[28 March 2014]
Did you hear the one about the idealistic politician who learns he must sell his soul to the corrupt “machine” to secure support, and then, his conscience prodded as much as his libido by the disappointment of a good woman, he finally makes a speech that tells the truth and wins the girl? You’ve heard it if you’ve seen any number of Hollywood political comedies building up to the Big Speech. A very good example from the Depression is Thanks a Million starring Dick Powell. A smart, glossy example from the Clinton era is The American President. A blander example from the dawn of the 1950s is The Reformer and the Redhead, now available on demand from Warner Archive.
It opens with the sharpest satirical comment it’s going to make. An African guide fires a rifle at a lion. When it’s safe, a white man (Ray Collins) pokes his pith-helmeted head from the bushes, grabs the rifle, and rushes over to pose for the photo. His niece (Kathleen Freeman) does the same, and together they swindle a reputation as big game hunters. Back in the California town they control, their self-promotion crosses swords with the local zookeeper (Cecil Kellaway) and his daughter Kathleen (June Allyson), who despises those who hunt animals for sport. They lose their zoo jobs, so Kathleen applies to up-and-coming “reform candidate” Andy Hale (the same Dick Powell from the aforementioned Thanks a Million ) for support and eventual romance.
Kathleen is the redhead, garrulous and willful and even violent (belting the niece) but not stupid. She spouts some half-progressive ideas, such as the notion that they should kiss right away as a convenience for Andy’s wallet before he wastes a lot of money on dates, so she’s certainly being thoughtful in a way men can appreciate. She and her father’s pro-animal leanings are undermined by the physical comedy of letting wild critters have the run of the house, for this is one of those movies that gets mileage out of chimps in clothes, and people jumping out of the way of lions by the piano. Maybe we should rethink the part about not being stupid. The humor is mostly of this “tame” variety alternating with lots of sharp banter by cynical politicos (David Wayne, Marvin Kaplan) and the kind of repartee that can’t be quite as suggestive as it pretends.
This is first of a string of 1950s films written, produced and directed by the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who’d been established for years as a writing team in radio and movies. They often worked with Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, and their later highlights are probably The Court Jester and Li’l Abner. This one’s not in that league, but it’s the kind of smooth, pleasant, forgettable, functional, almost intelligent fluff they turned out. It’s now available on demand from Warner Archive.