MICHAEL H. PRICE: How Doooo You Do!!!
The rubber-reality phenomenon that one takes for granted in the animated cartoons and a good many comics seldom crosses over into live-action cinema, CGI and/or the influence of David Lynch notwithstanding. A low-rent music-and-slapstick comedy from 1945 called How Doooo You Do!!! makes for a striking exception and bears recalling here, in the context of a series devoted to stalking the pop-cultural borderlands in search of – well, of whatever oddities might turn up. No shortage of those, if one knows where to go prowling.
No entertainer seems to have more fun and less sustained success in appearing before the cameras than the radio gimmick-comic Bert Gordon (1895–1974). Gordon’s presence lay primarily in a persuasive and memorable voice (rather like the once-ubiquitous Paul Frees, of a somewhat later day). Gordon’s big-screen starring career consisted largely of false starts and commercial misfires. He had become so successful, however, as a supporting-act broadcast player – a regular with Eddie Cantor, from 1930 on through the ’40s – that the movies seemed a logical next step for a decade-and-change, progressing from supporting parts to attempted stardom.
Ralph Murphy’s How Doooo You Do!!! takes its title from Gordon’s signature-phrase. Nobody, but nobody, could intone that commonplace platitude, “How do you do?” with the style or the passion of Bert Gordon. In his radio-program guise of the Mad Russian (sometimes known as Boris Rascalnikoff), Gordon transformed the offhand question into the most emphatic of exclamations, a sustained marvel of escalating double-O’s that could move a studio audience to applause before he could complete the phrase. Sometimes, he would worry the first do into submission; on other occasions, the second, like a jazzman milking the improvisational possibilities from some nursery-rhyme melody.
This indelible signature-line was the most logical of titles, then, for a Gordon-starring picture – and in fact, the less imaginatively transcribed How Do You Do? had been the work-in-progress title of a 1942 Columbia comedy that got released as Laugh Your Blues Away, with Gordon and Jinx Falkenberg.
If any corporate-Hollywood studio was attuned to Gordon’s more eccentric tastes, it had to be Producers Releasing Corp. – better known by its initials, which the less charitable cineastes among us might hold to stand for “Pretty Rotten Crap.” Anyhow, PRC Pictures (better known for its horse-operas, rudimentary noirs, and mad-doctor chillers) seems precisely the right studio to have given Gordon and his radio-show accomplices free rein. And precisely the wrong studio to be taken earnestly in such an endeavor by the critics or the paying customers.
The film plants Gordon and fellow radio personality Harry von Zell amidst their own broadcasting culture. Exhausted by the radio-show grind, Gordon and von Zell (playing themselves, in broad strokes) retreat to a desert resort lodge. Two other associates, Cheryl Walker and Claire Windsor, arrive on their own in a similar quest for serenity. Neither party is aware of the other’s presence until von Zell spots the women and panics: Von Zell’s wife suspects an adulterous affair between von Zell and Walker. Meanwhile, Gordon’s over-amorous co-star, Ella Mae Morse, has trailed him to the retreat.
One night, Morse overhears a ruckus from some other suite. Next morning, the troupers find themselves under house arrest by a grouchy sheriff (Charles “Ming The Merciless” Middleton, Old Hollywood’s most nearly perfect hand at droll intimidation). Mayhem is afoot, and the victim appears to have been a well-despised show-biz agent named Thornton.
The corpse goes missing, only to be rediscovered, lost again, found again, and so forth. Walker finds herself accused. Von Zell supplies her with an alibi that can only mean trouble if-and-when his wife learns of it. Gordon cables several actor chums – guys who have played detectives in various moving pictures – to come solve the case; they serve only to confuse the issue. Finally, the sheriff pegs the hotel manager as the culprit, even as Claire Windsor comes forth with a confession. The manager (Francis Perliot) proves by the oddest irrelevant coincidence to be Windsor’s father.
The deliberately dingbat story peaks – or does it? – when the purported victim turns up, alive and well, accompanied by a physician (Sidney Marion) who attributes the seeming demise to an experimental drug. The doctor has been moving the comatose patient from place to place in an attempt to keep the treatment a secret.
Where upon the picture ends – or does it? The camera draws back to reveal that the entire misadventure has been a movie, being viewed by Bert Gordon, Harry von Zell, and their producers. One of the studio chiefs declares that this film does not bear releasing, arguing that the victim should have proved genuinely croaked. Gordon orders that the closing moments of the picture be re-screened. When the image of the revived “victim” reappears, Gordon produces a gun and opens fire on the on-screen character, thus rendering the film fit for distribution. Or not.
Strange is too bland a descriptive term for How Doooo You Do!!! even though the picture’s engagingly bizarre awareness-of-self is hardly an innovation – and even though director Ralph Murphy and screenwriters Harry Sauber and Joseph Carole play things matter-of-factly, allowing the genial strangeness of Gordon’s presence to steer the course. (Gordon’s shtik had been caricatured beyond its built-in extremes on screen just a year earlier in Bob Clampett’s Hare Ribbin’, a Warner-toons short subject pitting Bugs Bunny against a Mad Russian sound-alike, voiced by Sammy Wolfe.)
The similarly offbeat comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chick Johnson had long since covered similar film-within-film turf in 1941’s Hellzapoppin’, a drastically cinematic reworking of their like-titled Broadway revue. And even How Doooo’s aggressively romantic portrayal by the comedian-and-singer Ella Mae Morse derives patently from a role played by Martha Raye in Hellzapoppin’.
But then, How Doooo You Do!!! allows vastly more time to elapse before it reveals itself as a movie that (per the crackpot logic of the script) has yet to be released. At 81 minutes in length, the picture is a good third of an hour longer than the typical PRC entry. A lengthy out-of-character prologue serves to acquaint the viewer with the radio-broadcasting milieu. Gordon’s summoning of a handful of movie-detective actor chums (including Keye Luke, of Fox’s Charlie Chan series and Monogram Pictures’ final Mr. Wong picture) provides an eventful detour that functions more as movie-buff pandering than as ordinary padding.
PRC’s confidence in this How Doooo (as seen in the overgenerous running time, which cranked not only the budget but also the per-reel rate of taxation) seems to have been in vain. The picture never caught on as anything more than a double-bill programmer, and even a surprisingly favorable review from the tradepaper Variety came five months too late to lend much momentum.
Variety, incidentally, noted that the film “isn’t Gordon’s first [far from it] but gives him one of his better efforts.” This “better effort” proved to be the Mad Russian’s last turn as a movie player. Gordon resurfaced before the cameras 19 years later with a one-shot appearance on network teevee’s The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Co-author of The Prowler and the forthcoming horrific graphic novel Fishhead, Michael H. Price claims a movies-and-comics pedigree via blood-kin ties with Vincent Price (1911–93) and Mad magazine’s Roger Price (1918–90). MHP’s movie commentaries can be found at The Fort Worth Business Pressand at SciFi And Horror.com.