artist” credit—also turns up in the movie to sing one of her signature tunes, I’m in the Mood for Love.  Curiously, Langford’s number has been surgically excised from the print of People that I watched (an Alpha Video DVD from and according to my Facebook compadre Hal Erickson that’s the case with many of the public domain prints.  In the Alpha version, all that remains of Langford’s number is a long shot of Frances exiting after finishing and an announcer (an uncredited Ken Carpenter) thanking her for what we didn’t see.

Spoonerism king Roy Atwill was no stranger to radio (he was a regular on Fred Allen’s program in the 1930s, and also worked alongside Joe Penner and Edgar Bergen); he plays Haley’s boss in the film…and the lady behind him is Jack’s fellow Wizard of Oz co-worker Clara “Auntie Em” Blandick, as Haley’s grandmother.

John Guedel is fictionally played by Big Town After Dark (1947) actor Phillip Reed, who’s desperate to find a replacement radio show for Vallee’s Jamison to sponsor since Jamison is most displeased about Johnny’s current program, Humbug (which pokes fun at the legal profession].  Guedel gets on the phone and pleads with his best writer (and long-suffering fiancée) Corey Sullivan (Helen Walker) to cut short her Las Vegas sabbatical and head back to L.A. because they only have a week to come up with something to placate Jamison.  Meeting up with Guedel’s rival, an obnoxious sax player named Leroy Brinker (Ozzie), Corey and Leroy are on their way back to the City of Angels when car trouble waylays them in Clearwater, Nevada…and they witness a popular local program (three guesses as to what’s called…the first two don’t count) hosted by department store druggist Pinky Wilson (Haley).  Both Corey and Leroy decide to steal Pinky’s concept (Sullivan “liberates” a transcription disc of the program) and sell it to Jamison…though Corey is only pretending to work in tandem with Leroy.  Small-town Pinky accompanies Corey to “the big city” and for the rest of the film’s running time the People are Funny program is developed despite the wacky complications.

If I had to pick between People are Funny and Breakfast in Hollywood (1946) as to which is the better “audience participation” movie my vote would go to Breakfast.  People isn’t terrible (there’s too much talent on display), but it suffers from a great deal of padding where the musical numbers are concerned (even with the missing Frances Langford number it’s far too long), with Breakfast simply showcasing better music.  Bob Graham, at one time the vocalist on radio’s Duffy’s Tavern, plays a singing mechanic and warbles Every Hour on the Hour and Jack Haley gets a musical showcase singing English lyrics to Hey Jose (sung in Spanish by Lillian Molieri).  The Vagabonds do three musical numbers in the film (they interfered in several Paramount films, including It Ain’t Hay [1943]) including one in blackface (Angelina) that was no doubt embarrassing even back in 1946.  (The group figures in a running gag throughout the film in which they’re trying to get on any program of Guedel’s.)  The only bright spots are Ann Jenkins’ boogie-woogie piano and an English version of the folksong favorite Alouetta, and that’s because Vallee’s Jamison asks Nelson’s Brinker to assemble an impromptu group of singers that includes Billy Bletcher, Eddie Kane, and William “Billy” Benedict.

“Curly” Joe DeRita (here with host Art Linkletter) plays one of the contestants in the movie’s recreation of the radio show.

I didn’t particularly care about the romance between Reed and Walker but I did chuckle at the fact that both of their characters are portrayed as schemers (Walker seems to be practicing for her best screen turn as the unscrupulous psychiatrist in 1947’s Nightmare Alley).  The real-life Guedel purportedly had a reputation—according to Hal Erickson’s book From Radio to the Big Screen—as “a man who in real life magnanimously bestowed the title of vice-president on every person in his production company— including himself.”  Hal kind of glosses over Guedel’s non-magnanimity by neglecting to mention the fast shuffle he gave People’s original host, Art Smith, in the first year of the radio program…so I was pleased to see that the fictional “Johnny” played as a flawed human being in the film.  The plot about People are Funny’s origins as a small-town local show mirrors reality, too; People began as Pull Over, Neighbor on local NBC and CBS stations in L.A. in 1939 and later became known as All Aboard.  (The legend goes that the show’s eventual title stemmed from Guedel’s attendance at a dull after-dinner speech; while observing that the fidgety audience was just as bored as he was, Guedel jotted down on a napkin—“People are funny, aren’t they?”)

Helen Walker and Jack Haley

Jack Haley comes off best in the cast; I really liked him as the sympathetic Pinky, a babe-in-the-woods who insists that the money resulting from his selling of the program go toward projects in his home town.  Ozzie’s turn as a bit of a heel is also quite entertaining (in two instances he must don disguise as a Swedish janitor and a cab driver with a Scottish burr), a change from his established persona as an amiable doofus of a dad on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.  But I’m in agreement with Hal that the main problem with People is that “hiring Hollywood actors to portray the ‘real folks’ contestants severely diminishes the verisimilitude needed to sustain the laughter.”  After all, the radio and television People are Funny enjoyed the same success as Candid Microphone/Candid Camera—that people are funny when caught in the simple act of being themselves.

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