Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Forgotten Gems: Turnabout

I run hot and cold on comedy legend Hal Roach. Well, not on him, per se. He seems like he was a helluva guy, working hard for the better part of four decades in showbiz, making the transition from silent to talkies, and from two-reel wonders to, well, almost to feature-length pix. (If TV had come along sooner, he'd probably have been the first Aaron Spelling or Sheldon Schwartz.)

Yes, if it weren't for his persistent Mussolini-love, why, he'd be near perfect.

But Harold Lloyd wasn't my favorite silent guy and Our Gang grated on me when I was a kid. (I can hardly imagine now.) I do, however, love me some Thorne Smith. Smith was very much about a rejection of Victorian morals on the one hand, and an embracing of those morals on the other. Which is to say, he had no use for the scold, the pious or the pompous. It's easy to see him joining a group like Joe Bob Briggs' Drunks Against Mad Mothers. At the same time, his characters found unhappiness discarding traditional morals and happiness coming back to them (or something like them) on their own terms.

Which is further to say, his stories involve sex. A lot of it. Not graphic, obviously, but copious.

His stories were really unfilmable at the time for that. And today they're unfilmable because they reflect a gentility that no longer exists, at least anywhere in the product that Hollywood churns out.

Hal Roach, though, tried and scored big hits by taking the late Smith's stories and substituting a healthy dose of "screwball". The result is much less sophisticated, but it keeps a guy out of trouble with the Hayes office.

The most famous of these movies are the Topper series. (Not the least of which for featuring a rising Cary Grant in the role of George Kirby.) But the lesser known Turnabout is also worth a watch or two.

In this story, bickering husband and wife John Hubbard and Carole Landis are switched by a mystical statue (played by perpetual extra Georges Renavent) , who then proceed to wreck each others' lives (which are, of course, more complex than each gives the other credit for).

Sure you've seen it before. As Freaky Friday three times, or one of those '80s movies with one of those '80s Coreys. I think it was a play in Ancient Greece, and they probably stole the idea from the Upanishads.

But surprising, to me, is how a lot of yuks hold up after 68 years. John Hubbard swishes around the Ad Agency he works for while the elegant Carole Landis (just 21 at the time!) squats and sits open legged like a mook. Adolphe Menjou was the headliner, and he's fine, but not really the star. The ending is an absurd twist on Thorne Smith's ending, which results in the husband remaining in his wife's body until their baby is delivered (as punishment for his infidelities).

All very broad, yes. And at times overplayed. Yet it still works. I've seen it twice in the past couple of years (on TCM On Demand) and I laugh every time.

The Boy laughed, which says something.

And the beauty of watching a Hal Roach movie is that, even if you don't like it, it's not going to last long.


  1. Hal Roach was justly famous for his comedy, but he also made a pretty good version of Mice and Men as well as one of my favorites
    in One Million B.C. They don't make actors like Victor Mature anymore. But Hal's greatest gift to the Hollywood community was in the area of drug abuse. He was a pioneering pothead and invented the small metal clip used to hold the end of the joint which was named after him. The roach clip remains his most important legacy as it is found in the ashtrays of Camaros all over the United States.

  2. He got credit on Racquel Welch version from '66, too, dunno if that's just 'cause they recycled his dinosaur footage.

    Not a lot of technological leaps between '40-'66 in the SFX department. Now the SFX start look dated by the time the movie hits cable.

    So Hal Roach was THAT roach, eh? I did not know that.

    Another little known fact is that Roach's nemesis would provide the name of a popular hamburger sandwich a few years later. Being known for his girth, they called him "Big Mack" Sennett.

  3. Blake,

    Great post about Hal Roach and Turnabout! I agree completely with your take on this. I can take or leave Roach's work but really think he did a pretty decent job with adapting Thorne Smith's ideas to the screen.

    It's not a Hal Roach production but have you ever seen the 1935 film version of Night Life of the Gods?

    Keep up the good work!

    Best regards,

    Michael D. Walker
    Thorne Smith Biographer

  4. Has anybody seen Night Life? (17 people on IMDB claim to, but I think they're lying.) That was among the first of his books I read, in the Thorne Smith Triplets.

    How'd you stumble across the bit-maelstrom?


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