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Could Hedy act?
The answer is no, at least by the time "Algiers" was made. Hedwig Eva Kiesler was then 24 years old and had not acted in film for five years since the notorious "Ecstasy". In the 1938 remake of "Pepe Le Moko," Hedy was asked to portray a simple Paris shop girl who has become the mistress of a rich man slumming in North Africa. What gives the film its unusual sexual dynamic is that she does not behave with Boyer as a sophisticated woman of the world might flirting with a lower-class criminal; she acts quite convincingly as a simple young girl might if she was attracted to a dangerous man. They are both from the same city. Despite the clothes and jewels, Gaby is not meant to be worldly. Hedy's naturalness, her awkwardness then, her own naiveté perhaps, somehow work here works for the story. In later years, Hedy became more accomplished as an actress and more polished as a person. Given the right script and the right director, she could even be comic, witness how charming and funny she is in the Ninotchka role in the 1940 "Comrade X." Sadly, with her limitations as an actress and her dazzling beauty as a woman, she was rarely ever offered roles that might have reflected her true personality. Not the first not the last time a great beauty would be miscast.
Spring Parade (1940)
Suspend all Viennese disbelief!
This charming film, directed expertly in 1940 by the underrated European-born Henry Koster, is set in a fictional Vienna of beer gardens and palaces, all built on the Universal lot in California. The story, of course, is totally preposterous: for one, a peasant girl from the mountains (Deanna Durbin) after only been in the capitol city a few days is granted an audience with Emperor Franz Josef (Henry Stephenson). Thoroughly charmed by her simple country ways, the old man grants Deanna all her wishes, and, of course, invites her to a royal ball where, needless to say, she sings and dances. It is a tribute to Koster's skill at expertly recreating this sort of operetta fluff, once so popular in Europe, that he makes us suspend all disbelief. Durbin, then 19 years old, is both lovely and feisty, and she is surrounded in this Cinderella story by some of the best comic character actors in town including Misha Auer, Cuddles Sakall, Walter Catlett, and Franklin Pangborn. Prissy Pangborn gets to wear a Hapsburg beard and moustache. In memory, he was usually photographed standing up in a state of rage or suppressed frustration, but in this film he is shown sitting down. A first? Robert Cummings is the suitable dreamboat love interest and he does a commendable job of making this silliness believable. Joe Valentine deservedly won the Oscar that year for his black and white photography.
Minor but memorable
This is a minor work by a neglected master director, Carol Reed, who shared with his contemporary David Lean a great talent for adapting classic English novels to film. Unfortunately, Reed's original cut for the UK, slightly under two hours in length, was trimmed of another half hour before being shown in the United States. Consequently, that version, the one most people see, seems unnecessarily choppy at times. In recreating Edwardian England, Reed was helped here by the magnificent costumes of Cecil Beaton who would go on to design "My Fair Lady" for stage and film. Young Michael Redgrave as the feckless draper's assistant who unexpectedly rises above his station is ideally cast, as are any number of excellent supporting actors from the English stage, among them, most memorably, Max Adrian as the snob Coote and Arthur Riscoe as the playwright Chitterlow. Michael Wilding, Elizabeth Taylor's second husband, is seen briefly as Kipps' solicitor.
Right tunes, wrong picture
After Tony Martin was discharged from the Navy in 1942, and not under the most favorable circumstances, he tried to rekindle his then dormant career as a movie star by founding a production company. Having raised some money on his own, he convinced Universal to put up the rest. To showcase his talents as an actor/singer, he chose to remake a remake of a 1937 "Pepe Le Moko," a French film with Jean Gabin that a year later became the American "Algiers" with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. ("Come wiz me to ze Casbah.") Martin was not a bad actor, a sort of sexier Ronny Reagan who could sing, but as a producer he (or the director John Berry) made a fatal mistake of trying to mix two genres. This 1948 film is neither melodrama nor musical, but something odd in between. The tunes by the great Harold Arlen, one of which ("For Every Man There is a Woman") is now a classic, don't seem to fit in with the rest of the film. Listening to Martin croon in the midst of an otherwise dramatic scene is like having Rick burst into a chorus of "As Time Goes By" to remind Ilsa of how much he once loved her before he ended up in Casablanca. The Swedish actress Marta Toren, then being groomed to be the next Bergman but looking more like Alida Valli, is lovely and perfectly acceptable in the Lamarr role, but although she could act she often speaks as if she was being dubbed by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Yvonne De Carlo, a great beauty and a fine actress whose talents were never fully recognized, is her luscious self as the hometown girl Martin discards for the sexy tourist. Eartha Kitt, then a member of Katherine Dunham's company featured in the film, can be seen very briefly at approx. 1:19:20 dancing in and out of frame. (This was her first movie.) The greatest plus in the film is, as always, the presence of the incomparable villain and charmer Peter Lorre as the police inspector. Unlike Tony Martin, Lorre could do no wrong. To give Tony his due, in the same year this film was made and flopped at the box-office, the baritone ended up marrying Cyd Charisse. Excellent recompense.
Club Havana (1945)
The Capra of PRC
The young French critics, many of whom were destined to become directors, were the first to recognize the superior work of the Austria-Hungarian born Edgar Ulmer who called himself "the Frank Capra of PRC," the notorious low-budget Hollywood studio that churned out Westerns and programmers by the dozens on budgets that never exceeded 100,000 dollars. Unlike the average hack director stuck in Poverty Row, Ulmer always surprises us; he makes the best of his limited resources, moving the camera and inventing ingenious business to keep the second-rate scripts he was handed to direct moving. This 1945 film, set solely in a Cuban nightclub in Miami, features a cast of familiar faces, many of whom never really made it the top but always turned in professional performances, among them the beautiful ingénue Dorothy Morris, the sinister Marc Lawrence, and the ever-dependable, lady-like Margaret Lindsay. Tom Neal comes and goes while most of the other men in the story, including the police, all wear pencil mustaches then in fashion. In between the predictable Grand Hotel story-line, you'll hear many famous Latin-American songs sung competently by tiny Lita Baron, then billing herself as Isabelita. Given only 62 minutes running time to pull all the drama and music together, Ulmer does not disappoint us. His fans always wonder what might have happened to him had he had bigger budgets and better scripts like his contemporary at Warner Bros.,Michael Curtiz. We'll never know.
Glorifying the American Girl (1929)
1929. Before the Revolution
Small town audiences back at the end of the 1920s must have been thrilled to see the through-the-car window, moving-camera shots of actual New York City streets, as well as the bits and pieces of extravagantly-staged review numbers from Flo Ziegfeld's big Broadway shows, some of them photographed in 2-strip Technicolor. Today, however, all these elaborately mounted Ziegfeld numbers seem either cliché-ridden, clunky, or just pretentious--terrible dancing (some staged by Ted Shawn!), mostly mediocre music, and lots of pretty girls, most of them so far from the camera lens that they are almost invisible. All in all, the film's highlights are very few--count among them, Helen Morgan singing atop a piano and showing some of the real emotion that had made her the star of "Showboat;" and Eddie Cantor hamming it up as a little tailor cheating a gullible customer in a 12 minute sketch. In those pre-code, pre-politically correct days, apparently no one considered a skit about lying and cheating Jews an ethnic slur. Audiences back then simply laughed at the tailor's immigrant English and Eddie's outrageous behavior. The backstage story which begins the story and more than once interrupts the Ziegfeld show was co-written and clumsily directed by Millard Webb who was then married to the picture's star, the pretty if not very talented Mary Eaton. (She and he who would disappear from movies by the early 30s.) This film, despite its many weaknesses, is an historical record, of course, and we should be grateful for it, if only to have evidence of how bad most standard Broadway and Hollywood entertainment was back then. A few years later, dance-director Busby Berkeley, a product of exactly this kind of formless Broadway show, saw the possibility of using the camera and editing to create real cinema. But back in 1929, the year of this film's release, the revolution was yet to come. Hurry up, Bus! Please!
Mishmash in 2-strip Technicolor
Forgive my Southern accent but this one darlin' is jes' plain awful. Typical of its time,1930--the early days of the talkie--this hodgepodge of comedy and drama is a Ziegfeld-style extravaganza that mixes bad melodrama and mediocre operetta songs with lots of very pretty girls in outrageous costumes. The plot, if you choose to call it that, is interrupted on occasion with feeble comic relief, mostly by the great team of Woolsey and Wheeler trying their best to make something out of little, and by a Dutch comic, Joseph Cawthorn, speaking in a Jewish accent. (He even calls his son, the Metropolitan Opera baritone Everett Marshall, a schlemiel.) On the plus side, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson dances for three minutes, and Max Steiner ("Gone With the Wind") did the orchestrations for which he received his first screen credit. The film was a big flop and lost RKO studios 300,000 dollars. Fortunately, W&W went on to do better things, and a few years later King Kong and Fred and Ginger came along to make up that loss.
Paris Bound (1929)
This 1929 early sound film based on a lesser Phillip Barry play takes seriously the very people that Cole Porter so devastatingly satirized in his immortal songs. We even have an arty ballet montage staged by Stanislavski's assistant Richard Boleslavski to prove that pretension is not just a recent occurrence. Bad art has been with us always. This is the film debut of the beautiful and lady-like Anne Harding, the perfect upper class American girl that Katherine Hepburn was to play more successfully a few years later in Barry's best play. Fredric March, the best leading man of the day, does a lot of serious kissing here to justify that he really loves his wife and kid despite his weakness of character. What seemed madly sophisticated then in 1929 seems enormously silly now. After watching this, just put on your favorite Cole Porter album. His songs are still with us to remind us that once upon a time anything went.
Lonely Wives (1931)
From stage to screen 1931
When sound pictures arrived in the late 1920s-early 30s audiences were so fascinated by the spectacle of actors talking that any number of stage plays were simply photographed more or less as they had played in front of live audiences. No better example than this talky, very silly French-style farce based on a comedy credited to the Hungarian producer A.H. Woods famous on Broadway for importing risqué European fare to New York. As stagey as the RKO film is, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to see one of the great farceurs, Edward Everett Horton, at his best in a dual role a few years before becoming second banana in numerous Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. Here, he is matched for once by the performance of the delightful Canadian actress Maude Eburne as the mother-in-law, probably the best role she ever had in a long Hollywood career of much smaller parts.
Star Power touched by Lubitsch and friends
This neglected 1936 classic credited to Frank Borzage, but produced and directed in part by Ernst Lubitsch, then briefly head of Paramount Pictures, is a perfect example of what two larger-than-life movie stars could do with a rather improbable plot. Dietrich, in what we think of as one of her first non- Sternberg roles, displays an amazing subtle talent for comedy. She even blinks her eyes the way Mae West did, making sexuality for once a source of hilarity. Who else could do that? Who would have expected that of her after seeing her earlier femme fatale roles? The same can be said of handsome Gary Cooper who here plays the naïve tongue-tied American with enormous charm. History tells us that the two principals were having an affair at the time of filming, one that reputedly drove her former lover John Gilbert to an early death; true or not, the sexual on-screen energy between them-the sophisticated European and the bumbling American--could not be more convincing.
As in all Lubitsch pictures, you really believe the characters have the hots for each other. This unique Lubitsch genius to insinuate sex without ever showing it is why most people today still attribute the magic of this film to Lubitsch rather than Borzage.
Other pleasures Include the superb supporting cast with Axim Tamiroff and Zelfie Tillbury in tiny but memorable roles, the gowns by the uncredited Paramount costume department, and the glamorus high-gloss lighting of Charles Lang Jr. A second-unit photographed the France and Spain road scenes, but the dialogue in the cars between Marlene and Gary is old-fashioned process screen. In those days no one left Paramount unless they had to.
Chinatown at Midnight (1949)
No frills entertainment from 1949
Well-made, typical 1949 B&W programmer from the B picture Sam Katzman unit at Columbia Pictures. Fast paced and no frills. Hurd Hatfield is suitably sinister as the bad guy. The effective music score is all stock. Eleven composers are credited on IMDB. The advent of television in the years to come was soon to end this sort of low-budget fare that all the major studios once made to fill out the double-feature bill. Contract director Seymour Friedman who directed 8 films that year does a more than competent job of keeping this 67 minute thriller moving.
Love Among the Ruins (1975)
Textbook in Acting, Grand Style
This film made in 1975 remains a memorable record of the sort of virtuoso acting (some might say over-acting) that one might have seen in the West End back at the time of Gerald du Maurier or on Broadway when Lunt and Fontane were the reigning stars. In this film, Laurence Olivier, perhaps the greatest technical actor ever on the English stage, uses every vocal trick and calculated gesture in the book to portray the love-struck barrister, formidable in court, putty in the hands of a great lady. His performance is all perfectly thought out and carefully rehearsed down to the slightest movement of his hands, the unexpected emphasis on certain words, and the perfectly timed pauses used for comic effect. Katherine Hepburn, a great diva in her own right, a force of nature, holds her own and is never over-shadowed by Olivier's bravura. We witness two great theatrical personalities at the height of the powers pull out all stops fearlessly in front of the camera. Of course, this sort of Acting-Acting, the direct opposite style of the then popular Method inside-out underplayed technique, is rarely seen anymore, was rarely seen even then, but given the farcical premise of the plot it somehow all works to the story's advantage . Anything less might have exposed the holes in the script.
Ironically, although shot at the Pinewood studios outside London with sets and costumes by some the UK's greatest artisans this is not an English film. It was made for American TV, written and staged by two Yanks: the playwright James Costigan and the director George Cukor.
Kiss and Make-Up (1934)
Too stupid for words
Silly? No, stupid. An unfunny, terribly forced attempt at sophisticated comedy so desperate for laughs that it ends with a badly staged comic car chase that went out of style with Max Sennett. Such skilled farceurs as Cary Grant, Genevieve Tobin, and Edward Everett Horton do their best with the feeble dialogue, second-rate gags, and improbable plotting. Only worth watching to hear Grant sing a pleasant Ralph Rainger song decently, see the gorgeous Toby Wing take off some of her clothes, or listen to the Cuban actor Rafael Storm ham it up as an angry Latin lover. This Paramount picture was personally produced by B.P. Schulberg, father of screenwriter Budd, head of the studio in 1934 who was fired that year. Watching this tasteless humorless picture will show you why.
The Animal Kingdom (1932)
Two Loves Have I
One of the great pleasures of being able to see these talky pre-Code films so many years after the fact is that they offer us a photographic record of what the stylized Broadway theater of the Twenties and Thirties was like--lots of witty and heart-felt dialogue as beautiful people move from chair to sofa, drink champagne and cocktails, and occasionally lean against a mantel piece to say something profound or moving. No one back in the Thirties seemed to find it odd then that two of the principle characters, father and son, upper-class American inhabitants of Connecticut, were played by Englishmen-- Henry Stephenson and Leslie Howard. It was an accepted convention that all people with money sounded English. In this story, Howard, the charming but weak idealist he was to play again and again, is torn between his love of two stronger women: Ann Harding, the bohemian painter, and Myrna Loy, the ambitious society bride. Harding chooses to plays the role correctly (in my opinion) as more of a Vassar girl dilettante, the sort that Mary McCarthy was to satirize, than a starving Greenwich Village bohemian, and Myrna Loy is the beautiful but manipulative rich girl out to trap her man into living a secure and comfortable life. The vastly underrated Phillip Barry, whose play this film adapted, was an excellent chronicler of upper middle-class American life as in was once lived in the Depression. He has a great deal of empathy for his characters and enormous skill as a dramatist. His greatest triumph was to be a vehicle Kate Hepburn commissioned a few years later, The Philadelphia Story, but this earlier play introduces many of the social themes he was to write about in all his plays. As always, Barry wrote demanding parts for women. Myrna Loy (who was soon to be Nora in the Thin Man series) never again had a role that demanded so much of her. She is absolutely perfect. The film produced by David Selznick was an enormous flop in its day, but it's wonderful to have it around now.
Man of the World (1931)
Learning to talk
This 1931 film with a screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane, is credited in the books if not in the film to two directors, one of whom, Edward Goodman, must have been replaced somewhere during the production by Hollywood veteran Richard Wallace who receives sole screen credit. The sluggishness of the film is probably due to Goodman, one of the many successful Broadway theater directors lured to the west coast in the early days of sound pictures. He staged dialogue scenes in a conventional manner as he might have done a play. (Oddly enough, no film editor is listed in the credits, possibly because no one at Paramount wanted their name associated with what must have been perceived then as a talky failure.) Nevertheless, the fiIm is worth watching because it brings together two future stars, William Powell and Carole Lombard, soon to marry. She, a very popular ingenue of the early1930s, does her best as she always did with the thankless role of the rich American girl abroad. He has a few scenes in which he displays his suave charm. It would take a few more years before Hollywood learned how to use sound and how to pace sophisticated stories such as this, but even this failure has its moments. Guy Kibbee is particularly effective. Five years later, Powell and Lombard, three years divorced, would be reunited at Universal to make the comedy classic My Man Godfrey, directed by someone who really knew how to make movies move-the great Gregory LaCava. LaCava insisted on Powell who insisted on Lombard. Wise choice.
Murder at Glen Athol (1936)
Before this film gets down to its real purpose as a standard Poverty Row low-budget who-done-it, there are a few scenes superbly acted and stolen by the young Iris Adrian as a mad cap society girl. Iris went on and on for years playing bit parts as a blowzy wise-cracking loud mouth in another 160 films but this film demonstrates what a first-rate actress she was. She might have gone on to a more brilliant career had anyone recognized how gifted she was. Irene Ware, the leading lady here, is very beautiful and very wooden. Just another face, but Iris is something else.
Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)
Couldn't be Sillier
A few years before Radio Pictures became RKO and started making big money with Fred and Ginger and King Kong, the studio churned out a series of outrageous Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, none sillier than this one made in 1930. The jokes come fast and furious, most terrible, but every once in awhile a good one lands. The delightful Dorothy Lee (who was to become a staple of many a W & W film in the future) sings and dances with Bert. The big surprise here is the performance of Berlin-born Leni Stengel as the French vamp Olga; she is not only sexy and vivacious but wonderfully funny. Why she never went on to a brilliant career as a comic actress is a mystery. The Paris street scenes designed by Max Ree and shot on the Hollywood backlot are particularly realistic, demonstrating how well-made even lesser Hollywood films were in the years when sound had just come in and everyone was experimenting. Wheeler and Woolsey are an acquired taste. Their bad jokes have a way of getting to you if you don't watch yourself.
Uptown New York (1932)
Mostly for Shirley
This 1932 independent film, made in the early days of sound, features two of Hollywood's most dependable supporting players in leading male roles--Jack Oakie and Leon Ames. Oakie rarely ever had another role that demanded so much of him emotionally and he makes the most of it, whereas Ames, best remembered today as the father in "Meet Me in St. Louis.," can't do much with the one-dimensional role of the doctor/lover. The big surprise here is Shirley Grey (1902-1981) who is perfectly cast, amazingly natural and sympathetic, in the role of the woman loved by two men. Despite her excellence, her film career as a leading dramatic actress lasted only a few years. No one seemed to have noticed how good she could be.
Ten Cents a Dance (1931)
Fans of pre-Code films will forgive this 1931 Columbia Pictures feature directed by Lionel Barrymore (his last directorial effort) if only because it stars Barbara Stanwyck in an early role. As is the case with all stars, she is even then true in every moment, entirely believable, and far surpasses the wooden script and the rest of the cast. Most embarrassing is Monroe Owsley as her no-good husband; he is particularly bad, totally false, overacting. Ricardo Cortez has a thankless role and does his best. This is a perfect example of how a star can make something out of nothing by the sheer power of her personality.
49th Parallel (1941)
Propaganda and Action Adventure
This early 1941 B&W collaboration of the great filmmaking team of Powell and Pressburger (before their Technicolor days) was intended as wartime propaganda, but it still plays exceedingly well today as an action adventure film with first-rate work from director Michael Powell with the help of his film editor, David Lean, and cinematographer Freddy Young. (When Lean became a director soon afterward he eventually reunited with Young who photographed Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan's Daughter, and Doctor Zhivago.) A number of film stars, wishing to see the USA involved in the European war, contributed their services, among them Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey in cameo roles, but the film belongs to Eric Portman as the Nazi leader of the escapees. He manages to humanize the character, a credit to his acting ability and the writing of Pressburger, who co-wrote the script. A Hungarian Jew who was a product of the German film industry before he was forced to emigrate, Pressburger made a sincere and courageous attempt to make the dramatic point that not *all* Germans were monsters for which he was much criticized in Britain at the time of the film's release. The Welsh actor, Niall MacGuiness, is particularly sympathetic as one of the German submarine crew members. This was Vaughn William's first film score.
Letter of Introduction (1938)
One of the oddest mixtures of drama and comedy ever to come out of Universal Pictures. Back in 1939, director John Stahl did his usual reliable job of trying to keep all the mismatched elements of the improbable plot together and almost succeeds. An aspiring young actress (Andrea Leeds) rooming at a theatrical boarding house, mysteriously becomes the protégée of old flamboyant drunken actor (Adolphe Menjou) returning to Broadway after many years in Hollywood. (Both actors appeared the year before in "Stage Door.") Throughout the film, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Sneed appear and reappear at the most unlikely moments and provide many amusing moments that have nothing whatsoever to do with the main story. (It's as if Bergen was under contract to the studio and someone had to figure out a way to shoehorn him and his dummies into a picture.) The ever dependable Eve Arden wisecracks in her best manner and George Murphy is the jealous boy friend in love with the actress. None of it makes much sense if you think about it--don't!--but it's all undoubtedly entertaining.
Sinners in the Sun (1932)
This 1932 pre-code Paramount Picture, based on a magazine story by Mildred Cram and directed by Alexander Hall, is best remembered today because it contains a bit of Cary Grant in one of the many stiff playboy roles he did before stardom. All in all, it's not much a story, entirely predictable, but as staged expertly by Hall the film does recreate visually the atmosphere of New York and Long Island society that Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby a few years before. The actors are all particularly well-cast, down to the smallest part. (Look especially for a few moments with Anderson Lawler as a self-confessing gigolo.) Chester Morris (Boston Blackie) is for once throughly believable in a tough guy up from the streets role, but as usual it's Carole Lombard--she who could do no wrong--who steals the show and carries the picture. She's both lovely and touching and wears many a superb Travis Banton costume. A true star.
The St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959)
Almost but not quite
This 1959 film, co-directed by Charles Guggenheim and John Stix, is for all its weaknesses a most commendable attempt to photograph a standard heist film in semi-documentary style. Shot on the locations in St. Louis where the actual robbery occurred, it almost succeeds. Unlike many earlier crime films in this genre, the screenplay by Richard Heffron makes no attempt to have us sympathize with the professional criminals. Few crime films of the era or before portrayed the common bank robber and his accomplices with such cold reality, going so far as to hint at the homosexual relationships that occur among hardened criminals who spent their lives incarcerated. The major weakness of the film is the time it spends attempting to establish a relationship between McQueen and the sister of one of the bank robbers. Molly McCarthy, physically believable and sympathetic, is not quite up to carrying off her admittedly complex role, particularly in comparison to the brilliance of the then 29-year-old Steve McQueen. McQueen received only $4,000 for his work, but he steals the picture, making the psychology of the young man beyond his depth who gets involved with a gang of professionals and cannot get out thoroughly believable. He is especially effective in the end of the film. The film is also helped by an original minimal score by Bernardo Segall, whose orchestration resembles that of European films of the same time. Guggenheim who had a talent for this sort of film later went on to direct many award-winning documentaries, leaving the crime film behind him. Too bad. He was after something here.
This Happy Breed (1944)
Long Before Long John Siver
Those who now only remember Robert Newton for his eccentric roles as the painter in "Odd Man Out" or his notorious over-the-top pirate films may be surprised to see him as the quintessential working class paterfamilias in this 1944 film. Newton was a great favorite of Noel Coward's , having replaced Laurence Olivier when Olivier left the original Broadway production of "Private Lives." For this film he was paid 9000 pounds, a star's salary.
Detective Kitty O'Day (1944)
This silly Monogram quickie directed by Wm. Beaudine and co-written by Tim Ryan who plays the chief detective is worth watching for Ryan's expert comic performance as well as the charming work of the underrated Jean Parker. Ryan resembled Bill Demarest but never achieved the same success. He had been married to Irene Ryan, Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies. They started in vaudeville doing a Dumb Dora act which was said to have influenced Burns and Allen.