The RKO Brown and Carney Comedy Collection DVD Review: The Lonely Quartet of a Forgotten Duo

It is often stated that history is written by the victors. This expression (usually attributed to Winston Churchill, although without any definite evidence) holds true not only when it comes to mankind’s dire obsession with the deadly serious subject of war, but also within the equally serious battlefield of comedy. While historical reference books on comedians will always include classic two-man partnerships such as Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, there are a multitude of other acts who have been tucked away in-between footnotes of the appendix – many of which rose from the same humble vaudeville/music hall origins as struggling performers just trying to make ends meet.

Sadly, most of the more notable inclusions in the appendix footnotes of this particular history book had long been disbanded (be it by a death or something else) by the time the moving pictures came to become the norm (wherein vaudeville and music halls began to wane entirely). Nevertheless, a few “lesser” (if you will) matches came to find themselves making the transition to film to begin anew, such as the once-popular act of Wheeler and Woolsey or the manic stylings of Olsen and Johnson. Still other duos were formed specifically for film (Laurel and Hardy being perhaps the most legendarily serendipitous combination in that vein), while others were assembled solely in order to wage war against another filmic pairing.

When Universal’s contract players Abbott and Costello essentially set the world of “two funny guys on film” on fire at the very beginning of the 1940s, other studios were keen to get their act together (so to speak). One such result was RKO’s creation of a comic act that would come to be (briefly) known as Brown and Carney. Clearly molded by the antics and success of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Wally Brown and Alan Carney were both established funnymen with roots extending to vaudeville and music who were put together in order to give those other guys a run for their money. Alas, no one had to run for any form of currency whatsoever, while very few people (if any) ran to see Brown and Carney on the big-screen together.

Chemistry-wise, they were just what the doctor ordered: a tall, scheming straight man (Brown), who has an obtuse, rotund buffoon (Carney) as his one and only pal in the world. Alas, while they were nowhere near as bad as some of the comedy duos that would follow in the decades to come (i.e. Mitchell and Petrillo, Tim and Eric, Romney and Ryan), their on-screen pairing suffered from a substantial lack of originality (something Martin and Lewis also dealt with at Paramount, though those two icons ultimately succeeded in having successful, separate careers). In fact, Brown and Carney’s first film together as a team – RKO’s wartime comedy The Adventures of a Rookie – is almost identical to Abbott and Costello’s 1941 classic Buck Privates.

The first of four films in the Warner Archive’s two-disc set entitled The RKO Brown and Carney Comedy Collection, 1943’s The Adventures of a Rookie (singular, for some reason) opens with three men from different walks of life being drafted: nightclub singer Jerry Miles (Brown), dimwitted truck driver Mike Strager (Carney), and high society heir Bob Prescott. The latter character is portrayed by future full time Tim Holt sidekick Richard Martin, who has all the acting talent of a World War II army blanket. Which of course just makes the sometimes painful Abbott and Costello-style jokes Brown and Carney deliver seem that much better (although Carney does do mighty darn fine impersonations of Edward G. Robinson and Charles Laughton).

Basic training gags that had been employed since the moving pictures had become referred to as talkies abound (and they would be recycled again for years to come, including in several armed forces-themed Bowery Boys features), but our top-billed comics (fortunately) add a little of their own humor to them. A highlight finds our anti-heroes accidentally getting quarantined in a suburban home after the cook shows signs of scarlet fever. Additional forgotten talents of the handsome Erford Gage as the boys’ no-nonsense Sgt. Burke, a pretty co-star by the name of Margaret Landry as Mr. Martin’s love interest, and Stanley Andrews also star in this wartime comedy that features bits by Robert Anderson, Byron Foulger, Henry Roquemore, Tom Kennedy, and many other RKO players.

Though its courteous reception wasn’t enough to have executives at Universal running around in a state of panic, The Adventures of a Rookie earned a modest enough profit at the box office to warrant a sequel. And so, several years before Bud and Lou’s Buck Privates Come Home, Rookies in Burma took our intrepid duo into the treacherous locales of Southern California to fight the Japanese. Ted Hecht, a small-time character actor who played villains of various ethnicities throughout his career (including several appearances with Abbott and Costello) plays the head bad guy in yellowface, commanding his fierce army of assorted Chinese and Korean bit players who were only hired presumably because the makeup man was working on a small budget.

If I were to pick one word to describe Rookies in Burma, it would probably be “Racist.” Not only does the movie manage to offend most people of Asian descent, but it also extends its mockery of people who are different unto at least two other ethnic groups. But, this was America during the ’40s, when World War II had really “taken off.” That said, it’s still not a great movie, but deserves a look just the same to see RKO contract beauties Joan Barclay and Claire Carleton, as well as the return of Erford Gage as grumpy Sgt. Burke. In real life, Gage enlisted shortly after Rookies in Burma wrapped shooting, was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and was later killed in action in the Philippines less than two years later.

While the duo made several more movies together over the course of three years, half of them aren’t available in this set for reasons I will attempt to make clear. 1944 brought us the musical-comedy starring vehicle Seven Days Ashore along with Step Lively, wherein the pair co-starred with Frank Sinatra. The following year found Brown and Carney sharing a screen (and a scream) with Universal’s fallen, forgotten horror star Bela Lugosi in Zombies on Broadway, which they followed up by adding a little life to the otherwise dead Radio Stars on Parade. All but one of those titles have already been released on DVD (usually in other sets), while Seven Days Ashore remains elusive on disc for some reason.

Now then, moving on – or backtracking a bit, if you will – we find ourselves at what could very well be the highlight of The RKO Brown and Carney Comedy Collection: Disc Two’s first feature, Girl Rush from 1944. For the most part, this gold rush-era western-comedy is a bit of a dud, with Brown and Carney as the owners and operators of a vaudeville theater in 1849 San Francisco. When word gets around that gold has been found, their booming business is quickly left in the dust, so the clowns decide to pan for gold. Fortunately, even the filmmakers realize this gag is going nowhere fast, so they place the boys in a small, woman-less mining town run by a corrupt saloon owner who has been slowly gouging every cent from the populace via his crooked gambling setup.

Fortunately, Miles and Strager (they kept the same fictitious names for some reason) have wagons full of women back in San Fran, so the local miners arrange a pact that would surely be illegal today. But of course all of that is irrelevant, as the genuine focus point here is a young, green Robert Mitchum as the film’s hero. Not only that, but Girl Rush gave Robert Mitchum a chance to appear in drag. Add a couple of brief parts filled by Byron Foulger and Lou Costello’s regular cohort in mischief, Bobby Barber (with a beard!) and you’ll most certainly strike it rich with Girl Rush. Heck, there are even some girls in the film if the sight of Robert Mitchum engaging in a saloon brawl while dressed as a woman doesn’t entice you.

Lastly in The RKO Brown and Carney Comedy Collection is the 1946 comedy/thriller, Genius at Work (again, singular for some reason). It too is notable for a few exceptions. For starters, it was the last film Brown and Carney appeared in together as a team (they popped up in a film or two afterwards, albeit in separate scenes). Secondly, it was the second and last time the pair co-starred with Bela Lugosi – and, as well all know, you’re not an official comedy team until you team up with Bela Lugosi. Third, it was the last time Lugosi and his frequent Universal monster movies co-star, Lionel Atwill – another horror icon who had fallen from Hollywood’s grace (and who doesn’t, right?) – appeared together.

Clearly inspired by Abbott and Costello’s grand radio station murder mystery, Who Done It?, Genius at Work finds Brown and Carney as two hip radio crime show hosts (who are again named Miles and Strager for no truly known reason) under the employ of writer Anne Jeffreys. A supervillain named The Cobra is kidnapping and murdering the city’s elite (and the bad thing about that is…?), and kindly criminologist Lionel Atwill offers his anonymous advice to their broadcasts. Naturally, Atwill is hiding more than he’s telling, and both he and Bela (as Lionel’s sinister servant, and a full two years before appearing with Abbott and Costello) appear to be enjoying their time together and on screen (Mr. Atwill would pass later in the year). Plus, you get to see Lionel Atwill dressed as an old lady in this one, and you can’t go wrong there!

The RKO Brown and Carney Comedy Collection presents each film, as taken from the best surviving elements at hand and in their original 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratios with mono English audio. For the most part, the presentations look terrific, though the eagle-eyed viewer will spot the occasional (and fairly inconsequential) missing frame or two (hey, splices happen). There are no special features included with the set (which boasts the artwork from Genius at Work where Wally Brown looks like Neil Dudgeon and Alan Carney just looks evil), which is not surprising or disappointing in the least bit.

While Brown and Carney may never emerge from that footnote of the appendix section in the grand history book of comedy duos, their output was nevertheless an entertaining and fascinating one, so I must naturally recommend this set to anyone who loves a good laugh. Or even a bad one.

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Luigi Bastardo

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