Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Harry Langdon, Irene Ryan add comedy to 1940s B-film Hot Rhythm

By Doug Gibson

Hot Rhythm, 1944, Monogram studio, 79 minutes, black and white. Directed by William Beaudine. Starring Dona Drake as Mary Adams, Tim Ryan as Mr. O'Hara, Irene Ryan as Polly Kane, Robert Lowery as Jimmy O'Brien, Harry Langdon as Mr. Whiffle, Sidney Miller as Sammy Rubin, Jerry Cooper as Tommy Taylor, and Robert Kent as Herman Strohbach. Rating: 6.5 stars out of 10.

"Hot Rhythm" is a mostly forgotten poverty-row B feature from the mid 1940s. I was fortunate enough to catch it on Turner Classic Movies recently. Whatever interest remains of it is mainly because if features comedy legend Harry Langdon in a supporting role. Langdon would die in late 1944 and by then his film roles were a mix of starring Columbia comedy shorts and character roles, usually comic, in low-budget features.

As it stands, "Hot Rhythm" is a pleasant time-waster that spoofs the music industry of that era. The plot involves small-scale starlet Dona Drake as "Mary Adams," a young singer with high hopes toiling as a jingles warbler for ads. A very small-scale executive in the music company, Robert Lowery, as "Jimmy O'Brien," falls for her and records a song for her. Because he's inflating his importance to "Mary," Jimmy adds Mary's voice to a well-known band led by "Tommy Taylor" (Jerry Cooper). 

This all leads to chaos as the music's company's blustery owner, "Mr. O'Hara," wonderfully played by Tim Ryan, sends out the recording, then, fearing he's plagiarized, tries to hastily recoup the records. Mary gets fed up with Jimmy's lies, but still kind of likes him. 

Irene Ryan, better known 20 years later as "Granny" on "The Beverly Hillbillies," provides very heavy comic relief as a scatterbrained temporary secretary to Mr. O'Hara, "Polly." Through a series of misadventures, she manages to provide background singing to a song. When Mr. O'Hara is desperately trying to discover Mary Adams' identity, Polly assumes he's talking about her. She's hired and actually gets a record contract. Initially, Polly's singing stinks, but she later delivers a nice, understated version of "The Happiest Girl In the World," justifying her surprising contract.

Irene Ryan is a talented comedian, and she works well with Tim Ryan, who was briefly her real-life husband, but a little of her can go a long way. I'm surprised she never had a career at Columbia as a shorts comedy star. More subtle in his humor than Ryan is the comic legend, Langdon, who plays "Mr. Whiffle," Mr. O'Hara's personal assistant. Langdon's best scene is when he stands in for a medicine tonic ad that won't fizz, then fizzes too much. With perfect comic timing, Langdon reacts to the situation, trying to put the fizzy glass in his suit pockets at one point. In a couple of scenes, Langdon and Irene Ryan use their comic skills to good result.

Alas, this is not a "Harry Langdon film," and his character disappears midway through the film, and does not return.

Dona Drake is a gorgeous actress who sort of resembles Ava Gardner and she has a good singing voice. A couple of the songs include "Where Were You" and "Right Under My Nose." Lowery has middling leading man charisma as her main suitor but there's very little chemistry between the romantic leads. This is mostly Drake's fault; her acting skills are mediocre and she radiates no romantic interest in Lowery.

As mentioned, though, this is a fun film and probably very indicative of the types of movies that one could see prior to the "A" film at the local movie theater 70 years ago. It's lighthearted and doesn't have an ounce of malice in it. Viewers will enjoy Drake's beauty, some good songs as well as the comic skills of Tim Ryan, Harry Langdon and Irene Ryan (Below). 

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