April 11, 2013

The Frankenstein Special: Blue Skies (1946)

Call it ‘Astaire and Crosby Meet Frankenstein’ as comic Billy De Wolfe mimics the Monster in Blue Skies, a Paramount musical from 1946.

The Frankenstein cameo comes at 8:40 into the film. Bing Crosby, who runs a high-toned supper club, has to deal with a boisterous drunk. He signals his sidekick, waiter De Wolfe…

Here’s the clip:

Bulked up in his backwards coat, hair smoothed down, cheeks sucked in, De Wolfe transforms into a convincing Karloffian Frankenstein Monster, sans makeup save for a green light on his face. The stunt is all body language.

Blue Skies is Hollywood fluff rendered in gorgeous Technicolor, it’s flimsy romantic triangle plot a vehicle for a generous catalog of Irving Berlin songs and dazzling dance numbers that included Fred Astaire’s classic Puttin’ On the Ritz — later famously parodied in Young Frankenstein (1974).

Billy De Wolfe (1907-1974) honed his song and dance act in Burlesque, graduating to musical theater, Broadway, and on to a relatively short but showy film career — a dozen film in the Forties — perfecting his signature foppish, fastidious character in pencil mustache. He was much busier in television as a sitcom foil, talk-show raconteur and variety performer, often appearing in drag as “Mrs. Murgatroyd”. Through it all, De Wolfe toured extensively on the nightclub circuit. There is no record of his act, but as an impressionist, he may very well have originated the Frankenstein routine for his one-man show.

The extremely inebriated gentleman in the clip is Jack Norton (1889-1958), a ubiquitous bit player whose specialty was the comic drunk. He appeared wild-eyed, weaving perilously across the set, fumbling cigarettes, bumping into furniture and slurring his lines in countless film, with notable tanked turns opposite The Marx Brothers (A Day at the Races, 1937), and W.C.Fields (The Bank Dick, 1940). He also appears perfectly plastered in James Whale’s The Great Garrick (1937) and blotto in The Ghost Breakers (1940), with Bob Hope. In real life, Norton never touched the stuff.  


Jeffrey Eernisse said...

Putting this movie into my Blockbuster queue right now! Thanks, sir, for always digging deeper for that extra bit of Frankenstein goodness.

Rick said...

I saw BLUE SKIES ages ago and had totally forgotten the Frankenstein bit. But as soon as the movie's title popped up on my screen, I thought, "Billy DeWolfe?" So that memory was hidden deep in there somewhere.

Thanks for this cute bit, Pierre.

Anonymous said...

As great as this moment is, this scene from the movie is set in 1919, making the impression a historical inaccuracy