I must admit that I had never heard of Joe E. Brown before watching this film. Apparently, Brown was a highly successful vaudeville performer who gradually shifted from acrobatic and athletic performances to comedy. After successes on Broadway he transitioned onto the silver screen in 1928 when he struck a deal with Warner Brothers; he made a number of musical comedies and became a favourite of child audiences. During the 1930s he was at times one of Hollywood’s top earners. Apart from his talents as an acrobat, Brown also was a great baseball player and a general sports fan.
In 1937, he left Warner Brothers to join David L. Loew ’s production company, but the collaboration proved unsuccessful: Brown’s star waned and he gradually drifted into B-pictures. During WW2, he invested a lot of time and money in entertaining troops abroad.
After the war, his former stardom and easily recognisable face allowed him to do high-profile cameos in tent-pole pictures such as Around the World in 80 Days, culminating in his well-known role as Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot. His last appearance on the big screen was as the cemetery warden in The Comedy of Terrors.
1937’s Riding on Air was a Poverty Row comedy, produced by Loew for distribution by RKO.
+++ Elmer Lane (Brown) lives in a rural Wisconsin town and is the sole reporter of the local Daily Chronicle. He hopes to buy the newspaper one day from its proprietor, a Mr Voss, as soon as he gets 5000 dollars together. This – we can assume – would be the business-ownership foundation for his life that would allow him to ask his girlfriend Betty (Florence Rice) to marry him.
Apart from the fact that Betty’s father (Harlan Briggs), owner of the local grocery store, dislikes Elmer severely, it is also in general a mystery what Betty sees in Elmer. He is not a good-looking man – he has a rubbery face with a smile like a cartoon frog – and she herself says that he is a big fool. His knowledge about journalism is limited, and so appears to be his knowledge about pretty much everything else.
Betty also does not approve of his hobbies (radio and ham radio), his inventions, or his flying lessons, all of which cost money.
Another young man, a certain Harvey Schumann (Vinton Hayworth), is also interested in Betty. And he is very much the kind of man her father would approve of. To make matters worse, Schumann is on the verge of buying the Chronicle right from under Elmer’s nose. So it’s high time Elmer gets his act together… +++
With Brown in the leading role as Elmer Lane, this film is trying to give room for its lead to showcase his comedic talents. Unfortunately, Riding on Air is also taking on a lot of topics and subplots at once – far too many for its 70-minute running time. The plot is partly a romantic comedy, and partly a story about a hapless young fool looking for financial and professional success. And yet it is also a story about journalism, a mystery crime story about smugglers and sky piracy, and it features a con man. Every scene brings some new development, but the film barely connects all these elements and developments. The story is full of narrative non-sequiturs and loose ends, and watching this film it is very hard to believe that only two people (Richard Macaulay & Richard Flournoy) were involved in the writing of the screenplay – it feels like twenty. The most confusing thing is that this plot chaos was far from inevitable. It is not one of those cases where the plot balloons because the writer has to connect or explain or retcon things. This is a case of filmmakers deliberately and without need throwing more and more stuff onto their already big heap of subplots.
The film’s UK title, All is Confusion, has no real relation to the story, but it is a very apt description of the viewing experience. And I am baffled that this film is regarded as one of the best Brown made under Loew – one wonders how much worse the others could possibly be.
There is very little to say about the technical qualities. There are lots of shots of airplanes in flight that look convincing enough. But this being a public domain film, the print quality of the Mill Creek DVD is not good, and the sound is extremely poor. There seem to be a few seconds of footage missing here and there, but in general it would be difficult to tell in a film like this. On more than one occasion, it feels like there are whole scenes missing, but if the running time stated on imdb and Wikipedia is correct then my DVD is not missing anything (or barely anything).
So in all likelihood this was one of those B-film productions where they didn’t plan their shoots well enough and did not foresee the gaps and the abrupt jumps in the story that would result from the way they were shooting the scenes. And there may be haphazard editing involved. There is at least one Chicago scene which seems like it had been intended for an earlier part of the film but was then instead used at a later point in the narrative.
The acting by all involved is very good, but Brown (who I like a lot in the role of the bumbling fool) is in my opinion not a good choice as a romantic lead – even though he often played romantic leads in the 1930s. In Riding on Air this becomes especially problematic as they pair him with Anthony Nace who would clearly be a much better leading-man type in a romantic comedy than Brown – there are scenes in this film in which Nace is actively trying to suppress his charm and his charisma. It is a shame that he never got a shot at a decent film career.
Since I am not buying Brown as a male romantic lead, and hence am not buying Betty’s interest in him, the film’s RomCom angle falls pretty much flat. Likewise, the smuggling investigation does not really go anywhere. And the con man story has no room to grow in this overcrowded film. Which is a great shame, because Guy Kibbee does a great job as the con man, but he gets nothing to work with.
That leaves the plot involving Elmer’s exploits as a bumbling journalist and as a bumbling inventor. The latter gets us some funny gadgets at the start of the film and would be very promising from a comedy perspective, but this part of Elmer’s personality (and of the plot) is completely abandoned very early on. The journalism angle is used throughout the film and it mostly works, but it is not really used to move the story forward. And the juxtaposition of Elmer’s amateurism and the professional standards of his Chicago colleagues is underused because there is no time. It all drowns in a myriad of sub-plots.
Loew obviously tried hard to draw the interest of the cinema-going public. For the role of the con man he hired character actor Kibbee with whom Brown had appeared in two successful Warner Brothers productions. And, rather brazenly, the name of Brown’s character, “Elmer Lane”, is only one letter removed from his “Elmer Kane” character in the much more renowned 1933 WB comedy Elmer the Great.
I do not know if Loew managed to make this film a box office success, but I do know that this is not a great film. Although some scenes are really enjoyable, the film as a whole is just one large disjointed mess and cannot be rated any higher than 4.5 out of 10. But it introduced me to Brown, and I am sure to go back and check out some of his more renowned Warner Brothers comedies sooner or later.