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Humorist Henry Morgan leads an eclectic cast in the off-the-wall 1948 comedy SO THIS IS NEW YORK, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment
Humorist Henry Morgan leads an eclectic cast in the off-the-wall 1948 comedy SO THIS IS NEW YORK, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment
(c) Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment

SO THIS IS NEW YORK

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Even without Congress, this has been a terrific year for comedy fans – particularly movie comedy collectors. And, it seems, the hits just keep on coming. Having set this mirthful scene via the above opening statement, I now heartily announce the Blu-Ray (and DVD) release of the wonderful (albeit obscure) 1948 laff-riot gem SO THIS IS NEW YORK, recently made available via the groovy folks at Olive Films//Paramount Home Entertainment.

This rarely seen classic has been a favorite of mine ever since I first saw it on TV throughout the 1960s. Unfortunately, its lack of big-name stars, its low-budget limitations, its being in black-and-white (blah-blah-blah) caused it to be banished to oblivion, leaving only my cobwebbed-cake Havishamian memories.

Actually, the behind-the-scene credentials are quite high-profile and deserve mentioning. The movie, an adaptation of Ring Lardner's satiric novel The Big Town, was coauthored by Carl Foreman and Herbert Baker. Foreman, best-known as a writer for Stanley Kramer (Home of the Brave, The Men, High Noon), before being blacklisted (coming back big time with The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone) had quite an ear for cynical dialog (to say nothing of that embryonic celluloid masterpiece Spooks Run Wild). Baker was a full-blown ace when it came to farce, gags and buffoonery, penning a number of Martin & Lewis titles, including Jumping Jacks and Artists and Models; his deserved ascension to the pratfall pantheon would be his script for Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

As for the aforementioned Kramer – this was his first picture as a producer, and quite a praiseworthy one, if I do say so myself (and I will). With a nothing budget, he achieved a fairly opulent look (drolly relying upon decomposing stock footage, vintage stills and simple but hugely effective camera trickery). The cinematographer was none other John L. Russell (billed as Jack Russell, later to do minimum budgetary wonders for Hitchcock on Psycho). The intentionally overdone bombastic music was composed by soon-to-be-dean of 1950s hit movie soundtracks Dimitri Tiomkin. Most importantly, the dark, sardonic humor brought forward with enthusiastic panache, represented the directorial debut of noir expert Richard Fleischer (billed as Richard O. Fleischer, and with more than a snarky nod to his dad's surreal and often disturbing pre-Code Paramount cartoonery). If one needs anymore badass participation, Fleischer was aided by assistant director Robert Aldrich. This is certainly not amateur night.

The previously indicated cast, while not A-picture status, was been cherry-picked from a splendid array of popular character folk. The male lead was then rising radio humorist Henry Morgan, whose greatest fame would come a decade later as one of the permanent panelists on TV's What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret (it was Morgan's prominence that forced M*A*S*H/Dragnet actor Henry Morgan to change his name to Henry “Harry” Morgan – and then simply to Harry Morgan). Besides a guest shot as himself (in 1959's It Happened to Jane), Morgan's only other large-screen bid (indeed in CinemaScope) was as the surprisingly hard-boiled prosecutor Burton Turkus in the brutal 1960 crime drama Murder, Inc.

Thus, as one might suspect, SO THIS IS NEW YORK is a nasty but consistently hilarious look at a suddenly nouveau-riche Midwestern family’s journey to the title hamlet, in search of a suitable suitor for Morgan's sister-in-law, the luscious and eternally pouty Dona Drake, who, for my dough, put Dorothy Lamour to shame in Road to Morocco (Drake is forever etched in my brain as the leader of an all-female aircraft work force in 1942's Star Spangled Rhythm, spectacularly displaying her leggy charms in 1940s hot pants and straddling a fuselage while warbling “I'm Doing It For Defense.” No wonder we won!). It's a prime example of players getting played – with the guffaws coming from the get-go and never letting up until the fade-out. Morgan's wife, played with great aplomb by the terrific actress Virginia Grey, has many of the pic's quotable punchlines, one literally (and physically) painful. Added to this merry mix is a marvelous gallery of familiar faces who pop up throughout the proceedings, including Arnold Stang, Frank Orth, William Bakewell and Will Wright.

In a nutshell, the plot, opening in the post-war America of 1918, concerns the inherited wealth of the Finches. Their good fortune is the fortuitous result of the unexpected death of a meat-packing relative, whose demise curtailed his expansive dream of “selling baloney to the country.”

Finch, who still works at a penny-pinching cigar company, takes time off to assist his wife in marrying (well, pimping) Drake to the highest bidder. This disturbs the hormonious lass, as she pines for local dullard butcher Dave Willock, whose sausage-filling expertise is doubly desired by the burger-meister’s resident panting vamp assistant.

Almost immediately (in fact, on the New York-bound train), the Finches’ wishes are fulfilled by meeting the first of four potential breeders, aging stockbroker Jerome Cowan. Aging is the operative word in SO THIS IS NEW YORK, since the metropolis is depicted as nothing less than a brothel for privileged, dithering, old white dudes. Cowan, who redefines the phrase “Wolf of Wall Street,” wastes no time springing into action – one that ends with an abrupt slapstick encounter of the Jack Dempsey kind in a hotel room.

Old money valiantly attempts to rear its decrepit head with their second selection, barely breathing millionaire Hugh Herbert (referred to as the ancient mariner). One choice moment is when Morgan and Herbert engage in a game of dice. “Faded!” shouts Morgan, who then apologetically adds, “No offense.”

Herbert's revived loins result in a Hawaiian luau for two in his sprawling apartment, replete with native musicians and dancers. An impressed Drake is about to let him seal the deal when Herbert's never-mentioned battle-axe wife returns unannounced from an elephant hunt.

Third up is too-good-to-be-true Southern race horse fancier, slurped with perfection by a honey-tongued Rudy Vallee. Deceptively, we are led to believe that Vallee is merely reprising his Preston Sturges impersonation from The Palm Beach Story. Alas, t’aint so. Whilst this romance is fermenting (and I DO mean fermenting), Drake is getting it on the side from Sid Mercer, Vallee's drunken primo jockey – an amazing performance by Leo Gorcey (near the end of a period where his weight still allowed him to play jockeys).

A soused and besotted Gorcey reveals Vallee's evil plans to Morgan during a drinking session at a local Bowery pub. Smooth talker Vallee is, in actuality, a penniless louse, i.e., an admirable cretin who plans to seduce Drake and throw Morgan and Grey into the nearest stable manure pile. To prove his point, Gorcey supplies Morgan with insider information about an upcoming fixed race, and, when next we see Vallee, he’s being violently escorted off-screen by a pair of unscrupulous cohorts.

The final jerk is middle-aged never-was Ziegfeld flop banana Bill Goodwin. The flea-bitten comic feigns untold coin (changing his Ziggy salary every time he opens his pie-hole). Goodwin, looking for the golden fleece, cons the Finches into funding his god-awful play – a hoary Victorian holdover entitled Bridget Sees a Ghost. The plum pudding of the deal is that Drake will star as the title ectoplasm-plagued viewer – the servant of a wrecked family who appears throughout adorned in a skimpy maid's outfit (a superb outlet for enjoying the actress’s formidable gams). What makes this segment the piece de resistance (at least for me) is its devastating take on New York theatre critics, basically seen as three personifications of senility. While the terrible histrionics unfold onstage, the movie cuts to the city's top trio of noted scribes in the audience: one maniacally tries to master a cat's cradle ball of string; another is diddling an underaged girl and the third remains unconscious, slumped in his seat.

Suffice to say, Bridget is deader than the ghost, and with their inheritance now depleted, the Finches face their worst-case scenario, having to “live in New York the rest of our lives!” Only the arrival of the reluctant Willock suggests a likely positive alternative – and I won't say more.

SO THIS IS NEW YORK is the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. My fond memories justified, this movie gets better with every screening. Fleischer's direction is spot-on, rife with inventive touches that include (then unusual) slow-motion and freeze-frames. Bolstering the visual laughs is the cynical script, bursting with terse one-liners. I earlier mentioned Preston Sturges, and this movie could be the greatest Sturges picture he never directed. No doubt, Vallee's casting was due to his earlier-mentioned appearance in The Palm Beach Story. I wonder if the celebrated motion-picture satirist ever saw this pic (I pretty much figure he must have, or at least would like to think he did). Some of the prose smacks of his wit and genius – specifically the motto of skinflint-run tobacco company where Morgan is employed: “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke!” (Shades of Christmas in July). Another bon mot occurs when Grey goads her spouse into the big-town trek (“Your idea of a good time is taking off your shoes!”). Unquestionably methinks Morgan had more than an uncredited hand in the screenplay.

The idea of average smarty-pants folks trying to game a rigged system was likewise exploited in 1945's It's in the Bag, another dark comedy with wacky, sinister guest stars (one, coincidentally, being Vallee) and also featuring a renowned humorist in the lead (Fred Allen). It's the perfect companion piece to SO THIS IS NEW YORK (both are available through Olive Films).

Excluding some minor imperfections, the Blu-Ray of SO THIS IS NEW YORK is (as it should be for the format) razor-sharp with fine contrast (opticals compromise this a tad, but present nothing to complain about). The mono soundtrack is okay-plus, with the opening credits exhibiting a dash of sibilance (which fortunately subsides).

SO THIS IS NEW YORK was one of a slew of amazing movies made by the short-lived company Enterprise Pictures (co-founded by actor John Garfield). Their brief progressive slate of titles, the majority of which were distributed by MGM (much to Louis B. Mayer's horror), included Body and Soul, Force of Evil, de Toth's Ramrod and Ophus' Caught. SO THIS IS NEW YORK would be one of their only two comedies (the other being Lewis Milestone’s truly bizarre No Minor Vices), and, to paraphrase a famous soup slogan, not just mmm-mmm good, but mmm-mmm GREAT! Okay, I didn't mean to compare this movie to a cupboard-friendly canned good, but, that said, it does contain a saucy flavor and, I might add, features quite a tomato.

SO THIS IS NEW YORK. Black and white. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition. Mono: DTS-HD MA. UPC: 887090078603. Cat #: OF786. SRP: $29.95.

Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090078504. Cat #: OF785. SRP: $24.95.