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Forgotten by Fox: Milton Berle's Paradise Regained

Remember when they tried to make a movie star out of Milton Berle? Of course not, that could never have been a thing... or could it?
David Cairns

As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
"Would you recognize Milton Berle without his mother? No!"
So says the man himself, Milton Berle, in Over My Dead Body (1942), a fairly shoddy reminder that Berle was, for now-inexplicable reasons, a movie star in the early forties. But while some talent from radio and vaudeville slid into cinema with the ease of the proverbial buttered eel, Berle somehow got lodged halfway down cinema's throat, for reasons which may tell us something about classical Hollywood filmmaking, and something about this particular clown.
Fox tested Berle on the movie-going public with a supporting role in Sun Valley Serenade in 1941 (supporting Sonia Henie, John Payne and Glenn Miller, to give you an idea) and then swiftly churned out three bona fide star vehicles, culminating in Otto Preminger's debut in Hollywood and at Fox, Margin for Error in '43 where Berle and Joan Bennett faced off against Preminger's nasty Nazi.
Uncle Milty had been around forever, though: he was a child actor in The Perils of Pauline in 1914. Most of his later movie roles would be guest spots playing himself, for directors as varied as George Cukor and Woody Allen, but he's basically doing that in the Fox vehicles, too: his characters have media-related jobs (radio actor, mystery author) and the dialogue is peppered with second-hand gags and in-jokes and looks-to-camera cheesiness to remind us that this is our favorite comedian, only loosely pretending to be somebody else.
Over My Dead Body has the nugget of a good idea: whodunnit hack Milty is never able to solve any of his own mysteries, and so remains unpublished, but then he gets mixed up in a real murder and can't prove his innocence for reasons relating to his authorial blockage.
Berle's problem is that he doesn't have a coherent comic character, and never really did: he was just a guy who told other people's jokes with impeccable timing. He can most readily be appreciated via his early work in television, some years after his brief stab at Hollywood.
Desperation abounds: unfunny jokes about the war, a menagerie of cute animals for the hero to talk to, a comedy drunkard (frequent Walt Disney voice artist J. Pat O'Malley), an eye-rolling black elevator operator (the wonderfully named Wonderful Smith, best remembered now as Hattie McDaniel's date on Oscar night).
Then, by some miracle, the thing turns into a courtroom drama, the muddled plot is cleared up, everybody forgets about writing gags, they forget that Berle has been an idiot for two acts and turn him into a criminological savant, and things actually become interesting and entertaining. It's all in the wrong genre, but never mind, having groaned through Berle's gruesome mugging and tired quips for an hour, we'll take what we can get.
Some Red Skelton movies are better than this; I mean, considerably better. 
Over My Dead Body was directed by Malcolm St. Clair who once co-directed with Buster Keaton. He keeps it going fast, anyway.
The same year's Whispering Ghosts is a (slightly) different story. It has fewer bad and/or stolen gags (the two things I previously knew about Berle, basically, are that he was an inveterate joke thief and he had a schlong like a chimpanzee's forearm) and its haunted ship, where nearly all the action transpires, is beautifully designed and lit, with photography by Lucien Ballard (The Killing) under the direction of hard-working Alfred L. Werker.
It still isn't funny, but it's diverting. Berle plays a radio presenter with a show in which he "solves" cold cases, generally by naming some long-dead suspect whose guilt can't be disproven. So he's a creep, again, but the movie doesn't seem to know it. He and manservant Willie Best turn up at this purportedly haunted vessel and are joined by a menagerie of weirdos including John Carradine in a false nose, typecast as a ham actor, professional schnook Grady Sutton, and creeps-for-hire Milton Parsons (doing a good Karloff impersonation) and Abner Biberman (Louis the "albino" from His Girl Friday). There's also Brenda Joyce, Johnny Weissmuller's replacement Jane, positioned as romantic interest only nothing happens with that. Maybe they took a good look at Berle and ruled him out as a Romeo.
The amusing conceit has Berle chasing clues but encountering crazed eccentric Carradine, who warns that this ship is haunted. Cue nervous looks from Best, who's reprising his racial stereotype from various superior Bob Hope movies. Then we learn that it's a former slave ship, haunted by the spirits of imprisoned souls, and soon Best is seeing spooky natives coming out of the walls. The conjunction of slavery as plot device, slaves as menacing phantoms, and a crude ethnic caricature reacting to them with bulging eyes, is plenty uncomfortable.
But this is all an elaborate Scooby Doo practical joke by Berle's radio rival, with Carradine a jobbing actor. Berle tumbles to the trick, but then real murders start happening and there's some good comedic irony as our hero wanders through life-threatening situations cheerfully convinced that it's all a hoax. Then there's a wild moment when Carradine tears off his false nose and is revealed as another character.
So there's plenty going on. The trouble is Berle. Bob Hope got away with his smart-assery by playing low-status characters who know their own worthlessness, are craven and dim. Berle will do a one-second performance of cowardice, then drop it and go back to swaggering. He doesn't seem to want the joke to be on him, which is OK in stand-up but pretty disastrous in a comic narrative.
To listen to Berle's radio performances, many of which are preserved on YouTube via Old Time Radio, or better yet, see snippets of his vintage TV work, is a revelation. His ebullience is explosive, so that he can hold his own with Martin & Lewis in a barely-scripted free-for-all. But, while their weird energy survived the dilution supplied by Paramount Pictures, probably because their personalities were so well-defined and so effusive, Berle lost everything when he lost a live audience. He never really pretends he's not a guy presenting a show. Even when he's given a character to play in a skit, the fun is being able to see Uncle Milty just below the surface, leering and winking at us. The only effective film vehicle for Berle would be something like Hellzapoppin', a fragmentation bomb in which no element pretends to any kind of reality.
Still, though Fox soon decided they couldn't use him, he had his revenge on cinema: on Tuesday nights, when his TV show went out, cinema audiences dropped.
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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