Judge Gordon Sullivan only whistles in the shower.
Gals, gags and gunmen…in a grand uproarious fun show!
Red Skelton seems like a kind of anti-Orson Welles to me. Both were rather moonfaced young men who got their start on the stage and went on to great success in radio. With film, however, their paths diverged. Where Orson Welles went on to make Citizen Kane and then struggle to finish a personal project for the rest of his life, Skelton opted to play light comedy, his popularity growing and ultimately culminating in several popular TV shows. His most famous creation, Freddie the Freeloader, comes from that TV era, so it's that character that most people know him by. But a decade or two earlier he was more famous as The Fox, a radio detective Skelton played in a series of pictures. Now, the Warner Archive is releasing those three films in one package for fans to enjoy.
The Red Skelton Whistling Collection includes three films on three discs:
• Whistling in the Dark features Skelton as Wally Benton, a.k.a. The Fox, a radio detective who can solve even the most perfect crime (because he also makes them up). When the heir to an old lady's fortune gets in the way of a cult (led by Conrad Veidt of Casablanca and The Thief of Bagdad fame) that wants the money, they decide to kidnap Wally so he can plan the perfect murder for them. Hijinks naturally ensue.
• Whistling in Dixie finds Wally on his honeymoon down in Dixie, where he's asked to help an old friend of his wife solve a murder. There's also a search for Confederate gold and a haunted mansion to keep the Fox on his toes.
• Whistling in Brooklyn features Wally running from the cops, as they've become convinced that he's a murderer. On the run, Wally must avoid the cops and the real killer, and solve the crimes before someone else ends up dead.
Red Skelton is one of the most talented physical comedians to ever grace the screen, large or small. His face was like putty, his body completely under his control, and his voice capable of sounds that would kill most people's vocal cords. Wally Benton, his radio/film hybrid, is a loveable creation who mixes criminal sophistication with a naive, almost bumpkin attitude towards the world. It's a strange contrast, but Skelton makes it work. He gets to be witty and crack wise, but his somehow dimwitted persona allows for a lot of silly reactions and slapstick comedy.
The stories themselves are a mixed bag. The premises are pretty funny, but the actual execution is full of obvious plot turns and very little mystery. Of course that's not really the point. These plots are really just skeletons to hang the comedy on. In that way they very much hearken back to stage comedy. We've got people going in and out of doors, sight gags, slapstick, the whole works. It would be tired except Skelton and crew are such professionals that they make these old vaudeville gags seem fresh.
To these films' credit, they know not to overstay their welcome. Each clocks in around 80 minutes, and they each keep the gags and plot points flying fast and thick. They feel almost like slightly enlarged television episodes rather than films. The quick pace and short length make these films even easier to recommend to fans of stage comedy because, even if they're not perfect, they don't stick around very long.
The Red Skelton Whistling Collection is part of the Warner Archives series. This is a collection of films that probably wouldn't sell well enough to justify a full-blown clean up and the production of extras. Instead, the company makes digital transfers of obscure films in the catalog and provides them in an on-demand package with minimal restoration or extras. Fans get movies that would otherwise never see release, while the company gets to make a little profit on marginal titles. These films are a great fit for the collection, since Skelton has a decent following but these are obscure entries in his catalog. Considering their age and the minimal restoration work, these films look good. There's definitely some print damage, and a bit too much grain in places, but black levels are pretty good and contrast seems appropriate. All are presented with mono soundtracks, and they sound pretty good for their age. No serious hiss or distortion get in the way of the dialogue or music. Although there are no serious extras, the inclusion of the films' trailers is a nice touch.
Fans of Skelton, vaudeville, and clowning will probably find something to enjoy in these Whistling films. Although there are no extras and the films have been only minimally restored, this Warner Archive release is a great way to experience these long-lost Skelton flicks.
The Fox isn't fooling anyone these days, but these films are not guilty.
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