When I found out that the local cinephile society was going to show "Duffy's Tavern" (Paramount, 1945), I was surprised.
This is a movie that Leonard Maltin, who is well-acquainted with the group's leaders (I myself had the pleasure of meeting him once), has designated as a BOMB with "no redeeming values" in one of his capsule reviews.
I had never seen the whole movie; many years ago, when I was a kid, I saw a little of it when one of the local TV stations showed it on a slow Sunday afternoon. I think one of the adults in my family had to explain to me that "Duffy's Tavern" was based on a radio show of the same name.
The power behind the show -- and its star -- was Ed Gardner, who played Archie, the tavern's manager. Each show began with a phone conversation between Archie and Duffy, the owner, who was never seen or heard, although he did have a daughter, the man-hungry "Miss Duffy," who did appear and who was originally played by Shirley Booth (who was then Gardner's wife).
The phone call set up the plot for the week, which often involved a guest star who would somehow find himself or herself among the denizens of what Archie always described as the place where "the elite meet to eat." As you've probably figured out, this statement was symptomatic of what Archie, who could go toe to toe with the Bowery Boys' Slip Mahoney in a malaprop match, might describe as a "delousion of grandeur."
On radio, "Duffy's Tavern" was what today would be called a "monster hit." One of its original top writers was Abe Burrows, who later wrote "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" for Broadway. Years later, his son James co-created "Cheers." Apparently the Burrowses had an affinity for bars.
Turning a successful radio show into a movie obviously seemed like a good idea to Paramount, which hedged its bet by including many of the studio's performers, such as Bing Crosby, Betty Hutton, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Dorothy Lamour, Diana Lynn, Cass Daley, Robert Benchley and Billy De Wolfe.
The movie's setup isn't worth describing in detail. Let's just say that Archie gets in trouble while trying to financially help a group of GIs. The financial help comes from Duffy's till, and Archie is in big trouble if he can't get the money back. Fortunately (way too fortunately), Archie knows someone who is a switchboard operator at a hotel where (apparently and, again, way too fortunately) many of these Paramount performers are staying.
If you can't guess what these performers agree to do, you need to enroll in "Cinema Cliches 103: Introduction to Garland and Rooney."
But is the movie (directed by Hal Walker, who later worked with Martin and Lewis) really a "BOMB"?
On the prosecution's side is Ed Gardner's performance. Although some radio performers made a very successful switch to movies (Alan Ladd and Jeff Chandler come to mind), as Archie himself might put it, "Ladd and Chandler, Gardner ain't." Some people have a face the camera loves. In Gardner's case, you suspect that the camera was looking over his shoulder to see if it could find someone more interesting to look at.
I also couldn't help noticing that something about his face reminds me of the comedian Norm Macdonald, whom I find a lot funnier.
And a major flaw is that the variety show that closes the movie basically consists of tacked-on bits. Archie serves as emcee with what are supposed to be funny intros, but there's no interaction between him and the show's performers -- not even a scene between him and Crosby, which would have been easy enough to write.
Instead, you get a bunch of Paramount stars and supporting players who (especially in the final number) look as if they were asked to come in for a few hours on their day off.
But the defense case is at least equally strong.
The skits are fairly amusing, especially one with Ladd and Lake and Howard DaSilva, who at that time was typecast for playing tough guys. The skit is a quick parody of the kind of scenes the three of them could play in their sleep, with a neat surprising ending.
One number features Cass Daley, a performer who was cut from the same burlap as Judy Canova. "Who's she?" a friend of mine asked irritably when she came on screen. But after her specialty number, he was clapping along with most of the rest of the audience.
In the final number, which parodies Crosby's hit "Swingin' on a Star," the performers seem to be having a good time (though I wish Billy De Wolfe would have been given more to do). Maybe they weren't having a good time at all, but the troupers' professionalism shows through, and the sequence has a kind of bargain basement charm that has led me to watch it on YouTube more than once. Heck, it even features Howard DaSilva singing! That makes it a classic of a sort. (OK, I won't try to guess which sort.)
By the way, you can find that final number here. I'd love to know what you think.
But I can't see how a movie can be a "BOMB" when, despite its many flaws, it contains enough charm and professionalism for me to want me to see at least parts of it again. (I wish that Ladd-Lake-DaSilva skit were on YouTube, for one thing.)And I should add the film seemed to be a hit with everyone in our packed house -- which included many non-cinephile-society members and a fair number of non-old-fogies.
So, Mr. Maltin, in resting my case, I'd like to argue that "Duffy's Tavern" isn't a "BOMB." I'd even argue that with its low-key, hokey star power it's worth two out of four stars.
But I'd settle for one and a half.