There is one comic bit of surreal silliness in TBMWGY that endears it to my heart. Peter Lorre stars as Dr. Lorentz, who is town coroner, sheriff, mayor, justice of the peace, and just about everything else. He is the grandest of grand Pooh-Bahs. He wears a black frock coat and stiff hat with a short crown and wide, circular brim. And he never goes anywhere without putting a Siamese kitten in his inside coat pocket.
Fortunately, no explanation is ever offered for this nuttiness, nor is the kitten ever to put to any use—not even as a paperweight, as is the one in “You Can’t Take It With You.”
Boris Karloff is Lorre’s co-star. King Karloff plays Prof. Nathaniel Billings, a crazed but amiable scientist who works in a “B” movie lab in the cellar of a rapidly fading colonial inn. He uses traveling salesmen in his experiments, attempting to—it’s been a week since I last saw this movie and damned if I can remember what it is Prof. Billings is trying to do. Doesn’t matter. It’s just silly.
His money running short, Billings sells the inn to perky Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell), who wants to turn the place into a working hotel. She is followed by her ex-husband Bill Layden (Larry Parks) who wants to talk her out of the deal but then decides to stick around, Nancy Drew style, to uncover The Secret of the Old Inn.
Assisting the professor as house and groundskeepers are Amelia and Ebenezer (Maude Eburn and George McKay), she obsessed with the chickens she doesn’t have and he with being mysterious.
When Bill stumbles over what he takes to be a corpse in the basement, he calls the local police and Lorentz shows up. By the time the official gets to the inn, the body is missing.
From this point on, the action is farcical, nothing makes much sense and it doesn’t matter.
Karloff and Lorre seem to be having a good time spoofing the kinds of films they were better known for, although my teeth starting grinding every time Karloff had to stoop and pick up a corpse—he had severe back problems from “Frankenstein” on. Parks, who later became one of the actors most damaged by HUAC when he admitted to having belonged to a Communist cell from 1941 to 1945, is boyish and was undoubtedly held in adoring awe by junior high girls. Donnell, whose second film this was, continued as a “B” movie queen until she moved to TV in the mid-1950s. And “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom adds his trademark air of punchdrunk je ne sais quoi.
The movie was directed by Lew Landers, who followed Donnell’s career path and ended up directing over 150 “B” films and TV shows. He’d partnered with Karloff on “The Raven” in 1935. Landers (who worked under his birth name--Louis Friedlander—for his first 9 pictures, 1934-36) is one of the few guys in Hollywood who turned out so much product with so little inspiration. Only Bela Lugosi’s over-the-top raving and Karloff’s understated masochism in “The Raven” give that sole Landers’ effort a chance at immortality.
As for TBMWGY, well, this one is for old school horroristas on holiday and small children who want to see “a scary movie” that isn’t really scary at all.