First Time, The (DVD Review)31 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Sony Choice Collection
Stars Robert Cummings, Barbara Hale.
I used to think that Robert Montgomery was the best light comedian in Hollywood history next to Cary Grant, but the more I watch Bob Cummings — including some recent fun with old “Love That Bob” TV episodes (Joi Lansing fans, unite!) — I may be changing my mind. Onetime Warner animator Frank Tashlin’s directorial debut (that is, with human actors) not surprisingly gives Cummings the chance to indulge his farcical/slapstick gifts as well, and this mostly unknown comedy is a certified hoot for all its obscurity, holding up for me on a second viewing after I first caught it last fall. The other thing: I’ve never seen Barbara Hale (aka Della Street on the Raymond Burr “Perry Mason” series) anywhere near this good; she really gets into the spirit of the nuttiness here, which is as substantial as the Tashlin credit portends.
The director is best identified with the delirious widescreen color schemes of his two VistaVision Martin & Lewis and two CinemaScope Jayne Mansfield vehicles, but here he’s working modestly in black-and-white for a movie that gives (though this isn’t necessarily advertised) almost as telling a view of what life must have been like for young marrieds who are barely making it as the Ruth Gordon-Garson Kanin-George Cukor The Marrying Kind, which Columbia Pictures also released the same year. This one, though, has more of a suburban bent, with Cummings driving a 1941 vehicle (as Jonathan Winters would term it) without there being as yet (unless I overlooked it) a TV in the house. Most of the couple’s money goes toward the money pit that children have always been, and the movie offers some keen insights into domestic life minus the convenience factor that modern gadgetry affords (of course, you still have to be able to afford the gadgets). The male child is actually the story’s narrator, but this device isn’t as precious as it sounds or might have been. Think of this as the baby version of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with a diaper service tab substituted for the Zuzz-Zuzz Water Softener Cary Grant has to buy.
The script, which Tashlin helped write, has some inspired lunacy, including a scene where Cummings mistakenly picks up the wrong babysitter out of a bus stop crowd after a young teenager thrown into to service and later her grandmother proved to be less than ideal choices. The passenger is played by Jean Willes — who, like another featured player here, Virginia Christine, would later be a pod victim in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Willes gets in the car assuming she’s a stray pickup for a dinner and who-knows-what-else, which sets up an escalation of miscommunication. Cummings comments that she’s his “third of the night” — noting that the other two were 14 and about 70, to Willes’ quickly mounting horror.
To make ends meet, Cummings lands a job set up by his father-in-law selling dud washing machines at a company where Hale’s father has been forced to suck up to the boss for a quarter century. This leads to one of the movie’s most Tashlin-like scenes in which the by-now work-disgusted Cummings dons an apron and volunteers to act as a housewife during a sales meeting presentation that the boss has rigged to be successful because he won’t challenge the device too much. At this point, his most challenged employee gums up the works by showing the machine to be the lemon it really is by forcing the older martinet to turn on the “high” control. I haven’t made a study of this, but we are probably talking the movies’ most amusing runaway washing machine sequence.
I had always thought Tashlin’s first feature was Son of Paleface, followed by this — but thanks to IMDb.com, just discovered that I had the chronology flipped. Son turned out to be a contender for the funniest picture (or at least non-"Road" picture) of Bob Hope’s career — one that never allowed the comedian to share a bed with Rhonda Fleming, Hedy Lamarr or Madeleine Carroll but did (thanks to Tashlin) permit him to share one with Trigger. Cummings had a solid relationship with Hope during this period as well — guesting successfully on some Hope TV specials and acting as announcer on the 1954 Oscars that Hope emceed (in ’52, the announcing role had gone to Ronald Reagan). The ’54, by the way, is the one where one commercial break went on so long that Hope quipped that his clothes had gone out of style when it finally ended, and NBC cut back to the actual show.