It’s in the Air (1935) DVD Review: Benny and the Debts

A melting pot of old vaudevillians and rising wisecrackers from all over the map, MGM’s 1935 comedy It’s in the Air finds inspiration from several forms of thieves within the confines of civilized society: advertisers, confidence tricksters, and the IRS. Here, the great Jack Benny stars as a con man in the big city who dreams of retiring from what he calls a living and reuniting with his beautiful estranged wife, but who is actuality stuck with that jestful sally of a fraudster Ted Healy as his running mate. And run, they do ‒ especially once Internal Revenue Service agent (as well as Marx Brothers/Thin Man regular) Nat Pendleton (in fine form as an easily-fooled, but nevertheless determined collector) sets his sights on the shifty Benny for income tax evasion.

The timing is just right for our anti-hero to reconnect with his beloved wife ‒ played here by the crowned princess of sardonicism, Una Merkel ‒ so Benny (and the debts) heads off to a palatial hotel resort in the desert where his lost love is employed. Sadly, the faithlessly faithful heel Healy follows ‒ and it isn’t long before the two chiselers (one of the intended exhibition titles for the flick was Chiseling Chiselers, which Benny reportedly did not approve of, and was more befitting for a latter-day “Fake Shemp” era Stooges short) soon find themselves in the thick of an thinly-veiled scheme that will transcend them straight up into the thin-air itself: as allegedly famous adventurers who will man a stratospheric balloon in exchange for tens of thousands in advertising fees from local businessmen determined to make a mint.

Much like the tiny metallic zeppelin that ascends into the friendly skies crammed with the heavenly trio of Jack Benny, Ted Healy, and Nat Pendleton, It’s in the Air is so robust with one-liners, you may have to watch it a few times to catch them all. (A particular favorite quip of mine ‒ uttered by Mr. Healy, naturally ‒ has him escorting Mr. Pendleton off to meet a lady he supposedly made the acquaintance of: “She looks like a million, but she’s only 42.”) Mary Carlisle (who also stars with Ms. Merkel in Murder in the Private Car, another recent discovery from the Warner Archive Collection), Grant Mitchell, and Harvey Stephens also star in this charming little ditty from director Charles Reisner ‒ who not only helmed a lesser Marx Bros. feature (The Big Store), but also one of Buster Keaton’s best films (Steamboat Bill, Jr.).

It’s entirely possible MGM may have been trying to form a new comedy duo here with the alliance of Benny and Healy. Alas, It’s in the Air would be their one and only pairing: Benny would go off to do great things for decades to follow, while Healy would meet his controversial (and still unsolved) fate only two years later. The Warner Archive unties It’s in the Air from its long-concealed resting place in the vault with this fine-looking Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-R. A bonus trailer included with this late 2015 offering from the Warner Archive Collection ‒ the first home video release of the title, 70 years after its initial theatrical debut ‒ boasts an extended scene with our comedic male leads onboard the inverted diving bell, shedding just a bit more light on the underappreciated style of Nat Pendleton.


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Luigi Bastardo

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