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Southern Yankee, A (DVD Review)

16 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$17.95 DVD-R
Not rated.
Stars Red Skelton, Brian Donlevy, Arlene Dahl.

Although I’ve always had a soft spot for Red Skelton’s 1940-43 comic/mystery “Whistling” series, which Warner Archive was gracious enough to release in a three-title box a while back, 1948 was arguably the peak of the comic’s spotty big-screen career. It produced a big hit (The Fuller Brush Man) over at Columbia on a studio loan-out — as well as this agreeable Civil War farce from home-base MGM, some of whose gags are said to have been dreamed up by someone who knew a thing or twelve about Civil War comedies.

This would be Buster Keaton, who — at a time when he really needed it — was apparently employed by Metro to pump up laugh quotients from time to time. What he and credited director Edward Sedgwick had here was a Harry Tugend script taken from a story by frequent Bob Hope writers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank — the result being a very Hope-like vehicle in which a St. Louis bellhop (sub-category: idiot) is mistaken to be a Confederate spy. In the process, this Skelton character has to memorize the location on his person of fake battle plans and further instructions – resulting in a scene that is very much a brother (certainly, it’s more than a first cousin) to Danny Kaye’s “vessel in the pestle” classic from The Court Jester, which Panama and Frank later co-wrote and directed.

Almost inevitably, the situation gets Skelton involved with a beautiful Southern spy played by Arlene Dahl, whose casting mistakenly caused me to remember that this movie was in Technicolor (the only other time I’d seen it was maybe 50 years ago when even color movies got shown on TV in black-and-white). The latter process, of course, allows the picture to dwell in Matthew Brady-ville, though a lot of it takes place indoors and not on the battlefield (at least until the later going). According to the 1940s edition of the invaluable AFI Catalog, the movie had some strange goings-on behind the camera. Apparently, frequent Skelton director S. Sylvan Simon filmed a lot of it, but the official credit went to Sedgwick, who had done some of the rough-going MGM early talkies with Keaton — but also done the star’s splendid 1928’s late silent The Cameraman, which needn’t apologize to anyone. The other weird thing the AFI entry said quotes Tugend as having claimed that Skelton “dogged it” during production because he didn’t want to make this movie and hoped that MGM would release him from his contract.

This is tough to figure because there is almost no one I know who doesn’t rate Yankee as one of Skelton’s best vehicles, a movie where star persona, subject matter and co-stars blend quite harmoniously over 90 minutes that don’t wear out their welcome. The time that Skelton should have wanted out of his studio contract was in the 1950s, when he got stuck in comedies like Half a Hero and The Great Diamond Robbery (both new Warner Archive releases as well) that ended up with abbreviated ‘B’-movie running times and, in fact, played the bottom of the bill in some engagements. One always got the sense that the heart of then MGM production chief Dore Schary wasn’t really in Red Skelton comedies as much as say, an Executive Suite or Blackboard Jungle.

As for any Keaton connection, the great man’s name appears nowhere in the credits, but there are a few sequences where one wouldn’t exactly be struck dead to hear specifically that Keaton had done them. One of my favorites, which I remember from childhood, is the one where Skelton carries a two-sided flag (with the Confederate one facing Southerners and vice versa) down a path the middle of where opposing armies are aimed at each other and shooting. Then the wind changes.

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