The recent VCI/Sprocket Vault DVD release of Hal Roach Forgotten Comedies could just have easily been titled “Adolphe Menjou at Hal Roach” because the three features in the collection—The Housekeeper’s Daughter (1939), Turnabout (1940), and Road Show (1941)—all star the actor known for both his sartorial splendor (he was voted “The Best Dressed Man in America” on nine separate occasions) and right-wing politics. (For that matter, the set could also have gone by “John Hubbard at Hal Roach”…but I’d wager more classic film fans know Menjou than Hubbard.) The films on the DVD were all directed by the man whose studio was affectionately known as the “Lot of Fun,” at a time when Hal had become more comfortable with his status as producer and studio mogul. (Many of the highly-regarded Roach Studio films were directed by other hands, such as William A. Seiter [Sons of the Desert] and Norman Z. McLeod [Topper].)
If we go in chronological order—and not the way the films are technically presented on this DVD—the first feature on Hal Roach Forgotten Comedies is The Housekeeper’s Daughter. The titular “dame” is a gun moll named Hilda (Joan Bennett), who decides to quit a racket run by mobster Floyd Miller (Marc Lawrence)…and while she’s ruminating on a new career path, pays her mother Olga (Peggy “Mama” Wood) a visit. Olga is a domestic for the Randall household, whose members are heading out in different directions for summer vacation…save for son Robert (John Hubbard), who has ambitions of becoming a newspaper reporter.
Robert, Hilda, and the rest of the clan from Casa del Randall will cross paths again with Floyd and his goons by the end of Daughter’s eighty-minute running time. You see, a stage actress named Gladys Fontaine (Lillian Bond) has developed a severe case of dead, and though Miller isn’t responsible he’s certainly complicit in covering up the crime (by dumping her corpse into the river). Meanwhile, Young Master Hubbard has talked himself into a job on the city paper and misinterprets some sarcasm from the editor (Donald Meek) into thinking he’s going to work alongside ace reporter Deakon Maxwell (Adolphe Menjou) and his sidekick, photographer Ed O’Malley (William Gargan).
The first in a multi-picture deal Hal Roach inked with United Artists, The Housekeeper’s Daughter was adapted from Donald Henderson Clarke’s novel, published a year earlier (the screenplay is credited to four scribes: Rian James, Gordon Douglas, Jack Jevne, and Claude Martin). The back of the Hal Roach Forgotten Comedies DVD touts the film as “a hilarious spoof of murder mysteries, the ‘front page’ type of picture and romantic comedies.” There’s not a lot of mystery in the movie—we know the identity of the “murderer” from the get-go—but its screwball bona fides are without question, with its wacky goings-on accompanied by a slightly macabre tone. The ‘front page’ reference is all Menjou; his turn as Walter Burns in the first celluloid rendering of The Front Page (1931) would be the only time Adolphe was nominated for an Academy Award.
As a rule, I try to separate an actor’s work from their personal life…but in the case of Adolphe Menjou, it’s not always easy. Though I can’t claim to be a fan, Menjou always seemed (to me, anyway) to shine in those roles where he was a bit of what the British might call a “bounder”; he gave out standout performances in sound vehicles like Morocco (1930), Page, The Milky Way (1936), State of the Union (1948), The Tall Target (1951), The Sniper (1952), and—perhaps my favorite of his films—Paths of Glory (1957—he’s such a delectable bastid in this one). (There are many more, of course…these were just off the top of my head.) Adolphe does good work as “The Deacon,” a missing-a-scruple-or-two scoundrel with an eye for a shapely leg who competes with his pal O’Malley (Gargan) for the attentions of Hilda (Bennett). (At the risk of spoiling this for the audience, Hilda is going to wind up with the colorless Randall because that’s just how movies roll.)
My pal Cliff of In the Balcony fame opined to me that Clarke’s novel is better than the movie (it’s certainly racier, Cliff asserts) but The Housekeeper’s Daughter is nevertheless a pleasant little romp stuffed with great character performers like Peggy Wood, Donald Meek (an interesting change-of-pace as a Walter Connolly-like editor), George E. “Runt” Stone, and Marc Lawrence. (TDOY fave Tom “Heil myself!” Dugan is also on hand as one of Lawrence’s stooges.) Daughter also served as the motion picture debut for a young hopeful named Victor Mature, who was cast as second-in-command Lefty Girtz after being spotted in a stage play, To Quito and Back. This is something I may keep coming back to in this review…but Mature displays a lot more charisma in his small role than Hubbard does as the lead; it’s no surprise that Roach was so impressed with Vic that he gave him the lead in One Million B.C. (1940). Mature would later go on to stardom as one of 20th Century-Fox’s major stars, and when The Housekeeper’s Daughter was re-released in 1946 his name appeared in promotional art as the film’s co-star (even though he was originally billed seventh).
I thought this tidbit from the (always reliable) IMDb was pretty hooty: “According to her memoir The Bennett Playbill, Joan Bennett detested one of the taglines for this film, which was ‘She couldn’t cook, she couldn’t sew, but oh, how she could so-and-so!’ She fought with producer Hal Roach over the line on the grounds that the lines ‘implied a vulgarity that simply wasn’t there and had nothing to do with the film, which was a bland comedy, and not a very good one at that.’ He didn’t listen, so she wrote to over 2600 women’s clubs in the US and asked them to boycott her own film.” It’s refreshing to see that kind of honesty in a film star…particularly since Bennett’s performance (she comes across as if she’s rehearsing for 1945’s Scarlet Street) is a bit out-of-whack with the finished product.
The comedy trio of Hubbard, Menjou, and Gargan are reunited for Turnabout, the only feature on Hal Roach Forgotten Comedies that I had seen previously. (Donald Meek is also in the movie, as Hubbard’s bewildered manservant.) I caught this one on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ many years back; my interest stoked by both its origins as a Thorne Smith novel and as a very short-lived 1979 TV series (with Sharon Gless and John Schuck) that lasted twelve minutes. (Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly here…but I do know I gave up on it after its premiere episode.)
Hubbard plays Tim Willows, partners in an advertising firm with Philip Manning (Menjou) and Joel Clare (Gargan)—Clare’s only justification as partner is that he used his proceeds from bootlegging to put up the seed money for the company. Tim is married to the lovely Sally (Carole Landis), and yet it seems the only thing the couple has in common is that they bicker constantly. Tim is convinced that Sally lives a life of ease and plenty, while Sal believes that her husband’s existence is completely without trouble and strife.
Both Willows wish they could trade places with one another. Unfortunately, they express this desire in front of an Indian idol given to them by one of Tim’s relatives…and “Mr. Ram” (their nickname for the bust) decides to grant their request by putting Tim in Sally’s body and vice versa. As we say so often here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear: let the wacky complications ensue! Tim and Sally will soon learn that it’s not so easy walking a mile in someone else’s shoes…even if you have gotten away with their shoes and have a mile head-start.
Of the three movies on Hal Roach Forgotten Comedies, Turnabout is the most enjoyable…though I’ll confess I didn’t always think this way; the first time I watched it I couldn’t quite understand why the movie was as “controversial” as it once was (sure, it’s risque…but certainly fairly tame to modern-day audiences). I don’t want to give away the plot twist—though Turnabout’s promotional art does—I’ll simply say that motion picture censor Joseph Breen had some issues with the ending. (Breen also objected to the “pansy” portrayal of Franklin Pangborn. I’m having a little trouble believing this was the first time Joe ever watched a Pangborn film.)
Turnabout benefits from a spiffy print (restored by the UCLA TV and Film Archive—the one I saw on TCM years back was a little rough, if memory isn’t playing tricks on me) and a sparkling performance from leading lady Carole Landis, whose co-starring role opposite Victor Mature in Roach’s One Million B.C. really jump-started her career. (Her wardrobe surely didn’t hurt, either.) Sadly, Landis never got the opportunity to get meaty parts (her few “A” films include I Wake Up Screaming  and Four Jills in a Jeep ); languishing in B-pictures like Behind Green Lights (1946—reunited with Gargan), she would take her own life in 1949 before the age of thirty. I find I can’t take my eyes off Carole in Turnabout…it’s an excellent showcase for her beauty and comedic talents. Menjou gives a much better performance as a henpecked husband in this one, and Gargan’s a lot of fun as a man a bit out of his depth. (As for Hubbard…well, he doesn’t bump into any furniture unless it’s on purpose.)
Like Daughter, Turnabout is packed to the rafters with superior thespic talent: TDOY faves Mary Astor (as Menjou’s wife) and Joyce Compton (married to Gargan) shine here, and there are nice contributions from Meek, Verree Teasdale (Mrs. Adolphe Menjou in real life), Berton Churchill, and Marjorie Main (a riot as the Willows’ cook). (There’s also a bit of nepotism: Hal’s daughter Margaret plays a Southern-fried secretary named “Dixie Gale.”) Scripted by Mickell Novak. Berne Giler, and John McClain (with Rian James contributing additional dialogue), Turnabout was the last of three Thorne Smith novels to be adapted for the silver screen by Roach (Topper  and Topper Takes a Trip  were the other two—Topper Returns  used Smith’s characters but was a completely original work.)
Adolphe Menjou! John Hubbard! Carole Landis! The Turnabout triple-threat returns for the final feature on Hal Roach Forgotten Comedies: Road Show, a musical comedy about the rigors of carny life. The carnival is owned by Penguin Moore (Landis), who “meets cute” with rich playboy Drogo Gaines (Hubbard) and Colonel Carleton Carraway (Menjou) once the two men have crashed out of an asylum (The Hopedale Club—”for the rest of your life”) where they were enjoying a long stay. (Drogo was put in Casa del Booby Hatch by a fiancée [Polly Ann Young…Loretta’s sister and also in Turnabout] out to marry him for his money…but I never completely understood why Carraway was locked up.) Drogo and the Colonel sign on as roustabouts to help with Penguin’s traveling fair attraction, meeting interesting people like her sidekick Jinx (Roach veteran Patsy Kelly) and the Colonel’s eccentric nephew, Harry Whitman (Charles Butterworth).
Road Show has potential despite its meandering plot; the musical numbers (performed by The Charioteers) are toe-tapping (they were written by Hoagy Carmichael, who had made his film debut in Roach’s Topper) and you can’t completely dislike a movie that features Kelly, Butterworth, Willie Best, George E. Stone (as an Indian who’s taken a shine to Patsy), and an uncredited bit (playing, interestingly enough, a character named “Moe”) from Shemp Howard. In addition to an encore by Margaret Roach, there are a number of Roach Studio veterans in this concoction (based on Eric Hatch’s 1934 novel and scripted by Mickell Novak, Arnold Belgard…and Harry Langdon!): Johnny Arthur, Stanley Blystone, Richard Cramer, Eddie Dunn, “dress extra” Bess Flowers, James C. Morton, and Clarence Wilson (as an irascible sheriff), just to name a few.
The chemistry between Landis and Hubbard (who’s really got the callous playboy thing down solid by this one) isn’t quite as strong as it is in Turnabout (despite their squabbling in that film, they’re a far more attractive couple) but the major weakness in Road Show is Menjou, who just doesn’t convince me as the dotty Colonel (this would have been perfect for Raymond Walburn). In fact, I found myself wishing that Adolphe and Charlie would have switched places (man, that Turnabout thing is contagious) because Butterworth is more endearing in his smaller role of Whitman (his bit where he’s fascinated by the taffy machine is a riot). Still, Road Show has some nice moments and it’s certainly worth a watch…but then again, all three films in this marvelous release are must-sees for any classic movie fan worth his or her salt. (Unless you’re trying to eliminate salt from your diet…then I can’t help you.)