At first, I was not going to review this film, because frankly I was never a fan of Milton Berle. I always found him obnoxious, self serving and well, generally not funny. Berle’s early career was going nowhere until, with nothing to lose, he tried out the then new medium of Television when few was willing to take the plunge. Well, lo and behold Uncle Miltie or Mr. Television, as he was affectionately called, became the biggest thing on the small tube. Suddenly, people were no longer going to the movies on Tuesday nights, they were gathering at relatives, friends, and neighbor’s homes, the ones lucky enough have a television set, and all watched “The Texaco Star Theater’s Milton Berle Show.” Berle’s success almost single handedly was the reason TV caught on. In the late 1940’s (Berle’s show started in 1948) through the early fifties Berle was the biggest thing on television (his show ended in 1956), that is until a certain redhead and her Cuban husband came on the scene. Today, Milton Berle is practically unknown to most young people but back in those early days, he was a giant in this new medium known as television.
With Berle’s TV success at its peak, Warner Brothers took a chance to see if his small screen triumph would translate into a big screen hit and in 1949, they agreed to give him the starring role in “Always Leave Them Laughing.” Filmed by veteran director Roy Del Ruth in Warner’s tough streetwise style, the story seemed like it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Berle, as he was playing a narcissistic comedian who rises to fame and eventually becomes a big television star. Berle’s character Kip Cooper is a small time comedian who steals jokes and routines from other comedians and will do anything to climb his way to the top. He is ruthless, self-centered, egotistical, and has an emotional shield made of steel. We find this last trait especially in one scene early in the film when Kip goes onstage before an audience consisting of drunken men who soon pelt him with tomatoes, seltzer and anything else on their table. His final humiliation comes when backstage the owner pays him only five dollars, instead of a promised fifty, because the audience did not find him funny. For anyone thinking of a career in standup, this is a revealing and sobering scene, it reflects the guts it takes to be a comedian. How you put yourself on the line, naked in front of an audience that practically dares you to make them laugh. Kip’s big break finally comes when he substitutes for the ailing star Eddie Egan (Bert Lahr) in a new production that will soon open on Broadway after tryouts in Boston.
Despite tired old vaudeville routines that pop more corn than a movie theater’s concession stand, the film provides a glimpse of what backstage life was like in those now bygone days. However, it is Berle’s performance that holds your attention, in a strange way. He is like an out of control train wreck, a disheveled portrayal of a struggling comedian who throws everything at the audience including the kitchen sink. We see fear, hope, desperation, cynicism and a driving ambition to be liked; there is a telling scene early in the film that conveys both his ambition and fear of commitment. While on the road, he visits Fay (Ruth Roman), his girlfriend, and her family one stormy rainy night and the subject of marriage rears it ugly head. Kip, who only arrived moments before, suddenly cannot wait to leave the house not wanting to be trapped and ultimately derailed from his career with the threat of matrimony. Throughout most of the movie, Berle’s screen character is not very likeable and in many ways, from what I have read, close to the real life Berle. It took a lot of guts for Berle to be willing to appear this exposed on the screen.
Bert Lahr has the small but pivotal role of Eddie Egan; the big star whose heart attack results in Kip’s his big break. He and Berle have an entertaining soft shoe number toward the end of the film. Virginia Mayo plays Lahr’s young sexy wife who is willing to saddle up with whomever to keep her own career on track. With Lahr ill and out of the picture she plays up to Berle’s character, who always thinking of his own career is attracted to the pretty but self serving blonde. He blindly ignores, not for the first time, his true love Fay who is a chorus girl in the show. The film is at its most engrossing when capturing the atmosphere of backstage life.
Virginia Mayo and Ruth Roman are both fine and are given the chance to show off some decent dancing skills. There are plenty of vaudeville numbers and music in the film including the title song written by Sammy Cahn and Milton Berle. While Cahn is credited with most of the music, other works by artists such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen are also featured. The screenplay was co-written by Mel Shavelson (Houseboat, Yours, Mine and Ours) and Jack Rose (A Touch of Class, Who’s Got the Action).
The film opened to generally favorable reviews, with The New York Times liking it, while Time Magazine was more reserved in its praise. Ironically, when the film opened at the majestic Strand Theater in New York, the corresponding stage show was “Fiesta in Havana” starring among others Desi Arnaz. Arnaz and his wife Lucille Ball would in a few years, surpass Berle as the rulers of television comedy.
BTW – Martin Scorsese listed this as one of his ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in his 1998 list he submitted to Film Comment magazine.