Appellate Judge James A. Stewart likes six-inch subs.
"Oh, Ben, we're going to have a baby!"
Ben Dobson (Red Skelton, Public Pigeon No. One) is a writer for Everyone's magazine, which boasts a circulation of four million readers. He's also living in a cramped New York City apartment with his wife Martha (Jean Hagen, Singin' in the Rain) who announces she's pregnant. It's not long before she's itching to leave the city and move to Williams Landing, one of those "postwar housing developments," or as Ben's editor puts it, "The slums of tomorrow." Ben's about to be welcomed to 1950s suburbia by the "Welcome to Town Lady" and a lot of bills that'll drain his bank account.
Half a Hero feels a little bit like the movie version of a late-1950s Mad magazines, poking fun at everything from pre-natal vitamins and real estate pitches, to the beginning of credit and debt culture. At the same time, you see little glimpses of the '50s lifestyle: television is a newfangled luxury, cocktails before dinner, restaurants bringing telephones to the table, and a magazine that sounds like The Saturday Evening Post. Ben takes his wife to an old-fashioned nightclub, where Polly Bergen (The Winds of War) just happens to be crooning. It's a witty movie, but feels dated, which lends it an air of nostalgia or kitsch…depending on your point of view.
I watched this as a double-feature with The Great Diamond Robbery and, while it's still recognizably Red Skelton, his Ben Dobson isn't just Ambrose with a new name and situation. While Ambrose was an innocent, Ben's a scrappy grumpy reporter who sees straight off that a "Welcome to Town Lady" is just a local business ploy and grows frustrated with everything from mounting expenses to a banging radiator. There are pratfalls, as Ben knocks over a watercooler and fumbles with a curtain he's hanging, but it's Skelton's characterization that carries the movie. It helps that he has a good foil in Jean Hagen; she never lets a little debt get her down and must have the latest and greatest, whether it's a diet supplement or a washing machine. Also look for the late Frank Cady (Green Acres) in a small part.
Presented in standard definition 1.37:1 full frame, the transfer exhibits some flecks and flaws, but nothing that prevents us from enjoying the movie. The Dolby 2.0 Mono mix is adequate. Just remember, this a Warner Archives release, so it might not play in some DVD players. The lone bonus feature is a theatrical trailer, full of Skelton's pratfalls and blowups.
By the end, Skelton's Ben comes around to actually liking suburbia. While this plot development blunts some of the gags, it's no surprise. After all, Half a Hero is a product of a kinder, gentler era. It's not a bad movie, but some viewers might grow impatient with the once-topical take on suburban life.
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