January 29, 2015
Jitterbugs – U.S., 1943
Vivian Blaine (Guys and Dolls, State Fair) had made four films prior to Mal St. Clair’s Jitterbugs. It seems clear that her fifth film was intended as a showcase for her considerable singing talents. How else can one account for the fact that she is given three musical numbers with which to demonstrate her impressive vocal range? The good news for movie fans is that she is worthy of the opportunity given to her to shine, for she infuses her musical numbers with such energy and spunk that it is impossible to look away. In fact, it makes it seems perfectly reasonable for a relative unknown not only to audition for a showboat act the night before it is scheduled to open but also to put together an act in what appears to be just twenty-four hours.
The film in which she does all this is Jitterbugs, a film that succeeds at being both entertaining and odd. It stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, yet relies less on their comic skills than their previous films. In fact, the film resembles crime capers like Ocean’s 13 and The Italian Job much more than it does Saps at Sea or A Chump at Oxford.
The film starts out simple enough. Stan and Oliver play members of a two-man orchestra who run out of gas because Stan insisted they take a side road instead of the main one. They are eventually helped by a traveling swindler named Chester Wright (Robert Bailey), who makes money convincing people that he has a magic pill that can turn water into gas, something valuable considering that gas was rationed during World War II. Stan and Laurel fall for the gag and even become inadvertent accomplices in the con by pedaling the pills after their extremely entertaining two-man show. (I for one wanted an encore.)
After things go more than slightly awry, they find themselves set upon by an angry mob and forced to flee for their lives. In this, they are assisted by Wright, who poses as a federal officer. However, their efforts to get away are stalled by the realization that Wright still has the purse of a woman he was dancing with. That woman, Susan Cowan (Blaine), turns out to have a relative who was the victim of a con, and Wright decides to help her get the money back the only way he knows how: by conning the con men. The only question is whether Wright’s motives are as altruistic as he makes them sound.
The majority of the film – apart from Mrs. Blaine’s three musical numbers - is devoted to this con, which involves Oliver and Stan both assuming new identities and hamming it up as a wealthy southerner and his loyal assistant. This part of the film was quite fun, and I enjoyed seeing the two of them play somewhat against character. It is not a plot point that calls on them to be very humorous, however, and the film strains at times to come up with gags for them to engage in. My favorite of these had the two of them imagining what would happen if Wright and Cowan got married and had children. Also agreeable was a bit in which Oliver tries to teach Stan how to walk like a lady. As a whole, however, moments like these are too few and far between.
The comedy team are helped capably by their supporting cast, which does a fine job all around. Bailey plays Wright as if he were a romantic lead, and this was before the screwball crime caper became a full-fledged genre. Also worth praising are Lee Patrick as Dorcas, whose southern accent was quite convincing, and Douglas Fowley as Mr. Bennett, whose initial con set everything in motion.
The end of the film returns to screwball comedy, and it is a slight misstep. I felt it would have been better to let this Laurel and Hardy find a way out of the mess themselves. However, the gag they use at least ties the film’s two ends together nicely and reminds viewers how it all began in the first place. And in the end, it was enough. The film isn’t as humorous as I would have liked it to be, but it left a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Sometimes that suffices. (on DVD)