Saturday, January 6, 2018

Pistol Packin' Nitwits -- Harry Langdon's last film

Review by Doug Gibson

I've probably seen "Pistol Packin' Nitwits" (watch above) about 40 times; even though its circulation days are long over. With a YouTube dupe and my own duped DVD, courtesy of a kind fellow Harry Langdon fan, I have easy access to this Columbia comedy short.

There's pathos involved in my interest and fascination. It's sad but compelling. Harry died after completing the film. Although not the last released, this was the final film Harry made. According to his wife, Mabel Langdon, he came home feeling very ill after a day of shooting, citing in particular a soft shoe dance routine he did with co-star El Brendel. (The dance, by the way, is one of the highlights of the short). Watching the dance, you realize it's more or less the last work this comedy genius ever did.

Harry was 60 and there seemed to be a history in his family of dying relatively young. His doctor diagnosed a cerebral hemorrhage, and Harry unfortunately quickly declined, dying on Dec. 22, 1944. Besides Mabel, he was survived by his son, Harry Jr., who still lives and has enjoyed an excellent career as a photographer.

There's another reason I enjoy "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," even though it's far from Harry's best sound short, or even his best Columbia short. It's a wildly free-ranging film, a blunt spoof that's 90 percent western and 10 percent "old-time serial superhero with amazing powers."

The plot: In Hangman's Gulch, Nevada, the beautiful Queenie Lynch (Christine McIntyre) owns Queenie's Place," a saloon. Her future is threatened by thuggish and buffoonish Rawhide Pete (Dick Curtis) who owns the mortgage on the saloon and will foreclose if Queenie won't marry him by midnight. Queenie appeals to the handsome cowboy Jack (Brad King) to help her and he promises to have $2,500 by midnight.

Harry and "Professor" Brendel are grifter salesmen peddling fake cleaning fluid. With Pete as a volunteer, they mistakenly put real axle grease on his clothes and make a huge mess. This so amuses Queenie that she hires the hapless duo to "help run the place." Inside the saloon, Pete, when he isn't falling over and threatening Harry and El Brendel, tries to kill Jack with a gun. In the "superhero" spoof portion of the film, the bullets bounce of the chest of a smiling Jack. Harry and El Brendel think Pete was firing blanks but almost lose their lives learning that he is using real bullets.

The middle portion of the film has two shining moments; the aforementioned soft shoe dance of the comedy duo (see screen shot above) and a solo song, "Father, Dear Father," by McIntyre. She has a beautiful singing voice, as anyone who has seen the Three Stooges short, "Micro-phonies," already knows.

In between are the gag scenes, with El Brendel hitting the jackpot on a machine, Harry avoiding an unfunny stereotypical old cowboy, the duo trying to use a test-your-punching-strength machine to steal the mortgage from Pete, and Pete being generally buffoonish, at one time having a bumblebee fly into his collar.

IMDB incorrectly lists Edward Bernds as the director. It's actually Harry Edwards, a one-time major talent who had sunk to mediocrity by this time. While this is better than a host of Langdon 1940s Columbia efforts, it still suffers from poorly presented gags and editing is poor. An example is inclusion shots of Jack racing on his horse to get back to the saloon. They play to The William Tell Overture but the inserts last about one second and are place clumsily in the film. (Bernds has co-credit with Langdon for the story).

There's a showdown at the end with Jack, Pete, Harry, El Brendel and Queenie. I'll let readers watch the film and be surprised.

As mentioned, I have a fondness for the film. It's quirky and has some good song and dance routines. Harry is funny; El Brendel is less funny but some of the gags work, including the cleaning fluid demonstration and the efforts to rid Pete of the mortgage.

Langdon enjoyed the security of working at Columbia (he called them "O-Ouch-O" comedies). He was looking his age, though, and starting to get overshadowed in shorts by lesser talents, such as El Brendel and even Elsie Ames. On the other hand, he was working in B movies, as well as sometimes on the stage and writing. This was the happiest time of his life, with a comfortable home, a loving wife and a son growing up.

Both Edwards and El Brendel only lasted about a year with Columbia after "Pistol Packin' Nitwits." Although Curtis died at 49 in 1952 of pneumonia, he made about 250 films, and was active in Columbia shorts as well as early television. McIntyre (see below) had a long association with Columbia shorts, particularly with the Three Stooges. In fact, today she is iconic for her association with the trio as their co-star.

"Pistol Packin' Nitwits" was remade as "Out West," in 1947, with the Three Stooges as the stars. McIntyre reprises the role of the damsel in distress. "Out West" is directed by Bernds. The probable reason Bernds is listed as director in IMDB is because Columbia goofed in their release posters for "... Nitwits," listing Bernds as director. I must confess, of the pair, I prefer "Pistol Packin' Nitwits." Give it 17 minutes of your time, and watch Harry Langdon gamely finish the scenes and wrap his final film.

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