It's in the Bag! (Blu-ray Review)18 Feb, 2013 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Don Ameche, Robert Benchley, Binnie Barnes, William Bendix.
Along with the Crosby-Hope "Road" pictures at Paramount and the even less restrained the Olsen & Johnson teamings over at Universal, this very loose take on the source Russian novel that also inspired Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs messily detonates the fourth wall as part of its uncommonly modern for the time (as opposed to typically 1940s) approach to screen comedy.
In what is arguably, by default, his signature movie role, onetime radio titan and future “What’s My Line?” panelist Fred Allen plays a flea circus proprietor who quickly dumps the chairs a murdered rich relative has bequeathed him. Then, almost immediately, he learns that one of them contains $300,000 — which, among many other things, will allow his daughter to wed the son of a secret wage slave who puts on airs (Robert Benchley, in one of a slew of films he made shortly before his death seven months after Bag! was released). It's the manner in which Allen gets the news that suggests just how loopy this movie is: The message is conveyed courtesy of a 78 bootleg of “Sunday, Monday or Always” (Frank Sinatra version, which sold less than Bing Crosby’s) — with the crucial info delivered on the B-side by the victim himself, basically from the grave. From this scene alone, it’s tempting to call Bag! the wackiest movie of its year — though remember that 1945 also gave us Fred MacMurray and all those haystack hillbillies in Murder He Says, including two we see Marjorie Main flailing with a whip.
Bag! is too much of a kitchen-sink enterprise to rise above a certain level. There's no literal sink, as it happens, though a brass band does get shoehorned into the proceedings. But it won’t exactly bowl anyone over to learn that this childhood favorite of mine has also engendered some affection from Leonard Maltin and Martin Scorsese — predominantly for the singular scene in which Allen and wife (Binnie Barnes) go to the ultimate in the era's deluxe cinemas and practically end up surrounded by clouds in the nosebleed section. I also like the way Allen insults virtually everyone on the movie’s production staff while caustically reciting their names during the opening credits — also his mid-movie encounter with archrival Jack Benny (a mock-feud from their radio days) when Allen discovers that the comic has come into possession of one of the chairs. When Allen goes to Benny’s apartment closet to hang up his coat, he’s greeted by a hatcheck girl (and her fee). The same goes for a cigarette vending machine when Allen accepts his host’s offer of a smoke.
Somehow, Rudy Vallee fits into all this, as do Don Ameche, Jerry Colonna, John Carradine and Sidney Toler without his Charlie Chan makeup. An independent production filmed on the cheap, Bag! doesn't necessarily seem like a natural for Blu-ray treatment — though it's a clean enough job to make me wish for a home release of 1948's cult kindred spirit So This Is New York, which I suspect also must be in the package of United Artists indie holdings to which Olive Films has access.