DATELINE: Lost Satire
In the 1940s movies drew its fledgling stars from the ranks of radio comedians—like Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and in 1944, they called upon sharp satirist Fred Allen. Barely recalled nowadays, he came upon the movie world as an unlikely iconoclast, especially during the patriotic days of World War II.
Yes, in the world of major studios, to have someone biting the hand that feeds him was a rare event. It’s in the Bag was middle-aged, baggy-eyed Allen’s debut on the big screen.
Allen rakes American foibles over the coals with the best of them—and it was a strange treat to see small-time American business, intellectuals, politics, lawyers, police, hotels, and middle-class morality under siege.
Allen takes on greed in America as his main target. He plays a flea-circus owner whose grand-uncle leaves him millions in a last will and testament. Of course, his uncle’s corrupt lawyer (John Carradine) and business partners have swindled the old man out of the money—and have had him bumped off.
For odd reasons, it sends Fred Allen on a quest to recover money hidden in an old heirloom chair he has given away. In his travels he meets Jack Benny (playing a vain skinflint named Jack Benny). He flatters Benny by telling him, based on Jack’s radio show jokes, he thought he was a much older man. Benny counters that he will be of voting age next year.
It’s in the Bag is cynical and sharp, dispatching opening movie credits by Allen as a bunch of names you’d find in a phone book, or hangers-on relatives of the movie’s producer. He yearns for the day when movies will dispatch opening credits completely.
It’s not a great movie, not even a great comedy, but it is an unusual gemstone that puts a timeless, irreverent, insouciant, iconoclastic spin on dumb-founded American culture. No wonder we were charmed by it.