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Wonder Man (1945)

22 Sep

Kraft-Mac-and-CheeseAs is obvious to all, you’ve got your Citizen Kanes, your Vertigos, your Lawrences of Arabia, and then you’ve got your insomnia/stomach virus/summer vacation/knit while it’s on/saw this with grandma movies. I can’t provide an easy list of these in the manner of the inarguable classics listed first because it would be so highly personal as to be meaningless, untranslatable from person to person, or at least household to household.

Having arrived in a geographical place of calm for a much-needed rest in the midst of what has been and shall continue to be a stressful year and encountered a spindle of movies I left behind on an earlier visit, and further having a knit hat that needed finishing, the first discs that came into my hand were two of profound comfort: Wonder Man (1945), with Danny Kaye,Vera-Ellen, and Virginia Mayo, and another movie that will get a separate post.

Again, quality is not the issue here, but comfort. Shepherd’s pies, not mignons.

Wonder Man, sword in the tombstoneI’ll begin with the worst of the two, Wonder Man, which I saw on AMC sometime in the 1980s at my grandmother’s apartment. Doubtless there were Planter’s Cheez Balls and Coca-Cola in the vicinity, as well as a quilted satin-esque comforter with this monofilament-strength quilting thread that had pulled loose in spots and caught around one’s toes on occasion, which is probably why it had been relegated to the sofa.

It’s the one where Danny Kaye is twins, a nebbish and a recently murdered nightclub performer. A gangster is to be testified against, a brother’s body is to be possessed, and wackiness is to ensue. It’s not very good, but as I have said, one sometimes picks the puppy not for its pedigree but because it ran to the cage-front. This is Kaye in his (frequent) desperate tummler mode, manic in a way that, while still only one-tenth as cloying as Jerry Lewis, can be difficult to bear if not exposed to it in youth. Danny Kaye is like chicken pox in that respect. I’m lucky enough to be immune to the downsides, though in no way ignorant of them.

wondermanThe revelation of this viewing was my certainty that Gene Wilder loved it as a 12-year-old. The movie’s climactic set piece, if you’re in it for plot for some reason, occurs when nebbish-twin is forced to hide from gangsters on an opera stage and sing clues to the D.A. in loud mock-Italian. (The sentence “Chu Chu LaVerne is Minnie Smith” still rattles around musically in my head after all these years, ditto “tutti, tutti, whole tutti, nothing but the tutti,”)

The highlight of Wilder’s uneven-but-still-way-underrated The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother is different but clearly found inspiration in Wonder Man.

And at the end of the Wonder Man (if you consider this a spoiler, I weep for you) when nebbish-twin, honeymooning with Virginia Mayo, says he’ll always have a bit of his brother’s spirit with him and is immediately irritated by his ghost (“I’m a li’l devil, ain’t I?”), it’s difficult not to think of Teri Garr’s reprise of “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” If anyone sees Mr. Wilder around and can get confirmation of this, well, send him my way.

It’s also worth it (to me) to not that Wonder Man was certainly my first look at some actors whose faces are as familiar and comforting to me as relatives – S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, and the most formative of all of these, Virginia Mayo, about whom I’ll keep my musings private.