Winter Movie Review: “Hit the Ice”

“Hit the Ice” (1943)

Starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Ginny Simms, Sheldon Leonard, Patric Knowles, Elyse Knox, Marc Lawrence, Joe Sawyer and Johnny Long and His Orchestra. Directed by Charles Lamont. From Universal Pictures.

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Gangster ‘Silky’ Fellowsby (Leonard) and his two goons, Phil (Lawrence) and Buster (Sawyer) have cooked up the perfect alibi. Fellowsby is in the hospital pretending to be sick when in reality he and his cronies are casing the bank across the street. They are just waiting on two hired gunmen to arrive before they put their plan into action. Owing to a good, old fashioned misunderstanding, they think Flash (Abbott) and Tubby (Costello) are these gunmen when in reality they are only sidewalk photographers who have been “shooting” photographs in front of the bank.

Flash and Tubby inadvertently help the gang rob the bank although all they succeed in doing is taking the crooks’ picture as they leave the bank. Silky and his gang, keeping up the ruse that Silky is sick, hire pretty nurse Peggy (Knox) and head up to Sun Valley where Silky’s doctor, Dr. Burns (Knowles) is taking up residence as the physician at a ski resort. Flash and Tubby, realizing that they, too, are wanted by the police, also lam it to the slopes. They hope to bring the criminals to justice, using the photographic evidence they have to help turn them in. On the train on the way up, Silky runs into an old friend, singer Marcia Manning (Simms), whom Tubby has fallen in love with and who is joining the Johnny Long Orchestra as the in-house entertainment at the lodge. Johnny (played by Johnny himself) is an old friend of Flash’s and Tubby’s and tells the boys he can get them jobs at the lodge.

Lots of songs and skating follow. When the gangsters finally realize that Flash and Tubby are not gunmen and that the incriminating picture the boys have of them doesn’t show their faces, our two heroes find themselves in a spot of bother.

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Marc Lawrence, Sheldon Leonard, Joe Sawyer, Bud Abbott, Ginny Simms and Lou Costello up in Sun Valley.

I have a real soft spot for the films of Abbott and Costello. Most of this is owing to the fact that my family and I watched all of them together when my boys were little. I actually have some home video of my kids watching one of their movies and giggling.

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Abbott and Costello made many films together throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s; four DVD sets worth. These are the sets my family collected. Bud Abbott was born in Asbury Park to a show business family. In 1926, at the age of 29, Bud began to suffer from epilepsy. Bud began to perform in his own shows in burlesque and became a straight man when he could no longer afford to pay one. Lou Costello was born in Paterson, New Jersey, as he often made mention of on radio and television. He was a gifted athlete in school, excelling at basketball and was once the New Jersey free throw champion. An admirer of Charlie Chaplin, Lou headed to Hollywood in 1927 when he was 21 but was soon back in New York working the burlesque circuit. The boys first crossed paths in 1935 working together in a one-off. Other performers that night and also Abbott’s wife encouraged the guys to make it permanent so they decided to give it a go. After much stage work, the duo began on radio in 1938, eventually getting their own show which lasted throughout the 1940’s. Their first film together was one of my “Top 23” favourite films, “One Night in the Tropics” (1940). After that they made 4 films in 1941 and 4 in 1942; “Hit the Ice” was their second of two films in 1943. They enjoyed success in Hollywood until the early 1950’s when acts like Martin and Lewis took over.

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Ginny tickles Lou’s fancy.

Ginny Simms was born in San Antonio and went to college to study piano. She eventually became a concert pianist but moved to San Francisco and began singing with bands. She moved on to Hollywood and began appearing in films, often as herself. “Hit the Ice” was her sixth of ten films. I’ve known of Ginny Simms for years due to a story I read about Frank Sinatra’s time at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Apparently, Ginny had been a paramour of Louis B. Mayer’s. Once when Mayer was laid up due to a reported fall off a horse, Frank was heard in the studio commissary to say that Mayer “fell off Ginny Simms”. Word got back to Mayer and Frank was suspended. Ginny was thrice married, the first union, to Hyatt Hotels founder Hyatt Von Dehn, produced two sons. Her third was to former attorney general of the Untied States, Don Eastvold. Eastvold became a widower when Ginny Simms (Virginia E. Eastvold) died of a heart attack in Palm Springs in 1994, aged 80.

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Leonard could – and did – do it all.

Sheldon Leonard was quite a guy. Fittingly, Leonard was born in Manhattan and his distinctive accent and manner of speech got him lots of work in radio. He had been working regularly in film by the time he made our film and throughout the ’40’s and ’50’s, he appeared in many notable films including “Another Thin Man”, “Tortilla Flat”, “To Have and Have Not”, “The Falcon in Hollywood” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. In the 1950’s, he transitioned to television where he made his name as a producer working on “The Andy Griffith Show”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “I Spy”. Notably, he is unofficially credited with creating the “backdoor pilot” by having the character of Andy Taylor introduced in an episode of the first series Leonard produced, “Make Room For Daddy”, with the intention of using the character as the basis for a new show. Also, there are two characters – “Sheldon” and “Leonard” – named after him on the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”. He lived to be 89 and died in 1997.

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Patric Knowles was a reliable second lead who appeared in many memorable films. By the time he made “Hit the Ice”, he had been working for eleven years making 4 a year, among them: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936), “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “Another Thin Man” (with Leonard), “Five Came Back”, “The Wolf Man” and “How Green Was My Valley”. Afterwards he appeared in many less notable films and countless episodes of television. He was married in 1935 and the union lasted until his death a full 60 years later. In 1940, he went to Canada where he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force becoming an instructor. He even found time in 1960 to write a novel, “Even Steven”. He died of a brain hemorrhage, aged 84. He was cremated and his ashes distributed to family and fiends.

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Pretty Elyse Knox plays Nurse Peggy. I like to think that Peggy is Canadian. In one scene, Dr. Burns executes a skating maneuver and afterwards says “University of Wisconsin, ’38”. Nurse Peggy then performs a much better move and explains “University of Toronto, ’41”. (Patriotic aside: Elwy Yost, Norman Jewison, Ted Kotcheff, Donald Sutherland, Lorne Michaels, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Victor Garber are all U of T alum). Miss Knox was a B movie actress who appeared in “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942) and in 6 “Joe Palooka” movies (1946-1950). Elyse Knox and her family tree is so interesting that I’ve decided to give her her own post. You can read it here.

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Marc Lawrence spent years playing gangsters and/or henchmen. In his career he had over 200 acting credits and previous to “Hit the Ice” he had appeared in “G Men”, “Charlie Chan at the Opera”, “The Shepherd of the Hills”, “This Gun for Hire” and “The Ox-Bow Incident”. Later he was seen in “Key Largo” and “The Asphalt Jungle” but his career was much more varied than one would think. In fact, while I was researching him I found his career utterly fascinating – so much so that he, too, has earned his own post. That’s TWO spin-offs from this post! Read my post on Marc here.

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Joe Sawyer plays Silky’s other henchman. He is a completely nondescript actor that wouldn’t rate much of a mention except – he’s Canadian! He was born in Guelph, Ontario, a city I drive through all the time and one that is close to where I live and have lived all my life. I had a friend who got kicked out of Guelph University! “Got the big shoe”, he said. Joe Sawyer appeared in more than 200 films and television episodes in a career that lasted from 1927 until 1962. If you don’t blink, you can see him in “The Public Enemy”, “The Informer”, “The Petrified Forest”, “The Roaring Twenties”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Santa Fe Trail”, “Sergeant York”, “The Outlaw”, “Gilda” and “Joe Palooka, Champ” (with Knox). He then moved to television where he created the role of Sgt. O’Hara on TV’s “Rin Tin Tin”. After the run of that show ended, he left the business and lost his wife of 23 years. He then came out of retirement and his two final roles before quitting for good were in “North to Alaska” and “How the West Was Won”. Some big films for this anonymous actor. It seems he left Hollywood for Indio, California before heading for Oregon where he enjoyed twenty years of retirement before passing away in 1982, aged 75.

Johnny Long appears as himself with his orchestra in “Hit the Ice”. Johnny was born outside of Charlotte and his folks were farmers. Johnny played violin from a young age but had to switch to playing right-handed when his left hand was bitten by a pig. Definitely a small outfit, Johnny’s band was unique in that it was lead by a violinist. The orchestra didn’t last long and Johnny died on Halloween, 1972.

Director Charles Lamont was a prolific director of short subjects and feature films. He had been a competent, efficient director for years when he was given what he considered a demotion to making Abbott and Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle films. He made it to 98 years old and died in 1993. Screenwriter True Boardman bears one of those fabulous Old Hollywood names. His father was True Boardman, Sr. and he was a silent film actor who perished in the 1918 flu pandemic. Our True Boardman wrote other Abbott and Costello films and is the grandfather of Lisa Gerritsen who had a minor television acting career in the ’70’s which included playing Phyllis’ (Cloris Leachman) daughter on the “Mary Tyler More Show”.

Now, about the other screenwriter on “Hit the Ice”, Robert Lees. He co-wrote many Abbott and Costello films and was blacklisted in 1951 for refusing to name names. He wrote pseudonymously afterwards for television. He lived a long life and died when he was 91. But the cause of his death was anything but natural. One warm spring day just before lunchtime, a 27-year-old homeless man named Keven Lee Graff entered Lees’ home and not only killed him but decapitated him. Graff took the severed head with him and entered a home next door where 69-year-old doctor Morley Engelson was on the phone making a plane reservation. The ticketing agent on the other end heard Graff attack and kill Dr. Engelson and phoned the police. Graff fled in the doctor’s Mercedes-Benz. 91-year-old Lees had a girlfriend, bless him, who entered his home to find her boyfriend’s headless body. Graff was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

All in all, this film is a delight. Some great slapstick with some good laughs and a lot of fun in a nice wintry setting. A little bit unique in Abbott and Costello’s canon in that the cast is loaded with competent, engaging players that perform well and look great doing it. This is fun to watch and it’s a good companion to Abbott and Costello’s “Lost in Alaska” (1952) with Tom Ewell.

Hit the Ice

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