A Red Panic of Subversion and Surrealism: ‘A Southern Yankee’ and ‘The Yellow Cab Man’

Slapstick comedian/clown Red Skelton was a long-running fixture on TV, where his simple, even baby-ish persona created a variety of memorable characters. Most of that material is missing in action. Today it’s easier to find his hit-or-miss movies, and two of the better hits are freshly available on demand from Warner Archive.

A Southern Yankee is partly a late-model Buster Keaton movie in disguise. Director and old Keaton collaborator Edward Sedgwick brought him aboard as an uncredited consultant. That’s why a few of the sight gags, such as one involving a horse and another with a bizarre rolling contraption, are remakes of classic Keaton bits. They’re not as good as the original versions, but that’s understandable.

The most famous gag uses a flag that symbolizes the movie’s lack of anything resembling political commitment and even mocks any such idea, and this should be understood as more satirical than cynical. Still, that does bring up a sticky point. While amusing, the film may be uncomfortable for those who’d prefer a Civil War tale that takes that conflict’s issues seriously enough not to trot out a couple of black stereotypes for flavor.

That said, Louise Beavers’ scene with the laundry is a good visual routine, and the little boy is a hell of a dancer. If they’re just comic decoration, at least they fit the two-dimensional cartoon folks around them, and the white patriarchs allegedly running the show are far less capable of commanding our respect.

Despite what some sources claim, the plot has nothing in common with Keaton’s The General, unless you count the Civil War. From a story by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama (and similar to their projects with Danny Kaye and Bob Hope), it’s a fiendishly complex bit of finagling in which most characters are double agents pretending to be on the other side, or otherwise ready to defect, such that nobody’s convictions seem to matter. Even the strident belle (Arlene Dahl) who admires our bumbling faux-spy hero as a brilliant Southern strategist (actually a clumsy Northern lunkhead) and declares that she’d shoot any Yankee spy on the spot, gets over her bitter disillusionment literally the minute the war ends.

A comedy more in tune with today’s sensibilities is the almost thrillingly absurd and anarchic The Yellow Cab Man. Much of the humor is basic slapstick, with Skelton as an accident-prone inventor who waddles through any number of carefully visualized spills and tumbles. There are also comic supporting characters, like Edward Slezak as a shady shrink who hypnotizes our hapless schnook for his formula to unbreakable glass.

Against all this, introduced into a seemingly solid 1950 middle-class metropolis of automobiles and home-show expositions, is the random whimsy and surrealism catalyzed by Skelton almost as a proto-Jerry Lewis. For reasons utterly tangential to any plotline, the movie tosses in fantasies that portray Skelton as twin babies (boy and girl), as his later Fauntleroy-ish “mean widdle kid”, and as a cabbie at the North Pole in as surreal a dream sequence this side of Salvador Dali. Director Jack Donohue, also a choreographer, was clearly sympatico for the graceful Skelton and stuck with him through the TV years.

The oddest moment ontologically (if a movie knows itself) is an experimental film by the famous crime photographer Weegee, in which distorted funhouse footage of city streets is incorporated into the narrative as Skelton’s woozy flashback. This is a textbook example of how avant-garde images are sneaked into mainstream cinema, and it indicates why the Surrealists loved slapstick movies. The regard was mutual.

Still from The Yellow Cab Man (1950)

The riotous climax, set at the aforementioned home show, uses a rotating “house of the future”; it’s not as creative as Tex Avery would have made it, but it’s sure trying. Nor is that an idle comparison, since Avery’s House of Tomorrow cartoon (1949) was scored by the same guy who does the bouncy mickey-mousey music to this feature, Scott Bradley, and if that doesn’t situate this movie’s sensibility for you, nothing will.

RATING 6 / 10
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