austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

It brings back a memory ever green

So This Is Washington is a barely-over-an-hourlong movie featuring Chester Lauck and Norris Goff, Lum and Abner. It takes the stars of the rambling serial-comedy radio show and comes up with an excuse to put them in Washington, rather akin to the way Fibber McGee and Molly were dropped into Washington in Heavenly Days, and for the same reason: there was a war on, don't you know? It's not really satisfying, for about the same reason: most of what's fun about these characters is their interactions with their setting. Drop them in with a bunch of strangers who don't have clearly defined personalities and histories and what do you even have them for?

It's tougher for Lum and Abner than for Fibber McGee and Molly, though. Fibber and Molly's show was a half-hour proto-sitcom, where some theme was introduce for the night and characters dropped in to riff on it while a loose plot developed. That can at least be put into a new setting easily enough and with original characters (who'd be sometimes dropped into the regular show anyway, as a way of testing out new personalities anyway) and with loose demands on characterization. But Lum and Abner was built around the serial story idea. The characters were saying and doing funny things, but in the service of a rambling, sprawling, Dickensian plot driven by filling up ten minutes of airtime every day, five days a week, for as long as the story needed. That won't compress to an hourlong story. (Lum and Abner even tried converting, as Amos 'n' Andy had, going to a half-hour sitcom format and the resulting stories are drained of almost all that makes the show worth listening to.)

So, the strongest parts of the movie are in the opening scenes, set wholly within Pine Ridge, Arkansas, with Lum and Abner running their store as well as the local ration board, draft board, and various other War-related services. But soon enough Abner hears a radio broadcast from Washington dollar-a-year man Chester W Marshall (Alan Mowbray) who appeals to the ``common man'' for that sprak of insightful invention that just might help the war effort. It's a fiasco back in Washington as every crackpot comes in to the office, but, Abner fiddles around with his homemade licorice and some dynamite and whips up a synthetic rubber. This, everyone promises, is sure to be worth something big.

There are some amusing time-capsule jokes, preserving what was on the minds of people in mid-war years, mostly around the comic idea of there being hotel space available in Washington (``we will have some very choice vacancies, right after the armistice is signed.'' ``We'll wait.'') (It's interesting they were thinking of armistice as an imaginable end, rather than V-Day), or a cabbie not being able to identify which federal agency is the ``YMCA'', or the guy selling Lum and Abner a nice convenient room if they get out by 6 am; he's the night watchman in a department store and rents them a show window.

This all teams them up with Robert Blevins (Roger Clark), an old friend from Pine Ridge who I don't remember from the radio series and who hasn't got any trace of Arkansas accent, who's now a newspaper columnist and having jolly good fun with the Common Man project and parade of cranks. Anyway, romantic subplot with Chester W Marshall's secretary, and while Lum and Abner can't get in to see Marshall they overhear conversations in Jackson Park (which as far as I can tell doesn't exist, but maybe there was one in 1943; it's a plausible name, anyway) and start giving advice to all these high-ranking federal officials. That's all part of a common mild delusion, that the utterly untrained common-sense of the relentlessly average person is better at problem-solving than an actual expert in things, and it's kind of tolerable as long as it doesn't go on too long. For a while the film threatens to become all about them as a proto-Forrest-Gump advising the agriculture department to try earthworms for the soil and whatnot, but Marshall makes a point of directing the camera to his Statue to the Common Man, so that's got to figure into it.

How? Well, they finally get a demonstration of their synthetic rubber, and while fiddling around with the equipment, the Statue lands on Abner's head and yes, the last twenty minutes of this are an amnesia story. The action mercifully moves back to Pine Ridge on the grounds that being around his friends might help Abner get his memory, and the synthetic rubber, formula back, and this at least gets us into something that might be a story on the radio show (and it was, in fact, with Grandpappy Spears the amnesiac rather than Abner; they even reused the idea that the amnesiac would think his name ``Buster V Davenport'' based on his underwear label. I don't know whether movie or radio show used the premise and Buster V Davenport joke first). But the resorting to physical comedy is still a strain for the characters, and that's that. It's a merciful break from being informed repeatedly how the leaders of Washington are grateful for Lum and Abners advice which ``why wouldn't we have thought of that?'' without ever hearing an actual specific problem.

Oddly, for all the screen time given to the amnesia story, the mystery of the lost formula gets resolved from actual chemical analysis. In order to keep the story from clashing too badly with any possible real-word consequences, the synthetic rubber is proclaimed to be a pretty bad rubber but a top-rate material for airplane landing strips. I have doubts that material which could be dropped on the floor and bounce back up to one's hands would be something to land a B-19 on, but, nobody would possibly expect to see a fictional breakthrough in airport runway strip material reflected in the actual war effort.

Oh, yeah, the romance subplot between the guy who never for a moment acts plausibly like he was from Pine Ridge and Marshall's secretary works out happily, but don't ask me why. I guess because he was worried about Abner.

The version of this that aired on Turner Classic Movies came with title cards mentioning its restoration and preservation by National Film Museum Incorporated, which seems odd given the slightness of the film. However, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound, so it has historic significance, I guess. But you can watch it on just as fine and probably not miss anything important.

Trivia: A Gallup Poll during World War II showed 71 percent of respondents were wiling to give up double features for the duration. Source: Don't You Know There's A War On?, Richard Lingeman.

Currently Reading: Dare, Philip José Farmer.

Tags: movies, old time radio

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