I had to do a bit of research with this film, because I wanted to know more about the star, Fred Allen. I noted Robert Osbourne’s comments, and then checked Wikipedia. Fred Allen was considered probably the best comedian of the Golden Age of Radio. He had started in vaudeville, then done Broadway, and along the way met his wife, Portland Hoffa, a funny woman in her own right. He had also became close friends with Jack Benny. When Allen and Benny went into radio, they started a mock feud, centering on Benny’s cheapness and Allen’s generally being a rat, slandering Jack as cheap (which Jack insisted he most certainly was not). The feud improved both men’s ratings.
“The Fred Allen Show” featured a brief monologue, then a comic conversation with Portland about her family, and then she would ask him what question he had for the people who lived on Allen’s Alley. This segment was very popular and was framed as a kind of man-on-the-street series of interviews on a topic of the day, like gas rationing or Barnum and Bailey coming to town. The first house visited was always that of Pansy Nussbaum, a Jewish housewife played by Minerva Pious. Pansy had a catchphrase (these were very common in the Alley): whenever Fred would say something like, “Well, hello, Mrs. Nussbaum…” she would say, “You were expecting maybe….” and then mispronounce the name of some female celebrity. Titus Moody, a New England farmer played by Parker Fennelly, would open with “Howdy, Bub.” Supercilious poet Falstaff Openshaw (Alan Reed) would always point out, “That is precisely why I am here.” (even though he was supposed to live there). And perhaps best known was loud-mouthed Senator Beauregard Claghorn, (Kenny Delmar), who had several guaranteed laugh-getters: “That’s a joke, son.”, “PAY ATTENTION, BOY!”, and one that greeted Fred every week, “Somebody, Ah say, somebody knocked!” This character was eventually stolen to become Foghorn Leghorn in Looney Tunes cartoons.
So – over 300 words to give Fred a historical context. Gosh, I hope you enjoyed it!
Now for the film! “It’s in the Bag!” was based on a 1928 novel by Iif and Petrov, called “The Twelve Chairs”. Robert Osbourne said that it has been adapted as a film 20 times. Wikipedia listed some of the twenty, and they include a 1968 version called “The Thirteen Chairs” starring Vittorio Gassman and Sharon Tate, and the 1969 version, “The Twelve Chairs” starring Mel Brooks. Interesting fact: as demonstrated by those more recent titles, the number of chairs varies all the time. “It’s in the Bag!” has five chairs.
Fred’s appearance should be mentioned. He was a dead-pan comedian, with literally a dead pan; he had a long face and huge bags under his eyes. In this film he plays Fred Trumble Floogle, a flea circus impresario who is looked down on by the father of his daughter’s boyfriend. After all, the father, played by Robert Benchley, is the insecticide king. I use small letters because his big apartment is part of his salary as the live-in exterminator (bug and rat killer) of a major New York hotel. So, insects and rodents are better than fleas? The insecticide king says the marriage will bring him social catastrophe. At any rate, the film actually begins with Fred’s grand-uncle Trumble leaving Fred all his money, hiding it (in cash) in one of the chairs around the table where he has just completed his will, and then being shot from a window. The killer slips in and a gloved hand places the gun in the uncle’s hand. Cue the first fight between Fred and Benchley. Fred goes home and argues fruitlessly with his hyper-intelligent son. Frustrated, Fred says, “Sometimes I don’t think you are my son.” The boy removes his glasses revealing hu-normous bags under his eyes and says,” Can you doubt it?” Fred looks at the camera and says, “What do you think?” Fred receives the chairs instead of the expected money and angrily sends his son with the chairs to the nearest antique store. A phone call to the dealer reveals their value (not much), and Fred tells the guy to give the boy the money and send him home. NOW Fred finds out that one chair hides the fortune. He tries to call back and reverse the sale, but can’t get through. He is driving his wife (Binnie Barnes) crazy and she yells, “Stop saying Hello! You haven’t got the number yet!” He says, “We haven’t got that much time!”
He gets the list of buyers and starts out to buy the chairs back. The first has been sold to Pansy Nussbaum (“You were expecting maybe Sweet Rosie O’Grady?”), but she sold her chair to Jack Benny. Fred pays a funny trick here, involving Jack’s big ego. No cash in the chair. Fred and his wife accidentally find a chair in a movie theater. No cash in the chair. Fred goes to a nightclub that bought two chairs, but can’t get in – all seating is already reserved. So he ends up replacing the drunken bass in a quartet of down-on their-luck celebrities doing an old-timey waiters-stop-to-sing-in-barbershop-harmony act. The celebs are Don Ameche, Rudy Vallee, and Victor Moore. As they sing Fred spots the chairs, and tries to get them away from sitting customers, only to start a riot. He gets arrested before he can get either chair, but since the bad guys are still sneaking around you can conclude: no cash in the chairs. Only one chair left, and it was purchased by the Bill Bendix Gang, dangerous mobsters all. Fred finds it and gets the money out and into his suit pockets, but how to get past the Gang and back to a happy ending where he isn’t wanted for murder by half of New York (detective Sidney Toler [Charlie Chan] thinks he killed his uncle) and in debt to the other half?
This is a funny and inventive film, and really makes you wonder why Fred did not do better in the movies. Apparently, no radio personalities did very well in the movies. Not The Great Gildersleeve, played by Harold Peary (1 film), not Fibber McGee and Molly (4 films, 2 shorts), not even Lum and Abner (7 movies, with ten years between numbers 6 and 7). Jack Benny did the best, 26 movies, after which he was either in TV productions or appearing as himself in cameos in films, and yet for years he kidded about his last film “The Horn Blows at Midnight” for killing his film career. Technically it wasn’t his last film, because it opened one week before “It’s in the Bag!”.
Anyway, maybe the best, funniest part of this funny film is Fred’s cracks over the credits. The first title card reads, “Jack H. Skirball Presents”. The second reads, “Fred Allen in It’s in the Bag!”. Fred appears and complains about how when you see a movie you have to spend the first 20 minutes reading names. He lets the list of costars appear and refers to Benny as “a little radio actor”. He has praise for the rest, Don Ameche, William Bendix, Victor Moore (Grandma’s Glamor Boy), and Rudy Vallee (fresh from Yale). For the long list of supporting players (Binnie Barnes, Robert Benchley, Jerry Colonna, and six others) he says, “Who knows who these people are? Who cares? You can find names like these in any phone book.” He sneers at the next credit, “Look at that top name, Associate Producer. He’s the only man in Hollywood who would associate with the producer.” Then a gathering of names with their credits, including music, editing, production manager, etc. Fred says, “Get a load of this mob. They’re all relatives of the producer. In Hollywood all the producer produces is relatives.” Then the writing credits are shown: two names for Screen Treatment (one is Fred’s) and two names for Screenplay (one is Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife), and Fred says, “These four people are now out of work. You’ll see why in a minute.” Then – Produced by Jack H. Skirball appears and Fred says, “Here’s Mr. Skirball’s name again. He’s in twice, you see. Well, it’s his picture.” Then the final credit, Directed by Richard Wallace. “This is Mr. Skirball’s father-in-law, another relative. That’s what I mean. Why should you folks have to sit out there and look at all these names? You know, someday I’m gonna get my own relatives and produce my own picture, and my picture will start with the story, like this: One night last November an eccentric millionaire sat in his den making out a new will….”