Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wally Brown and Alan Carney: B Movie Buffoons

The amazing 1940s success of Abbott and Costello at Universal Studios inspired RKO pictures to create their own Abbott and Costello-like comedy team. Thus was born the team of Wally Brown (1904-61) and Alan Carney (1909-73). RKO had great success with the team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey from 1929-37 (they'll be the subject of a future post) and the Marx Bros. made a one-stop at RKO for Room Service in 1938. RKO was also the home of many short comedies headlined by Leon Erroll and Edgar Kennedy.

Brown and Carney were both ex-vaudevillians who happened to be working at RKO at the time.
Brown took the Abbott part-fast talking straightman who pushed his gullible partner around. Carney, chubby and dumb was the Costello prototype. Though not highly original, they were a decent team. (seeing they were manufactured by the studio). Their films while no classics are fun B pictures with good gags, pretty girls and music. (the perfect wartime anecdote.). This post will take a look at their output. (not all the films were available for review, but we're up for an addedum).

The first B & C comedy was Adventures of a Rookie (1943). This entry treaded on familiar ground as it did the RKO take on Abbott & Costello's Buck Privates. Wally and Alan play a nightclub entertainer and moving man who get drafted into the same unit along with a rich playboy (Richard Martin) whose uncle is the base commander. For some reason in most of the films their names were Jerry Miles(Brown) and Mike Strager (Carney)-not very funny or inventive , but this was RKO, not the Hal Roach Fun Factory. Director Leslie Goodwin helmed many of the RKO shorts

The minute the boys meet, they go into an Abbott & Costello like bit about A and B driving to Chicago. Of course we have the usual induction gags, drill routines and army maneuvers.Along the way the boys go awol, wind up at a party and get quarantined along with their unit. Like in Buck Privates , the boys and their rich buddy redeem themselves and become heroes with a patriotic ending. In one short scene Carney shows off his talent for mimicry, impersonating Edward G. Robinson and Charles Laughton. At a service hospital sequence we meet Claire Carleton , a cute blonde with great comic timing. She worked in a lot of RKO shorts and at Columbia popped up in the 3 Stooges short Fright Night and the Schilling and Lane classic, Two Nuts in a Rut .(see our Schilling and Lane post). She would be back with B & C for two more appearances. John Hamilton (Perry White from Superman) also appears as the base commander). All in all , this was a good introduction to Brown and Carney.

The next B & C entry was a sequel , Rookies in Burma (1943). Although not available for review the boys reprieved their army characters and met up with two USO showgirls , Claire Carleton and Joan Barclay. Most critics feel this is their best comedy, Leslie Goodwin returned as director.In 1944 Wally and Alan teamed up with George Murphy for a remake of the Marx Bros. Room Service. Murphy played Miller(Groucho) , Brown was Binion (Chico) and Carney took the Harpo role of Harry. Also along for the ride were Frank Sinatra, Gloria DeHaven and Adolph Menjou. It was a pleasant remake of the original plus songs.

Next up was the musical comedy Seven Days Ashore (1944). This time the boys are merchant marines who get their leave in San Francisco and get involved in buddy Gordon Oliver's romantic problems -he's trying to balance girlfriend Elaine Shepard along with entertainers Virginia Mayo and Amelita Ward. For some reason the boys are Monty (Wally) and Orval (Alan), guess it had more of an Abbott and Costello ring to it. The boys are paired up with the two showgirls until Gordon straightens things out and we get another patrotic ending with the marines marching out on orders.

There's a lot of music in this film. Marcy McGuire, a cute teenager who RKO was building up sings some songs in a pseudo Judy Garland style. Also along is pianist Freddie Slack and his Band(including clarinetist Barney Bigard) and Freddie"Schnickelfritz" Fisher, a popular Spike Jones style comedy band. (future Jones star George Rock is very prominent). B & C and their dates enjoy the band's rendition of Poor Little Fly. Margaret Dumont makes a cameo as-what else?- a dowager and Claire Carleton has a cute cameo as a harried telephone operator. The boys only get to do a few routines including an Abbott & Costello like bit on oysters and some horseplay on the nightclub phone. All in all, a very entertaining little film, this time produced and directed by John Auer.

The next entry was The Girl Rush (1944) One of the boy's best comedies. This time our heroes(back to Jerry and Mike) are out west in the Gold Rush days getting mixed up with girls and outlaws. Westerns were always a surefire premise for comedy teams. The girls are headed up by vocalist Frances Langford and Barbara Jo Allen (Vera Vague), a popular radio comedieene and star of Columbia shorts. Also aboard was a young Robert Mitchum as a cowboy and Patti Brill from Adventures of a Rookie. The film was directed by Hal Roach veteran Gordon Douglas. The boys get to sing and dance (they were both capable performers) and perform the old vaudeville "shell game" bit,along with a wild stagecoach getaway and a melee in a saloon with Brown,Carney, Mitchum and Co. all in drag fighting the bad guys!

Next up for the funsters was Radio Stars on Parade (1945)-not available for review. This was a rather mediocre showcase for popular radio performers of the day. Our heroes play talent agent managers trying to help vocalist Frances Langford rid herself of gangster Sheldon Leonard. (typecast as always). Along the way the boys get mixed up with Ralph Edwards' Truth or Consequences show. (later a TV favorite). Also featured were Don Wilson, Tony Romano (Bob Hope's USO guitarist) , Skinnay Ennis and his Band, country comic Rufe Davis and the Town Criers vocal group. (the Polk brothers and sisters who sang with Les Brown). Robert Clarke (of the KIng family) also appears and Frances gets to sing two great songs- That Old Black Magic and I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night. (they must have been RKO property , like Columbia they reused footage and songs ad nauseum). From the reviews we have it seems like the boys didn't get enough to do in this one.

The last two films in the series were surefire material for the boys,horror and spook comedy-always a can't miss formula for slapstick comics. First up was Zombies on Broadway (1945)-what a great title! In this film , RKO borrowed from their own horror classic , Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie (1943). This time Jerry and Mike are press agents working for gangster Sheldon Leonard (who else?) and promoting his Zombie Hut nightclub. The boys are sent to the island of San Sebastian to bring back a real zombie! The island's zombie expert is Dr. Renault (Bela Lugosi).Bela had been sleepwalking thru most of his roles and this was no exception. Along the way the boys meet stranded entertainer Anne Jeffreys as Jean (a great beauty with vocal talent and comic timing, remember her in Topper?). Anne was an RKO contract player and had been aappearing as Tess Trueheart in the Dick Tracy series. Back from the original is native zombie Darby Jones and calypso singer Sir Lancelot. The boys go thru the usual jungle gags, get captured by Renault and Mike is injected with zombie serum! The trio gat away and back to their boat by joining Mike as zombies! Back at the club Mike comes out of the trance only to have Sheldon get the needle and turn into the star of the show! Before the happy ending Wally winds up getting zombie-fied too.
This is certainly a wild one and the boys rise to the occasion. Anne is a lovely plus-her song Que Chica was used in the RKO Kay Kayser film Playmates( resourceful RKO). The jungle scenes look authentic-they were shot at the Los Angeles Arboretum where Johnny Weissmuller was filming his RKO Tarzan series.Direction was by Gordon Douglas who helmed many of the Hal Roach Our Gang shorts. Certainly one of the best Brown and Carneys.

The last B & C comedy was Genius at Work (1946). This was a remake of a 1937 RKO comedy, Super Sleuth (1937) starring Jack Oakie. It also resembled Abbott and Costello's Who Done It? a bit. Directed by Leslie Goodwins , the boys played radio actors on a popular mystery show. Anne Jeffreys as Ellen is back as the show's writer and their sidekick. Lionel Atwill as Latimer Marsh is a famous criminoligist who turns out to be the "Cobra", a killer on the loose! Bela Lugosi is back in a thanless role as Marsh's butler and henchman. Also along for the ride are two cops , Marc Cramer (Anne's love interest) and veteran serial and shorts actor Ralph Dunn.There are plenty of scare gags at Marsh's house including a chamber of horrors and the boys almost get bumped off on their radio show. The finale has some "high and dizzy" gags-surefire comic stuff when the heroes are teetering on building ledges. Wally gets to do the old "my buddy is dead" crying bit when he thinks Alan has fallen off the ledge. He quickly recovers when he sees Carney hanging on a flagpole! This is a fun little comedy-thriller and a good capper to the series.

After this entry the Brown and Carney series was ended, the studio felt they had exhausted the possibilities. It's too bad the boys were'nt allowed to continue and develop their characters more. They were consumate pros and made the best of the obvious Abbott and Costello cloning.

Wally and Alan continued their separate careers in film and both made the transition to television.Wally popped up a lot on shows such as My 3 Sons, Perry Mason, I Married Joan and Wagon Train. He was also a regular on the George Montgomery western, Cimarron City in 1958. (Claire Carleton was also in the cast. He and Alan were reunited in the Disney classic, The Absent Minded Professor although in sepate roles. He was slated to appear in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (also with Alan) but passed on before shooting started.

Alan kept busy with roles on Jack Benny , Dobie Gillis, Have Gun will Travel and a short lived comedy Take it from Me (1953) starring Jean Carroll. He also became a regular in Disney comedies.The Brown and Carney comedies are not classics but still offer lots of fun and 1940s entertainment to the viewer. AMC ran them for a while , now they're popping up on Turner Movie Classics.Otherwise you might find them on Ebay or in a vintage film catalog.

Till next time- Keep Laughing!


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Paul Castiglia said...

Brown & Carney get a lot of fact for being a team that the studio merely put together in response to Abbott & Costello's popularity, but I don't think that should be the only criteria they should be judged on. The various comedy teams all came together in different ways, and not always organically. They should be judged on their films alone. I found some bright spots in their military spoofs, and I especially liked the pair of horror-comedies they did with Bela Lugosi, which I'll be covering in my forthcoming book on the subject (you can see a preview of the project at ). Thank you Dave for covering this team that is much maligned by film buffs and virtually unknown by the general public!

Paul Castiglia said...

PS: Meant to type "flack" but somehow out popped "fact!"