Saturday, August 17, 2019

An Undercover Butler Battles Nazi Spies in a Weak Wartime Comedy

In her early B-movie days (pre-The Lost Weekend), Jane Wyman was little more eye candy in a dopey Warner Brothers comedy, which is the subject of today's article.


At Warner Brothers, Wyman was matched with fellow contract player Jack Carson in five films: Larceny, Inc. (1942), Princess O'Rourke (1943), Make Your Own Bed (1944), The Doughgirls (1944) and Hollywood Canteen (1944).  The one film that put Wyman and Carson front and center was Make Your Own Bed, which was loosely based on a 1920 play called "When a Feller Needs a Friend" (not to be confused with the Wilbur Nesbit novel of the same name).

The film's producer, Alex Gottlieb, was coming off a hot streak, having produced eight immensely profitable films with Abbott and Costello at Universal.  The director was Peter Godfrey, who was soon to direct the classic holiday comedy Christmas in Connecticut (1945).  The writers were somewhat less distinguished.  One writer was Edmund Joseph, who was mainly known for writing vaudeville skits.  Two years earlier, Joseph had been called upon to use his vaudeville background to contribute material to the vaudeville scenes of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  Soon after, he was hired by Gottlieb to provide gags for Abbott and Costello's Who Done It? (1942).  A second writer, Francis Swann, had recently come to Hollywood after writing a successful Broadway comedy, "Out of the Frying Pan."  In 1943, Paramount Pictures produced a film version of Swann's play with William Holden and Susan Hayward.  Swann would later have success with a foray into film noir, 711 Ocean Drive (1950).

This group was certainly capable of turning out a decent comedy.  But Make Your Own Bed quickly gets bogged down in its implausible plot.  An eccentric munitions manufacturer, Walter Whirtle (Alan Hale), finds it impossible to hold onto servants.  Out of desperation, he makes up a whopper of a story to elicit help from a man he just met, Jerry Curtis (Jack Carson).  He tells Curtis, a fledgling private investigator, that he needs him to go undercover as his butler to protect him from Nazi spies stalking him for military secrets.  Curtis gets his fiancĂ©e, Susan (Jane Wyman), to go undercover with him as a maid.  But, unknown to Whirtle, he really is being stalked by Nazi spies.

The original play had World War I-era German spies stalking a munitions manufacturer, John Pryor, and Pryor receiving significant help from his steadfast black servants, Fairfax and Charlotte.  Fairfax is described as "a dignified old Negro, long in service."  Charlotte is described as "a typical old Washington negress, faithful and good-natured."  The roles of Fairfax and Charlotte were played by white actors in blackface.  The play opens with Fairfax reading a newspaper and commenting on a war story. 
Fairfax: Huh — de American cullud troops doin' great fightin' in France!  Lordy — Lordy — don' I jes' knows it!  I kin jes' see dem ole black boys now a pig-stickin' dem ole Bush-Gurmans wif dat bay'net — bay'net — huh — big brudder ter Mista Razor.  Dar! (With a move as if stabbing with a bayonet) I see dat ole black boy got him and stick him plum to de side ob de trench — den I see old black boy step back, an' reach in his inside pocket an' take out social weepon (Stropping an imaginary razor on the palm of his hand) An' say to dat ole Bush-Gurman, "My — My, but you sho' skeered me when I fust seed yo', but somehows you'se done changed. (He lifts chin of imaginary man) How do you do! — Dooie! (Slashing as if with razor) Now — dooie! (Slashing again) You'se dere wif me, an' dooie. (Slashing again) I'se dere wif you, an' dooie, dooie. (Slashing again) You'se dere wif everybody! (Wiping imaginary razor on coat sleeve and returning it to pocket) It suttenly is de end of a puffick day!
The fact that the play involved wartime German spies is no doubt the reason that Warner Brothers was interested in this musty property.  At the time, sinister German spies were frequent characters in American films.  But, in 1944, Warner Brothers was not about to put Carson in blackface and have him slashing the air with an imaginary razor.  The idea of a munitions manufacturer tricking a private investigator into becoming his butler is a strange twist to the story that cannot be explained by your humble author.

The film never stays focused for long on the Nazi spy plot.  The main objective of the scriptwriters is to put Carson into silly situations.  One of the film's set pieces involves Carson accidentally taking a shower in a woman's pool house.

But then Wyman shows up in that bathing suit and makes the entire film worthwhile.   

It is possible to enjoy Jane Wyman's beauty and enjoy a good film at the same time.  Beauty, sentiment and laughs are offered by A Kiss in the Dark (1949).


I think I read somewhere that Wyman owned the patent on the button nose.

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