Prolific, Charles Lamont specialized in slapstick comedies at Universal, for instance, numerous Abbott-&-Costellos and Ma-&-Pa-Kettles. The brightest gem on his résumé, though, would remain The Merry Monahans, the tuneful, nostalgic, breezy chronicle of a vaudeville family, Pete Monahan and his two teenaged offspring, Jimmy and Patsy Monahan. Their wife and mother, Rose, has exited their lives as well as the act; the backstory with which the film begins shows this chorus girl tricking Pete into marriage after he proposes to Lily, the love of his life. The film includes three show-stopping numbers, the culminating one of which finds Pete and Lily reuniting on stage, and Jimmy pairing with widowed Lily’s daughter, Sheila. The Three Monahans will become The Five Monahans.
Written by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano, the breathlessly rapid-fire musical-comedy doesn’t press the eclipse of vaudeville, but this approaching event joins with the motif of the Lost Parent to deepen the fun, providing an undertow of profound melancholy. Lamont’s film is a both charming and precise meditation on the passage of time.
In his finest performance (including his Oscar-nominated parody of Mussolini in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, 1940), rotund Jack Oakie—one of my father’s favorites—is magnificent as Pete, an amiable comic whose slide into the bottle, when it appears he has lost his Lily for the second time, is poignant and delicate. It is absolutely convincing that Oakie’s Pete should command such love and loyalty as he does from his son and daughter. Lamont’s lightness, ably assisted by Charles Maynard’s fleet editing, avoids sentimentality in this highly vulnerable aspect of the material.
The film’s hilarious, exuberant, semi-anarchic star is 19-year-old Donald O’Connor as Jimmy; he, too, delivers his finest performance. It includes his stunning dancing, choreographed by Louis Da Pron and Carlos Romero, whether solo or paired with Peggy Ryan, who plays Jimmy’s sister, Patsy. Ryan, O’Connor’s favorite dance partner, delights in her similarly semi-anarchic role.
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