One Night in the Tropics (1940)
Starring Allan Jones, Robert Cummings, Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Nancy Kelly, Mary Boland, Peggy Moran, William Frawley and Leo Carrillo. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland. From Universal Pictures.
Steve Harper (Cummings) is head-over-heels in love with Cynthia Merrick (Kelly). He’s so in love that he needs a keeper as he walks down the sidewalk. His keeper is his best friend, Jim “Lucky” Moore (Jones), who works selling insurance in his dad’s firm. Steve is so out of it that he runs down an old lady in front of Cynthia’s building. He apologizes but is sternly reprimanded. When he gets up to Cynthia’s apartment, he learns that his victim is Cynthia’s Aunt Kitty (Boland), a high-strung numerology freak who counts on her fingers and labels Steve a psychopath and declares the wedding cancelled.
Steve is despondent and muses out loud to Lucky that he’d like to have some guarantee – or insurance – that he and Cynthia will marry. Lucky gets an epiphany; love insurance. He gets Steve to take out a $100,000 policy guaranteeing that he and Cynthia will wed, otherwise the policy pays out a cool million. Lucky is confident as he’s never had to pay off on a policy yet. But a wrench is thrown into the works in the shapely form of Mickey Fitzgerald (Moran), a little dish who declares her undying love for Steve, saying that she will be the one to marry Steve or else he’ll have two broken legs. Added to this is Lucky’s dad’s apoplexy over the policy and Lucky starts to get a little nervous.
Lucky heads to Club Roscoe for some help. He gets shady character Roscoe, half-a-gangster, to come in on the policy with him. Roscoe knows Lucky’s rep and he also likes the idea of being in business with a respectable type like Lucky’s pop. Roscoe recruits two of his goons to help; Abbott and Costello begin to shadow Lucky and follow the proceedings closely, though they get up to plenty of shenanigans in the process.
To make matters even worse, when Lucky meets Cynthia he is totally smitten and now he’s faced with a choice between a girl he has fallen in love with or a million bucks. When Mickey makes a very visible play for Steve, Cynthia has had enough and decides to take a trip to San Marcos in South America with her Aunt Kitty. The whole gang follows, natch. Steve is determined to get Cynthia back. Mickey follows Steve wherever he goes. Lucky still needs to bring Steve and Cynthia together while trying to forget his feelings for her. And Abbott, Costello and Roscoe make the trip to protect their investment. Once this group gets under the tropical moon, all bets – and guarantees – are off.
Here is a sub genre that I love; movies in which the principals head to a tropical place. Hard to search for films with such a specific plot point but I really enjoy such movies; particularly in the dead of winter when I’d love to do just what the cast does. I bought this film on VHS in the early days of my adulthood, I assume because it is Abbott and Costello’s first film appearance. I remember the tape; it was one of those that presented “A Night at the Movies” and had a cartoon, a travelogue and a newsreel preceding the film. Pretty cool for VHS. I’ve come to love the film and I count it among my Top 25 favourites. The tropical setting notwithstanding, it is a delightful movie with great performances, good comedy and some nice romantic songs rendered in the moonlight.
Earl Derr Biggers, of all people. Novelist Biggers’ debut book was Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913) which was adapted for film and television many times including by Pete Walker in 1983 under the title House of Long Shadows. Walker also directed Jack Jones in The Comeback (1978). His second novel, published a year after his first, was Love Insurance, made into a silent film in 1919. This version, directed by Donald Crisp and featuring A. Edward Sutherland in an acting role, is now lost. It was filmed again in 1924 as The Reckless Age, another lost film, this one starring Reginald Denny. Biggers then gained famed as the author of seven novels featuring Chines detective Charlie Chan. Then in 1940 came another iteration of Love Insurance, our film, One Night in the Tropics.
Fascinating to note that the 1919 version of Love Insurance co-starred Edward Sutherland and it was Eddie who directed One Night in the Tropics. I dished on Sutherland in my look at the film he directed immediately preceding this one, Beyond Tomorrow. I will often run into Eddie in the Twitterverse due to his almost-two-year marriage to Louise Brooks; the excellent account Forever Louise Brooks will often make mention of him.
In a relatively brief period starting in the mid-1930’s, Allan Jones was a popular singer and actor who appeared in notable films. Also a Broadway performer, Jones made his mark in film when he appeared in two Marx Brothers’ movies, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). The affable, charismatic performer also starred in the 1936 version of Show Boat and in films alongside Irene Dunne, Jeanette MacDonald and Judy Garland. After holding his own with the zany Marx Brothers, Jones had no trouble maintaining a presence in the company of Abbott and Costello and a goofy Bob Cummings. I have a real soft spot for Allan Jones due mostly to the fact that he is the father of Jack Jones. Read more about the Jones Boys here.
My boy, Robert Cummings, I have also discussed in my look at another of his films, Moon Over Miami. There I mentioned what I may love most about Bob; his penchant for showing up in many movies that I love over a 20-year stretch. Abbott and Costello we all know and love. I have a soft spot for them, too, because, while my two boys were growing up, the four of us sat and watched every one of their films on four sets put out by Universal. And the thing is the two are very funny in One Night in the Tropics and not just charming, good-old-days funny but flat-out, timeless funny. I’m not equipped to dish on this comedy duo and most of you don’t need me to. Suffice it to say this is a great first vehicle for them and they do shine but I don’t buy the idea that they steal the film and detract from the romantic goings-on here in the tropics.
Why is Nancy Kelly not talked about more? Nancy is possessed of a rare beauty, one that is equivalent to that of the most beautiful actresses of the golden era. Nancy hailed from a theatrical family that included brother Jack Kelly who portrayed Bret Maverick. Nancy somehow avoided success in films or even popularity, really. She had appeared in only a handful of films before she made our film – including Jesse James (1939) with Ty Power – and she would go on to make not many more. She did enjoy success on the stage particularly as the distraught mother in the 1954 production of The Bad Seed, a role for which she was awarded the Tony Award for Best Actress. Kelly reprised the role in the film version and earned herself an Oscar nomination. And then she was done. The Bad Seed was her last film. She then moved into TV but only at a canter; seems this beauty could take it or leave it.
Pretty Peggy Moran may not have been in the same league as Nancy Kelly in the looks department but seems she was cut from similar cloth. Meaning that Moran was not long for the movie biz, either. She was uncredited in her first dozen movies before she had a break-out year of sorts in 1940. One Night in the Tropics was one of 12 – count ’em – 12 movies she appeared in that year. One of them was The Mummy’s Hand and a later film appearance – uncredited again – was in The Mummy’s Tomb also starring none other than “B Movie Beauty” Elyse Knox, a star of sorts here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure (see the oft-read article here). What ended Peggy’s career, you see, was her having caught the eye of director Henry Koster. Peggy and Henry were wed in 1942 and she quit the business. Henry, though, vowed to put Peggy in every one of the movies he directed and he did. Koster made sure that a statue, bust or head – fashioned in his wife’s likeness – would appear somewhere in every one of his films. Henry Koster would direct – and fit his wife’s likeness into – later films like The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Harvey (1950) and his final film The Singing Nun (1966). Peggy and Henry were married until his death in 1988; Peg lasted until 2002.
William Frawley makes a salty appearance in our film as a gangster who wants to go legit. Bill had appeared in countless films since 1916 by the time he would appear in One Night in the Tropics. And he would go on to appear in many more movies – over 100 in total – until landing his “victory lap” gig on I Love Lucy. Leo Carrillo I have mentioned before but more for the beach named after him. Leo was quite prolific, in film and otherwise. He was a conservationist who had a tree named after him in Hilo, Hawaii. The “Leo Carrillo tree” stands today. Most prominently, though is the stretch of land named for him on the Pacific Coast Highway. Leo Carrillo State Beach has served as a location for many films, from Out of the Past (1940) to Inception (2010), from Gidget (1959) to Point Break (1991) to Grease (1978), The Usual Suspects (1995), The Trip (1967) and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) – directed by Henry Koster. Philly’s Mary Boland is quite funny as Aunt Kitty. You’ve all seen her many times in the likes of The Women (1939) and Pride and Prejudice (1940). She made but five films after our film. And watch for Kathleen Howard as the judge in an early scene. She’s quite funny as she absently spits out “Order!” while she talks to Lucky about a policy insuring her re-election.
One Night in the Tropics has much to recommend it. It has a cute plot containing that lovely “escape” element I mentioned earlier. It has some pretty nice songs provided by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields that Allan Jones renders nicely. Really, though, Jones may be a better actor than singer. He is so comfortable before the camera that the personality he is depicting shines through brightly. He has charisma to burn. Cummings plays a bit of a “squeef”, we would call him back in the day – a milquetoast – but he is so good at what he does that he is always watchable. You almost can’t look at Nancy Kelly, she’s so pretty and Peggy Moran carries on like an accomplished veteran.
This great cast is aided and abetted by Abbott and Costello. They really were funny and they run through some good routines here. They perform “Who’s On First?” which is really a clever piece of work but they also bring a chuckle with two routines that rob poor Lou of his hard-earned money. Abbott swaps him two 10’s for a five and later swindles him out of his severance pay for his dollar-a-day job. Add to this the tropical moonlight and you really do have a splendid night at the movies in store.