In 1947 and 1948 Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer produced two low budget comedy vehicles for contract star Red Skelton. The first of these was The Show Off directed by Harry Beaumont and the second was Merton Of The Movies directed by Robert Alton. Fellow contract player and long time Skelton collaborator Virginia O’Brien also appears in both films, featuring heavily in the plot of Merton Of The Movies as Skelton’s love interest.
In the cannon of Skelton’s work at MGM these films are formulaic and dated. However, they set the ground work for the ever more popular films Skelton would make with Esther Williams as his leading lady; Neptune’s Daughter and Texas Carnival. None of these films had a very high production value. Thankfully, as Skelton progressed in films, his obligatory gag scenes became more naturally integrated into the narrative of the film (The Clown is perhaps the finest example of this).
MGM’s writers had the unfortunate problem, one that exists today for obnoxious Robin Williams’ vehicles, of writing scenes that could feature Skelton’s voice acting and talents. On the whole, these scenes feel more forced than his slapstick gag sequences. Often these moments disrupt the narrative flow of the film entirely, subjecting the audience to what they want; to see Red Skelton do what he does on the radio. The technology of the forties and fifties made these scenes essential to the major studios who were trying to cash in on their radio stars who had made the transition over to film.
Strangely enough, The Show Off features neither component mentioned above. Instead, Skelton is allowed to perform, albeit over the top, as a character actor. His performance in The Show Off is void of the trappings of his radio and clown shows. Where as Merton Of The Movies cannot escape them. So often it seems a slapstick gag has been hastily placed in a scene, reaching for some sort of comedic overkill. And rumor has it, though I have only heard this from a number of friends, that Buster Keaton was a gag consultant on both films.
The point here isn’t so much the place of these two films in Red Skelton’s career, but how this same pattern of movie making is replicated today by Hollywood studios. Consider for a second a star such as Robin Williams or Jack Black. How many of their films, particularly early films, have been tailored to their comedic strong points? It doesn’t make for very intelligent filmmaking no matter how well it entertains. And I can proudly say that I’d take a Red Skelton film (particularly Bathing Beauty) over any contemporary Hollywood comedy today.