Saturday, September 2, 2017
Vera Vague: Doctor, Feel My Pulse is vintage Columbia comedy
Review by Doug Gibson
As part of our infrequent, but consistent series that highlight the "other stars" of the Columbia comedy shorts, we bring you Barbara Jo Allen, otherwise more famously known as Vera Vague. Between 1944 and 1952 Vague made a couple of shorts a year for Jules White's comedy shorts team at Columbia.
"Doctor, Feel My Pulse," is arguably her best short say experts (I've only seen this one), although it isn't one of two later shorts that were actually nominated for short-subject Academy Awards. Allen, a very attractive brunette, created a shrill, spinster character on the radio in the late 1930s. As she moved to film, taking the stage name "Vera Vague,'' her beauty forced producers to make her more of a high-spirited, sometimes neurotic "best friend" and "flirt" in feature films.
White's hiring of her to do Columbia shorts made her the rare female comic lead for a shorts series. As Ted Okuda and Ed Watz note in their book "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," her work suffered due to mediocre scripts and White's tendency toward more violent, male-oriented humor. However, the authors note that "Doctor, Feel My Pulse" is arguably Vague's best short. I've watched it three times and I agree it's a funny, entertaining farce.
Vera Vague, named as such, is a real estate agent, recently married to an attractive husband. Irving, (George Lewis) who tries his best to get a kiss from his wife. The problem is, Vera's a hypochondriac. She even gets the sneezes when she's talking on the phone. While in her office, she mistakes red ink for throat spray, with the resulting "Jules White"-type humor.
Eventually Vera makes her way to a doctor. On the way she develops an eye tic which makes the men she passes on the street into the office think she's coming on to them. It's an amusing, low-key humor scene. There's also a funny passage with comedy veteran Bud Jamison. Eventually, Vera mistakes a loony patient (Jack Norton) for the real doctor, and follows him home to receive some unorthodox treatment.
The real doctor and Vera's husband Irving arrive and discover the chaos. They decide to "teach Vera a lesson." Vera is told she has little time to live. Worse, Irving and Vera's pretty friend Sandra (played by the iconic Christine McIntyre) pretend that they are in love and plan to marry after Vera dies, enjoying her money in the process. Irving and Sandra have quite a kiss, although Vera gets the last kiss with Irving.
I won't give away the final scene but Vague really carries the short, particularly at the end where she effectively ends the two-reeler, taking charge of the action in a manner that would make "Lucy Ricardo" proud. In fact, throughout the short I kept thinking that Vague resembles a lesser version of Lucille Ball. She has that combination of zaniness and demanding total respect despite the absurdity she finds herself in.
In all Vague made 16 two-reel shorts for Columbia. During the filming of "Strife of the Party," (`1944) Vague refused to ever work with director Harry Edwards again. Sadly, the once highly regarded Edwards was battling alcoholism and would eventually be let go. Since Edwards was part of Hugh McCollum's Columbia team, Vague just moved permanently to White's unit. Her two Oscar-nominated shorts are "The Jury Goes Round 'N' Round" (1945) and "Hiss and Yell" (1946). "Doctor, Feel My Pulse" is a remake of "Calling All Doctors," (1937), with Charley Chase. Heine Conklin and Ann Doran join Jamison as uncredited actors in the short.
We're able to see this short via YouTube thanks to Greg Hilbrich, who runs the Columbia Shorts Departments website and has uploaded many Columbia shorts to YouTube via his page "The Shorts Department. We interviewed Greg recently.