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Inspector General, The: Collector’s Edition (DVD Review)

10 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory
$19.97 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Danny Kaye, Walter Slezak, Barbara Bates, Gene Lockhart.

The vintage Warner Bros. package of pre-1949 releases got sold to TV much sooner than counterparts produced by Danny Kaye’s home studio Goldwyn (which was last of the majors to sell, in either ’59 or ‘60). As a result, this Technicolor farce set in 18th-century Hungary was the only Kaye vehicle conveniently around when the then novelty of seeing major vintage films engendered the so-called movie generation of boomers. I can remember General showing frequently as part of the gargantuan Warners package when I was a kid — and also remember that at some long ago point, it descended into “public domain hell.” This means that for decades — other than in a said-to-be-splendid 2000 Roan Group version that’s now not easy to find (or at least cheaply) — its former Technicolor visages have been degraded in wretched prints.

Per usual when this kind of thing happens, you can probably blame expired underlying literary rights; the movie is a farcical riff on a play by Ukraine-born Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, who lived from 1809-52. Less a case of Gogol’s great-great descendants being all that difficult to track down to crack a deal, it’s more likely that the time, effort and expense weren’t worth it to pave the way for better prints when so many rotten (but less expensive ones) have flooded the market for decades. In any event, Shout! Factory’s unexpected gift is quite a nice salvation job — much akin to its earlier two volumes of Bob Hope comedies that had looked and sounded rotten for so many years.

Reaction to Hungary-set General has always been all over the place. When I was in elementary school and first learning about the movies, it was said by many to be prime Kaye material — whereas contemporary reaction is more down-to-earth and in some cases negative. I’m kind of in the middle: its mistaken identity hook — illiterate gypsy peddler of fake medicine is thought to be Napoleon’s prime sleuth of municipal theft, graft and corruption — is definitely in the Kaye wheelhouse. He’s not playing a dual role here as in On the Riviera and On the Double, or multiple roles as in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But he is a meek persona who takes on the manner of someone more aggressive (think The Court Jester), and there are some ticklish moments even if some of Sylvia Kaye’s prototypical production numbers for her husband go on too long. This said, I did crack up during one of them when Kaye did an unexpected musical takeoff on Decca 1940s’ hit-makers the Ink Spots — who, speaking of wheelhouses, were probably not in Nikolai Gogol’s.

There’s quite a bit of comic business here before Kaye even makes his first appearance here, and this is one movie where there’s more than expected amusement right from the get-go thanks to, off all things, the makeup on Walter Slezak (slimy fellow peddler), Gene Lockhart (slimy mayor) and Alan Hale Sr. (Lockhart subordinate but always too likable a presence ever to be characterized as slimy). Two future Jerry Lewis co-stars are in the cast as well: the great Elsa Lanchester (Lewis would attempt shaving the bearded lady she plays in 3 Ring Circus as he sings the old “To Look Sharp” Gillette jingle) and tragic Barbara Bates, who played Lewis’s girlfriend in The Caddy and also made an appearance on the long VHS/DVD available Muscular Dystrophy special that originally aired on ABC the night before Thanksgiving, 1953. Bates, who also has a memorable crowning bit at the end of All About Eve, was never comfortable in Hollywood and later committed suicide in the garage of her mother’s home.

The DVD includes an obviously rare 1938 comic short about life insurance (Money on Your Life) that features Kaye about three years before even his pre-Goldwyn Broadway breakthrough in Lady in the Dark. There are also some of director Henry Koster’s home movies (narrated by his son, Robert) on the set of General. The senior Koster, said to have been a jokester, was no auteur — but in a five-year period following General did manage to direct (among others) two Betty Grable musicals, James Stewart and Josephine Hull’s Oscar-winning performance in Harvey, Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in No Highway in the Sky, Richard Burton’s breakthrough in My Cousin Rachel, Victor Mature out-acting Burton in The Robe, Brando in Desiree and A Man Called Peter. You figure this is a guy who had to have a yarn or two.

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