Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brass Monkey (1948)

This is a Brit version of a type of movie that enjoyed a brief vogue in America—the filmed radio comedy show. Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen, Fred Allen, The Great Gildersleeve and Jack Benny all made movies like this, pictures that brought their radio personalities and supporting casts to the screen. They are almost universally disappointments to their radio fans, B movies with little of the charm that made the radio programs so much fun.

Brass Monkey stars "Britain's favorite Canadian," Carroll Levis. Levis moved to England in 1935 and ended up putting together and hosting talent shows for the BBC—"American Idol" in London for people who played Stephen Foster songs on the saw or "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the accordion. (In 1957, Peter Sellers played Wee Sonny MacGregor, host of a radio talent show in the wonderful farce The Naked Truth, aka Your Past is Showing. I wonder if the satire contained a poke or two at Levis.) Anyway, in this movie Levis, playing himself, and not too convincingly, is the stereotypical Canadian—colorless, boring, doughy, and totally lacking in anything that could even mistakenly be called charisma.

He's returning from a trip to the Far East when an old friend of his, Kay Sheldon (Carole Landis) gives him a brass monkey as a good luck charm. What we know and they don't is that the monkey is one of three from an ancient Buddhist temple in Japan that is worth a fortune. Kay got it from her crook fiancé Max (Edward Underdown). It's destination in London is a rare objects d'art shop from which it will be sold to a collector (Ernest Thesiger). It's all a farcical conglomeration of plot elements from The Moonstone, The Maltese Falcon, and probably half the Sexton Blake thrillers ever written.

The story is nonsense. If the movie has any interest for modern viewers it comes from the supporting cast. Herbert Lom is his usual dark and sinister gangster self, but without the comic edge he would display so well in The Ladykillers. Terry Thomas (without the identifying hyphen) plays himself, dropping in a couple of times to perform some unbelievably unfunny music hall turns. Levis-program regular Avril Angers is the funniest person in the movie playing her radio persona, a Dumb Dora whose dialogue is mostly malapropisms and non sequiturs.

This was American B movie actress Carole Landis' last film before her suicide at age 29. Landis was an attractive blond and the American performer who clocked more time entertaining the troops during the war than anyone else. She became depressed that her movies never seemed to rise above the B level or attract much critical respect. "You fight just so long and then you begin to worry about being washed up," she said. "You fear there's one way to go and that's down.
I have no intention of ending my career in a rooming house, with full scrapbooks and an empty stomach."

Directed by the American Thornton Freeland (whose only major credit is the Astaire/Rogers musical Flying Down to Rio from 1933), Brass Monkey is second rate in just about every category. When it isn't second rate, it's third. For the curious only.

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