RKO Varieties Triple Feature — Variety Time, Make Mine Laughs, Footlight Varieties (DVD Review)4 Apr, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Jack Paar, Gil Lamb, Liberace, Jack Haley, Leon Errol.
Some people can tell you the names of the utility infielders on all of the St. Louis Browns Triple-A farm teams, while others know who was bass guitarist (before he was replaced) for the third best rock band in 1969 Youngstown. Almost in this class are the moviegoing black-belts familiar with the trio making up this eccentric collection from the Howard Hughes era at RKO, though you probably can’t be a serious fan of Jack Paar — in many ways, my all-time favorite of TV talk-show hosts — if you haven’t seen the two of these that he headlined. This is why, as an early adolescent, I made it a point to see Variety Time (1948) and Footlight Varieties (1951) during their semi-frequent showings on my local NBC affiliate’s 5 p.m. movie matinee, right after school. The middle title here — 1949’s Make Mine Laughs — was nothing more than a name in a book to me because it never showed. Just recently, I finally found out why.
Made up of nooks/crannies film clips from the feature and short subject vaults — plus fresh material (term used loosely) and strung together by an emcee’s patter — these hour-long revues were both a lament for long dead vaudeville and an embrace of that pesky new medium (television) that was making life miserable for studios and exhibitors. Whatever else you want to say, they made cheaply acquired second features for the theater owner who needed something to boost the take of the latest Wendell Corey outing — and, later, a picture that would fit comfortably into a 90-minute TV slot without having to undergo any trimming (in most cases, local station film editing departments simply lopped off the first 12 or 15 minutes of their library titles; we aren’t talking Dede Allen here). In my case, my Channel 4 movie matinee could run them complete and still have time for one of the hometown announcers to come on for 20 minutes or more to hawk the latest pastels from a popular paint store and the roller that could slather it on one’s guest room walls.
More often than not, Paar seems uncomfortable and even embarrassed in Time and Varieties (the former was his screen debut in a five-title big-screen career, though he did get to play opposite a young Marilyn Monroe in Love Nest over at Fox). In many instances, he’s photographed standing on stage in 1948 or 1951 to introduce a clip from, say, one of Leon Errol’s old RKO comic shorts from an earlier time — just as if that character actor’s farcical goings-on were occurring at the same time. Then Paar has to lead the audience in phony applause when the skit is over (kind of like Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert speaking to an empty House on C-SPAN) — be it one featuring Errol, an exotic dancer or the kind of three-person novelty acts that TV viewers were already seeing Ed Sullivan host on "Toast of the Town."
This was all a long way from Paar later taking over the "Tonight" show from Steve Allen or interviewing the likes of Richard Burton, Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Oscar Levant on the fabulous Friday night hour of urbanity than he ring-mastered in the early-to-mid 1960s after getting off the late-night treadmill. If you want to split hairs, I suppose Time gives Paar better standup material, while Varieties (well served here by a very good print) boasts a better guest list that includes Red Buttons standup and even Liberace. In patented “Lee” fashion, the latter serves up an equitable playlist: a classical number followed by some boogie-woogie slumming for the patrons in the second balcony (though I doubt this picture ever played a theater that had a second balcony).
The odd movie out here is Make Mine Laughs — directed by, of all people, The Vikings’ Richard Fleischer back when he was briefly billed as Richard O. Fleischer). Hosting duties in this one go to the aggressively unfunny Gil Lamb, a comic actor I recall from 1942’s The Fleet’s In (one of the few, to be sure, William Holden musicals). Here, as with the Paar duo, I kept wondering about the likelihood that RKO (especially with Hughes then at the helm) paid any residuals to at least the bigger names whose archival material he was recycling. The answer to this question explains why I never got to see Laughs as a kid: In a kind of Wizard of Oz one-two punch, Jack Haley and Ray Bolger successfully sued the studio for purloining their old footage — something you’d have to think that even the least savvy storefront lawyer in 1850 Kokomo would have seen coming. As a result, Laughs was pulled out of circulation in 1951, which may explain why the same year’s Varieties depends far less on older footage. I’m not sure if all three of these oddities proved profitable, but (quoting “modern sources”) the AFI Catalog for the 1940s claims that Variety Time brought in $132,000 on a production cost ($51,000) that likely wouldn’t even pay for a leading man’s truss today.
I’m not sure where all this legal skirmishing left Frankie Carle, who appears in all three films courtesy of recycled clips — a nod to the band-leading pianist’s significant popularity in the 1940s. (I can almost swear that the parents of half of my childhood friends owned 78 albums by Carle — even if they were relegated to the basement, along with canned goods stockpiled in case of nuclear attack fallout, once 45s came in.) But he lived to be 98, so any possible financial shafting of him couldn’t have done too much harm.