Although his passion for clowns has always kinda creeped me out, the late Red Skelton has nevertheless always been one of my favorite comedians. In fact, my grandparents told me that they — and their reasoning behind this action shall always elude me — once took me to a live performance of his in Reno (or possibly Vegas) when I was but an infant, to wit the comic made it a special point to come over and say a few words to me. Sure, I’ll never know what he said, but it’s the thought that counts, right? That strange warmhearted feeling I get juts thinking about that absent memory also appears whenever I see Red Skelton on film or TV — so I was very excited to see the Warner Archive Collection releasing two very little known films of his to DVD-R.
By the point in his career that Red made both Half a Hero and The Great Diamond Robbery in 1953 and 1954 (respectively) at MGM, he was by no means in need of work. In 1951, Red began broadcasting his immortal series The Red Skelton Show at NBC, but his film contract with MGM was still going strong. And so, with his TV show a major priority, Skelton made his final two films for the folks at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — though, sadly, neither proved to be a hit for the studio. And the reason for these two semi-flops is plain to see, too: both movies are pretty weak.
In Half a Hero, Red stars as Ben Dobson, a freelance NYC-based writer who lands a job at the prestigious Everybody Magazine — a publication whose owner (Charles Dingle) values thriftiness, which is something Ben himself is a firm believer in. Ben’s wife Martha (Jean Hagen), on the other hand, is keen to make use of the money her hubby hasn’t quite placed in the bank yet and decides the couple should have a baby. Several years later, the nagging controlling shrew (she’s not a likable character — at all — though she is supposed to be) makes her mind up that they should move to the suburbs.
It is there that the real trouble starts, as Ben has to invest more money into a new home — all the while trying to impress his employer with an article he’s been assigned to write about how suburbia will be the death of civilization (and really, was he wrong?). \ Willard Waterman, King Donovan, Dorothy Patrick, Billie Bird, the great Dabbs Greer, Kathleen Freeman, and Polly Bergen also star, with Mary Wickes and Frank Cady (the latter of whom hails from my hometown of Susanville, CA) making a cameo as a married couple. Don Weis directs this mediocre dramedy written by Max Shulman.
Whereas Half a Hero found Skelton with a full family, The Great Diamond Robbery cast him as a completely family-less man, abandoned in Central Park as an infant, and given the name Ambrose C. Park by the orphanage that raised him. Employed as a diamond cutter at a well-to-do company in New York, Ambrose places a classified in the newspaper every year on his assumed birthday, hoping his family will emerge someday. This year, however, Ambrose winds up getting drunk — something way out of his conservative nature (in real life, Skelton was allergic to alcohol and could not drink) — and getting hauled in to the police station, where a local shyster lawyer (James Whitmore) is waiting.
Smelling an all-day sucker at his disposal, the lawyer hires a few hoods (George Matthews, Dorothy Stickney, and second-billed actress Cara Williams) to pose as his long-lost family — with the intent of bleeding the sap out until he’s dry. Naturally, such an easy ploy is not without its share of difficulties: soon, two more “relatives” (Harry Bellaver and Land of the Giants co-star Kurt Kasznar) are muscling their way in to take advantage of Ambrose’s profession — an occupation that just happens to have the world’s most valuable diamond sitting in its safe!
The strangest part of the movie is the ending, wherein Red learns his faux sister (Williams) is not really his sibling, and feels it’s OK to marry her. He kisses her, she hollers “Oh, brother!” and they lock lips. Is that weird enough for you, kids? It is for me.
Previously unavailable on any home video format, Half a Hero and The Great Diamond Robbery are finally seeing the light of day thanks to the Warner Archive Collection in above-average presentations with a trailers accompanying as special features. Granted, I wasn’t overly impressed with either film, but it’s truly great to see these forgotten gems made obtainable to the general public and for longtime Red Skelton fans alike to see — and to judge for themselves.