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DVD Review: Red Skelton Whistling Collection

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Although comedian Red Skelton made his last film in 1953, his popular television show was still running in 1970. The characters he created over the years — the Mean Widdle Kid, Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper — are iconic. The official Red Skelton website says he appeared in over 28 feature films beginning in 1938 with Having a Wonderful Time. Now the Warner Brothers Archive Collection has made three of these films available on DVD in the Red Skelton Whistling Collection. The black and white collection includes the 1941 Whistling in the Dark, 1942's Whistling in Dixie, and 1943's Whistling in Brooklyn. Each disc also includes the trailer for the film.

Whistling in the Dark, based on a play by Lawrence Gross and Edward Childs Carpenter, centers on a popular radio detective, the Fox, who suddenly finds himself embroiled in a real life crime drama. The Fox, a master detective on the airwaves, is inept when faced with the real thing. Skelton plays Wally Benton, The Fox, as something of a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Maxwell Smart. The plot concerns a cult led by Joseph Jones (Conrad Veight) that preys on rich widows in an attempt to get the widows' fortunes. When they learn that a large inheritance has been left to them conditionally, they decide to kidnap the Fox to force him to invent a perfect murder to get rid of the heir that stands in their way. There is also a love triangle between Benton, Carol Lambert (Ann Rutherford), and the daughter of the radio show's sponsor (Virginia Grey) who manage to get themselves kidnapped as well.   All of that plus the kind of high jinks and mayhem that made a star of the rubber faced Skelton made a sequel or two inevitable.

And sequels there were. Whistling in Dixie brought Benton and Lambert back again, this time to deal with the disappearance of the boyfriend of one of Lambert's sorority sisters in Georgia. Whistling in Brooklyn has Benton and Lambert pursued over the bridge from Manhattan by the local police who mistake the Fox for a serial killer.

The first film sets a formula and each of the sequels follows that formula. They all begin with a dark and ominous prelude in a creepy setting which introduces the crime. Then, the Fox is introduced while doing his radio show with Lambert which provides an opportunity for Skelton to howl the Fox's patented "wolf" call, as well as allowing for some comic moments for the sound effects crew prancing around upstage of the voice actors. In each film, Benton and Lambert are trying to leave to get married, something they never quite manage. Another woman always gets involved, although it is only in the first film, that she is romantically interested in Benton. At some point in each film the Fox and the female costars find themselves trapped by the evil doers in a life threatening situation, and the Fox needs to come up with an ingenious plan to get them out of it. The formula remains constant in all the films; details vary.

Whistling in Dixie, for example, features 'Rags' Ragland (who appears in all three films) in the dual role of twin brothers, one evil, Sylvester and one reformed, Chester. If you've seen The Comedy of Errors, you know that comic confusion in such a situation is inevitable even if it isn't a novel idea.

Whistling in Brooklyn has scenes set in Ebbets Field and includes cameos by a number of players from the Brooklyn Dodgers, including Dolph Camilli; Arky Vaughan; Mickey Owen; Bobo Newsom; and Billy Herman, as well as manager, Leo Durocher. There is even a shot of famous Dodger fan, Hilda Chester.

Whistling in the Dark uses some of the standard clichés of secret passages and hidden doors, a complicated plan to use a radio receiver to transmit messages.  It also has an ironic sequence where veteran character actor Lloyd Corrigan tells the story of the three bears to bratty youngster who wants to listen to the Fox on the radio.

Really however, it is neither the farfetched plots, nor the contrived variations of each film, that make or break these movies. It is not the professionally adept work of veteran character actors whose faces you'll recognize even if you can't remember their names: Sam Levene, Ray Collins, and Guy Kibbee among others. No, these films are vehicles for the star to do his thing. Just as The Pink Panther is nothing if not a tour de force for Peter Sellers, the Whistling movies are the same for Red Skelton. If you like the kind of goofy faced, physical tics that he specializes in, if you like tried and true comic routines in the hands of a master, these DVDs are for you. If you have a nostalgic passion for old time radio and the films of the forties, the Whistling Collection will keep you smiling. If you want sophisticated comedy on the other hand, you had best look elsewhere.

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About Jack Goodstein

  • Robert C.

    RED SKELTON was a TRUE COMIC AND CLOWN. HIS RADIO,TV AND MOVIES WERE ALL FAMILY ORIENTED AND HAD NO OFF COLOR JOKES OR WORDS. Personal appearances were the same in sold out in indoor and outdoor theatre venues. Let’s see today’s comics do that..!!

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