Previously on the blog, I’ve been most effusive in my praise for funnyman Leon Errol, a Thrilling Days of Yesteryear favorite who’s provided me maximum amusement in vehicles like Pop Always Pays (1940) and Strictly in the Groove (1942). A veteran stage performer who at “the height of his film success, in the 1940s, he was already past the age of sixty,” as Leonard Maltin notes in Selected Short Subjects (a.k.a. The Great Movie Shorts), Errol also delivered solid support for such comedic film favorites as W.C. Fields (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), Joan Davis (She Gets Her Man), and Abbott & Costello (The Noose Hangs High). But to again quote Mr. Maltin, “The two-reel comedy was the ideal vehicle for Errol’s talents”; Errol began making comedy shorts in 1933 for various studios (Columbia, Paramount, Warner Bros.) before finding a home at RKO with a long-running series that only ended with his passing in 1951.
Leon Errol’s two-reel comedies hewed to a simple comic formula: Errol played the henpecked husband, constantly in Casa del Bow Wow with his wife whether it was because of his drinking (Leon was not averse to imbibing on a regular basis) or “girl trouble.” As Maltin observes:
One interesting aspect of Errol’s comedies, especially true of the later RKO shorts, is that Leon’s wife actually had something to be suspicious about. In the films of Laurel and Hardy, Hugh Herbert, and most other comics, the wives would misinterpret some totally innocent gesture as a sign that their husbands were philandering, thus providing the basis for a comedy of errors. With Leon Errol, it was made quite clear many times that he really was “making whoopee” when his wife’s back was turned.
The handicap with Leon Errol’s comedies is that the philandering husband plots posed the danger of “same-ol’-same-ol’”—that audiences would get weary of such formulaic situations and the shorts would start to slide in popularity. Errol’s two-reelers managed to overcome this by being so fast and funny—not to mention showcasing superlative supporting players, expert direction, and engaging scripts—that even if a viewer does experience a case of déjà vu while watching, the ride alone overrides any sense of familiarity. It’s a pity that there appears to be no outlet to introduce these diverting little comedies to modern-day audiences. I don’t know if The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ has the Errol comedies in their inventory (I would assume they do, if they own the RKO library) but they would be a welcome change from the multiple repeats of Pete Smith Specialties or Traveltalks.
Alpha Video has a fix for us Errol junkies in the form of a recent release (September 26) of a “six pack” of Leon’s shorts in the Leon Errol Collection Volume 3 (the company has already issued forth two previous DVDs of the funnyman’s output, both in 2013). Friend of the blog Brian Krey was generous enough to provide TDOY with a screener, and the irony of this collection is that two of the shorts on the disc have been shown on TCM in the past—I know this to be this case because in my attempts to record them I lost the last minute or two of each short. (Swine DVD recorder…) One Live Ghost (1936), which kicks off the set, is an average Errol effort that contains a novelty or two; Leon does not play “himself”—a characteristic of his two-reelers—but a harried husband named Henry Morton (there’s speculation that this two-reeler may not have been specifically written for Leon—that he was pressed into service as an afterthought). Morton is on the receiving end of Rodney Dangerfield-like respect from his family, so his cousin Bert (Robert Graves) suggests he fake his own death and watch the reactions from afar by impersonating his English valet Philpot.
Using the same accent that he would employ in his role as “Lord Basil Epping” in the later Mexican Spitfire feature films (with Lupe Velez), Henry-as-Philpot finds himself on the receiving end of romantic advances from his grieving “widow” (Vivien Oakland)…because his precocious young offspring (Delmer Watson) has clued her in that “Pop” didn’t really snuff it. This prompts Morton to adopt a third persona, his “ghost,” but eventually his masquerade is revealed, and his family promises to give him the love and respect he craves. The other offbeat touch in Ghost is the appearance of a young Lucille Ball in the role of a housekeeper, Maxine, who got a few hearty chuckles from me executing such business as accidentally walking into a wall and sticking her tongue out at Leon in a most Lucy-like fashion:
Leon made Lucy’s acquaintance during a very brief stint at Columbia—Ball was a studio contract player, and Leon arranged for her to get a bit part as a secretary in his short Perfectly Mismated (1934). Lucy later acknowledged that she got quite the comedy education from Errol and the Three Stooges (she’s one of the three women in 1934’s Three Little Pigskins), and while One Live Ghost isn’t the most hilarious entry in the Leon Errol canon, her presence certainly makes it worth a watch.
My favorite short on the new Alpha Errol collection is a 1944 effort, Girls! Girls! Girls! The two-reeler goes to the matrimonial-trouble well again, but this one stands out more than most: Leon, seeking to hire entertainment for an event at his lodge, unwittingly purchases an entire burlesque show! This puts the human teabag in hot water with vice cop Tom Kennedy, who’s under orders to shut down the show, and a fan dancer played by TDOY fave Claire Carleton (she goes by “Windemere”), who’s demanding her back salary. At one point, Leon is run in by Kennedy (with Carleton in tow) and a photo of his arrest is captured by a newspaper shutterbug…which makes its way into the next day’s edition. Having spotted the picture in the paper, Leon tries to hide it from wife Dorothy Granger (“Just a little item about the draft age…they’re going to raise it to 75…”). Both Carleton and Kennedy show up at Leon’s domicile, and Leon dons a pair of funny disguises to evade Kennedy…
…he slaps on a toupee and fakes a French accent in one masquerade, and dons old-lady drag in the other. Girls! Girls! Girls! Is an excellent example of how the Errol comedies could make the “husband-under-suspicion” formula a lot of fun if they featured the right character veterans (Kennedy and Carleton always brighten up a movie for me) and made the proceedings fast-and-furious (Errol does a lot of first-rate physical comedy running in-and-out of other folks’ apartments).
Tom and Claire are also on hand in Wedtime Stories (1943), a marital mix-up comedy that they manage to make brighter with their participation (a few sources report that Leon plays both himself and “Leon Errol, Jr.” in this comedy—this is simply not so). Stories and His Pest Friend (1938) are good examples of how the Errol comedies could often be as inconsistent as those cranked out by Leon’s RKO co-worker Edgar Kennedy; they’re diverting enough, but Friend in particular isn’t anything you’d knock anybody over to see.
Radio Runaround (1943) is the other short that’s popped up on TCM in the past (I even mentioned it here in a 2010 “DVR-TiVo” alert post), and the novelty of the radio background (Leon devotes all his time his job at a radio station, thereby neglecting his wife and forgetting their anniversary) makes it a most pleasant two-reeler. Kathryn Keys is funny as a floozy hired to be “the other woman” to make Mrs. Errol (Dorothy Christy) jealous, and Leon’s announcer sidekick is Wally Brown, who would go on to form “the poor man’s Abbott & Costello” at RKO with Alan Carney…
…the last short in this set is A Rented Riot (1937), a beauty of an Errol comedy that finds our hero having to sublet his apartment while his wife (Lorraine McLane) and mother-in-law (Dot Farley—on loan from Edgar Kennedy) are vacationing so he can pay off a bet he made on a horse race. (It’s not noted at the [always reliable] IMDb, but the radio announcer calling the race is unmistakably Richard Lane, a two-reeler veteran himself). Here’s the gentleman who sublets Leon’s crib:
Yes, it’s Jack Carson…who later throws a raucous party that prompts a visit from the gendarmes sent to tell the revelers to knock off the noise. Carson and his guests head for the hills when they hear the news that the cops are on their way, leaving Leon holding the bag not only with the men in blue but Wifey and her mother when they return unexpectedly. Oh, and Carson’s wife (Marjorie Beebe) has decided to take a disco nap in the bedroom.
Actress Dorothy Granger, who plays “Mrs. Errol” in Girls! Girls! Girls!, would become Leon’s frequent onscreen wife by the mid-1940s (and observed that had Errol not died in 1951, chances were good that the two of them would play husband-and-wife on TV), and reminisced to Leonard Maltin about her work on the comedies: “We were sort of big fish in a little pond. We had our own little group. We had our rotation of two or three cameramen, we had our own hairdressers, we had our own wardrobe mistress, our own makeup man, our own stand-ins. We had a little clique, and we enjoyed it. It was fun. It was hard work, but it was fun.” That fun is on full display in Alpha Video’s Leon Errol Collection Volume 3, and if you’re as gaga over these wonderful little comedies as I am you need to procure yourself a copy.