I’ve always been curious about the two films Columbia Pictures derived from Frank King’s long-running comic strip in 1951. They were written and directed by two-reel comedy veteran Edward Bernds (who had performed similar chores on the studio’s Blondie series) but they’ve been out of circulation since…
their original release. In his continuing effort to untie the legal knots surrounding such properties, Kit Parker has now made them available in a two-disc set, in sparkling copies from the original negatives.
The most striking thing about the first Gasoline Alley film is how it attempts to capture the gentle spirit of the comic strip—and how little it resembles a typical Columbia comedy. There is no slapstick whatsoever; it’s what used to be called a “domestic comedy,” with durable character actor Don Beddoe as the kindly, philosophical Walt Wallet, Jimmy Lydon as his adopted son Skeezix (now grown up) and Scotty Beckett as his kid brother Corky. The other key roles are nicely filled by Madelon Mitchel as Walt’s wife Phyllis, Patti Brady as tomboyish daughter Judy, and Susan Morrow as Corky’s new bride Hope. The story is fairly simple: Skeezix is settled in his auto repair business but Corky hasn’t embarked on a career yet. When he impulsively decides to take over a rundown diner, his brother lends him the money he needs—although everyone warns him that it’s awfully risky going into the restaurant business.
What makes the movie fun to watch, especially if you’re a fan of two-reel comedies, is how the director finds parts for so many short-subject veterans including Gus Schilling, Dick Wessel, Christine McIntyre, and Helen Dickson, not to mention such familiar faces as Byron Foulger, Charles Halton, Charles Williams, and Murray Alper. (The ubiquitous Emil Sitka gets his moment to shine in the second film, Corky of Gasoline Alley.)
I talked to Ed so many times over so many years that I wish he were here right now so I could learn more about this series, which was aborted after just two installments. The second feature is radically different from the first and I can’t help but wonder if it was planned that way or if it came about because someone—perhaps a Columbia executive —demanded a broader type of comedy. It seems as if all the money that was saved on stuntmen and special rigging in the first episode was spent on the second. Even more curiously, the second feature plays as if it’s the third or fourth installment in the series: Skeezix suddenly has two children, and the story is driven by the arrival of an obnoxious cousin of Hope’s (well played by Gordon Jones) who comes for a short stay and then won’t leave. Jones’ harebrained schemes lead to a variety of slapstick disasters, relegating the family members to “straight men.” (Patti Brady does such a good job as teenage Judy that I wonder why her career came to a halt after these two pictures.)
I can’t label the Gasoline Alley movies as major cinematic discoveries, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching them and filling in that gap in my knowledge of movies derived from popular comic strips. If you have a fondness for that branch of pop culture—or if you’re an avid follower of B movies and two-reel comedies—you ought to give them a try. (As for the other comedy features that fill out these DVDs, the William Tracy-Joe Sawyer military series—represented here by As You Were and Mr. Walkie Talkie—may have its followers, but a Sid Melton double-feature—Stop That Cab and Leave It to the Marines—will send any rational person running from the room.)
(VCI/Kit Parker Films)