Wednesday, 30 November 2016
YOU'LL FIND OUT (1940)
Before the grimness of war took direct hold on the American consciousness, there was still time for carefree horror-comedy undiluted by mounting concern. A perfect example of this was You’ll Find Out produced by RKO in November 1940. It also came at an upbeat time for the studio itself, released from receivership in January of that year and subsequently splashed out on literary properties to herald its new prosperity.
During its relatively short history, RKO Radio Pictures produced some of the truly classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age standing the test of time against their bigger competitors, such as Citizen Kane, Bringing Up Baby and Gunga Din. They made an indelible stamp on the horror genre as well with arguably the greatest version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton and possibly their most successful film (judging from its many lucrative re-releases), King Kong – not to mention the cycle of distinctive horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s including The Cat People and The Body Snatcher; low-budget and titled for sensationalism, they rescued the studio from later financial trouble.
RKO, under their President George Schaefer’s mantra ‘Quality Pictures at a Premium Price’, were irreconcilably caught between trying to satisfy both the demand for A-pictures and B-movies, unable to settle on an industry-recognisable ‘house style’ or specialism like the gritty gangster films of Warner Brothers of the lush glossy musicals of M-G-M. The same studio that in just one year would give us Citizen Kane was also the same one making vehicles for the Mexican Spitfire, Lupe Velez. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a successful string of musicals in the 1930s here and an element of variety glamour was maintained by their support of radio show band-leader Kay Kyser, around whom You’ll Find Out was constructed.
James Kern ‘Kay’ Kyser was a radio personality fronting a hugely-successful touring swing band that settled into a broadcasting run staying in the Top Ten on NBC Radio from 1939-1949. During that time, he developed an act that combined his band’s music and singing with slapstick antics in his ‘Kollege of Musical Knowledge’ quiz-game format. Kyser did not hog the spotlight like many band-leaders. He allowed the star quality of his bandmates to shine such as future talk-show host Mike Douglas, vocalists Ginny Samms and Harry Babbitt, and comedian Ish Kabibble, whose wig-like dark basin-cut is oddly reminiscent of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. Their on-air fame was parlayed into a profitable run of RKO films beginning in 1939 with That’s Right – You’re Wrong (one of Kyser’s many catch-phrases). It was a thin caper solely designed to showcase the band but producer-director David Butler watched it make $129,000 and so a lucrative series was born.
You’ll Find Out (1940) was the follow-up, its focus on Kyser conveyed instantly by his name above the on-screen title card. This time Butler at least framed the band-leader and members within a plot, albeit the overly familiar haunted-house inheritance scam one. Bolstering the film’s chances with three of the most recognisable names in horror was a smart move By the director, who had asked the studio to furnish him with ‘three notable heavies”. Though to some extent your enjoyment depends on how much you like swing sound, the result is a winning combination. The whole film is played as a spookily-tinged spoof romp with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre all in on the joke, a consistent irreverent tone that earns it entertainment value and goodwill.
For those of us born after Swing, the film begins with a live broadcast of Kyser’s show quizzing two audience members while the band showcase their sound. Their energy is infectious, with comedy set-pieces tightly rehearsed, if a little overdone, punctuating the songs. Soon, we and the gang are transported to a date playing at a 21st birthday party for Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish) at a creepy mansion owned by her wealthy Aunt Margo (Alma Kruger). The band are spooked, understandably so when they’re greeted by Margo’s otherworldly glazed eyes. She is under the influence of a medium by the name of Prince Saliano and claims astral familiarity already with Kyser’s music: “It comes to me from another source”.
As Aunt Margo remarks about the paranormal origin of the faces that come to her, in walks Boris Karloff. Apposite timing like this runs through the film adding to the fun. Karloff is the family solicitor Judge Mainwaring (pronounced as spelt here rather than the English Mannering as in British sitcom Dad’s Army). He easily surfs on a tide of audience typecast expectation – his urbane breeding is surely a cover for something - else why would he be here? Butler and James V. Kern’s script plays further on this knowingness by having him defend Aunt Margo’s sanity against Kyser’s concerns: “I can assure you that Margo Bellacrest is just as sane as I am”.
Kyser takes one look at the master bedroom where he’s staying and asks: “Who decorated this room - Robert Ripley?” referencing the cartoonist creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not popular newspaper column. The whole house is full of exotic and macabre African artifacts brought back by Elmer, the deceased master of the house. As if on cue, enter Bela Lugosi – just as exotic and reliably inscrutable as always. He is Prince Saliano, Aunt Margo’s turbanned gatekeeper to the astral world. Amusingly, he has come to assure Kyser that the spirit of Elmer occupies the room “…but I’m sure you’ll find it a friendly one”. This coupled with the evidence of a blowpipe dart attack embedded in the wall is enough to convince Kyser that he should skedaddle with his band before the concert starts.
Another fateful response is the sudden lightning blast that blows up the bridge, their only means of escape that night. Unseen forces seem to be conspiring to keep everyone confined together. When Janis goes to call for help, wouldn’t you know Karloff promptly sidles up to her and elegantly dead-pans: “The telephone is probably dead”. The guests were hoping to assemble for a Saliano séance under the beady eye of expert fake-detector Professor Fenninger, but surely he won’t be able to attend? And with an almost audible click, the last piece of the jigsaw slots into place as the Judge presents the Professor already there, obscured all this time in an armchair. It is the silkily enigmatic Peter Lorre. I’m surely innocent of any real spoilers to state that the fix is now in.
I daresay I’m not alone in erroneously believing that, until coming across this film, Lorre and Karloff hadn’t worked together before The Boogie Man Will Get You in 1942, yet the welcome evidence is on show and adding Lugosi it becomes a priceless triple-play of sinister scheming between them. As soon as Lorre is alone with Karloff, he gets straight to the point regarding the bungled blow-dart: “Why’s she still alive?” All three men came to genre prominence in the early 1930s and each have a ball in laying down their cards of similarly veiled evil behind a gentlemanly facade, The three-shots of them together are a horror fan's joy. In Lugosi’s case as ‘that turban-top Svengali’, our disbelief is harder to suspend when we actually see his séance. It is pure Vegas coach-party hack magicianry using a silk bunko-booth style tent and a pair of crackling static electricity globes a’ la Frankenstein’s set designer Kenneth Strickfadden. The Prince sucks in the gullible with disembodied voices and floating masks posing as an African chief and Elmer. Kyser is not fooled for a minute, causing Lorre to query who this interferer is: “Oh, some band-leader”, mutters Karloff distastefully.
The band members soon catch on to the inherent phoniness of the enterprise. Before they can get to grips with some sleuthing though, they perform their much better show for the guests including the inexplicably Oscar-nominated song ‘I’d Know You Anywhere’ (an apt title for exposing the shenanigans they’ve just witnessed). Kyser and Chuck (Dennis O’Keefe) engage in Scooby-Doo detection along with Kabibble’s dog and uncover Lugosi’s lair from which he’s been projecting his voice electronically. This film was one of the first to demonstrate the real technology gadget called the Sonovox, (later nicknamed a Talkbox), arguably an early synthesiser that enabled musicians to sing or speak converting an instrument’s sound into their own vocals. The séance certainly makes effective use of its eerie synthetic drawl.
Regardless of the elaborate stage-management, even the horror threesome are no match for a bunch of intrepid musos and a second séance of hokum is exposed by Kyser and crew as a sham. One possibly unintentional detail of amusement is when the Elmer mask is ripped off to reveal Karloff – his own face of white hair and moustache is almost an exact double of the rubber version. If you’re in any doubt as to the value of screening this movie, or its gravity, consider that in the climax you get a rare sight of Lugosi in a stand-off, turbaned and brandishing a stick of dynamite.
The close of the picture is a good-natured capper scene that unusually breaks the fourth wall once Kyser’s band have finished their last number. He takes a moment to address us directly, reassuring us in a folksy way that, far from being the nasty figures they portray on-screen, in reality the trio of Karloff, Lorre and Lugosi are “nice fellers and good friends of mine”. (Karloff and Lugosi in particular might well have appreciated this movie gesture as neither could avoid occasional press grumbles about their limiting horror personas). Lest we take this seriously, we soon see it’s a mischievous set-up for one more undermining genre gag – during his sincere moment, the earlier static globes sidle into shot on either side of him and then zap him into an electrical-burst credit of ‘THE END’.
You’ll Find Out generated enough crackle at the box-office, like its predecessor, to exceed it in a respectable profit of $167,000, keeping Kay Kyser and company on screen for some time longer. This is just as well in terms of publicity for the actors as Lugosi was still dogged by the continual unequal bargaining power of a weekly salary less than a third of Karloff’s ($1,250 compared to $4,166.66 as documented by Stephen Jacobs). Lorre was paid $3,500 but gained the most prominent credit below Kyser who as headliner pocketed, on behalf of his team, $75,000 for the shoot.